Friday, September 17, 2010

The teacher taught

Well, hallelujah! Barley and I have made it through our six-month course with the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training and Behavior. As I wrote to my sister and brother-in-law this morning, if we hadn't passed our final evaluation last weekend, Barley would have shared in none of the blame, but because we did pass she takes 75% of the credit. Yes, this is the way things tend to go around here, under the reign of the Queen B (or, less formally, Miss B Have), but it's only right. She has been a remarkably patient trainer throughout, teaching me more than I ever could have hoped to learn about communication, collaboration, imagination, and timing. Her willingness to try, fail, fail again, and fail better has inspired me to take more risks in my own learning; I've been continually astonished by her energy and resilience in the face of every new challenge. It's especially impressive when you consider her partner's stubborn clumsiness and frequent stupidity.

I tried a while ago, in my post about behaviorism and The Manchurian Candidate, to zero in on the critical element that distinguishes a brainwashing relationship from a training/teaching one (specifically in those instances when a teacher seeks to manipulate a student's automatic responses and tries to tinker under the hood of the conscious mind). Emotional involvement, even if characterized by mutually positive regard, doesn't seem to be enough to rescue this transaction from creepy-crawliness. My experience with Barley in the last few months suggests another answer: the willingness of the teacher to be taught. If one expects and tries to ensure (through various measures of control) that the teaching goes in only one direction, that only one party emerges from the encounter transformed, then the shared process will (perforce) squeeze teacher and student alike. The resulting postures may fit the preconceived shape, but they will be marked by pain, and pressed dry of the vitality that might have animated the next shape.

We had visitors at our final workshop to play students in mock classes for the "people teaching" part of our evaluation. Barley made a great hit with them, not least for her unusual beauty. One complimented me on the "great job" I'd done with her, and I think she thought I was being falsely modest when I denied any credit. But she understood better when I said that the one thing Pete and I take pride in with regard to our sweet golden hussy is never having subdued her spirit. Viva la Bunk!

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