M4 (Don) Emulation is the Mother of Invention or: What the Medievals can us about “heautagogy.”

This week’s readings have been challenging, voluminous, and mostly quite worthwhile. The truth is that calling this a class in online teaching is a misnomer, because it has turned into a very provocative class on teaching, period. I wish I had encountered some of this material earlier, not necessarily because I would teach any differently today, but because I would have made more intentional decisions about assessment, design and instructional method. The two most important takeaways I have from this week are that “assessment drives learning,” (when I repeated this to my wife, who works in the field of primary education, her response was something like “duh,” though it seemed really cutting edge to me) and that we are learning strategies we can use in all our classes, not just the online ones. So thanks Leah, and thanks to all of you.

That said, I do not think Marshall is being merely cantankerous when he asks (it is a beautiful question) “can a self teach itself something it does not already know?” This is of course a real philosophical question whose answer I do not take for granted. I tried thinking about “heautagogy” in terms of my own teaching/learning practice and realized two things. The first is that of course the best learning is self-driven and self-motivated. That is what I spend most of my own time doing when I have the option (currently I am engaged in a crash course on the medieval sociologist Ibn Khaldun), and it is certainly a goal of my pedagogy (sorry, I use that term in the old fashioned way) in the sense that i want students to become independent learners and ultimately to be independent of me (certainly on the doctoral level).  But this is not always a realistic objective, in my view, and even when it is, it requires a lot more careful thinking about issues of authority, habituation and graduated aptitudes of learners than I found in the assigned reading.

For the past few years I have been collecting notes for an eventual article on the medieval philosopher/rabbi Moses Maimonides’ theory of education, which is indebted not just to the classical rabbinic tradition but to Aristotle, Plato and Arabic writers like Alfarabi and Ibn Rushd. Without going into too much detail here, the fundamental problem facing all of these thinkers is the need to modulate learning through habituation, which is by nature a conservative, socially reproductive process grounded in authority, and the development of critical faculties that can overturn accepted norms, generate new insights and even generate new habituative regimes.

One of the reasons I find the medieval discussion (Maimonides is not alone here) so much more illuminating than some of the contemporary material is that rather than portray the need for fully independent, student driven learning as some sort of new discovery that needs to replace existing modes (wow, we even have a cool new word for it!) they understood that there is no escape. Beings such as ourselves will continue to need habituation even once we become independent learners, though some of that habituation can be self-directed.

There is a life-course dimension to this that is very relevant to modern higher education. For the medievals, one begins life subject to the authority of parents and teachers, whose responsibility it is to ensure habituation to appropriate norms that will not only allow for good citizenship but also make room for future learning! At some point this shades into a learner’s desire to emulate those who s/he respects, including their scholarly persona. One studies and thinks under a tutor and begins to internalize values, take responsibility for them, even decide what kinds of further habituation one needs  as an individual . To take just one example, a person whose self-evaluation in light of advanced learning leads them to understand that they have departed from the mean (by being miserly, for example) takes upon themselves to distribute charity in a deliberate and graduate way until that trait becomes second nature to them. If they come to understand that some aspect of their society is corrupt they may need to opt for revolutionary change, but even in so doing they must also realize that they will have no choice but to create new habituative practices if they seek to establish any kind of a stable way of life or platform for ongoing learning.

My own tendency in college teaching has been to assume too much independent motivation and skill among students at various stages. To give one example, a favorite assignment of mine (which I learned from my own advisor) is to ask one student each week to come to class with a precis of that week’s readings and to lead the first part of class discussion based on their own questions or critical observations. The few times I tried this with Emory undergraduates, it was an abject failure and I dropped it. Students did not yet, in my estimation, have the critical skills needed to carry out the activity successfully and other students were (in my view justifiably) annoyed that they had to spend their class time on this rather than hear from me–which does not just mean receiving a lecture but engaging in a structured conversation.

Now, I could have made this assignment work better if I had been willing or able to spend much more time on it–working with the individual students before class, making sure that their precis were always distributed in advance , and if I devoted a fair amount of class time to teaching those particular skills. But given the economy of my own time, that was energy I needed to spend on research and writing; the students were not clamoring for more independence; and the honest truth is that it is I think it is OK for undergraduates to rely more heavily on the instructor, particularly as they are experimenting in a variety of fields. They need to develop the habits that can allow them to be more independent and that occurs over time and over many classes– I did not view it as essential to make the delivery of content secondary to that goal. It actually feels like my responsibility to make sure a certain amount and kind of content is covered in the course, and that is something I do not want to disparage.

I expect more of course of graduate students, but here too I have found that more independent learning simply takes much more instructional time and energy. First year doctoral students are not the same as advanced doctoral students, etc.

My point is not that we should not strive– the various assessment techniques we are discussing can help us to set an appropriate level. But we need to accept that habituation, emulation and authority are not enemies of independent learning but segues to it; that students need to be met where they are at rather than where we imagine them and that we also need to have realistic expectations of ourselves and where our time can be spent given the assessment regime to which WE are numbingly subject.



