Vol. 15 : No. 4
The Writings of Guy Bensusan
A wonderful, humorous, innovative learning experience!
One of the most memorable teaching episodes I've ever had came not as a result of my careful planning, but by chance. Something spontaneous happened, taking us in a different direction: an incident I still treasure from July of 1980 off the coast of Panama. We were in the third week of a Lifelong-Learning Caribbean voyage on Semester-at-Sea's floating university, the S. S. Universe. Three hundred and fifty senior citizen students attended shipboard lectures on Oceanography, Geopolitics, Caribbean Trade, and Arts and Culture. Our itinerary took us from Florida to Yucatan, Guatemala and Costa Rica. We had stopped at Cartagena, Colombia before going to Panama, and would go through the Canal and on to Central America and Mexico.
As arts and culture historian, I truly loved Cartagena, exploring the old city's colonial fortress, where soldiers' quarters along the walls had been turned into curio shops. Interested in folk music and instruments, I was about to negotiate for a flute and drum, when I noticed a spectacular set of colorful cloth rectangles that had been stitched onto a large, black caftan, one-size-fits-all. It was so stunning that I talked myself into buying it as an example of the Kuna folk art, which I would be giving a lecture on later. The intricately layered scarlet and yellow decorations were called "molas," and I had never seen them used this way before.
Leaving Cartagena, my immediate job was to prepare our passengers for the San Blas Islands. We would be going ashore there, visiting with Kuna Indians and purchase some of their molas. My lecture would have four purposes:
1. to explain the history of Panama Indians and their five-century-long relationship with Spaniards, Panamanians and Canal Zonies;
2. to describe the particular tribal situation of the Kuna group we would visit and how mola-making fits into their lives;
3. to discuss molas from an artistic and aesthetic point of view -- how they were made, how they had evolved through history and how they rapidly changed with the new conditions that accompanied marketing and tourism;
4. to suggest some practical guidelines to help them buy good quality molas.
Having done this on prior voyages, I already had my outline pretty well planned, but things changed that evening. In the ship's lounge I displayed my afternoon's purchases to several friends, telling them that the mola caftan, mola purse, mola shopping bag, and mola business-card case would be used to create a show-and-tell about current Mola Marketing.
Someone said, "Why not wear the dress? It would be very funny and most effective." Although obviously younger and beardless at the time, I still had my doubts, since some of the passengers, my professional colleagues included, might be put off, even offended -- after all, "academics is serious stuff."
But when my good buddies assured me it would be enjoyable and that no one would be miffed if I wore the folk-art caftan, I agreed, and actually looked forward to the charade. When I told the Dean of the academic program what was being concocted, he agreed it would be fun, too.
We were already underway for Panama when the gang came to my cabin next morning, one of them bringing her make-up-kit! The three of them proceeded to "assemble" me with brown wig, eye shadow, false eyelashes, rouge, abundant lipstick, and dangly earrings. In caftan and purse I looked pretty authentic, so they said. But when I looked in the mirror all I saw was hairy arms hanging down and big feet sticking out from underneath. I told myself it would all be over in two minutes and we'd all have a hearty laugh.
Ascending the stairs to the lecture hall with dignity, I was passed by many of the students who smiled and nodded, commenting on my lovely dress. I smiled and nodded, too, happy they were "playing along." Dean George approached the microphone to announce the change in the lecture schedule; "Dr. Bensusan has graciously yielded his lecture time this morning for a special event. We are privileged to have an honored and learned guest who flew in to join us last night in Cartagena. She travels with us today, returning to her Kuna Island home and will talk with us about her people. When we get to the islands later in the day, she will also personally guide our visit and help us in our shopping. Please give a cordial welcome to Doña Isabella da Souza!"
A few groans and scattered, polite applause were audible, while three or four men actually got up and walked out. I remember feeling a bit hurt, even wanting to call them back: it was not a bright beginning. I took a deep breath, stretched my lips into a toothy smile, and started down the aisle. Everybody craned their necks while I minced along, trying to fulfill my own image of femininity, smiling and nodding, blinking my big eyelashes slowly and deliberately. My plan was to arrive at the speaker's microphone, posture a bit, remove my wig with a flourish, shout "April Fool," and get on with the lecture.
