Hands-On Learning

Friday, Jan. 4, 2013 2:23 am | By Katie Pimlott '10

“Culture is hard to study because it is so huge.” OK, I get that. But it’s one thing to read it, to hear it. But Professor Kesho Scott doesn’t just say it — she shows it.

“Put your hands in front of your face,” she commanded us at the class’s first meeting. “Culture is in your face.” We’re so close to it, our view is dominated by the tiny fraction we can see, making it impossible to study it with any perspective. The goal of American studies, as Professor Scott explained it to my Intro to American Studies class (25 students with their hands covering their faces), is to pull that culture away from your face. Up close, we may only be able to see the details — the wrinkly lines crossing our palms, the small portion of the world we inhabit. But as you pull your hands away, the larger picture becomes clearer.

Professor Scott’s “hands-on” approach to teaching seemed awkward and silly at first. But concretizing this abstraction made an impossible concept manageable. Within a week of the start of class, we were trained: “Because class, what is culture?” she would ask. “It’s in your face!” we’d respond.

But we weren’t done acting out the abstract yet. To illustrate the social pressures inhibiting rebellion, she instructed three guys to lie down side by side on the floor. “Now, stand up, rebel!” she ordered. They stood up, a bit confused.

As soon as they were up, she told them to get back on the floor, and then told six of us, C myself included, to sit on the three men. We were understandably hesitant, but she insisted. Once we were in place, she told the students on the bottom to rebel again. With six people on top of them, this was a no easy task. Eventually they gave up, unable to dislodge us.

As we made our way back to our seats, Professor Scott explained what this exercise had to do with social change. It isn’t some nebulous force (“The Man”) that squashes rebellion. It’s us — the omnipotent weight of the expectations of society dictating compliance and obedience.

It’s one thing to be told that society works collectively to ensure that its norms and mores are observed. It’s another thing entirely to experience it, to be the one holding down your classmates. Throughout the semester, Professor Scott’s interactive method — she calls is “guerrilla teaching” because it has a way of bypassing your defenses — explained this and many other key concepts of American studies. As a senior, I can now observe and analyze abstract concepts in my higher-level classes without getting too caught up in the fingers and the fingerprints of culture and learning.

Katie Pimlott '10 is an English major and American Studies concentrator from Brooklyn Center, Minnesota.