Academic journal article Indo - Pacific Journal of Phenomenology

Teaching Phenomenology through Highlighting Experience

Academic journal article Indo - Pacific Journal of Phenomenology

Teaching Phenomenology through Highlighting Experience

Article excerpt


Based on the assumption that phenomenology is a style not just of thinking, but also of perceiving and acting, this paper shows how, through specific assignments and practices, phenomenological research can become personally as well as professionally meaningful for students. Disciplined practice helps students to attend to experience even though culturally and educationally ingrained habits devalue its importance. By working together in groups, the phenomenon under study is more likely to come alive for the student researchers, and articulating the core of an experience no longer to seem so daunting. The practice of phenomenology also helps students to recognize that slowing down and giving their full attention to experience is restorative, productive, and deeply satisfying.

My understanding of phenomenology shapes my teaching.

In his memorable preface to the Phenomenology of Perception (1945/1962), Merleau-Ponty emphasised the need for philosophers to recognize "that phenomenology can be practised and identified as a manner or style of thinking, that it existed as a movement before arriving at complete awareness of itself as a philosophy" (p. viii). I think Merleau-Ponty would agree that phenomenology is a style not only of thinking but also of attending to experience, and, within the context of psychology and psychotherapy, of acting. Further, he wrote that "We shall find in ourselves, and nowhere else, the unity and true meaning of phenomenology" (p. viii). This implies that phenomenology makes sense and comes alive for us only insofar as we take it up at a personal as well as an intellectual level. Thus, when I teach students about phenomenology, my goal is to help them appropriate it as an attitude, a way of seeing and thinking, and as a practice they connect with on a personal basis rather than just as a theoretical perspective. In highlighting experience I am referring not only to what the research students do to get experience, but also to our collective reflection on experience as a source of understanding. This emphasis on the experiential is both tricky and necessary, given the tendency in much of higher education, and in Western societies in general, to overlook or devalue experience. Moreover, this tendency is interconnected with, and aggravated by, the increasingly frenetic pace of our lives. But here I am getting ahead of myself.

I believe that phenomenology makes sense intuitively even though much of its language is esoteric (Halling, 2008). Appeals to experience as evidence, and calls for a return to the lifeworld (that which we have in common), are recurring threads in the work of phenomenologists such as Edmund Husserl, Gabriel Marcel, J. H. van den Berg, and, of course, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. It is precisely in respect of experience that phenomenological and traditional psychology part ways. Although fully in agreement about the importance of moving beyond conventional wisdom or common sense, they differ about where one goes when one moves "beyond". Phenomenology deepens our appreciation for the depth and nuances of experience, whereas traditional psychology, in giving priority to theory and technique over experience, fosters an overvaluation of technical expertise (Halling, 2002).

Finally, there is a pedagogical assumption that plays a key role in my teaching, and that is that theory and practice are two inextricably linked facets of human life. Our actions are based on what we believe, and what we believe is shaped by our experience and the traditions in which we are rooted as persons, students, and professionals. In turn, what we experience gives rise to changes in our theory: that is, our general assumptions and beliefs. Our practice can be improved as we look at theories that give us direction and help us to see things in a new way, and our theories can be improved as we learn from our practice. In my experience, the most meaningful questions arise for students as they engage in projects and other forms of activity. …

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