It didn't happen that way. Ladies along the aisle groped at me to feel the mola dress, and ooooh and aaaah. That slowed me down, but also stimulated the photographers. Cameras flashed by the score as people called out, "Oh, Doña Isabel, look this way, please, and smile, thank you." Seeing Dean George and the four friends who had decorated me at one of the tables, I sashayed over to pose and curtsy. The spotlight enveloped them as they struggled hard not to give me away with their suppressed giggles.
By then I was enjoying myself. I crossed to the other side of the salon and modeled and postured there, too. More camera flashes and a growing round of applause greeted my various attempts at feminine gestures. As the attention increased, my dilemma registered. The little voice inside my head was shouting, even screaming: "OH MY GOD, THEY DON'T RECOGNIZE ME! WHAT THE HELL DO I DO NOW?"
Options flooded my mind: I could simply reveal it all right now; I could start with the scam and then return to my normal voice; I could slowly strip off one earring at a time and then the false eyelashes; I could lift the caftan up a bit to reveal the cowboy boots that I was well-known for wearing, and so on. My professional inhibitions were wrestling with and losing out to my personal love of theater. Common sense told me there was no graceful way out, but the moments seemed eternal.
In my limbo of indecision, the Taiwanese barman, Lee, held the microphone out to me. He grinned slyly and his eyes twinkled as he saluted me. He knew what was going on, even if the audience didn't! He spoke very little English but he was big on perception, and certainly seemed to be loving every minute, expecting me to get on with the show. That did it. I cleared my throat, filled my lungs, elevated my voice from baritone to mezzo, and began with my own version of Hispanified-Americanese, "WALCUM TU MAI CONTREE."
The audience was mine from then on, hanging on my every word and question. I talked about Panama's pre-conquest Indians, and asked what they had learned about the arrival of the Spaniards, the establishment of the colony and the formalizing of the silver trade from that well-known Caribbean historian, Dr. Guy Bensusan. (They showed themselves to be quite capable as students of Panama's history.)
We discussed early European-Indian relations and the various treaties that had been signed. Using a big map, I pointed and gestured with hairy arms: analyzing the incursions of Francis Drake, the buccaneers, Henry Morgan, and Spanish efforts to mobilize Indian forces against the intruders.
I told about building the railroad in 1849, the development of Colombian national policies, the seizure of Panama and our US development of the canal, plus the significant economic and social influences deriving from modern times -- all in falsetto Spanglish accent!
The audience was marvelous: enthusiastic listeners, insatiable for details, asking solid questions, and complimentary both of my historical information and of my command of English phraseology. We went right through the scheduled coffee-break, and I moved along to deal with the molas as art and culture. Pointing out the window to the shore that was beginning to appear, I told them they would soon be at my home, so we moved to discussed how molas had begun as designs painted on bodies, how they later had become "clothing" after the Spaniards arrived, and how they were further modified by Protestant missionaries after the Canal was built.
I explained how molas were made, discussing the forms and techniques of appliqué and reverse-appliqué. We talked about different kinds of stitching, the history of the styles, and the evolution of the graphics. We explained about the addition of embroidery as part of the visual picture, about the changing resources for obtaining cloth, and of the arrival of Honda generators to power sewing machines. I hurried as fast as possible -- we were already in San Blas bay.
My finale was the problem, bringing the lecture to a conclusion with some measure of finesse and elegance. They still had endless questions, "How will I know if the mola I want to buy is a good one?" I described the traditional ritual of bargaining for purchase if one was ashore on an island, then explained my five rules for being happy with the mola you bought, that is, fine stitching, parallel cuts and folds, many layers, well-balanced design and intricacy of the cut-outs -- plus the buyer needing to like it, to feel good about it.
Then it happened; a woman suddenly asked, "Doña Isabella, I once read that Kuna women have all their hair cut off when they reach puberty and from then on must keep their heads covered. Is that true?" My reprieve had finally arrived! I had been shaving my head for twenty years, so I answered, as straight-faced as I could, "Oh, yes, we do" -- and I reached up and peeled off my wig!
