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FYS136: Ways of Seeing, Ways of Knowing

July 24, 2011

My first term in Oberlin, I took a first-year seminar called "Ways of Seeing, Ways of Knowing" with professor Sandy Zagarell. If you've stalked my blogs pretty hardcore, you may recall that I mentioned her in my post about finals that term; she made it in because of what was, as far as I'm concerned, an extraordinary show of generosity. After putting up with us wet-behind-the-ears freshpeople for a whole term, not only did she refrain from shouting "Never again will I teach such incompetent louts!" and cackling gleefully as we piled out of her classroom on the last day, she instead invited us - smiling beatifically all the while! - to her house for dinner during reading period. She says she hates goodbyes. I say she's bonkers.

No, of course our class wasn't all that bad - but some days we really did need a swift kick in the pants. Sandy ran things discussion-style, which meant that she'd sometimes give us a few ideas to run with, and then tell us to call on each other and only gently guide the flow of class from then on. Other times, she'd ask someone to summarize what we'd talked about in the previous class, and let us pick up where we left off. Honestly, if I hadn't known just how hard teaching is, I would have thought she was slacking off; as it is, I'm aware that creating a space where productive discussion on set topics can grow organically between circa fifteen people is tricky.

This is where asking for the boot to the rear comes in: some days, being the overwhelmed newbies we were, we would come to class unprepared. If one or two of us did this occasionally, that was fine. If the whole class happened to do it on the same day, well, let's just say there's very little room for faking in a class that size. Crickets would reign - and Sandy would let them! (I can't even describe to you how horribly that embarrassed silence grated on my nerves. I respect her immensely for being able to let it happen.) For me, it was a pointed reminder to slack off less; for quiet people, it was an opportunity to be heard; for people itching to take the discussion in a different direction, it was a chance to suggest a new topic. For absolutely everyone, it was so awkward.

But it was necessary. A lot of things are awkward when you're just finding your way in college - making friends, figuring out a sleep schedule and/or diet that works, having to say no to a bunch of activities you really want to do just because there aren't enough hours in the day, and so forth - and pinpointing the quality and amount of work you owe your professors just happens to be one of those things. For me, Sandy's class was a great big lesson in Hi My Name Is College Now Stop Slacking. Like most Obies, I got a lot of my A's in high school by coasting - I might have thought I was working hard at the time, but compared to the effort I put in now, I was totally coasting. Funnily enough, the classes I wasn't interested in were the ones I sweated the most over, simply because I had to force myself to work through everything thoroughly to retain anything at all about those subjects. Since coming to Oberlin, I've realized that even the most fascinating classes here take solid, constant effort - in fact, the work I put into courses these days is more of a measure of love than of disinterest. And boy, did I work for this seminar.

As its title suggests, "Ways of Seeing, Ways of Knowing" dealt with the ways in which people absorb, process, store, recall, and share information, and how this colors the way they perceive the world. The basic idea is that what you know is based on what you see, which is informed by what you already know, which is based on how you've seen things previously, etc., in a big, circular filtering process that continuously builds your own, distinctive worldview.

This in itself wasn't news to me before I took the class; I'd always thought it made sense that everyone sees things slightly differently, and I certainly had a distinctive worldview compared to the average Alabama teenager (thanks to my multilingualism and a four-year chunk of childhood spent in Denmark). A high school English teacher I remember fondly wrote on my college recommendations, "she exudes an interesting type of self-confidence, unusual in the sense that she has already developed a true individuality, which is rather precocious for her age." I thought this was a smashing compliment, even if I wasn't quite sure just what kind of identity that precocious individuality was shaping - and that is why I signed up for Sandy's course. I was interested in identities. Specifically, mine. The course promised to grapple with perception of others, which is inextricably entwined with self-perception, and of course it is impossible to avoid dealing with identity when one is dealing with paradigms. Since I'd been doing battle with the idea of growing up for a while, I was stoked to take up the endlessly fascinating question of self in a classroom setting with other intelligent people - I still feel that way, as a matter of fact, and I can't imagine ever being indifferent to what makes us who we are (though Sandy offhandedly let slip one day that its importance recedes considerably the older one gets, and the comment shocked me so terribly that I pondered identity divisions by age for the rest of the class instead of contributing to the discussion at hand. Oops).

I won't pretend that the course solved that perennial teen dilemma (omg who am i?!!??!!11!!!!1) for me, but it did change how I think about the question. We powered through books, short stories, articles, and movies at breakneck speeds, and most of them portrayed identity and perception as anything but rigid. At the end of the class, I was much more inclined to believe that, say, race is a fluid component of what defines a person, just like gender or nationality or class or any other boxes society likes to arrange people in. I even wrote my final paper on whether or not it matters that a person really exists (I argued - poorly - that it didn't matter). Unsuccessful arguments aside, accepting the idea that identity is astonishingly fluid means I've been able to relax my death grip on the question of my identity. Does that mean I'm growing up? I won't presume to be the judge of that, but I will say that the class definitely left its mark on me, and I'll even postulate that any similar, small, discussion-based endeavor has the power to force powerful paradigm shifts onto its participants. Read: classes here can change your life, if you let them!

In retrospect, I think of it as a gateway course. It provided a springboard for me to take other courses that examine identity in other contexts (Music and Politics of Identity, Environment and Society, German Lit), and it gave me a better idea of how courses work in college. I wasn't expected to regurgitate lessons; I was expected to familiarize myself with the material, form my own opinions on it, and then defend them. I wasn't made to blindly follow my professor; I was made to direct the class myself, in cooperation with my classmates. In true Oberlin professor style, Sandy even invited us to call her by her given name on the first day, which was a drastic change from the Southern sir-and-ma'am formality I've been struggling to address my teachers with for the past seven years. She wanted us to actually come to her office hours and everything! (I sorely regret that I didn't.) It was, in short, an introduction not only the kind of things I would be learning about in Oberlin courses, but also the manner in which I would be learning them - which, as I understand it, is the point of first-year seminars. Mission accomplished, FYSP!

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Responses to this Entry

"Like most Obies, I got a lot of my A's in high school by coasting - I might have thought I was working hard at the time, but compared to the effort I put in now, I was totally coasting. Funnily enough, the classes I wasn't interested in were the ones I sweated the most over, simply because I had to force myself to work through everything thoroughly to retain anything at all about those subjects. Since coming to Oberlin, I've realized that even the most fascinating classes here take solid, constant effort - in fact, the work I put into courses these days is more of a measure of love than of disinterest."

Every word of this is spot-on. I was the same for the most part because I had a good memory and could either rely on it for the subjects I was good at or work on improving it for subjects I needed help with. I've met enough Obies who have described their high school experiences similarly to realise that those who figure out that college requires effort succeed, and those who don't really do struggle to understand why they're struggling.

Posted by: Ruby on July 28, 2011 12:15 PM

I am so happy that the FYS program exists here! While the topics for each seminar differ greatly across the disciplines, the greater themes of each seminar shine through: do your reading! Think! Contribute to conversations! See where you fit into the world! Learn to think critically (I like to say, like an Oberlin student), in small settings and apply them everywhere!

Posted by: Ma'ayan on August 1, 2011 3:37 PM

I think you're spot on about 136 being a "gateway" course. One thing it taught me was that it wasn't enough to have read the book -- in order to meaningfully contribute to discussions, I had to have devoted time to actively thinking about it too (before class, not during). The same goes for essays. Learning that I had to learn to write was a bit of a shock, but worth it.

Posted by: Griff on August 4, 2011 8:26 PM

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