My friend Nancy collects images of women reading. I think of her every time I see a painting of a woman engrossed in a book or those postcard compilations and calendars titled Reading Women that museums produce.
I fully understand the delight these images bring her, for my own nerdy confession is that I love to watch students writing.
There’s just about nothing that gives me more pleasure as a teacher than strolling about a classical site or through a museum gallery and seeing a student gazing at an object, deeply absorbed in the moment, and then quietly writing.
I love to catch them in moments of rapt attention.
Do you think it’s because I long in vain for these moments at home? It occurs to me that these cherished instances of absorption are far more common—are perhaps entirely—when I’m teaching abroad. Now, to be true, it’s only in this situation that I actually walk about and photograph the students, so I may be overlooking, for lack of documentation and memory, instances at home when students are rapt. Then, too, at the university I am not with them all the time and am not present for possible glorious moments. Although we do a lot of writing in class, what’s all too frequent is to see students unable to sink into the moment, distracted by their phones, their classmates’ inattention, their own restlessness or self-consciousness. Instead of making them feel mentally expansive, the quiet classroom feels constraining, coercive. They grow restive. Absent is the sense of wonder, and nowhere to be found the physical impetus to inspiration (and perhaps the permission or license to become enraptured?) that we have when studying abroad.
The texts in front of them, I realize, when studying abroad or in the classroom, are not what captures them. (Which makes me sad.) When we are on site in Greece, the spaces we are in and the objects we see are the very ones described in our texts, which ramps up the urgency to observe through the observer and to compare notes with Herodotus, Byron, or Patrick Leigh Fermor, and to be present in this moment, to give it full-on attention—finally—and to feel the enormous rush of energy that comes from that deep attention.
Greece is beautiful, complexly layered, demanding of all your senses: who wouldn’t gaze spellbound in its presence? But the research shows that it’s the mere getting away—and, more, immersing ourselves in intellectual practice when we’re away—that has such enormous cognitive benefits to my students. If you are already a fan of study abroad (and I know many of you are), you know how powerfully it improves your cross-cultural understanding: hones your awareness, broadens your reach on global issues, matures your perception of your home country, increases your self-reliance. The latest research tells us that studying abroad even improves our ability to be creative. What’s being discovered supports a lot of anecdotal, on-the-ground evidence: you learn to think outside of your ‘cultural script,’ how to combine intellectual resources from various cultural frameworks, how to generate and apply new, culturally-appropriate ideas–all capabilities that are so vital to seeing, comprehending, and solving complex, open-ended problems. (See Christine S. Lee, David J. Therriault, and Tracy Linderholm. “On the Cognitive Benefits of Cultural Experience: Exploring the Relationship Between Studying Abroad and Creative Thinking.” Applied Cognitive Psychology (2012).)
But for me it comes down, again and always, to witnessing students in those rare moments of rapt attention, of presence. When their faces don’t look anxious or impassive but instead focused, alert, engrossed, with a play of ideas behind their eyes. I collect these images; they are beautiful to me. I like to think that these are moments they too will mull over in years to come; these will be their own spots of time.
Such moments also tend to produce some writing worth reading.