Dr. Hartenburg reflects on the ways we describe intense learning experiences, and how those descriptions might affect us.

The other day during a particularly challenging class in which students and I wrestled with Homer's Iliad, a student remarked, "My brain just melted." All teachers have heard variations on this--"My brain is fried" or "My mind is blown"--but this was the first time I had heard a student complain of a melted brain.

Of course, we recognized the hyperbole and had a good laugh, but that comment got me thinking about the ways we commonly refer to particularly difficult or intense learning experiences. After giving it some thought, I think many of the descriptions we give to such experiences have something in common: They all use the language of malfunction or dysfunction. Now, this is a small thing, but I wonder whether we can do better than describing these experiences with the language of breakdown, of disease, of falling-apart.

Consider also that good teachers live for these particularly difficult and intense moments in learning. Good academic administrators (such things exist!) even work to design entire programs filled with such moments. But when they occur, they are described by students and teachers alike as, if you stop to think about it, detrimental.

I wonder whether we can do better than describing intense learning experiences with the language of breakdown, of disease, of falling-apart.

Often students remark that they didn't realize that they had learned something until much later, and it's true that in some cases we need some perspective in order to appreciate what we've learned. But I wonder if our students sometimes miss the fact that they've learned something because they don't understand what it's like to learn something. Though teachers cannot provide the time required for perspective, we can help our students understand what's likely happening to them in moments of intense educational experience so that they can more properly appreciate them.

So now when a student says to me, "My brain hurts," I reply, "That's not your brain hurting; that's your soul learning." In other words, nothing is malfunctioning in you right now. You're simply experiencing what it's like to grow in knowledge.


Gary Hartenburg

Gary is the Director of the Honors College at Houston Baptist University. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of California-Irvine as well as a Master of Arts in philosophy of religion and ethics from the Talbot School of Theology. In addition to serving as the discussion and pedagogy advisor for Wheatstone, Gary teaches for the Summit Semester program in Pagosa Springs, Colorado each year.

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