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an ethos of imperfection seems to help people take agency in their own learning
In my mid-twenties, I was teaching US History to Vietnamese high school students in Hanoi. My students were bright and capable, and it was important to me to do right by them, as much as was possible within an essentially soul-sucking educational system.
I found myself gravitating towards what I’ve come to think of as lo-fi education. Just as lo-fi music leaves in mistakes, interference, and other imperfections for a more grounded feel, I started intentionally leaving in (and creating) imperfections in my teaching style. I’d make sweeping statements about a historical figure and let students correct them. I’d pretend not to be clear on something so students would step in to clarify it, often multiple students paging through textbooks to back up what they were saying. One time I pretended I’d been too lazy to make a lesson plan and told the students to take half the class lining up historical people with Marvel characters. They mixed and mingled and chatted and sympathized with me that doing homework was hard—and at the end of it we got about a dozen really well-reasoned defenses of who was the Iron Man of the founding fathers (Thomas Jefferson) and who was the Hawkeye of American presidents (William Henry Harrison).
Intentionally creating some imperfections, showing myself as a person involved in a process rather than an authority figure who Has The Knowledge and can pass it on to them—these really helped my class engage with history. More importantly, it helped cultivate an attitude of agency and self-navigation in the class. I had those students for two years, and when they first came to me, they could barely do simple tasks without asking for a couple paragraphs of specific instructions on how exactly to do it and how exactly it would be graded. By the end, I could give brief prompts and trust them to dive into complex material for an interesting take, explained with real wit and personality.
The lo-fi ethos seems even more important in my current venture, talking to adults about somatic meditation, imaginal work, and intersubjective mythopoetics.
Agency and personal authochthony are key elements in this kind of work, and any idea that there’s another person who Has The Knowledge and can pour that knowledge into you is a ridiculous fiction. If that fiction is particularly sticky, it can become a dangerous one. At the beginning of The Red Book, Carl Jung voices an idea that comes around again and again in this area:
You seek the path. I warn you away from my own. It can also be the wrong way for you. May each go his own way.
Overfitting to anyone else’s experience in the somatic-imaginal can be a dangerous proposition. As a person sharing my own experience, a good way to help people avoid this temptation is to stick to a lo-fi ethos: I don’t hide my personality, my mistakes, or my uncertainties. I speak informally and when I’m asked a question, I’ll often shrug and turn it back over to someone else.
When I built a somatic meditation course, I refused to structure it in a neat Unit One, Unit Two, Unit Three progression, instead creating a landscape of different pages, practices, conversations, and prompts, along with four different possibilities for navigating that landscape in your own way and on your own time.
In my last essay, “Tending the Shimmer,” I include this line:
I have comparatively little knowledge or experience in any of the frameworks above; I’ve found the shimmer mostly through side doors and back roads, haltingly and crudely.
One piece of feedback I received on the essay was to “delete this line—it undermines your claim to authority on the subject.”
EXCELLENT! Undermining any authority a reader might think I have is a feature, not a bug. If a reader or listener can get a reflex for not simply accepting what I say, but instead looking at what I say, looking at me as the lens that’s filtering the message, and start to engage more fully with the let’s say ideal platonic form of what I’m saying, rather than just engaging with me as an authoritative source… I’ve done my job1.
In the interest of full disclosure here: my elementary school was a trailer parked behind my parents’ church, and my high school was a pastor-training prep school for a religion I didn’t believe in. I am very much primed towards an attitude of “every subject you learn, it’s only worth a damn if you learn to navigate it for yourself without taking any authority’s word for it.”
My own disposition is definitely a factor, but even putting that aside, I don’t think I’m wrong about a lo-fi ethos being helpful for learning. Other teachers at my school in Vietnam asked me how I got my kids to do the projects they managed to do—my students seemed to have noticeably higher ability to navigate complexity with minimal prompting. And feedback that I’ve gotten fairly often on my somatic and imaginal workshops goes along the lines of “it feels like you’re really giving me permission I didn’t know I was missing to explore this in my own way.”
I dunno, think it over. Maybe I’m wrong. How’s it sound to you?
I hope you found something helpful here; if you want to support my work and/or see more of it, see my Somatic Resonance course, Patreon, and link tree. Or just sign up for my Substack while you’re here.
I’ll also be starting a writing space soon, based around cultivating authentic expression, imaginal resonance, and true voice in writing. Leave your contact info on the site if you’re interested.
See also: one reason I keep a loose and slightly unhinged twitter persona. It seems to help people relate to my message more on their own terms, less as some kind of Authoritative Statement On Things from me.