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Posts Tagged ‘The Truth’

I tried a new exercise in the opening lecture with my final year “Inspirational Landscapes” undergraduates this week. It was actually a modification of the exercise I’ve written about previously where students have to list the things they see out of the window and we then discuss how we can learn to notice more in the world around us.

In this year’s modification of the exercise I asked the students, who had never done the original exercise and so were approaching it without any prior training, to make a list of the things that they noticed about the room in which we were all sitting. After they had made their own lists I asked them to imagine what I, their geography lecturer, might be noticing about the room: what did they imagine my list would include? Interesting issues arose both from the students’ own lists and from their guesses about my list. Both sets of lists give me something to work with over the remaining weeks of the module, and in the final week I will ask them to repeat the exercise and see if their lists have changed: whether they are noticing more in the world about them after they have done the course and whether they are any better at imagining how the world looks from a different point of view.

The exercise will also serve as a bit of background if I decide to talk to them later on about Xavier de Maistre (1763-1852), who wrote a travel book about a single room, “Voyage Around my Room”, during a period of confinement. That could form the basis of an interesting project in this module, if a student were to pick up the idea. In fact, I already feel a project of my own coming on! Alain de Botton writes about this notion, and discusses de Maistre’s work, towards the end of his own “The Art of Travel” (2002). [see  The Art of Travel at Amazon]

The students’ lists of what they noticed in our lecture room were all remarkably similar. More than 90% of the group listed only items such as lights, chairs, whiteboard, projector, and so on. Almost every item on every list was visual – not many listed anything about the sounds or the smells, let alone the emotions or the social politics. Not many set their observations into any kind of framework or context – nobody pointed out that this was a room with a specific purpose, that it was part of a University, that it was designed in a European style, that it was built specifically at a human scale to accommodate particular human activities. These things were taken for granted and therefore ignored. The students chose not to notice them or, if they noticed them, they chose not to record them on their list. Not many organised their list into a hierarchy or drew it as an interconnected system. Not many started with the big picture and worked down to the detail, or vice versa. Not many compared the room with any other room to help define its essential nature, or its volume, or its history, its comfort, its temperature, or what was happening to them in it. Nobody included themselves in their list of what was in the room. Nobody thought to calculate its weight. But, then, why would they? Nobody mentioned Xavier de Maistre.

Asking the students to list what they imagined I was noticing about the room was a new exercise. I had imagined that asking them to try that new task might push them into thinking of some new things that they had not noticed until I suggested looking from someone else’s point of view, and would therefore enable them to expand their original lists of things they noticed by importing observations that they dreamed up by imagining my view. I thought that even if they only translated their own view of a learning space into what they might imagine was my view of a teaching space, that would be a step in the right direction. I was actually quite interested to see how students at this level would imagine their lecturer’s perspective.

Their lists surprised me.

Other than that they had me looking (and I use that word literally and deliberately) from a different angle, and therefore, for example, had a better view of the windows, the new lists were more or less the same as the lists that the students made for themselves. They thought that they and I, and presumably everybody, would notice the same things about the room. On my behalf they listed again the rows of seats, the projector, the whiteboard… Some of them suggested that I would notice the faces of the students, looking variously interested or otherwise, but for the most part they imagined my attention to be focused on the carpet, the ceiling tiles and the clock. The room they imagined me inhabiting sounded very dull, and from their descriptions I do not recognise the room. I wonder, if they think those are the things that I notice in the world, why do they think I am there talking to them? What could I have to say? My colleagues often ask why students don’t seem to pay much attention to their advice. Based on what these lists indicate about how students imagine their tutors’ perspectives, the ideas or insights that their tutors might have to offer, I think we have the answer. The students don’t seem to imagine that we see much more than them. Perhaps they are right. It is hard to know for sure.

Seeing things well, even from our own point of view, is difficult. Seeing things from somebody else’s point of view is even harder. Realising that the students seem to have no idea what I see when I am in the room with them is quite scary. On the one hand it clarifies for me the distance they have to travel in this module about seeing more in the world around them, but on the other hand it makes me think that when I am talking to them about all the exciting and fascinating things around us they probably have no idea what I am talking about! These things that I am explaining, these things that have inspired me – have the students noticed them? Of course, to the “educator” in me this makes me think of learning opportunities, teachable moments and the need to recognise the perspective of those with whom I am working. Do not take it for granted that they see the same world that you do when you start to explain the world to them.

Me? I see rainbows and unicorns, of course. Doesn’t everybody?

