What My Fingers Know: Hands in the Age of Teaching 2.0

I’ve been a lecturer for a few years now, and I love my job. One of the things I appreciate the most about it is the diversity of spaces, situations and contexts in which I find myself doing different things with different groups of people: be it engaging with students in a stimulating debate about the boundaries of documentary in a seminar room; looking at a rough cut of students’ practical work in an editing suite; or sharing ideas with fellow scholars at an academic conference over coffee and (hopefully) biscuits. These activities are all part of the texture of my working life, and as different as they can be, what they have in common is this: the use of my hands. I use my hands a lot.

shot 1 - visually articulating the complex narrative folds of soap opera

I use my hands to gesture and visually articulate ideas, especially those of a temporal, spatial and/or conceptual kind. I want to focus on the use of my hands here in relation to teaching, because this is when it tends to come out at its most colourful. There’s many a cohort of students familiar with (and probably quite amused by) the energetic motion of my hands during teaching; indeed, I have been known to encourage admirably conscientiously note-taking students to ‘look up; I’m doing a thing’.

shot 2 - gesturing the potential presence of a disruptive Other in experimental drama

Be it expressing the complex narrative folds of soaps (see shot 1); the potential presence of a disruptive Other in experimental drama (see shot 2); or the importance of a cohesive structure of argument in a PhD thesis (see shot 3) – my hands are essential to the way I teach. I feel that, when I have put something well into words and hands, then there’s a connection made with my students in ways that I can’t quite pin down, but that I know is there.

shot 3 - expressing the importance of a cohesive structure of argument in a PhD thesis

This is absolutely important to me as a teacher and scholar (and it is something I share with many peers); and yet it is something that I realized the other day might never get a mention in my written work, which is why you’re currently reading what you’re reading. But I’ve also decided to write this post for another reason, and this is because of my impression that current debates on teaching and learning seem quite focused on the use of web 2.0 tools; be it blogs, Twitter or wikis. Now, I don’t wish to deny that these hold attractions and many positive uses; indeed they do, and I have seen colleagues use them with great effect. I myself have used some of them for my teaching (although the closet I have come to understanding what a widget is, is that ‘it’s a thing’ and then my brain switched to white noise). But what I have been concerned about for a while is a recent trend whereby innovative teaching and the use of web 2.0 tools are too readily conflated.

What strikes me is that, while scholarship has moved to embrace the body, there is a danger that the teaching of scholarship is becoming strangely disembodied, and the innovative qualities of ‘hands-on’ teaching are at risk of being overlooked. As my own research interests are moving towards phenomenology (which you can tell by my title’s punning reference to Vivian Sobchack’s seminal essay ‘What My Fingers Knew’),* I want to explore the phenomenology of pedagogy and the embodied, experiential quality of teaching further. To paraphrase Sobchack, the teaching experience is meaningful not to the side of my body, but because of my body. I feel I should want to tweet, skype, and blog to my students, but what I really want to do is to sit in a room with them and cast strange shadow plays on the walls. It’s how iTeach.**

* Vivian Sobchack, ‘What My Fingers Knew: the Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh’, in Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004: 53-84.

** I can’t resist the opportunity for a punomenon. Evidently.

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