A Metaphorical Zoom?
December 11, 2020
When I first saw that weird scene with the wall of TV screens in The Matrix Revolutions, I had no premonition that such would ever be the fate of my social interactions. I certainly never prepared to be pedagogically-engaged in such a context. Spring 2020, then, proved unduly challenging for me. I remember sitting outside, in the ice-box air—and slightly better cellular signal—of a Montana March. I was desperately trying to focus on the student paper that I was working with. Between being distracted by a recording of my own face talking back to me, my cold hands, and the slight lag in communication, I only half-succeeded. Indeed, I suspect that the student left with very few takeaways. I soon fell into the rhythm of online instruction, but it was never quite comfortable. As the end of summer approached I was thus dreading this semester and its continued pedagogical challenges.
What I found this semester, however, was that once I got over the initial awkwardness of online tutoring, I—luddite that I might be—could hold effective tutoring sessions. The requisite step? I needed to know, not only the rules of composition, but how to convey them without using my hands and a whiteboard—my previous tools of choice. In short, I needed to learn that pedagogy is only effective when it is flexible. A large part of this “flex” arose in learning how to articulate lessons using only my words—spoken slowly over occasionally spotty connections, without relying on the visual aids that previously made me feel comfortable. The most important piece of tutoring technique that I garnered—if not always with my own comfort—over the semester was metaphorical feedback.
In their “Online Metaphorical Feedback and Students’ Textual Revisions: An Embodied Cognitive Experience,” Beth Hewett and Terese Thonus conduct a study to determine just how efficacious metaphors are as teaching tools in online formats, and to determine what metaphorical teaching strategies are best. Ultimately, they find confirmation for the notion that metaphors are effective teaching tools (16). Hewett and Thonus describe metaphorical language in the tutor relationship as “represent[ing] the physical world, particularly the abstractions of human nature that language seeks to symbolize” (2). Metaphors serve to symbolize just the kinds of things that language does in general. If we mimic this methodology in tutoring settings, it seems to strengthen learning success. Indeed, Hewett and Thonus write that “metaphorical thinking is so pervasive and ubiquitous that people cannot communicate or act apart from it” (2). That is, metaphor constitutes a primary, even indissoluble part of human experience. As tutors, we do not need to fight this part of human learning, but would do well to follow its lead.
Before consciously considering metaphor in my tutoring, I would attempt to clearly explain the lesson at hand in a sort of syllogistic language. That is, I tried to pare my words down until I was presenting the given student a “nugget” of writerly truth. The problem with this kind of approach is that it limits that flowing, beautiful thing that is human writing into a series of rote propositions. Often, I found—clear as it seemed—my guidance was not effective. Without consciously realizing it, I used whiteboard pictures and hand gestures to carry the meaning that my language did not. Once I began tutoring on Zoom, however, these props were taken away (as I had not discovered the drawing tools, again, luddite that I am.) I had to consciously find a way to “paint a picture.” Metaphor was the most effective way for me to do this.
Metaphors have the distinct role, in tutoring as in poetry, of bringing a lesson to life. It is one thing to write that the sky is grey, and quite another to write that it “is like a patient etherised upon a table” (Eliot 3). The latter of which—though a simile—makes the reader want to jump up and look at the sky or fall down in rapture (if they study English literature, at least.) The point here is clear: metaphor works on the mind and the heart, making it good for poetry, and no less so for online tutoring.
Hewett and Thonus conclude their piece by writing that “Particularly online, metaphorical feedback can create an embodied experience of person and word so often missing in this teaching and learning context” (16). Thus, the upshot is that tutoring must engage bodily experience as much as it can, whenever it can. Although at face value embodiment can be seriously impeded by computer-mediated interactions, we are all—one both ends of the screen—always already embodied. The onus is on the tutor, I have learned, to find ways to engage that embodiment, no matter the medium.
Eliot, T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” 1915. The Waste Land and Other Poems. Harcourt Brace & Company, 1934, pp. 1-9.
Hewett, Beth L., and Thonus, Terese. “Online Metaphorical Feedback and Students’ Textual Revisions: An Embodied Cognitive Experience.” Computers and Composition, vol. 54, Dec. 2019, doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2019.102512.