A Lesson in Communication
Communication is an abstraction, regardless of how we look at it. Writing, reading, talking, listening, waving, frowning – these are all immediate actions that convey information. Communication is but the rubric under which we usually group them, the point at which hindsight dwells on their similarities rather than their differences, considers the sum rather than the parts. A teacher, for instance, communicates in a number of different ways: pointing, talking, pausing, walking. Together these actions constitute not only the lesson in action, but also the way in which meaning shifts from one mind to many. There is a certain symbolism in them all and the teacher becomes a token, at once surface alone and substance entirely, imposing order and challenging the structure of existing thought.
Having spent time lecturing honours students about academic writing at a Hong Kong university recently I’ve had time to ponder the multiple meanings of the token as a concept rather than an artefact. At the most obvious level a token is a souvenir, a small reminder of something. In that sense I’ve been nothing but a presence, reminding 70 students that their classes are compulsory, that something must be said between the start and finish of each lesson. This is the teacher’s role as an authority figure, and with students in their third year as undergraduates the figure is a little more obvious than the authority.
We begin, then, with a sort of restrained communication, which is really closer to tokenism.
But by extending the concept of a reminding presence, we can shift to a more substantial role for the teacher. A token can also be an outward indication of complexity within. Tears are a token of grief, a smile of happiness, and within those emotions are many other possibilities, communicated in an instant. In this sense, the teacher also symbolises the subject taught – the possibility of learning, of developing particular forms of knowledge in a specific field. For me there is an added dimension; I not only symbolise the esoterica of writing as a teacher, but also as a professional writer and editor. Each level of engagement in the field expands my substance, makes me worth listening to.
This isn’t a smooth process, and not all students appreciate it the same way in every lesson, but the tokenism nevertheless fades with time.
The final transformation comes when the teacher manages to communicate a particular point, when a student or a group of students understands something new, or anew, with the teacher’s help. Teaching students how to write differently than they have before necessarily involves having them write, and rewrite, then write again. It should also prod them to think in new ways about writing as a process of extended cognition, rather than as just a mechanical repetition of words across the screen or on the page. When the teacher has placed the students in a position to learn for themselves and they’ve found new ways to communicate their own thoughts, that teacher is a token in the deepest symbolic sense – a distinguishing feature, a quality, an indication that knowledge is forming in new minds, in new ways.
The old ways are gone.
Not all classes are easy, not all classes are the same – not the least for the teacher. Students have their own agendas, their own interests, daily problems and difficulties they bring with them to class. And conversely, not all teachers inspire the type of thoughts that ease students toward new ways of understanding life’s familiarities. Each side, at least potentially, has something to learn. It’s about communicating in the true sense – speaking and listening, sharing something. And that, I think, is worth the token effort.