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The Affect of Interest: Finding the Freedom to Enjoy Learning

Photo by Riley Nelson

As a graduate student and writing instructor, I’m almost ashamed to admit that the tapestry of my own academic past is pockmarked by boredom and disengagement. I’ve sat through more than one or two classes, chin in hand, half-listening to the drone of lecture and discussion, half-imagining I’m somewhere else doing almost anything else. Then would come that bite of guilt when I’d hear an enthusiastic comment from a classmate or watch my professor’s face light up when they talked about such and such text or concept. How could I feel bored when clearly there was something here engaging someone else?

For a long time, I was convinced that it must be the way it was being taught that was the issue—it just didn’t jive with how I learned best. And while part of me still believes that how we teach and how we learn can decrease or increase engagement, I learned that that wasn’t the whole truth.

Spring 2019 found me in the UK, a study abroad student traveling around Great Britain for almost two months. It was a dream come true. I had had my eye on the program for six years, and I was finally going. It was my last term as an undergraduate student, and it would be the best—I was sure that it would make up for all those classes that just hadn’t resonated with me.

But then something odd happened. Trudging through one of the greatest museums in the world—the British Museum, tag-lined “Discover two million years of human history and culture”—I started to feel a bit like a glossy-feathered duck. All that wonder and curiosity drifting around slid right off me. While a few things caught my attention—a clock disguised as an automaton-ship and the crumbling remnants of the Parthenon’s pediments—my overall interest in the museum somehow evaporated. So I turned to being perfunctory. Pace to the next glass case. Run my eyes over the plaque about context and significance. Nod appreciatively. Think of something intellectual and insightful to say to my peers I was touring with. Quash the suddenly all-consuming need to yawn. Try not to let my eyes glaze over. It felt all too familiar, too akin to what I thought I had gotten away from when I left the traditional classroom.

I’ve always been what my report cards told my parents was “a model student.” And as I enacted that label, I had my eye next on becoming the model intellectual, the model scholar. I thought myself into believing that to be that model and the lifelong learner my university said my education should make me, I needed to act in certain ways, say certain things, and always be intellectual regardless of the artifact I encountered. So I shouldered that role. But my experience in the British Museum made me realize that I was missing something. Maybe I had looked like a “model intellectual” on the outside, but inside, I was fighting to care at all.

By the end of the program, after visiting dozens of museums and historical sites around the UK, I’d made a decision. I wasn’t going to feign interest anymore to keep up with what I thought a model scholar looked like. Regardless of the pressure I felt from group conformity, from my professors’ and peers’ interests and opinions, and especially from myself, I decided that if I was going to have a meaningful, enjoyable experience, it would be on my terms.

That’s why when I returned to London at the end of the program—I had scheduled an extra day just for myself—I conducted a self-guided, unconventional tour of the National Gallery. I had one standard: if it did not pique my interest within ten seconds of looking at it, ten seconds was all it was going to get. It was one of the most liberating experiences of my life. I sailed from room to room, doubled back, ignored the continuity suggestions in labels and signposts, spent some 15 minutes soaking in one canvas of a seven-part series representing the liberal arts.

Dozens of world-famous works got ten seconds or less of my time, but I refused to feel guilty for that. I didn’t ask myself to appreciate all of the museum because I thought that was what a real academic or a real intellectual would do. I allowed myself to accept my limited, but nonetheless real, interest. When I left the museum, I felt refreshed, not bogged down or like I needed to escape. Far from feeling that I hadn’t taken full advantage, I reveled in knowing that despite nearly six years of putting my nose to the academic grindstone, there was still art in the world that I could look at and enjoy and find beautiful without having to tell myself that someone else believed it was beautiful and therefore I must try to see and understand that beauty too.

I learned that day in the National Gallery that maybe lifelong learning isn’t born of analyzing every text or studying every canvas. Maybe it isn’t about professing interest in and having something to say about everything. Maybe I had misunderstood what made a “model” learner vibrant and engaged and fascinated with their artifact or experience. My experience over the course of the program and especially during that day in London have led me to believe that lifelong learning might be much simpler than I had thought. Maybe it’s just a willingness to follow where my interest and curiosity leads. From there, trust that interest to take me from one step to the next to the next. And maybe when I allow myself to let go of the expectations and external motivations tangled up in formal education, I can find that freedom and joy in learning I’ve been looking for all along.