Alternative Classrooms: Leaving Academia and Finding Theory

“I believe that reading, in its original essence, [is] that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.”

~Marcel Proust, quoted in Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.

Several years ago, at a conference, a professor from Yale mentioned to a group of us at dinner that his introductory literary theory course was available online (or soon would be). I kept his reference in the back of my mind for a few months until after I had completed my master’s degree and left academia, thinking I had reached a personal saturation point on that track. I was not an unsuccessful student, but sometime during my final year of coursework and teaching, the academic atmosphere became something I couldn’t seem to continue with any longer, and I decided not to pursue a PhD. I did not realize then that this alternative access to a theory classroom would continue as a connection to an atmosphere of education that has been an important aspect of what has propelled me forward in articulating ideas that I want to research and develop and has additionally assisted in revealing the process of learning that may make the difference between “getting it” or…not.iPhoto

After a move from a university to a corporate job market, I was still not sure I’d found the right path and additionally unsure of my decision not to pursue an academic career. I was beginning to think that I could not grasp something crucial to success in institutionalized settings. As I contemplated whether or not to go back to school and what sort of job/career might suit me better, I began reading about alternative teaching and learning methods, thinking I might want to return to teaching or tutoring. I also swallowed my share of pride as I began investigating as an adult in my thirties why both reading and audio processing might be presenting hurdles in my experiences.  In her book, Overcoming Dyslexia, Sally Shaywitz (coincidentally also from Yale and co-director of The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity along with Bennet Shaywitz) assures readers that it is not uncommon for such challenges to go undetected until adulthood (10).  Please note: I have not been tested for or diagnosed with a learning disability, nor am I attempting to self-diagnose. I’m retracing the steps that led me to a greater understanding of how I learn and how altering my exposure to a subject transformed my experience with it.

As I wondered whether I might rather be back in a classroom than at a data entry desk, I also recalled the online availability of Prof. Fry’s theory course. I re-immersed myself in study, going back to basics with the recorded sessions of his 101 course on the subject that caused me the most ambivalence towards my degree: the infamous pursuit of literary theory. I’d had theory classes and professors who utilized theory as well as those who didn’t exactly encourage it. I wasn’t really sure how to position myself. I didn’t shun Structuralism_and_Saussure.jpgtheory but, until I found Prof. Fry’s course, I didn’t seek it more than was necessary. When I began listening to these recorded and transcribes lectures, available at Open Yale,
theory took on new qualities from my altered perspective and allowed me to return to ideas I had stepped away from, providing an atmosphere that was comforting and familiar as well as a continued intellectual challenge, helping me transition from an ambivalent attitude towards theory to an embrace of approaches I now actively seek as a means of attempting to make sense of–not only literature–but of the events of everyday life.

lit_theory_lectures_pptxProf. Fry’s introductory question of what reading is and how it happens underlined Dr. Shaywitz’s descriptions of the neurological functions of the reading brain. I joined a discussion group for reading tutors, and someone suggested Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf. “We were never born to read,” she states in her opening sentence. “Human beings invented reading only a few thousand years ago. And with this invention, we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species. Reading is one of the single most remarkable inventions in history; the ability to record history is one of its consequences. Our ancestors’ inventiolit_theory_lectures_pptxn could come about only because of the human brain’s extraordinary ability to make new connections among its existing structures, a process made possible by the brain’s ability to be shaped by experience. This plasticity at the heart of the brain’s design forms the basis for much of who we are, and who we might become” (3). I was becoming a person increasingly self-conscious of a process that my brain seems to require—or prefer—in its attainment of information.

Researchers of alternative learning often stress the necessity of accommodation and an adapted method of teaching. Even though a current trend in pedagogy promotes a break with the traditional lecture format, I appreciate that his classes are lectured and additionally available with playback options and transcription. Since I was not in school and had no homework at the time, I was at liberty to apply the multi-sensory techniques that speak to me individually. I created reading lists from his syllabus and crafted my own visuals to go along with my notes to help me retain and conceptualize. I reviewed material and discovered material that had slipped past me (or that I never got to) during my years in school. I branched out from Prof. Fry’s class, seeking additional discussions by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Judith Butler, and Julia Kristeva on YouTube or in print. Perhaps this non-traditional approach makes sense for a previous home-schooler such as myself, even though I’m glad I participated in traditional programs during my college and graduate years.

Lit_Theory_Lectures_pptx.jpgFurthermore, this alternative access to a theory classroom afforded me the ability to absorb it in contexts away from academia: a city atmosphere in Chicago while I worked in a corporate atmosphere and then during my lunch break walks while working in retail (after I moved back to the Southwest). I haven’t done anything exceptionally unique or different or revolutionary with these materials other than permitting myself the luxury of assessing and reassessing them in my own way outside of the stresses and rigor of academic life, and I like the ability to do so as I make decisions about my next steps.

I have sought other options for online continuing education as well from such organizations as The Ashville Jung Center, ed2go, Future Learn and Udemy. MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) offerings are really sort of staggering. Such recordings from various universities could be an easy and affordable way for prospective students to ‘observe’ classes and familiarize themselves with faculty (important for letters of intent!) as they are deciding where to apply.

These observations did not fall into place quite so chronologically. It is only now as I think back over several years of this inquiry since I left an academic path that I realize I have, in a way, never separated myself from the subject matter that I connected with as the work I sensed I wanted to involve myself with but couldn’t seem to keep ahold of as a career track. All this has contributed to the recent establishment of my new writing and editing business venture, which relies upon my academic background of the study of language and my retail/service experiences. Self-employment might be the career path suited to me, and I look to online learning options when I begin to wish for a classroom environment. Prof. Fry’s course is still my roadmap for theory, as I ponder literary and non-literary occurrences and events…attempting to “get it.”lit_theory_lectures_pptx

In this way online continuing education unintentionally became a field of observation for me; now I’m shifting my attention to an intentional focus and hope to write additional posts pertaining to this topic throughout this next year. I invite you to check back and offer your insights here as well!

Happy New Year!

© Melanie S. Demmer 2017

Prof. Fry’s course materials are attributed to:

Paul Fry, Introduction to the Theory of Literature (Yale University: Open Yale Courses), (Accessed December 14, 2016). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

as required by the Open Yale Terms of Use.

Works Cited:

McEldowney, Brooke. 9 Chickweed Lane. Comic Strip. Web.

Shaywitz, Sally. Overcoming Dyslexia. New York: Vintage Books, 2003. Print.

Wolf, Maryanne. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. New York:     Harper Perrenial, 2007. Print.