There was UTTER silence. Directly in front of me, not ten feet away, sat a dear friend, an artist who had worked closely with me for years. She turned to her husband and said in a voice which permeated the entire salon, "It is true, Walt, they do cut their hair off!" As well as she knew me, she did not recognize she had been listening to Guy Bensusan and not Doña Isabella da Souza!
The salon suddenly erupted, mature composures disintegrating; the people who had been so serious whooped and howled, doubled over in convulsions. I had been found out! It was pandemonium for several minutes. Not knowing what to do, I just stood there. People wanted to take more pictures, so I had to put the wig back on, which smeared the makeup.
One of the men came up to me, so I hugged him and kissed him on both cheeks. That caused another uproar. I smiled and bowed and smiled some more. People came over and wagged their fingers at me, saying, "Naughty, naughty, you deceived us." Those who had earlier walked out now came running back, scolding me for having allowed them to miss it!
At that moment, the S. S. Universe tooted three long blasts signaling the Kuna chief that we had arrived at our prescribed anchorage, and he should come over and negotiate the day's trading-and-landing rules. Everyone ran out on deck to see, and I was left alone. Lee was grinning and handed me a tall scotch that he had poured. I smiled back, but noticed how my hands, arms and body were shaking when I reached for the glass. What fantastic rushes of feeling -- an emotional pinnacle. I was soaked with sweat, black mascara dripping, and yet exhilarated: pleased it had gone so well, surprised that it had worked, and profoundly grateful it was over.
I went to my cabin, took a hot shower, changed clothes and went to lunch. Sitting with my scam-buddies, I learned a lot. They had seated themselves to be able to watch the audience, and now they regaled me with observations. All through lunch we discussed the whole spectrum of audience psychology, crowd manipulation, and the fact that everyone accepted what Dean George had announced. As teacher, it intrigued me. I did not sound like a woman, I did not walk or behave like a woman -- I certainly didn't look like a woman.
Yet, when the professorial master of ceremonies had introduced this Panamanian female culture "expert" to the audience, that is who they saw and accepted. BELIEVING IS SEEING -- if you are pre-conditioned to expect something, that is what you will see. The mindset will nullify and override what the eyes and ears are actually telling you. The lecturer's performance had been a giant fraud. The audience had been led to accept untruths through manipulations that established credibility for the substitute. It was a classic example of BAIT AND SWITCH.
As we talked about the crucial initial minutes of the introduction, the whole set- up for directing the audience's thinking became obvious.
First assumption: an authoritative figure had laid the foundation by formally announcing the Special Event. It was automatically accepted, since there was nothing unreasonable or unusual about the idea; we had listened to several previous guest speakers. Moreover, it was Dean George who had given us this information; he was a reliable, scholar-administrator and would never bring in any old person off the street.
Second assumption; if the regular professor they listened to every morning was voluntarily stepping aside for this guest; she had to be someone special. The regular speaker gave solid lectures each time, the whole program had received good evaluations, earlier guests had been excellent -- this one should be good, too.
Third assumption; Dean George's brief words of introduction had actually been a glittering testimonial. He had said she was an honored and learned ship's guest. She'd been especially flown in, and was a Kuna native, too. She was giving a personally guided tour. WOW! This was a SPECIAL EVENT, and they needed to pay close attention! As a result, everyone, or nearly everyone in the audience had been given the hint to sharpen their concentration.
Fourth assumption: when the strange-looking expert appeared, attired in what seemed an authentic costume, and when other members of the audience showed approval, that clinched it. The ooohing and aaaahing, taking dozens of flash pictures and zealous applause, triggered the crowd psychology. The vast majority either eagerly hopped on the bandwagon or was sucked into it because everyone was going along and they didn't want to be left out.
Doña Isabella had simply put the frosting on the cake. She sounded appropriately "foreign," knew her stuff, lectured proficiently, covered a variety of topics from international relations to art, handled questions well. It was a classic con -- though a positive, beneficial and constructive one.
After lunch, the passengers went ashore. I went for a while but, feeling tired, came back shortly and rested by the pool. An hour later people began returning to the ship after their mola-adventures, and for the rest of the afternoon I learned the effects of Doña Isabella's lecture.
