One semester when I was teaching in a small classroom without windows, I complained to my students that the overhead lights were bringing on a migraine. One student, who also suffered from migraines, was sympathetic. She took a flashlight out of her coat pocket and suggested we turn off the lights. (At any given time, my students can usually produce a flashlight, a compass, or a knife.) My head was really bothering me - my vision gets blurry and I can't even read - so I agreed to have class by flashlight. It made sense at the time.
The class was a course in contemporary nature literature, about fifteen students who were mostly seniors; we all knew each other pretty well. The class before, we had been discussing the kind of learning that takes place in the classroom versus the kind of learning that happens in a forest, near a stream, or on a mountain. Experimenting with the classroom setup seemed like a good idea. We put the flashlight on the floor in the middle of the room and circled around it like it was a campfire.
Turning out all the lights did change the classroom dynamics. It was strange to not be able to see anyone's face. I admit, even though I had been teaching for years and we were talking about a text that I knew very well, I had a moment of panic at the thought that I could not look at my notes or even the text. I realized how dependent I was on reading quotes from the text, to articulating some kind of close reading to make my larger points. Unable to see my book, I moved more quickly to the overarching themes in the piece we were discussing, which happened to be the epilogue of Terry Tempest Williams' book Refuge, a piece that connects the high incidence of breast cancer in Mormon women in Utah to atomic testing in the desert.
What surprised us all, though, is how the quality of the discussion changed. I talked less, because of course, I couldn't see my notes. Protected by the darkness, the quietest students - the ones who don't usually talk unless they have to -- spoke up. The discussion got intense very quickly. Students talked about their own fears of cancer. They connected the text to larger cultural issues. The discussion was more personal than usual, more serious. Silences felt comfortable.
At the end of the class, we talked about how what it had been like to have class by flashlight. My students talked about how intimate discussions can be around a campfire and how much more willing people are to speak up when you can't see their faces.