Wow Journal: a classroom activity that landed in the right place, at the right time.
It’s September 11, 2001, and I am teaching at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. It’s the fourth week of term, so the 25 students in my 11:00 am Introduction to Philosophy class already know that something crazy happened in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington DC. An Iranian-American student says to the class, “My mother is a flight attendant for American Airlines. Sometimes she’s assigned to the eastern corridor routes. I hope we hear from her soon.” A white Southern student says, “I’m here on an ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) scholarship. I hope I don’t get called up for military service.” There’s not much I can do, and not much the students can do, except listen to our classmates’ fears.
Wow Journal: A Ritual
Fortunately, supportive listening is already part of this class’s group ethos. We are four weeks into our WOW Journal activity. This is my first use of the WOW Journal in a philosophy course. My mentor Rabbi Marcia Prager told me she sometimes asks twelve year old bar and bat mitzvah students to keep one. Spirituality, Prager believes, is a conscious practice of wonder. Well, I believe, along with Plato, that philosophy is also a conscious practice of wonder, explored through dialogue. So, I adapted Prager’s WOW Journal into a group experience.
I asked students to write one page a week about an experience that makes them say “WOW!,” and sign up for a date to read or talk about one entry. We devoted 20 minutes of each 90 minute class to the WOW journal. We always approached it in the exact same way. One student would read, and I would call on three students to comment out loud. A second student would read, and three others would comment. A third student would read, and three would comment. Then, I would invite everyone in the class to write a personal comment for one of the readers, and hand it to them before leaving the classroom. This final moment of empathic writing was what Lawrence Hoffman would call the “ritual moment,” the emotional high point of a ritual script.
Wow Journal Inspires Friendship
The process was the same, but the content was always different. Sometimes students read entries about happy experiences, like hearing a concert by the ocean at sunset. But, more often, students read entries about painful memories: witnessing a murder, or growing up as a refugee in a country at war. UNC Charlotte students were used to learning on a racially and ethnically diverse campus. But this term was different. Many students on military scholarships did indeed withdraw from classes for deployment in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some angry American students did indeed attack foreign students. But our classroom was a bit of an oasis, where students formed new international friendships, laughing and learning together.
The WOW Journal activity surprised me. Initially, I had hoped to inspire individual students to shift their own ways of perceiving the world. I assumed each student would notice some wondrous things about the world. And, when they read from their journal, they would point out new things for fellow students to notice. I did not predict the intersubjective effect, that is, a shift in the class’s perception of itself as a group. Nor did I predict the power of the activity to inspire friendship. In retrospect, however, I understand two factors were at work. One, the sharing gave students an opportunity to visit one another’s life worlds without prejudice. And, as propaganda and suspicion increased around them, they yearned for this special time. Two, the structure offered students a safe ritual container for their visits. Both of these factors became a foundation for creating friendships.
Meeting Across Life-Worlds
The lebenswelt, or “life-world” became a popular idea through the work of philosopher Edmund Husserl. Philosopher Maria Lugones deepens Husserl’s analysis of the life-world, and she adds an ethical dimension. Lugones defines a “world” as a set of social and cultural relationships. Most people, she says, are part of multiple social circles, such as family, work, and school. Each circle has its own ethos. And, in each circle, we play a different role. Thus, in our lives, we travel between different worlds. If we are members of a non-dominant sub-culture, the different worlds we visit may be dramatically different. And we may not always be at ease in those.
In different “worlds,” we see from different perspectives. But that experience does not intuitively teach us empathy, as Husserl imagines it does. Often, our default is “arrogant perception,” seeing others only through the lens of our own “worlds.” To achieve “loving perception,” we must, as Husserl says, “bracket off” our usual focus. We must travel, without arrogance, to other people’s worlds. We must be open to learning how others see themselves in various worlds. Why we would choose to do that? Ideally out of friendship, a reciprocity of care and understanding, or an obligation to right wrongs.
Wow Journal: Taking a Risk
I think about the students who shared their WOW journals in my class. They opened their worlds, and invited class members to travel in. Some took risks, not knowing if classmates would see them through arrogant or loving perception. A Black student chose to share about seeing a friend get shot. She wanted support from classmates as she recounted something that shocked her. But, with this story, she took a chance. Would some white students respond with arrogant perception? And see in her journal reading a confirmation of the worse racist stereotypes of violent, disorderly Black Americans? Or would all students respond with loving perception, and see her as she saw herself, a grieving friend? The class chose to perceive with love—as the student reported after reading her classmates’ personal comments.
A Vietnamese student read a journal entry about his family’s dangerous journeys. He, too, took a chance. What would classmates think about this normally quiet student telling such a personal story? Would it be safe to step outside the cultural persona of a hardworking, stoic new immigrant to say, “Yes it was incredibly hard and my parents are deeply scarred”? Would classmates try to distance themselves from the pain using arrogant perception? Or would they listen with loving perception, seeing this burdened, dutiful, and resilient son as he saw himself? This time, too, they chose loving perception.
Ritual for Making Relatives
Indigenous and Native American teachers say that ritual has a tremendous power to bring people together into relationship. As Ray Aldred writes, a treaty process is a ceremony that brings people into proper relatedness. The spiritual teacher Black Elk describes treaty-making as one of seven sacred rites gifted to humanity by Wakan-Tanka, the Great Spirit. In a teaching recorded by Joseph Epes Brown, Black Elk tells the story of the Sioux and Ree people becoming one family through the wisdom of the Sioux sage, Matoshohila.
One day, Matoshohila, moved by a profound vision, found some corn and brought it back to his people. He learned that the patch of corn belonged to the Ree people, when they sent messengers asking for the corn’s return. Matoshohila then understood that his vision pointed beyond corn to the making of new relatives. He proposed a ceremony, led by representatives of the two people. The ceremony began with two days of ritual in which Sioux and Ree leaders set up sacred spaces, exchanged gifts of sacred objects, and declared the intent of the gathering. On the third day, everyone gathered for a dramatic play, in which Ree warriors “captured” members of the Sioux nation. Chosen Ree helpers then dressed and painted the “captives” to look like fellow Ree, and introduced them to the crowd. Finally, everyone feasted together as one family.
Wow Journal: Making Relatives
Black Elk’s story of this rite holds much wisdom for understanding my class’s journey together. Without knowing it, we relied on principles taught by Matohoshila. Our class did, in a sense, become relatives. In a world where these young adults were encouraged to misunderstand each other, they chose a different route. They did not literally wear one another’s clothes, but they did metaphorically walk in one another’s shoes. They did not literally enter each other’s tents, but they did travel in thought and feeling to one another’s worlds. During WOW journal sharing time, they were their own unique community.
But we did not ever leap into this new relation. At each class meeting, we set up our spiritual space carefully. We followed a kind of protocol, defined by Aldred as “how we approach one another and hold and care for one another in a respectful manner.” Before each sharing, students waited patiently as I explained the instructions yet again. We all understood that the instructions were an important part of the ritual. They reminded us what our roles were, and helped us walk together towards the ritual moment of communication.
Prepared for a session on “Religious Reflections on Friendship” at the American Academy of Religion, November 2021