The passengers sought me out to show me exactly what they had bought and why. I was shown hundreds of molas and listened to each person's explanation of why they had chosen to buy that particular one. I talked with them about their assessment of the stitching, the doubling-over of the layers of cloth, the designs, the colors, the specific function of the embroidery, and so on. It was intriguing how every one of them had to tell me their private and individual stories.
By teatime I was pooped, and went down for another shower. While the steaming water pounded my back and head, the day's events became clear in my mind; these people were doing what they had to do: they had taken it all in, and now they had to get it all out. They had done their assignments and come back (figuratively) to perform on a TEST. Those senior-citizen-passenger-students were undergoing the normal cycle of teaching-learning-testing. Since the professor had not created an examination for them, they were devising their own through feedback. It was archetypal.
Except for the few who walked out, all had received the same informational presentation in the morning. Then they went to the Kuna village, doing their observational homework with their individual case studies. Now they were reassembling with an extensive evaluation of what each had personally learned. Each instance of show-and-tell with their molas constituted their "debriefing," the feedback from student to the teacher.
They were like the kids at the swimming school, they wanted to show teacher what they had learned and done. Even though these were senior citizens who were NOT enrolled in a university course for credit and who did NOT have to take formal examinations, they were all displaying what could be called standard student behavior.
I had simply presumed that examinations were unnecessary because we had not been in the ordinary institutional setting. Now it was obvious that since the students had been accumulating learnings until they had become filled up with them, they eventually had to do something with them. They had to distribute, disseminate, give-it-back, in order to get gratification from their efforts. They had done the work, now they needed their payoff, their reward.
This surprised me. Through all my teaching years, it had never occurred to me that students NEEDED TO get rid of what they had gathered and processed. So I went back on deck and asked questions, drawing them out. Every person had ideas and anecdotes; each one wanted to tell about the new experiences they encountered. Excited, they all talked at the same time, and if they weren't getting enough attention from me they started telling each other. As I looked around, I saw dozens of small groups all doing the same thing, bent over the tables examining everyone's molas, talking and pointing.
What impressed me most was how much they knew and had remembered from the specific information I had presented during those three hours that morning. Lecture, by itself, is usually inefficient in imparting information. It tends to be too highly concentrated, too vocabulary-laden, too alien and unfamiliar, too unconnected with the listener's reality of the moment, and probably out of touch with the listener's personal learning style and agenda. And it is the listener, after all, who has to understand the message -- that is what communication is about.
Studies suggest audiences remember about ten percent of the information stated in a lecture. Higher rates require additional stimuli, so that when the lecturer uses maps, verses, slides, posters, films, music, costume, enactments, colors, artifacts, and demonstrations, there is substantial increase in the knowledge transfer -- up to perhaps as much as thirty-five percent.
My guess is that I was observing a retention rate in the seventies! Even considering that the students were Adult Learners and were self-motivated, that acquisition seemed high. Was it a fluke? Or was there something educational to be learned here? Since many of the people on board were teachers, we analyzed it for the remainder of the trip.
INTERACTION: One of the significant factors appears to have been the element of interaction, that is, dialogue between the teacher and the student, or even among the students. In a normal lecture the teacher delivers the entire presentation and then has a period for questions; the atmosphere is more formal, and interrupting the professor is generally regarded as impolite. When I think back to the early days of that voyage, Professor Bensusan did not get many questions during his lectures, but the audience was constantly asking Doña Isabella, who didn't have a doctorate, very specific things, and each response seemed to evoke another query. Thus, interaction was extensive, as well as responsive to the interest agenda of the listeners.
MEMORABLE EVENT: Next was the element of a memorable event. We had done something unusual and thereby attracted notice. We broke up the normal routine, upsetting the established expectations, which also focused attention on the event. A few of the passengers groaned and walked out, contributing to noteworthy-ness. So was the announcement of the Special Ship's Guest Speaker, while the Distinctive Delivery Device was a colorful, theatrical, chubby "gal" with an accent that was understandable, but required attentive listening. Finally, the show-and-tell artifacts were spectacular and multicolored, and the atmosphere of "Being There" on the ship entering the bay made it a very special and unforgettable on-location situation.
