Teaching Behind a Curtain – Part 1

The Greek philosopher, mathematician, and scientist Pythagoras had an unusual approach to teaching. Concerned that his physical presence and gestures would distract his students from the message of his lessons, Pythagoras taught from behind a curtain. While this approach no doubt challenged the efficacy of students raising their hands when they had questions, it did create the concept of the acousmatic voice, a voice that one hears without seeing its cause or source.

While Pythagoras is most famous for the mathematical theorem bearing the adjectival form of his name, I want to spend a moment considering his teaching style. This year’s Southeastern Writing Center Association (SWCA) conference declared, “Welcome to Today’s Multimodal Writing Center.” As I discussed in previous blog posts, the conference asked participants to consider the ways in which new and traditional, namely print, media interact in modern writing instruction. In addition to the conference, collections such as The Routledge Reader on Writing Centers and New Media and Writing New Media: Theory and Applications for Expanding the Teaching of Composition ask us to mobilize the new media possibilities of the twenty-first century.

In this blog post, I want to consider what lesson the Pythagorean acousmatic voice can teach writing center practitioners in our current multimedia moment.

Pythagoras made a heuristic choice, a decision to change his approach in an attempt to convey his message more clearly. He sought to remove visual stimuli in order to have his students focus on his voice. I like to imagine him reflecting on a particular lesson and work-shopping teaching approaches with Hippocrates and Aristotle (please don’t Google to see whether or not Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Pythagoras were alive at the same time). After all, part of multimodal instruction should be discovering which modes are most effective. One could say that Pythagoras winnowed down his multimodal lessons in order to prioritize aural learning.

While the image of a instructor talking to his students from a behind a curtain might make one recall The Wizard of Oz, I could not help but think of the modern versions of his curtain. The challenge of finding successful modes of instruction and choosing the appropriate one to connect with a student or a group of students still remains today. To borrow language from Jay David Bolter and David Grusin, the curtain has not gone away, but rather has been remediated.

In my next post, I will examine online appointments and other multimedia versions of Pythagoras’s curtain . . .

2 thoughts on “Teaching Behind a Curtain – Part 1

Add yours

  1. I had no idea that Pythagoras taught behind a curtain! You have interesting insights into how his teaching style can inform our own profession! I look forward to your next blog post on this subject.

    Liked by 1 person

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