Autonomy: Another Kind of Pleasure?

After reading a review of Michael Pantalon’s book Instant Influence at Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project blog, I was possessed yet again by the evil Amazon Fairy and ordered the book. (OK, I ordered several books…the UPS truck was already polluting the air, so why not?)  When I pulled it from the box, my first thought was, honestly, “Uh-oh.”  Everything about the cover screamed “Cheesily sensational psychobabble!”  But I recalled something about books and covers and headed off to the beach with the book in tow.

The cover promises a lot: “How to Get Anyone to Do Anything—FAST.” The back flap touts Dr. Pantalon’s impressive credentials, including his faculty position at the Yale School of Medicine.  Since I have a medical background myself, and since I have only eight weeks to teach my students a semester’s worth of anatomy and physiology, I thought I should hear what Dr. P had to say, which turns out to be both entertaining and helpful.

The bottom line: autonomy is precious.  We don’t like being told what to do (think of your response to a particularly irritating demand from administration).  We don’t like being told why someone else thinks we should do something (picture your response to parental nagging during adolescence.)  This much we knew.  As a pediatrician, I often reminded frustrated parents that you can’t make another person, even a very tiny person, eat, sleep, or go to the bathroom.

What I didn’t know is that being paid for something may actually make me less likely to do it.  Or that promising to do something…being 100% sure that I would do it…may put me in the same boat as the person who is 100% sure that she won’t do the same thing.  I won’t spoil the book by telling you more. Dr. P does provide plenty of evidence to support his conclusions, and a step-by-step approach to putting his ideas into action.

So do we need to add a 7th item to our list of pleasures that can be leveraged to enhance learning?  Rather sheepishly, I recalled all my pep talks to students, admonishing them to work harder, to be more careful in their written work, to strive for excellence.  I considered the thinly veiled threats contained in my syllabi. I thought about the alleged remediation, so rarely effective, that I offered struggling students.  And I started to wonder if I might do better.

Just for fun, a friend and I worked through the steps of Instant Influence in a scenario involving her husband and his cell phone. The gentleman refuses to leave his phone on except when he is making a call because he believes that the battery will run down instantly.  This makes my friend crazy, but her pleading “What if I really need to reach you?” and her logical lessons on cell phone function have been ineffective.  How could we leverage his sense of autonomy to get him to leave the phone on?  I’ll spare you the transcript of that conversation, but it was an interesting exercise.

My favorite passage from my favorite book, Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood, describes her parents’ reaction, really a nonreaction, to her finally finding an amoeba under the microscope in her basement lab: “She did not say, but I understood at once, that they had their pursuits (coffee?) and I had mine. She did not say, but I began to understand then, that you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself. I had essentially been handed my own life….My days and nights were my own to plan and fill.” (From An American Childhood, Annie Dillard, Harper Perennial, 1988).

Our students’ lives are their own.  How do we remember this?  How do we use this knowledge?

—Karen

Does the idea of acknowledging students’ autonomy rub you the wrong way?  Does leveraging their sense of autonomy strike you as manipulative?  Tell us what you think.

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One comment on “Autonomy: Another Kind of Pleasure?

  1. Brian says:

    I remember having that Annie Dillard essay in our ENG 101 anthology 7-8 years ago. I like that essay, and she found herself pressed into a place of moving past her parents’ apparent lack of interest in her passion. This requires a step hard to make for any age. It is always costly I think to move past the lack of zeal for our pursuits in those we are attached to.

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