EMOTIONAL INVOLVEMENT: There was, furthermore, the emotional involvement. The audience had been intellectually engrossed for almost three hours and, at the very end, was stunned into extraordinary hilarity. Many of them talked about it for the rest of the voyage, continuing to erupt with spontaneous laughter. A lot of people called it the high point of their summer. Here was the emotional element, the shared excitement that linked all the people together into a community of Mola Manics or Maniacs, as you prefer.
HANDS-ON FIELD TRIP: Immediately after the event, they went into what we might call the direct participation of a field trip. They went from the abstract to the concrete, from the intangible to the extremely material. During the lecture they were in verbal discussion of concepts and principles, and then, with the words still fresh in their minds they went directly into the doing, the touching, feeling and examining of the very things they had just been hearing about.
The field trip was genuine, real, alive. It wasn't a museum or an archaeological site or a room on a college campus housing a collection of objects. It was an island in a bay, a place where actual people lived their lives. In order to get there the students had to walk down the ship's external stairway and carefully step aboard one of the motorized tenders that was moored to our ship, still rising and falling on its own. After a short trip to shore, surrounded by canoes full of Kuna people speaking their own language and selling their wares, the students went ashore on a Kuna island.
Our passengers may have thought in terms of we-and-they but they also walked about as an interactive study group, invited to look into the huts, seeing the way life was lived, observing juxtapositions of radio and television with the cooking on an open hearth and sleeping in hammocks in thatched huts. Throughout the experience they discussed it with each other. They experienced and comprehended an organic context in which the molas had meaning in human terms and were not merely disconnected artifacts of art.
They had gone through a significant group experience of shopping for molas. Nearly everyone wanted to buy one, and while there were enough molas on the island for every person to have bought three or four, there was also the factor of the students collaborating in bunches. There was competition when several students wanted the same mola and they had to work that out among themselves. But far more important was the fact that they really looked, examined and exchanged ideas.
They inspected each other's molas as they were shopping and commented on and argued about all the components we had discussed during the morning's lecture. "Oh, look, see how the stitches in this one are closer together than in that one? This design has a symmetrical pattern whereas that one shows animals. This one has five layers of cloth in reverse-appliqué, while that one only has two layers plus some appliqués sewn on top."
They did these things all afternoon; several heads were better than one.
They shared their knowledge and observations; no wonder they learned! Finally, they had come back to the ship like bottles of champagne. They had gone out to hunt treasures, found them and were now bringing them back to show. Each one of those students had something to say. Each one of them had paid the tuition and, by jiminy, everybody was going to get their fair share of the teacher's ear!
It was a long afternoon and evening, but it was fascinating and exhilarating. When I relaxed and really paid attention to what each of those exuberant seniors had to say about their personal acquisitions, I found the passengers were teaching me. They had each examined dozens of molas and had spotted all sorts of things to talk about. Each person had something different to say. Each one organized his or her presentation to me in a way that was specific and relevant to the actual mola that had been purchased.
There was no choral litany of memorized terminology. Instead, I was hearing individual adults explain and justify their purchases through reference to their own established "taxonomies" of aesthetic and technical criteria, tempered by their own personal sense of taste and sets of likes and dislikes. They took away from their island experience a sense of accomplishment and success, having acquired what each of them personally wanted and needed, and knowing why!
I received more than two hundred Christmas cards from the Mola Mania Gang that year. They mentioned their personal molas; some sent photographs and magazine articles, while others wrote about additional folk-art ideas and information they had since learned. Fifteen years later I still hear from and occasionally see a few. When we talk about molas, they discuss them with ease and depth. It still amazes me how, through pure and unplanned coincidence, all of the finest elements of a successful learning process came together.
Every now and then someone asks me for an encore, but I decline; the dress is gone, I now wear a full gray beard and have a gray fringe topside since I stopped shaving my head -- the finale clearly would not achieve the same effect. However, to revive that long-ago moment, all I have to do is look at my living room wall where two dozen varied molas hang, radiating beauty, wonder, inspiration, and a fabulous, pleasure-filled, meaningful nostalgia.