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I worry occasionally, of course, like most people, not only about whether there is such a thing as truth but whether, if there is, it matters anyway. Perhaps I worry about it more than some. When there is more than one truth available (yours and mine, the one seen from here and the one seen from there), should we choose between them or should we just leave them both out there? I usually find myself coming back to my old anecdote about T.E.Lawrence’s house in Dorset. I grew up believing that he had the inscription “Nothing Matters” over his door, and that notion made a deep impression on me over many years. Subsequently I became unsure as to whether that inscription really was there, but I decided that, in fact, it didn’t matter whether it was or not. What mattered was that I had spent all those years living with the notion. In a way, now that I am in doubt, I prefer not to know for sure.

Recently I have been reading again, a lot, John Keats’ poem “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” – the one that begins “Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold, And many goodly states and kingdoms seen…”. In that poem Keats uses a couple of examples to illustrate a feeling of astonished discovery. One of his examples, the idea of discovering a new planet, makes perfect sense, ties well into historical fact and would have been especially topical for Keats because he wrote the poem only a few decades after the discovery of the planet Uranus.  Keats’ second example, the one that ends the poem and keeps bringing me back, is the one about “Stout Cortez”.  “Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men Look’d at each other with a wild surmise — Silent, upon a peak in Darien”. The story that Keats had in his mind, apparently, is the story of Cortez crossing the Isthmus of Panama to make the first European sighting of the Pacific coast, telling his men to hold back as he went to the crest of a hill and looked out at the Pacific for the first time. His men, from below, could see Cortez’ reaction, but could only imagine what he must be seeing. It’s a great story and a great example of that kind of moment of discovery, but it turns out Keats got it wrong: the conquistador in question was not Cortez, but Vasco Balboa. One commentary that I have read suggested that Keats was quickly made aware of his mistake, but decided to leave Cortez’ name in the poem and to leave Balboa out of it. Perhaps the name was harder to scan or rhyme. Clearly, Keats didn’t think it really mattered. For a long time I took Keats’ story at face value and believed that Cortez “discovered” the Pacific.  I only recently found out about the Cortez / Balboa mixup. What should I do with that? The poem is now seriously, deeply flawed in a matter of historical fact. The Cortez reference has no truth in it… or at least the truth has been thoroughly garbled. Does it matter? What would Lawrence of Arabia have said?

While I was embroiled in all this over the last few weeks, the Chief Executive of the Environmental Protection Authority of South Australia threw another spanner in my works. I tweeted, combining references to Elton John and John Keats in what I thought a pleasing way: “I feel as though I live my life in wild surmise upon a peak in Darien”. The Chief Executive tweeted back: “Ah, that failed Scottish overseas experiment derailed by capitalists and climate change….?!”

One of the great things about Twitter is the way that in 140 characters, or fewer, somebody can cast your own point of view into an entirely different light and throw open a whole new book, a whole new Realm of Gold, of which you were previously ignorant. If I ever knew much about the 17th Century Scottish Darien Scheme, then at some point it leaked away and deserted me entirely. Evidently it is historically very important. Some people see it at the root of Scotland’s acceptance of the Act of Union with England, and others at the root of Scotland’s subsequent emergence internationally as a business-oriented economy. Others, such as myself, have ignorantly developed our personal world views largely (ok, entirely) unaware of the facts of Darien. But looking now closely into those facts, one fact in particular catches my Geographer’s eye: the fact that the events on the frontier were deliberately misreported so that a false impression of what was going on would make a particular desired effect when the news reached home. It reminded me of the North American Agrarian Myth, the (mis)naming of Greenland, and many other geographical deceptions in the name of propaganda. Truth is a slippery thing, and may not be the thing which makes the difference in the end.

For now, however, I struggle on through these difficult weeks, wrestling with Cortez and Balboa, Keats and Lawrence… and the Myth of Fingerprints.

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I tell my students that Geography is all around them, even in the small everyday places that we take for granted. “The truths,” I say “are not out there, they are in here with us; quietly behind that upturned box or in between our tea time and our evening walk.”

Some of the time I believe what I say. I believe that we can find Geography even in the small places. But sometimes I think: no, that’s just not right.  Geography is in the mountains and the oceans, in the desert and the sky. Geography is in the hearts of explorers and in our stories of far-flung islands. Geography is the giant constellation in which we are the tiny points of light.

But just as when our fathers taught us that there are three ways to melt ice, although we know now that they were wrong, when our time comes to teach our sons and daughters we teach them the same three ways.

We tell them what we must. There is no point in teaching them our truths. They have to learn their own.

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