I’m trying (and, for lack of time, usually failing) to use this blog as a public notebook, much like the countless paper ones I carry around for jotting down ideas to explore more later.

So here’s a quick note. I’ve been trying to find ways to make what’s intuitive about phenomenology clear for students, despite the impenetrable writing of many phenomenologists. (For that reason, I’m very excited about my friend Sam Rocha‘s book Folk Phenomenology, which I’ll likely read over the winter break. This exercise was inspired by one he does, although by the time I worked from his notes to my lesson plan, it was almost unrecognizable.)

Here’s a quick experiment we did last Thursday that worked. I came into class with about $20 worth of Smarties (the Canadian kind, not the American kind) and set them prominently on the table. I then ignored them for twenty minutes as I talked about class-related stuff.

My students’ interest was piqued, and I finally explained that today we would be candy phenomenologists. I handed out Smarties to everyone in the class (there are about 80 students, which is why I spent so much), but told them not to eat them yet. I made them start by describing what they looked like, sounded like, and felt like. I told them that as an American, I don’t know anything about Canadian Smarties, and they were aghast. I told them they’d have to describe them to me.

Once they wrote down their descriptions, I told them to eat one at a time, and tell me what they tasted like, again keeping in mind that I didn’t know firsthand.

What made this work, I think, was that the silliness of the exercise allowed them to let down their guard. It was fun, so they were willing to take a risk in what they observed. They were also more open to the act of observing itself. Their curiosity about the prominently displayed but studiously ignored candy put them in the right state of mind, one where they craved an explanation. That craving — that hunger? — opened them up to my explanation of our task, which broke from their expectations of how class should go. I needed to overcome those expectations so they’d be open to something new — a new way of interacting with the world around them, paying attention to the things they’d habitually overlook.

At some point I need to come back to this, but I wanted to write it down so I could use it again in the future.