The Sensuous Classroom
Not long ago, a soon-to-be-minted Ph.D. sat in on one of my women’s-studies classes, nestling herself in the circular flow of undergraduates.
“So, what did you think?,” I asked afterward, eagerly pressing her for her impressions of the class.”
“Well,” she said, “I’d forgotten how they smell!”
I was oddly comforted, for I have long known the potency of bodies, both the students’ and the professor’s, in the classroom.
Even back in my undergraduate days I understood this – that my education was never independent of the bodies seated beside me. I was the kind of student who would sometimes deploy severe tactics, like climbing on top of my desk, in order to confront my philosophical enemies. I can still trace the contours of one foe’s head and hear his slow, monotonous speech, even though it’s been nearly 20 years since we met.
It’s funny looking back on it now, but I believe that without being framed by the presence of one another, we could not have come to know all that we did. Words and ideas were the intangible, abstract stuff of our learning, but they were always looping in and around our fleshy selves.
To be a student has long meant actually dragging one’s exhausted body into class and being more or less alert. And to be a teacher, for me, still means seeing the faces of my students and how their bodies reflect their thoughts and emotions, hearing the rise and fall of their voices, experiencing them before me in the rich mix of ideas.
This has always seemed particularly important in my field as courses grapple with eating disorders, ideas about beauty, violence against women and other bodily issues. In the wake of new technologies, the increase in online education in particular, I find myself worrying about the fate of these discussions, feeling it chip away at my belief in the power of embodied education, fearing the loss of the sensuous classroom.
But each Spring, that belief is renewed, as I become acutely aware of it in a different way when the outdoors calls the class outside. There, a new classroom is formed by our body circle on the grass. A leaf falls on my papers; a spider crawls on my bag. A student plucks a dandelion and puts it behind her ear. The wind brushes the hairs on my arm, and I smell the fresh-cut hay from the field beyond the quad. Memories and emotions from my outdoor past are fused with the ideas of the day’s class.
And despite outdoor distractions, we manage to communicate without the walls of the traditional classroom.
But education isn’t a question of walls or no walls. After all, it’s the bodies that matter.