Reflections on AEPL’s 2015 Conference

AEPL Estes Park 2015: “Bodies aren’t just ‘transport’ for scholarly heads”

“There isn’t an education system on the planet that teaches dance every day to children the way we teach them mathematics. Why? Why not?” — Ken Robinson

There was wisdom in placing dance at pivotal points in the recent AEPL Estes Park conference schedule. An article by Eliot Smith, entitled “An Embodied Account of Self-Other ‘Overlap’ and Its Effects” clarifies why. He notes that one of the most fundamental of social relations, identified by A.P. Fiske, is “communal sharing.” The “embodied cues” of such sharing are marked by “touch and physical proximity,” “shared physical appearance,” “shared movements,” and “shared substances.” While most conferences involve proximity, similar appearance (one always knows MLA people!), and shared food and drink, AEPL added touch and shared movements with dance, holding hands, yoga, hugs, and specific workshop activities, ensuring a level of relationship not normally associated with academic conferences.

While many conferences have more formalized dances with DJs or bands, Dick Graves and Sherry Swain wisely began the conference, after light refreshments, with free form dancing, moving to the music alone and with partners in a very unforced manner. Eye contact and simple touch was encouraged, and one felt a welcome part of the group from the start. Thus all four elements were immediately in play: “touch and physical proximity,” “shared physical appearance,” “shared movements,” and “shared substances.”

The second day I gave a session called “(Re) Learning to Argue from Indian Perspectives” in which I taught a method of argument based in sharing analogies rather than confrontation. But the part that others people continued to refer to after was the Vedic concept of language, which includes four levels, Baikhari, inner or spoken speech, Madhyama, the place where we work through problems, Paṣyantī, where one gets a sense of the whole, or Perl’s “felt sense,” and Parā, the silence from which speech proceeds. The last concept is the one most unique to the Hindu perspective, and the one that resonated with many who practiced using the term for the rest of the conference.

Parā seemed to exemplify what this AEPL meeting was about. Positive and life changing speech should come from a place of deep meditation; words that come from that silence are most fitting, encouraging, and kairotic. In many of the following sessions, it was apparent that speakers spoke and led from these kinds of places.

Trey Conners, session, “Laya, dissolution, and Decomposition,” got everyone thinking about patterns in our lives, and the very intriguing question—“What is your rhythm and how to get into it?” Earlier discussions about parā led me share how I use silence to teach, how I try to get a sense of the rhythm of a classroom by listening before I begin to teach. I had never connected this with the idea of my teaching rhythm before. The session turned wonderfully co-creative, with both attendees and speaker interacting, asking questions, gaining insights.

I next attended a writing workshop with Nan Phifer called “Writing to Share our Spiritual Stories.” She asked us a series of questions about our past that led to much introspection and insight. She then asked us to write about one of the responses. At first I almost left the session because I did not want to write about any of the responses (a bit overwhelmed with some realizations I was having), but I needed to take my own advice, and seek a sense of parā. It didn’t take long to move from silence to writing about a time in my life when someone spoke to me from such depths and pulled me back from a particularly destructive path. Others in the session shared similar stories of revelation and release.

Eliot Smith also explains the in-depth the value of three types of engagement—synchronous movement, mimicry, and touch. Each session thus far had shown the value in synchronous movement, and even mimicry, in their use of discussion, writing, and response. Carli Sachs’ presentation “A Bodyful Experience” introduced whole new levels of interaction that involved all three elements. First the attendees were encouraged to move in any way they felt with the amazing and imagistic music she provided. Though in various ways, each person moved in some sort of synchrony to the sounds. Carli followed this with three questions to consider, either in writing or meditation. She then had us sit in pairs facing opposite directions but shoulder to shoulder. We could ask the other one of the questions, and needed only to listen. We then changed partners and this time tried to repeat back (mimic) to the speaker what she or he had said.

Though of course all the sessions involved listening, in the first assignment we did not have to respond, and this was very liberating. I found, and others noted later as well, that I was absolutely centered on the person’s voice, and felt in body, mind, and spirit what they were saying much more that would have occurred otherwise. Even when there was a bit more pressure and I needed to repeat the gist of what the person said, I still found that the session encouraged very positive and active listening. I felt very close the rest of the conference with those I shared that time with, even those who weren’t my partners. Everyone shared how meaningful such listening was for each of us. Such is the value of synchrony, mimicry, and touch.

Later I attended Sheridan Blau’s workshop called “Exploring Moffatt’s Universe of Discourse.” By simply asking us to write four responses from personal experience to more abstract writing, Blau clarified dozens of writing issues at once. For instance, that different kinds of assignments draw on differing mental resources, and that different kinds of questions lead to different activities—observation, research, generalization, and theorizing. This activity was immensely useful as a resource for teaching. The insights we had in the session would be mirrored by students doing any similar activity. Blau also helped us to actively embody in very complex ways some of Moffatt’s outstanding contributions to teaching and writing.

Liang Zhao’s session, “Teaching Traditional Wisdom” challenged those who attended in very different ways. He asked three simple but profound questions. What are the biggest problems we experience today? What are the causes? What can we do to address them? It is so easy to complain about problems, but Liang’s session caused us to consider very specific ways we can make a difference in addressing huge problems. This helped me to make valuable connections between my classrooms, teaching methods, and assignments to make sure what I am doing has at least some impact on serious issues faced by both me and my students.

Yvonne Siu-Runyan’s “HULA-Baloo” rounded out the conference with more dancing. In a few short minutes everyone was embodying their own interpretation of the hula, learning basic moves and even how to tell a simple story with our bodies. Again, synchronicity, mimicry, and touch created an atmosphere of communal sharing that found its crescendo when people shared meaningful conference memories and then danced the night away at the Irish bar in Estes.

As Ken Robison remarks, often university professors “look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads.” It is refreshing to find a conference the deeply values our entire beings in all their infinite possibilities.

Keith Lloyd,  Kent State University

Works Cited

Robinson. Ken. “How Schools Kill Creativity” TED Talk. Filmed February 2006. Posted 6/26/2006. Web. http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity

Smith, Eliot. “An Embodied Account of Self-Other ‘Overlap’ and Its Effects.” Embodied Grounding: Social, Cognitive, Affective, and Neuroscientific Approaches. Gün Semin and Eliot R. Smith, Eds. Cambridge NY: Cambridge UP, 2008.

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