Friday, September 05, 2008

Home and Unheimliche

I handed back the first set of short pieces of writing, and got a quiz and a journal set in return. I have only myself to blame, of course. If I had any brains, I'd give bubble or clicker quizzes and tests, and that would be that. My ethics would suck then, though, so it's just as well that I don't. Besides, I can't think of a decent bubble or clicker sort of question about anything worth reading. Is there an interesting bubble question that can be asked about Othello?

The short pieces were a nice start in getting to know my students, and in getting a sense of who has sentence level writing problems.

One of the things my students wrote about was feeling at home on our campus when they came for a campus visit. It's interesting to think about what they mean by feeling at home; few of them give the sort of details (yet!) that make an English professor's heart go pitter patter, alas, but a few do, and for them, the home feeling seems to be a reaction to having people smile and be helpful when they visit, to feeling that the campus and city aren't too big, but are a little big (it's the Goldilocks thing, Flagship U is too big, and the local SLAC seems smaller than their high school and thus too small).

In some ways, it's great for students to feel at home. For one thing, it means they chose to study here, and that's a plus for our recruitment folks. And there's real benefit in life to being comfortable where you are, safe, warm enough, well-fed, and around people you feel connected to.

But there's also a hazard for students feeling too much at home, because home is often such a conceptually safe place that we don't feel the urge to change, and learning requires big changes. If the education a student gets in college doesn't change them, then they're not getting the full benefit. I don't mean that students have to turn their political positions upsidedown, but that real learning changes the way you see the world, and if you change the way you see the world, you change what and how you act.

We talk about trying to get students to feel safe enough in class to take intellectual risks, safe enough to raise their hands and ask questions, try out answers, discuss stuff. But we also talk about making students feel uncomfortable with some of the things they'll encounter. Entering students often talk really well about how important it is to be open-minded and value other people's opinions, but sometimes they're uncomfortable when they really have to deal with someone very different or with very different opinions. Usually our students really do put forth an effort to mainitain their open-mindedness, but it's hard work.

As I read the writing pieces, and read about campus feeling like home, my mind went to Freud's concept of the unheimliche, the un-homely, or as it's usually translated into English, the uncanny. (This is what happens to your brain when you play etymology games instead of just reading the danged papers!)

Freud's sense involves the familiar and unfamiliar, synthesized or combined in a way that attracts attention and perhaps repulses, giving a sense of discomfort and strangeness. So really, uncanny is a good translation in some ways, but unhomely gets at the sense from a different direction, starting with the expectation of homeliness, that comfort that comes from familiarity, and then reversing it with the prefix "un." For Freud, encountering the unheimliche can lead to moments of revelation and understanding, though we often reject the unheimliche instead of getting to understanding.

Naturally, I turn to the OED, and find a definition I expected:

4. Of persons: Not quite safe to trust to, or have dealings with, as being associated with supernatural arts or powers. b. Partaking of a supernatural character; mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar. (Common from c 1850.)

But I also find definitions:
5. Unpleasantly severe or hard.
6. Dangerous, unsafe.

Interestingly, canny is a word not about homelyness, but about knowledge and wisdom, especially practical wisdom about the way the world works. It's related to "cunning" and "can" (in the way that German uses "kan" to talk about being able to use a language, too). It implies a level of caution in its wisdom, too.

In trying to educate our students, giving them enough sense of homeliness to feel secure, our real goal is to use the sense of security through homeliness to help them embrace the unheimliche, the uncanny, in hopes that the encounter with something discomfortingly unfamiliar will foster growth and learning.

You can stand in front of a student all day telling them that they need to encounter the unheimliche without rejecting or turning away, but it means nothing until you or the student come(s) face to face with it, especially when you're not expecting it. It's a lot to ask students to trust you enough to go with the discomforts or real learning, isn't it? And I, and my colleagues, don't much like to be uncomfortable either; we resist change, too, even as we embrace it on other levels.


  1. Ooo, I like this idea very much. One of my history classes this semester really has the theme of entering the worlds and minds of people very different from ourselves, and trying to understand the world from their perspective; this is a useful concept for the struggle to do that.

  2. The Unheimlich Maneuver, hee hee.

    Feeling juvenile today...

  3. It's interesting how, to really make us uncomfortable, things have to have a tiny bit of the familiar with them. I think it's because otherwise it's so foreign it's a bit incomprehensible on a emotional level, or something like that.