Playing to Learn


Brandon Barker
Lecturer Brandon Barker

In any class of 100 or more students, Brandon Barker, a lecturer in the Department of Folklore, explains, 15 or so students will be wearing baseball caps. Some students will slant the bills of the caps to the side or even to the back. Other students will go with the straight-ahead look, with the bill neatly centered over their foreheads.

“When I ask students why they’re wearing their caps one way, they’ve often never really thought about it,” Barker says. “But when they do, they realize they are wearing their caps in ways that are culturally governed and are a kind of aesthetic performance.”

Questions about culture and creativity are exactly the ones that folklorists, and humanists more generally, consider. “We’re interested in the ways that people exist within cultural traditions but also create their own spaces, their own meaning, inside that. We humans are an aesthetic species and we attend to beauty,” says Barker, even at the level of personal adornment, like baseball caps.

So Barker’s class, COLL-C103, “Embodying the Humanities,” will look at this paradox: "As humans, we are blessed with wonderfully abstract mental abilities—we can create poetry from scratch, for example. At the same time, our abstract abilities are always grounded in the real-world experience of our bodies."

The class will examine how all sorts of people—artists, writers, musicians, children, storytellers, philosophers, religious believers—create ways to understand the world. Barker has just co-authored a book, Folk Illusions: Children, Folklore and Sciences of Perception, which the IU Press will publish next year. His book looks at how young children explore notions of perception, illusion, and reality during playful, traditional activities like wiggling a pencil until it appears to be made of rubber or listening for the sounds of the ocean in a conch shell. Thus, in one section of the course, students will look at perceptual illusions and the science behind them. They will also examine the works of Salvador Dali and M.C. Escher, which explore illusion and the nature of reality.

Because Barker believes that “people are at their best when they’re creating,” he will ask students to undertake projects focused on making and doing throughout the course. So, students may go into the community to collect other examples of children’s play that test the boundaries between the real and the illusory. Or they may create their own maps, pictures, and memes.

In another section, the class will go to the Mathers Museum to look at how people in different cultures have expressed themselves and created meaning through dress (like baseball caps) and bodily adornment. Afterward, students may assemble or even sew their own kinds of dress or adornment.

And Barker and the class will read all kinds of literature, from childhood rhymes to Shakespeare’s sonnets to Harry Potter. And then, of course, they’ll write their own poetry and tell their own stories.

Barker wants students to come away with three insights. “I hope they begin to consciously foreground their embodied experience, as athletes and musicians do,” he says. Barker wrote his dissertation on the pedal steel guitar (which he describes as making the familiar twangy glissando that features in so much American country music). Musicians play the pedal steel guitar with their knees, feet and hands, perfectly illustrating the idea of embodied art.

Second, he says, “I hope students understand the key lesson of folklorists, which is the coming together of universality and particularity. Humans everywhere are very much alike, but we’re also different in very important ways,” he says. That understanding is a useful one no matter which field you go into, from business or advertising to biology or art.

And lastly, Barker says, “I hope that students come away with the understanding that the humanities isn’t only about consumption. The humanities aren’t only about reading poetry or going to a museum. They are also about you—about you creating your own spaces of art and meaning in the world.” He explains that your creation can be as simple as consciously thinking about the frame and about your intended audience when you snap a photo with your phone.

“We can all consume and be happy,” he concludes. “But to be really happy, you have to create.”