Guest Post by Danielle Clevenger: Throwing Instead of Listening

This is a guest post by Danielle Clevenger, based on a talk she gave at the 2018 Central APA session, “Shaking Up the Standard Lecture,” which was hosted by the APA Committee on Teaching Philosophy. Danielle is currently finishing up her M.A. in philosophy at Eastern Michigan University and will be starting a Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She has also taught at the University of Detroit Mercy. Her research areas include the philosophy of science, the scholarship of teaching and learning, and socially engaged philosophy. She notes, “I particularly enjoy teaching Introduction to Philosophy, as it allows me the freedom to explore non-traditional ways of conceptualizing and teaching philosophy. I am particularly interested in using movement and other experimental learning activities to enhance the teaching of philosophy both inside and outside of the traditional classroom.” 

It is an unfortunate truth that many classrooms, philosophy or otherwise, tend to be sedentary and lethargic. In order to more fully engage my students, I have started implementing movement based lessons in my classroom.[1] Coming from a dance and theater background, where movement is integral to learning the material, I found myself often observing how movement related to philosophy. As a teacher, I have designed several lessons to get my students up and moving. One of my favorites, that seems to resonate well with students, and significantly enhances their understanding of philosophical concepts, centers on Iris Marion Young’s paper, “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality.” This paper introduces my Introduction to Philosophy students to feminist philosophy and phenomenology. Although this is not a paper that has been historically taught in an introductory course, I have found that it is one that captivates students and expands their view of what philosophy is. Below, I will describe in detail the movement learning activity that I employ and how it connects to Young’s argument in the paper. Additionally, I will share some student feedback regarding this learning activity, and conclude by offering some of the more general benefits of movement based learning activities.

I have three basic learning outcomes for the day I introduce this lesson; however, before going further, it is useful to have some basic understanding of what Young argues for in her paper. She opens with a quote from an empirical study done by Erwin Strauss in 1966. The study notes several differences in the way young boys and girls throw a ball – it is observed that girls, on average, do not make any use of lateral space, twist the torso, or move her legs in preparation to throw the ball. Strauss concludes that these notable departures from the way young boys throw the ball are due to a, “feminine attitude,” that is inherent, but not necessarily biological or anatomical. Young goes on to argue that this difference is in fact learned and evidence of a sexist society that shapes bodies, particularly women’s bodies, from a very young age. Though the paper has many more to offer, this idea is the one I have found my students must grasp to move on to understanding other aspects of the paper.

Thus, my first learning outcome (1) is for students to identify the above as the conclusion of the paper. My second learning outcome (2) is for students to become familiar with the concept of phenomenology as the study of the structures of experience. Finally, (3) I want students to begin to recognize common differences in comportment between the genders as talked about in the paper in themselves. In order to meaningfully achieve these outcomes, I decided that what my students needed to do went beyond just reading and discussing, the typical action verbs of the philosophy classroom. They needed to actually throw a ball and play catch.

With this in mind, I went to the dollar store and procured roughly 20 tennis sized balls (They came in packs of three, so this cost me under 10 dollars.) The day before this lesson, I ask my students to write down their gender identity on their daily assignment. I do this so that I can pair them in non-same gender pairings. It is good to note that this can bring up questions and discussions of the difference between gender and sex. For example, I have had classes that are unfamiliar with the idea of gender identity, equating it to sexual identity or other terms. Being prepared to navigate these questions, which can often be sensitive for some students, is important to having the lesson go smoothly. Given the conservative nature of the institution at which I teach, I have never had a student identify as anything other than man or woman. However, I believe the activity would work even with additional identities, such as genderfluid or non-binary. I would simply pair students with these identities with students who identified within the binary. Additionally, I have never experienced a student feeling hesitant for any reason to reveal their gender identity, but I would also allow for this possibility in teaching the lesson. I avoid this issue by having them identify privately, on paper the day before and verbally telling them that they do not have to identify if they feel uncomfortable for any reason.

After placing them in pairs, I either take the group outside or have them move the desks aside in the classroom. The goal here is to make as much space for the students to throw the ball as possible. At this point, I would encourage you to embrace the chaos. This process can get somewhat hectic, but this is one of the benefits of the activity. As they work together to clear things up, the students begin to interact, creating shared excitement, and ultimately, community. Once there is enough room to play catch, I call the students together to explain what they will be doing. I instruct the students that their job is to play catch with their partner and write down any differences they notice in the way they throw the ball. Once they have done this for roughly 15 minutes, I call them back together again and tell them to work with another pair of students. This time, they are using their phones to video the other pair throwing the ball. After each pair has a recording of them playing catch, they are told to watch it and again note what, if any, differences they observe in the way they and their partner throw the ball. Once all students have fairly comprehensive notes, I call them into the center of the classroom as a group.

After they have gathered around me in the center of the room, usually they end in a rough semi-circle formation, I begin to ask them if they noticed any differences in the methods of throwing the ball. Though you could at this point have the students return to their seats, I prefer to start discussion informally in the center of the classroom because the students will begin to lounge and slouch. This is helpful because later in the paper, Young describes other typical differences in the comportment of men and women, such as the tendency for women to stand and sit with their legs closer together, fold their arms across their bodies, and carry object close to the chest. After discussing the differences in throwing, I will tell the students to freeze and ask them to observe if there are any differences in relation to gender and current body language.  Just like with the differences in throwing, the class will inevitably observe all the points Young makes in her paper. Importantly, there will also be some stand out cases that do not line up with the descriptions in the paper. This serves as a point to bring all three learning outcomes into focus.

