Addendum: Embodiment & Affective Learning

Last updated 2015.

The body has never been a safe beginning. But it is always a site of learning.


The images here represent embodied teaching and learning in the classroom in a variety of ways, from “teaching tattoos” to magnetic vision to temporary body art like CV dazzle and body paint.

All images are included with permission from the photographed subjects.

Surveillance. Biopolitics. Cunning Intelligence.

I have the panopticon tattooed on the back of my neck. I call it my greatest teaching investment. I call it my introduction to class discussions of power and surveillance, as embodied as I can make it, as I deliver the lecture facing the blank projector screen with my students’ eyes boring through my back. We talk Foucault. Without my eyes on them, the class has to self-moderate. The air is uneasy, then churns with clamoring voices. Without turning around, I ask who’s watching who. We talk counter-surveillance. I turn on my laptop camera and raise the machine above my head. My students appear on the projector screen before me, mediated by the third party of the digital eye. “Now who’s watching?” I ask. I’m speaking to the screen. They reply to my camera. We talk omnopticism. We talk disruption. A student, abashed by his own daring, comes up and covers my camera with a finger.

The intangible eye appears to go blind.

This lecture, my favorite every semester, seeks to remind us all that we exist in a surveillance society but that our bodies, modified or otherwise, are tools of collective action and disruption. Through CV dazzle “parties,” as seen below, we can disrupt the algorithm of facial detection software while experiencing our bodies in space, as conspicuous, strange objects. Some of them wear it home. A male student later mentions feeling “looked at, constantly.” A female student remarks that this is the female condition. We discuss the gaze. We talk self-policing, the internalization of the logics of power. These fruitful tangents, they bring us full circle.

CV Dazzle Party (Rutgers)

What’s left is counter strategy. Cunning intelligence. We talk trickster, dirt work, unsettling accepted webs of signification. We talk about the cultural value of impurity as what permits cultural renewal. We talk about shit. We talk about body modification. We talk about processes of becoming.

Shit on tradition


We talk about life rising from death and decay and the inseparability of the profane from the sacred. We talk about the value of spectacle. When you walk around wearing body graffiti, or when you take the train with a full face of CV dazzle, people notice. People ask. Or people try to surreptitiously take your picture, only to murmur to their friend, “I don’t know why I can’t get my camera to focus on her face.”

My students learn to embody what we learn, and to teach strangers, and to actively practice outside the classroom what we conceptualize and write about inside it.

Marker Exercise - Pray for Gaza

Like the student who waged a one-woman war against the Morton Williams on 116th St., taping handmade posters for #PrayForGaza to their glass windows and updating the death toll every time she got a chance. Every morning she found the posters gone. She made new ones. They took them down. She made new ones in red marker, like blood streaks, in class she spoke and wrote about her simultaneous anger and elation, that they were trying to make her message invisible, that she was getting to them, after all.

Columbia University, 2014; Baruch College, 2014-2015; Rutgers University 2015.

Closure. Synthesis. Learning to See What Isn’t There.

Gestalt Closure

Gestalt closure: a rule of perceptual organization stating that we tend to see incomplete objects as complete, by closing or filling the gap in our heads though the gap remains in reality. This is shorthand for Scott McCloud’s “Blood in the Gutter.” It also suggests Gestalt psychology, the theory of mind by which we can synthesize meaning out of chaos.

The heart of the matter is this: I want my students to leave with the ability to look at chaos and make meaning by bridging gaps they are newly able to see.

This is why I privilege embodiment and affective learning, as detailed above; this is why I value transfer theory, or how individuals’ experiences travel from one area into others, because it reminds students that the skills they acquire in my classroom may be ported into several other arenas, just as they can bring other knowledge into my classroom to aid in sense-making.

Seeing gaps requires self-awareness: of one’s environment, of one’s internalized assumptions. This tattoo becomes classroom shorthand, much like my catch-phrases delineated in my teaching philosophy, only now it is a silent gesture: I raise my right hand, tattoo facing out, and it’s our code phrase for “find the gap,” or “find the aporia” once we’ve learned the term, and they do it in silence, taking it as a signal for deep thinking, for free-writing, before I say, “So let’s this break down,” and discussion resumes again.

Montclair State University, 2010; Columbia University, 2013; Rutgers University, 2015.

“Crawling, slithering across a straight razor… and surviving.”

Snail on a razor

When we discuss social media, I tell my students, “make a friend in this class, right now.” And they’re confronted with how similar or different their understanding of commonalities is depending on where the interaction takes place.

When they question the authenticity of selfies, I say, “Take a selfie in this classroom that says something about this class.” They get up, move around, smile broadly, use objects in the room as props.

When a man in one class said of a short story, “If a girl jogs at night, she’s asking for it,” I formed mixed-gender groups of students and asked them to perform each other’s bodily affectations when walking home at night, to record how those postures affected their feelings. When we returned to the discussion, most of the groups reported—the artificiality of the exercise aside—that walking stiffly and with purpose, with keys in your fist as a weapon, with head down and shoulders hunched and quiet footfalls, did feel like fear; that walking chest out and head up with an easy stride and arms swinging felt like confidence in taking up space. We talked about gender roles, transgression, self-policing. We talked about the fundamental right of a human being to feel as though he or she can walk, unthreatened, at any time of day.

The man who initially made the statement agreed, and wrote a short paper on how the exercise provoked him to rethink the values he’d grown up with.

And when a literature class couldn’t understand why it wasn’t permissible to kill civilians during wartime, we did a role-play together of the short story in question, in which a student was general; some of us were civilians, myself included; some were POWs; the rest were invading military. Nobody wanted to say, “Up against the wall,” or “Well, turn around,” as the captain said in the story. I drew on my years of playing DM in Dungeons & Dragons and my ability, as a writer, to create a character; I took the reins, stood myself against the wall, pleaded for my village, asked to trade my life for the lives of my “extended family.” In discussion, we located our affective experiences, and the responses became much more ethically nuanced. We were able to return to the text with a fuller understanding of why it was written in that particular way.

These experiences range from ordinary to distinctly uncomfortable. They are received, largely, as unexpected in the classroom. I believe the experience of discomfort helps to unsettle one’s worldview and facilitate internal transformation through embodied, affective learning. “What doesn’t kill you simply makes you stranger,” says the Joker in The Dark Knight. In the classroom, the stakes are not that high. Nevertheless, rendering the familiar strange, hard work as it is, is not so bad to pedagogically seek.

Montclair State University, 2009, 2010; Rutgers University, 2015. Title quote from Apocalypse Now.

Where trigger warnings are deemed necessary, they are given in advance. Regarding impromptu activities, the setup is explained at the beginning and students are informed that, if they truly feel they cannot stomach the activity, they are free to step outside and return for discussion afterwards.


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