let’s scare the s*@# out of ourselves!

I thought I’d issue a challenge to myself, and to anyone who might be reading this, for the upcoming summer months: learn something new this summer. Hence the title of this blog post; learning something completely and utterly new is usually a somewhat terrifying experience. At the very least, it’s a discomfitting one.

If you buy this book, you'll be a better person. No, scratch that. A better woman. Men can't read this because it's got purple lettering on the cover, plus there's an old lady holding a cake. Nevermind that she's Eleanor m-----f---ing Roosevelt! Ladies only.
The quote, "Do one thing every day that scares you", was actually Eleanor's; apparently it has inspired this gem of a book as well as bathroom-stall scrawl.

But then I recalled the Oprah-esque graffiti that cheerily greeted me each day in the second stall of the second-floor women’s washroom in Mills Library this past semester: “Do something that scares you today!”

“Well f%#$ you, 19-year-old bubble-letter graffiti artist!” was my cheery response to that gem of wisdom. Why would I want to add more uncertainty to my life?  Awkward social encounters are pretty much a daily inevitability, and they’re pretty horrifying. They’ve gotta count for something, right? Listening to my pee rattle into the toilet bowl as I gazed at that happy scrawl, I would suddenly feel a very old 29, simultaneously wistful and resentful of the very young hand that I assumed had authored it.

Challenging oneself is a part of the self-improvement mantra that propels our lives, our purchasing practices, and our sense of self-worth. I don’t want to buy into that crap, and I certainly don’t want to be the one hawking it, either. But I have been thinking a lot about the experience of learning, and how us academics and/or teachers seem to forget what that feels like, despite our everlasting immersion in teaching and learning. I think a lot of teachers feel that they are experts in learning: we witness learning (or so we hope) all the time, and we ourselves have done a lot of learning in order to be able to teach others.

I want to suggest the opposite. If you are a teacher who has been at it for some time, or if you are a university or college instructor, seasoned in years of post-secondary education, then I think it more than likely that you have forgotten what it feels like to learn something new.

But how can I say this, to you, dear lady, who just started karate last year,  with your academic arms accustomed only to the strain of typing, and your legs atrophied beneath your office desk? Or  to you, tenured prof, who you just bought yourself a second-hand sewing machine and are teaching yourself how to sew a french seam, and stitch a button hole? Or to you, keen grad student, tackling phenomenology for that final dissertation chapter that just won’t die? My bet is that while you may experience some discomfort in these endeavors, that discomfort does not compare to the bewilderment a student in first-year university can face.

The Research

Let me hit you with some really dry research on teaching and learning to give you an idea of where I’m going with this:

“[T]heory and data suggest that as individuals proceed from high school to college and beyond, what they know (i.e., knowledge       structures) may play a more important role, in comparison with standard aptitude measures, in predicting academic and occupational success” (Ackerman & Rolfhus n. page).

This will come as a shock to no one. It has the ring of common sense to it, doesn’t it? And yet, that we learn based on what we already know is something easily forgotten by people who have done a lot of learning– people for whom a strong knowledge base has been established so thoroughly that they forget its presence and function when approaching new, unfamiliar material.

And, a bit more on how we “build” knowledge:

“Knowledge is accumulated through complex experiences that are stored in schema, a structured representation that captures the information that typically applies to a situation or event (Barsalou, 1992). Schema and categories form some of the basic structures that underlie knowledge and memory. We rely on these structures to encode and retrieve information” (Cherney 152-53)

As was the case with Ackerman & Rolfhus’ study, the findings of Cherney’s research come as no surprise. Accumulated experience allows us to build knowledge structures; these knowledge structures, in turn, colour how we perceive, code, and retrieve new information. Cherney even makes use of a pre-existing knowledge structure to get her point across: in using the language of computer programming (ie, information, memory, encode), she aptly introduces unfamiliar knowledge to us wrapped in a familiar metaphor–that of the mind-as-computer.

And these findings, though seemingly self-evident, in fact say quite a lot.

Esoteric Learning

First, these findings remind us that university learning is in many ways a deeply esoteric process.  The word “esoteric” is in and of itself esoteric–it’s a word that is not widely known, or used. A quick Google “define’ search will tell you that “esoteric” describes knowledge that is available only to a select few, or to an inner circle. What that search won’t tell you (at least not right away) is that esoteric knowledge is described as such not because it is elitist per se, but because it is associated with religious and mystical traditions that value a form of apprenticeship in religious and spiritual learning. Esoteric knowledge is any knowledge that requires a great deal of study and learning before it can even be approached. To recall Ackerman & Rolfhus’ wording, then, esoteric knowledge does not necessarily depend on aptitude; instead, esoteric knowledge is based on the building and establishment of certain (often canonized) knowledge structures.


Second, these findings add renewed value to a concept in teaching that, to my ears, has been endowed with that gratingly high-frequency tone of the cliche: scaffolding.  The idea of instructional scaffolding makes visual the process of knowledge building teachers might attempt in the classroom. To me, scaffolding can be a matter of assessing and building on the experiences and knowledge structures that stroll into university classrooms each year–knowledge structures that are there for the taking, like  pre-fabbed homes waiting to be built. Or, it might mean asking how new knowledge structures can be built from the ground-up; it might mean asking what foundations might be necessary before a structure can be built, or what concepts must first be learned in order for others to be understood. In any case, scaffolding re-frames a discussion of teaching from that of knowledge transmission to a method of practiced accumulation, apprenticeship, or construction.

One final note about this concept of scaffolding–a metaphor that I find particularly appealing. Why? Well, because it reminds those of us “up there”, looking down from the rickety heights of our lofty university educations, that those just beginning in our field of expertise are no less intelligent.  We were once there, ourselves. But it’s more than that. It’s the impermanence of scaffolding that draws me to this metaphor. It’s the thought of myself on that scaffolding–not working confidently at the rising structure at its centre, but gripping the rail white-knuckled, tummy a-tumbling–that makes this concept so damn appealing.  I mean, holy crap, let’s not forget that clambering up the rickety, wobbly scaffolding that structures the Humanities is not necessarily something to be desired. It can be a  pretty shaky climb at times. Yea gods, sometimes I find myself looking down from my own lofty position as a grad student and TA–ha!– and wonder, “what the frick am I building, anyway?” And I swear, it’s not just the size of the paycheque that makes me question where I’m at, or wondering whether I’ll ever be anywhere other than the outside, looking in. It’s also what I haven’t learned, or what I don’t know, that leaves me wondering. In this learned love affair with text and critique in which I now find myself so very deeply entangled, have I missed out on other educational love affairs?

A fairly accurate representation of the view from the English & Cultural Studies Department, McMaster University. Especially the gargoyles.


Ackerman, Philip L. and Eric L. Rolfhus. “Knowledge Structures and Adult Intellectual Development.” College Board Report 98.3 Online.

Cherney, Isabelle D. “The Effects of Active Learning on Students’ Memories for Course Content.” Active Learning in Higher Education 9.2 (July 2008): 152-171. Online.


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