Jumping Headfirst into the Adventure of Learning
By Lynn E. Palermo
Associate Professor of French
Seek adventure in learning and in life! This is my motto both in and out of the classroom. As an undergraduate, I lived these words fully, choosing courses that piqued my interest and letting my major take care of itself. They echoed in my mind during my semester abroad in Strasbourg, France, when I tied a blanket to my knapsack, crossed into Germany, and hiked through newly plowed fields from one church steeple to another with no destination in mind. These words later took me back to France for a year with nothing but a backpack, an open calendar, and a desire to return home with a deeper understanding of the French people and their language.
My stories of harvesting grapes, helping to restore a 13th-century monastery, and laboring on a sheep and chicken farm are familiar to my students because these experiences gave me insight into French and American culture—and into myself. Specifically, I learned that when I dive into a new situation, no matter how disorienting, I will almost always swim. This is what I ultimately strive to teach, for knowing that you are capable of rolling with the unfamiliar frees you to embrace the new experiences that will let you grow.
Recently, finding myself with a regular salary, a dependable car and even a house in the suburbs, I began to wonder if I was still living my own philosophy. Though I’d continued with the French play (my annual classroom adventure) and experimented with mounting an art exhibition in the Lore Degenstein Gallery in collaboration with my Women in Postwar France students, I began to feel staid and, consequently, a little hypocritical. When had I last really stretched myself?
I decided to shake up my existence.
First, I played a small part in the theatre department’s production of Our Town. Though I’d directed the French play for years, I had never actually been in a play. I’d never tried to envision the character behind the dialogue and play it convincingly. It was an excruciating reminder of how unsettling it is to feel inept. But when the curtain rose on opening night, I realized that we had created an imaginary universe for the audience. I was thrilled to be part of that gift and to have watched the production mature. I also gained perspectives and learned acting techniques that I carried back to the French play production.
This spring, I played a role in The Vagina Monologues. Despite my initial panic, I was grateful to the women who had persuaded me to take part in their student-run production. Their commitment to and passion for an event that carries no course credit or other tangible reward inspired me as much as their moving performance. In addition, I was able to watch them collaborate outside the classroom, share ideas, and critique and encourage one another toward a finished product, which gave me new ideas for managing the group projects in my courses.
In January, the SU CASA service-learning trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua stretched me in other ways. More accustomed to linguistic and cultural dislocation, I felt better equipped for this adventure. Yet, upon arrival, I was paralyzed before the tsunami of unintelligible language, and my “utterances” were limited to a nod or shake of the head. After a couple days, I could understand the gist of conversations but still hesitated to talk for fear of embarrassment. Finally, a visceral need to communicate drove me to speak using any means necessary, including massacring the Spanish language by ignoring verb forms, gender and agreement, and sprinkling in Italian, French or English—whatever worked—then spicing the whole mess with oversized gestures. It was a breakthrough. Having shoved inhibition aside, I was free to learn, make mistakes and laugh at them. In short, I had plunged in and was beginning to swim.
These experiences have made me keenly aware that disorientation is a critical juncture in the learning process, for feeling lost signals that things are not as we’d presumed. When we find ourselves in this uncomfortable place, we have a choice: We can turn inward to find comfort in familiar “certainties,” or we can look outward to grapple with new ideas, knowledge and worldviews, understanding that they may lead us to question those same “certainties.”
An important part of my role as a teacher is to design courses that help students increase their tolerance for this disorientation. I want them to resist the natural impulse to retreat and, instead, persist in extending themselves outward to become fearless actors in their own learning. Meanwhile, I will continue my own plunge into the unfamiliar in pursuit of new understanding that will enrich me and my classroom.