About Don Seeman PhD

Don Seeman is Associate Professor in the Department of Religion and the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory. He is a social anthropologist (PhD Harvard 1997) specializing in medical and phenomenological anthropology, ethnography of religion and Jewish thought.

5 thoughts on “M4 (Don) Emulation is the Mother of Invention or: What the Medievals can us about “heautagogy.”

  1. Valuable argument, Don; thank you. And please send me the article on Maimonides–as soon as other responsibilities allow you to complete it. (Um–no rush. I get it. But it sounds like an exciting read.)

    Turning to medieval models of teaching practices is an interesting idea: Universities are, in origin, medieval institutions. And as such they were more comfortable with the need for pedagogical authority; the image of a professor standing reading out from the single copy of the text (“lecture” = “reading”) concentrates this almost to a point of caricature.

    But one of my real hesitations on shifting to online teaching is my own inevitable recession from the picture, as an authority figure, and even just as a present model of a knowing subject; if I read my teaching evaluations correctly, my students find value in my physical and vocal presence that we are mostly dismissing “with half a smile and half a spurn.” Well, the move to heutagogy suggests a radicalization of the change: the teacher becomes little more than an editor of reading lists, a cheerleader, timekeeper, and a checker of exams and exercises.

    And I agree with you, in theory and from practice, that my undergraduate students are ill-equipped to teach themselves or each other as I would like them to.

    A few questions about bridging the gap here:

    Maybe we are being encouraged/shamed into thinking heutagogically–but what if the alternative of teacher-driven and heutagogical is not as total as we think?

    1. What if my duty to the ideal of heutagogy is served, not by my turning my students loose to self-educate and lamely trailing after them with standards, but by training them in the very theories and analytic and researching skills that would make them more ready to self-educate at the end of the term than at the start? Enough?

    2. What if there is a heutagogical cast to the very fact of online communication? Gabrielle Pedulla writes about the fact that we now experience almost every speech, scene, or story on a screen–that is, in a way we can interrupt, replay, expand upon in our own time. The student who used to sit obediently and frantically in the classroom taking lecture notes is a fading memory: I surprise my students with the revelation that if they decide to look up something I mention or to fact-check me as I lecture, they’ll *miss the next thing I say(!!)*–the concept of listening in time has been overwhelmed by the expectation of interactivity. But what if the inherent interactivity of our online media and teaching brings *an element* of student intervention and redirection, making them more active learners if they choose to be, without giving the whole process over to student-led self-teaching?

    I’m saying maybe we can move in the heutagogical direction without destroying things we know are necessary.

    So, forward. And thanks.


    1. Thanks Michael, I agree with all of this. There is a lot more middle ground than I think some of the readings allow and yes, authority born of expertise is still an important part of learning. As I told Leah earlier this week, I am bracketing some of my skepticism for now in order to get as much as I can out of the course and figure out how I can best make use of these tools. And yes, I believe in training students to be more independent as learners– only a megalomaniac would not want that (and I have known a few). But I try to resist–and encourage others to resist– the implication that new technologies (not so new in most cases) have so revolutionized what it means to teach or learn that only a Neanderthal would hesitate to join the revolution. In the long duree it is harder to see much of this as new and yes, I do think the corporate culture of a place like Emory is fixated on the “new and improved”! That said, there is so much of value here in terms of making more informed and intentional choices if we can learn to speak the language. No simplistic choices.

      1. Agreed. And it can be tough to suspend your skepticism of the new when the new is propounded on a sublimely confident and offhand dismissal of the old. But you’re right–we should search for what Rorty calls “useful tools, wherever we can find them.” (After all, Nazi doctors were the first to institutionalize regular breast exams for early detection of cancers. Okay, unfortunate example.)

        Really makes me wonder how much this wanting to preserve certain aspects of traditional teaching is a particularly American problem.

  2. Michael, Don, fabulous exchange. Thanks. I can’t help but to think of that unfortunately too common scene with students in my classes (“what do you want me to say / write / think / do / read?” and my not enough patient answer “I want you to tell me your story about and with this text”). Fostering rigor and veneration for certain traditional premises in our pedagogical processes (yep, I, too, use the nomer in old-fashion fashion) concurrently with self-inititative and assessment is tricky, and I believe you both have seen the importance of not thinking that we have to reinvent the wheel abd gunpowder. We’re refining old processes, and updating technes, not necessarily the whole pedagogical enchilada. Kudos to you both!

  3. First, I have loved listening in on this conversation between Don and Michael!! I feel privileged–really. You two are amazing.

    Second, Don’s closing sentiment is worth quoiting and remembering. So here is the quoting of it:

    “But we need to accept that habituation, emulation and authority are not enemies of independent learning but segues to it; that students need to be met where they are at rather than where we imagine them….

    And, I will be sure to remember it. It is so wonderfully phrased and on target.

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