Originally published in Inside Higher Ed on December 12, 2014
These days, I find myself in the company of very different students. They live together in a residential and academic support program that was created to help high-functioning students with Asperger’s Syndrome, or students with significant executive function challenges, succeed in college. We provide a level of academic and organizational support that is beyond the capacity of most colleges, and in doing so, allow these often very bright students to take, and pass, classes and ultimately get a college degree and a credential necessary for some of the careers to which they aspire.
They can do many things: solve complex math problems, explain chemistry to anyone who will listen, remember dates of significant world historical events in a manner foreign to most college students who only want to memorize what will be on an exam.
What they can’t do very well is understand my metaphors. They are, most of them, literal thinkers.
“Don’t throw in the towel yet!” I implore Stephen, who is thinking of quitting a club he has joined.
“What towel?” Damn.
“Don’t give up yet. Don’t quit. Give it a few more meetings and see if you like it better.”
I never realized just how much I resort to visual metaphors until I couldn’t use them anymore. I am like a mechanic without a wrench, a hairstylist without a comb, a … you see, this is my problem. I don’t plan these analogies and similes. It just seems to be how my brain works. I come by it naturally, as my mother was the queen of the cliché, the euphemism, the short-phrase-that-put-all-in-perspective.
“Every cloud has a silver lining.” “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” (Yes, teenagers love hearing those responses to heartbreak). My mother knew every aphorism available to English speakers. A well-phrased maxim was her primary child-rearing tool.
Perhaps she would have diversified her portfolio if she’d given birth to an autistic son rather than a daydreaming poet of a daughter. But she didn’t, and now, here I am: in a job where I am often unable to use a tool that has served me so well in my work with students, a linguistic Leatherman, one could say, that I am lost without it (I just did it again, but that was pretty subtle).
“Come on, Robert. Don’t let him get your goat,” I say, trying to mediate between two students unable to be civil to one another.
“My goat?” asked Robert, suddenly sure that his nemesis was stealing yet another object of his.
“Don’t let him…” What? Get the better of you? That’s kind of abstract.
Rattle your cage? Ruffle your feathers? Get on your nerves? I settle on, “Don’t let him make you angry.” The conversation then continues.
My almost-daily moments of realizing my dependence on figurative language, proverbs, metaphors and other abstract notions make me very aware of the challenges my students face in the classroom. So much of teaching involves metaphor, which someone once defined as “using something we know to explain something we don’t know.”
In the rich scholarship of metaphor and meaning, this is more clearly articulated as two domains. One is the “source” domain, from which we draw the metaphorical expression: “Love is a battlefield”; “Life is a carnival.” The source domain is our extant knowledge of a battlefield or a carnival, of things that are concrete, physical. The other domain is the “target” domain, where the metaphor takes us (to an understanding, in these cases, of love and life), to abstract and figurative concepts.
A teacher travels between these domains constantly, and the best teachers take their students there in style. Every academic subject — literature, physics, computer science — relies on metaphors for explanation of complex notions. And sometimes these notions become the source domain themselves. We refer to an organization’s core value as “being in its DNA,” or a deeply held belief as being part of someone’s “genetic code.”
In their book Metaphors We Live By, authors George Lakoff and Mark Johnson write of the “conceptual metaphor” and its importance in cognition. Metaphors influence not just how we think, but how we feel and act. If, for example, a group of employees is placed into two “teams” and asked to “swing for the fences” toward a goal, they may find themselves in a competitive mindset.
If instead, they are asked to work in groups to build a “house,” with different “subcontractors” working toward a common goal, they may approach their work in a more collaborative fashion. A simple comment like, “Hey, we’re all in the same boat here” works to inspire a group of people because they instantly, with no effort, flash to the image of themselves in a boat with their co-workers and then quickly grasp what the boss is saying: we’re in this work together. Metaphors, and our individual and collective ability to grasp them, hold great persuasive power in our learning and working environments.
So when I imagine my students in a typical classroom, with a talented professor zooming between and among metaphors, I see looks on their faces similar to the ones I’ve seen when I’ve said things like, “This is a gut-check moment,” or “Give it a whirl”: bewilderment followed by defeat.
When everyone in the classroom seems to get what the professor has said except you, it is hard not to be discouraged. Coupled with the cognitive processing speed deficits that are not uncommon among high-functioning autistic students, one can see why their attrition rate is higher than their native intelligence and innate perseverance would predict. I know I’d get frustrated if I were them. It’s very likely I would throw in the towel, or raise a white flag, even.
I find that I do recognize that bewildered expression more quickly these days, and so catch myself almost as soon as the maxim, proverb, aphorism or metaphor is out of my mouth, or I at least announce, “I’m going to make a comparison between two things” (explaining a rule or predicting an action is often very helpful to students on the autism spectrum).
I have come to recognize, too, that some of my students do not have this particular deficit, and that some of them are so quick to use a metaphor to describe something that I need a moment to catch up myself. One afternoon, I watched as some students tossed a brand-new rugby ball belonging to one of them, Shane, in the front yard of the house we occupy. An errant toss landed the ball in the street where a truck quickly crushed it. Shane was good-naturedly bummed about his lost ball; when another staff member came outside moments later, he said to her, “Abbie, my firstborn committed suicide.”
She looked alarmed, then followed his pointing finger to the street where she saw the flattened carcass of the ball on pavement. “It was my first rugby ball, and now it’s gone,” he said, in mock despair. “Shane,” I observed, “to be accurate, it was actually more of an assisted suicide.” He looked at me and for a moment, I thought I had gone one step too far with the metaphor.
“Yeah,” he replied, laughing. “But that’s O.K., since that’s now legal in Vermont.”
As more and more students on the autism spectrum arrive in our classrooms, as accommodations allow more students with nonverbal learning disabilities to succeed enough to land on a college campus, our attention to our own language habits must increase. A few years ago, I might have responded to that request with some resistance. This is how I talk. This is who I am.
But now, spending my days in the company of students who have to work incredibly hard to succeed in a traditional academic setting, even with the appropriate accommodations, I know the onus is on me to add another tool to my toolbox. Exercise some new muscles. Step up my game.
Or maybe just … improve.
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