My colleagues and I at the East Side Institute have been leading online seminars and study programs for about ten years. They’re more like written conversations than formal classes, because even though there are readings and assignments, we’re not grading or evaluating anyone. No one’s getting university or continuing education credits. People are free to participate as often as they choose to. When we remind people who’ve been silent to post, it’s so that the group as a whole has more ideas, responses, opinions and experiences to create with. That’s the whole idea—to create conversation among us all.
I don’t know for sure how many discrete individuals have taken part in these online conversations; my guess is between 1000 and 1500. Whether the course has 10 people or 50 people in it, there’s always a continuously active 1/3, the rest posting only once in awhile. There’s also always a mix of experienced online course takers and newbies. Quite often those who are doing this for the first time are, delightfully, the most active.
Our online activities are for anyone who’s interested. Where they’re from, what their profession or educational level is, how familiar they are with the topic at hand—none of this matters. We want a diverse grouping because of how it can be organized into a rich, exciting, supportive environment for challenging each other’s assumptions and making discoveries abut ourselves and the ideas and practices we’re discussing.
So much happens in four weeks online! Take one that just ended this week, titled “Investigating Wittgenstein.” It was a large group—45 in all. A little more than half the participants were from the US and the rest from 11 other countries.
I wanted to begin the seminar with a shared experience. I asked them to introduce themselves, including what brought them to take the seminar, and to read, “Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Tortured Smarty Pants” (my chapter on Wittgenstein in the in-progress book, The Overweight Brain). This would give everyone a sense of who we all were and provide material that was new to most if not all the students, regardless of whether they had studied Wittgenstein or not. As the first posts came into our inboxes, people began to respond to each other’s introductions, including their thoughts on the chapter—and we were off and running.
“I am experiencing joy and challenge. I really enjoyed X’s description. “Cacophony” sounds appealing, like symphony. It also brought to mind cornucopia…a symbol of abundance. That’s what I think we’ve got. I’ve so enjoyed reading everyone’s texts as they emerge. Writing feels like jumping into a Double Dutch jump rope game, you know, with two ropes going at the same time? Watching is good & jumping in even better!”
Near the end of the first week, after reading around 50 posts, I got an idea of how to shape the rest of the course. I had just returned from Japan where I had given a talk on play as not what we do, but as how we do what we do, and thought to make this explicit. I wrote to the class that for me, what was key in investigating Wittgenstein is how we do it. “I see my job as helping you do it playfully (without knowing how, with imagination, with others, as performance).” I continued, “You will certainly not be alone in investigating Wittgenstein playfully. In fact, I want to introduce you to others who have done so as well.”
The first playful pieces I assigned were excerpts from Heaton and Groves’ “comic book” Introducing Wittgenstein and the link to a few scenes from Derek Jarman’s 1993 film, “Wittgenstein.” In later weeks I added Fred Newman’s play, “Outing Wittgenstein,” (along with a few essays by Wittgensteinians and some of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations). In each case, I asked people to tell the group if they saw anything new and/or saw something old in a new way after reading or watching.
I then upped the ante on the group’s own playing with Wittgenstein. I divided them into eight groups by time zones and asked them to each do a Skype call. I gave each group a quote from Wittgenstein for them to discuss and post some kind of response to.
They did not disappoint! Here’s one group’s work.
Their quote: “The term language-game” is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, of a form of life.”
Their response in words and images:
We all enjoyed the conversation and playing with each other and playing with the Wittgenstein quote. We created a new and intimate learning zpd. This was the first time for three of us four that we were ‘students’ on Skype. Initially we did muddle and had some pauses. And, we also relished that we had time – spent about 1 hour on the phone – and used it to introduce ourselves to each other in a different way than via online. We could see each other and our facial/body expressions (and enjoyed that!), and the background in our homes via the camera. We read the assignment – the phrase from Wittgenstein aloud. As we built our conversation we spoke about how we think we learn, where we were at with the class, Wittgenstein and language games. We created our conversation with “yes, and” performances.
One of us took notes of some of the phrases, concepts, words that we were saying. After the call, the notes were sent to the entire group. We collectively decided to continue to play with them, and decide how we were going to keep building and write-up our final construction for the class. From our Skyping playing with the Wittgenstein quote: ‘ the term “language game” is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, of a form of life,’ came some of our own language/phrases that was put into a Wordle by one of us. We found it interesting that when the application of the ‘Wordle’ was applied, it freed the individual words from their sentences and was reconstructed; and what stood out was the phrase “creating life differently together”.
The image above is a painting hanging in X’s home that was her background during the entire Skype call. We really liked the painting and thought it was beautiful. It framed her and our work.