When I was in graduate school, I used to joke that if academia didn’t work out, I’d become a party planner. My flippant remark elicited the expected response – laughter – largely due to the ostensible incongruity between the weighty, cerebral world of academia in contrast with the ephemeral, and seemingly superficial, pursuits of the party. And yet, as I reflect on my career to date, I have come to realize not that we take academia too seriously, but we don’t take party planning seriously enough.
If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to launch a defence of the party as a key space for transformative moments of teaching and learning. Steven Johnson, in Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (2010), argues that creating fertile environments facilitates “collisions of creativity” where people from diverse fields of expertise “converge in some shared physical or intellectual space.” One can point to the Mermaid Tavern in London as a historical moment where “collisions of creativity” abounded: in the 17th century, the Mermaid Tavern hosted a drinking fraternity whose members included literary luminaries such as Ben Jonson, John Donne and Walter Raleigh – and, it has been suggested, William Shakespeare.
In the 18th century, the coffeehouse culture in England and France created an environment that gave rise to the Age of Enlightenment. Parisian salons in the 19th century were famous for nurturing an informal academy governed by politesse, civilité and honnêteté. Perhaps most notoriously, the symposium (Greek for “to drink together”) was a key Hellenic social institution: at these parties, poetry, philosophy, music, athle-tic and military achievements were celebrated and rigorously debated.
To trace the history of innovation in Western Civilization is to trace the history of the party. It is to trace the intentional creation of informal spaces where intellectuals from diverse backgrounds – scientists, philosophers, poets, politicians, artists – interacted. What these spaces have in common is they are all sites of “intellectual revels,” a phrase coined by Shakespearean scholar A.G. Gardiner to describe the Mermaid Tavern in Prophets, Priests, and Kings (1908). While the locations change and the libations differ, these social institutions share a set of common values: namely, an emphasis placed on egalitarian spaces for conversation, conviviality, and deep delight in exchanges leading to knowledge creation.
The importance of delight cannot be understated in the process of transformative teaching and learning. Sir Philip Sidney, a 16th-century writer, courtier and soldier, participates in a long historical tradition that places delight at the heart of teaching; in The Defense of Poesie (1581), he exclaims, “Who will be taught if he be not moved with the desire to be taught?” Sidney believed that to move someone was to transform them, and that an ideal teacher must generate delight to stir the heart and shape the mind.
So how do we foster spaces for delight in higher education? Sometimes delight occurs naturally, unexpectedly, organically. However, the pedagogical challenge is to generate collective moments of delight consistently and intentionally while maintaining the careful balance between intellectual rigour and playful revels.
I believe that a key ingredient is a certain kind of togetherness that comes from interactions in the same shared physical space. When we model delight for our students, we create the conditions whereby hearts are stirred and minds are shaped. For Sidney, teachers “giveth so sweet a prospect into the way.” In other words, good teachers express their passion for transformative knowledge and model love of their subject. Very few things are more contagious than enthusiasm.
Higher education, in its ideal form, creates spaces for individuals – in solitude and together – to explore intersections between knowledge, experience and imagination. We ask one another and ourselves how we know the world and how can we live delightfully, courageously and responsibly within it.
So at the start of this school year, when the revelry of undergraduates fills the night air, I will imagine a new generation of Donnes and Jonsons battling wits over a pot of ale in the wee hours of the morning. I will seek out opportunities to enhance intellectual revels in the classroom and beyond. And, I’ll be looking for opportunities to collaborate with diverse members of the academic community with the hope that even the most informal revels could lead to transformative moments in teaching and learning. If there’s a nice glass of wine to accompany these conversations, I’ll consider that an added bonus.