Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Comfort Zone of Learning

I've been working outside my comfort zone lately. My research writing classes are focusing on several different mythic systems, and while I started with Greek myth (a system I've had several classes in and have loved since I was very little), the class has now moved into Native American myth (a far more diverse system, since it covers millions of square acres of geography alone), will soon move into African folk myth (ditto), and finally Chinese myth (ditto).

With each one, I need to find a balance. Believe it or not, very few of my students have studied a single story from Greek myth (most were stunned to find out that Disney's Hercules had little resemblance to the original story, since that was their only previous encounter with Greek myth), and while more of them have experience with some Native American stories (since we live in the Northwest), virtually none have read any stories from Africa or China.

And I find myself researching each system to the nth degree, reading reams of books on geography, typical community values, beliefs, monetary systems, and other associated elements, but I don't want to overload the students with too much information so that they end up drowning in it instead of digesting any of it. I also don't want to stereotype cultural assumptions, especially since different tribal and geographical communities had different ideals and accepted precepts.

At the same time, an understanding of major belief or cultural systems is necessary for deciphering some of the tales. In fact, the stories themselves serve as good examples for illustrating some major ideas. For instance, several stories in our Chinese myth text explain and contrast Confucianism with Taoism, allowing students to see both major tenets of each belief system and how the two philosophies compare and in some ways argue with each other. I only have a few weeks to let students explore all of this, however, so I have to balance dealing with the stories fully and giving background so that students can see each story's cultural significance.

Perhaps, at this point, my goal should be meaningful exposure. Let the students read, research, and find what they can, while (hopefully) encouraging them to continue their reading once class is over. I find, with each set, though, that I wish I could spend the whole semester on it. I love each one, for different reasons, and I am always sorry when a particular section must come to an end.

I only hope this dabbling into myth inspires students to examine their own mythic system, examining it for its sources and influences... and even assumptions. That might be the most meaningful exploration of all.


  1. Well, that kind open mindedness could get you into trouble in my own Bible Belt part of the world.

    I had a friend who was going to a Baptist Seminary and part of his training involved going to nursing homes. One such home had a few older Jewish people who asked if he could do something for them. So he did a bit of research and whipped up a small service for them. His teachers at the Seminary were outraged, he was there to save souls by converting them into Baptists, not indulge in these people's fantasies.

    I have always been fascinated and frightened by other belief systems. I have never fully understood how anyone can honestly believe the world is riding on the back of turtle-but if I lived on the Discworld, I'm sure I would have a different feeling about it.

  2. I've always been fascinated by different myth systems (will you get a chance to delve into Buddhism, Shintoism and Hindi)? I suspect my interest at an early age is a factor in the current openness of my mind to different cultures and ways of looking at things.

    Study a culture's religion, you get a good sense of what moved them, what mattered to them, and what the faced. The fears and triumphs are almost always captured within the mythology.

  3. I believe learning new cultures and their beliefs and myths; help everyone grow to understand themselves a little better. I am certain your student's will pounder their own history; stories and legends after learning about the wondrous world of unique cultures we live in.

    Best of luck, I have no doubt you will plant the seed of knowledge in each and every one of them.

  4. It is a wonderful teacher that continues to learn as you do.

  5. Descartes, you are right... but fortunately live in one of the two least religious states--Washington and Oregon compete annually for this, averaging 5% of the population attending church regularly. Funny thing, though, is that I regularly attend church, and so do most of my friends. However, it is our mythic system that we can use to help us understand that of others. And that understanding can actually add dimensions to our own that we did not find before (at least, that is my take on it).

    Unfortunately, Hindi is not on the list right now, Stephanie... and Buddhism only to a lesser degree. It would be greater had I chosen Japanese myth instead, but it still comes out. Taoism shows up earlier, though, and it and Confucianism struggle through much of what crops up.

    Thanks, Jeff. I don't know how much knowledge I will plant, but I hope the experience has an effect on them as much as is does on me. So far the classes open my eyes pretty much every day, and I appreciate that chance to grow myself.

    Thanks, Barbara! Love of learning is the reason I became a teacher.

  6. It definitely sounds like it would be challenging - but SO potentially powerful for them

  7. What I have always appreciated about the myths of diverse cultures is that when they are critically compared they become so similar. The words may be different but the underlying face of them is sibling similar.