THE UNSEEN NATURE OF LEARNING
It’s always difficult to see them when I log on to teach class. Crammed into a small room with one laptop, two of the five students are off-screen.
Because I am unable to see all of them, I say each student’s name aloud to ensure they are present, to hear their voices. This is how we begin class early on Friday mornings. Sometimes they will inform me a new student has joined us or another student has been released. Anybody who has worked in prison education or has volunteered to teach in carceral settings will tell you flexibility is key, that you have to be prepared to change course. We find ways to make it work. Because the pandemic has disproportionately infected and killed incarcerated people, I have to teach through Zoom, the students huddled together in a room barely larger than a closet. Each of the students wears a mask.
At times, their masks muffle their already muffled voices traveling from the single laptop’s microphone to my speakers. All I can see are the students’ eyes. Although many believe the eyes are the window to the soul, I have come to see this phrase as deceptive. My experience with prison education has forced me to consider how we define effective learning, especially the visual cues we expect in the classroom, and what it means for a person to be a good student and teacher.
My experience with prison education has forced me to consider how we define effective learning, especially the visual cues we expect in the classroom, and what it means for a person to be a good student and teacher.
Often, teachers come to understand their students through the eye. I’ve become acutely aware of my own reliance on visual cues and student participation as gauges of student learning. Using my eyes, I try to read theirs across the screen, try to register their body language. I call out to check in with the students off-screen to engage them as well. Because of my inability to truly see them, I check in with them often. Many of my students are often quiet; sometimes, being quiet seems part of their own personal disposition, but much of the time their initial reserve comes from the fact that society has taught them that what they have to say is not of value. Of course, when they do choose to speak during class, or add a line to a poem we are all writing together, I am often moved by the level of depth of their contributions, but, in the silences, I’m still left wondering if I’m truly being a good teacher, if they’re really learning. Would my concerns be different if we were talking and working together in person?
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After a cursory search, I am reminded that the pupil is the part of the eye that “allows light to enter [it] so it can be focused on the retina to begin the process of sight.” The computer’s camera is not the only one I see the students through after all. Etymologically, this light refracting component of the eye is called a pupil because of the tiny image of oneself reflected in the eyes of another. In ancient Greek, the word ‘kore’ meant both doll and pupil of the eye. The small image of oneself seen in the eyes of another, like a figure in Jan van Eyck’s mirror, reminded the Greeks of the size of small dolls. This image is evoked when, in Alcibiades I, Plato writes, “Self-knowledge can be obtained only by looking into the mind and virtue of the soul, which is the diviner part of a man, as we see our own image in another’s eye.” For Plato, the tiny image of oneself was merely a representation and not to be trusted — seeing outward could never be equal to the internal exploration of oneself and one’s mind. The image of ourselves in another’s eye was a reflection, but not a true reflection.
Of course it is good for an instructor to check in with their students, but I cannot help but feel that my question to the students ('Does that make sense?') comes from an underlying sense that, if we were in person, I could see my students learning, that some behavior would signal their intellectual growth.
The word pupil, meaning student, shares the same root as the word for the pupil of the eye. Whereas the pupil of the eye references the small image of oneself seen in the eyes of another, pupil as in student comes more from the word’s evocation of a small child. A pupille in Old French was an “orphan child, ward, [or] person under the care of a guardian.” To be a pupil, then, is to be a ward, a person under the eye of someone else. What then does it mean to be a good pupil? What I call good studenthood, the state or quality of being a good student, is too often a quality that must be demonstrated — both communicated and observed by the eye. It is a set of behaviors that somehow signal understanding, absorption, and transformation. Yet learning is largely an unobservable, interior process that rarely lives in a binary of stasis and activity. Of course it is good for an instructor to check in with their students, but I cannot help but feel that my question to the students (“Does that make sense?”) comes from an underlying sense that, if we were in person, I could see my students learning, that some behavior would signal their intellectual growth. In other words, I would be able to visualize the effects of my instruction. However, akin to Plato’s conception of self-knowledge, perhaps when I seek this visual affirmation from my students, I am seeking my “own image in another’s eye.”
Because my students are incarcerated, I can’t help but think about teaching’s shared history with surveillance. How can one teach without reproducing the methods of state control? The question seems much more urgent as we all look at each other through the computer’s eye, but the expectant eye of the teacher can harm as well. In a conversation between writers Ocean Vuong and Tommy Orange, Vuong discusses his own teaching style and the advice he offers to his writing students. Vuong says, “When I teach, I tell my students, ‘don’t measure your worth through your pages […]’ You measure your worth by your questions. What kind of questions are you asking yourself? The fact that you cannot answer them right away is the very fact why you should stay with them. Take them for a walk. Collaborate.” Vuong speaks to the division between the seen (pages) and the unseen (questions). The former is observable as the writing serves as a kind of proof, a palpable representation of the students’ thinking. But asking questions is an unquantifiable, internal process — yet this is where learning actually happens. In place of demonstrating progress, there is a more ecological approach to thought and construction of knowledge. Vuong’s statement speaks to the irrelevance and impossibility of being able to see good studenthood and the necessity for instructors to have an eye that does not “look at,” but rather “looks with.”
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Today, we’re discussing the haiku, and we’ll try to write our own as well. We read one by Basho and one by Kobayashi Issa. The class is fairly quiet, but I let the silence in the room match the striking silence of each poem. We move on to the haikus Etheridge Knight wrote in the late 1980s. Afterwards, we all try to write our own. When it comes time to share what we’ve written, the students appreciate our attempts to write a haiku, and they tease one of my co-instructors for her poems that are sometimes centered around death, but they don’t really feel like sharing theirs. Rather than let this be an indicator of their learning or my teaching, we move on to talk about things and people we miss, and we write a few more poems together.
Alec Sandoval graduated from UC Berkeley in 2018, where he studied art history and English literature. He has interned with Red Hen Press and PEN America’s Prison & Justice Writing Program. For the last year, he has volunteered with the Prison Education Project (PEP) and has taught introduction courses on Shakespeare and poetry. He enjoys spending his time writing, reading, and traveling.