First, the students are well situated to identify and discuss Young’s suggestions found in learning outcome (1) that (a) there are differences in the way different genders move, and (b) that these differences are learned and not due to some innate feminine essence. The reason for (a) is because they have now themselves observed the differences noted in the paper. I find this greatly reduces resistance to the point that there are observable differences in the genders. After performing and noting the differences both in throwing and in their posture during discussion, the students do not deny that such differences exist. Additionally, once primed in this way, I have found that the students remember and volunteer additional examples of such differences in daily life.

With regard to (b), the students are well positioned to appreciate this precisely because not all of the class will represent the typical comportment for their gender. For example, the women softball players often do not throw like the girls as described in the paper. As one of my students put it, “You give me that ball and I’ll show you how damn well I can throw it. I don’t throw like no girl.” Whenever a point like this comes up, I ask them why they think they don’t have the typical behavior. The answer has always involved some reference to teaching or upbringing, such as, “Well, I grew up with a bunch of brothers,” or, “I play sports regularly.” This then allows me to discuss (1) which is that the differences we have spent the class observing are actually due to upbringing or teaching, not some inherent difference in men and women. Additionally, at this point, they have begun to accomplish learning outcome (3), observing the gendered differences in their own movement. This is easy to assess, because in discussion they will start offering examples or counter examples in their own lives. In this way, I can tell they have moved from merely reading about abstract examples of other’s movements and started to connect the lesson their own lives.

Once the students migrate towards talking about their own experiences, the concept of the study of experience does not seem so foreign, as they have spent the whole class period examining their own experience of throwing the ball. This allows for us to address learning outcome (2), an introduction to phenomenology. I find introducing phenomenology in this way helpful because it can be a rather abstract area of philosophy. Having such a vivid experience to start with eases the transition into this new material. Though this singular lesson does not exhaust all one might learn or wish to teach from this paper, I find that starting this way accomplishes a few important things. Perhaps most importantly, it gets the students excited about what can be a daunting paper. The excitement generated by the unusual activity and the increased depth of understanding gained in it allows the students to approach the rest of the paper with a positive attitude and a basic understanding to build off.

Some interesting variations could be made to this activity to accommodate students who have limited movement for any reason. Some of my more clever students take it upon themselves to try this activity with their non-dominant hands. As predicted by the paper, the gendered effects are minimized when this happens because the non-dominant hand is untrained; thus not showing any gendered effects. Students who could not use one arm can participate by switching to whichever arm has the most movement. Additionally, for a student who had no upper torso movement, kicking a ball could be substituted. Though throwing is a more common action, I would imagine that the same pressures that cause men to throw the ball harder would have similar effect on the action of kicking. It would be informative to recreate the experiment this way and have student discuss the results. Students with severely limited movement could still participate by observing for differences in other groups throwing the ball.

Students’ reactions to this learning activity is overwhelming positive. Students consistently report that it is their favorite lesson from the whole semester, and sometimes favorite day in school ever. They report feeling invigorated, connected to the material, and a deeper understanding of a reading that originally baffled and bored them. This lesson also has a number of benefits in virtue of being movement based.[2] First, movement helps students experience concepts rather than just hearing about them. Additionally, involving students kinesthetically keeps them alert and engaged, and aids in the remembrance of class material.[3]

Secondly, movement activities excite students.[4] Because significant use of movement in any college classroom is rather rare, students are, for the most part, eager to do something out of the norm. Assessment of my own learning activities provides additional evidence that students find the activities to be fun and enjoy the increased interaction. The third benefit of movement based learning activities is that they create an atmosphere of community in the classroom. The increased interaction provides more opportunities for students to communicate with each other and with me. This not only makes them more likely to participate in traditional classroom discussions, it also supports non-content based learning outcomes, such as the ability to inhabit a view other than one’s own. They frequently report feeling like their classmates views help challenge and inform their own. Though this, and other movement based learning activities, require intense planning and can be messy and chaotic, their payoff in student learning along a number of critical dimensions is well worth it.

[1] Wells, Stefanie. “Moving through the curriculum: The effect of movement on student learning, behavior, and attitude.” Rising Tide 5 (2012): 1-17; Jensen, Eric. “Moving with the brain in mind.” Educational leadership 58, no. 3 (2000): 34-38; Honigsfeld, Andera, and Rita Dunn. “Learning-style responsive approaches for teaching typically performing and at-risk adolescents.” The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas 82, no. 5 (2009): 220-224.

[2] In addition to the benefits above classroom movement also reduces stress. (Lengel, Traci, and Mike Kuczala, eds. The kinesthetic classroom: Teaching and learning through movement. Corwin Press, 2010), increases the flow of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline (Ibid), and aids in classroom management (Helgeson, John. “Four Simple Ways to Add Movement in Daily Lessons.” Kappa Delta Pi Record 47, no. 2 (2011): 80-84).

[3] Pirie, Bruce. “Meaning through motion: Kinesthetic English.” The English Journal 84, no. 8 (1995): 46-51; Strean, William B. “Creating student engagement? HMM: Teaching and learning with humor, music, and movement.” Creative Education 2, no. 03 (2011): 189; Wolfe, Lisa M. “Human Timeline: A Spatial‐Kinesthetic Exercise in Biblical History.” Teaching Theology & Religion 12, no. 4 (2009): 366-370; Moving poems: Kinesthetic learning in the literature classroom

[4] Wells, Stefanie, “Moving through the curriculum.”

One thought on “Guest Post by Danielle Clevenger: Throwing Instead of Listening

  1. This is brilliant!

    Have you tried (or considered trying) having students do this activity *before* reading the Young? I’m curious if you’ve found that activities like this work better as illustrations of what the students have just read, or as priming for what they are about to read. (Of course, “illustrations” doesn’t quite do justice to how you’re using the activity.)

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