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Monday, November 22, 2010

On Generosity: Customized book and film club 19-21 November 2010

This past weekend 6 members of wine women and philosophy got together to do one of our wwp weekend options. Four of them had already attended a wwp book and film club...Sharing their adventure with other members at our bi-monthly salon evenings resulted in 2 more women signing on for the experience. Together, they approached us to run a book and film club weekend especially for them. They were keen to build on the philosophical formation that they have all been exposed to at the salon evenings and wanted to use this opportunity to work some of these ideas into our generosity-themed book and film club weekend.

At our book and film club weekends, participants read 3 assigned books before coming. Over the course of our three days together, we watch the films that have been made from these books. We choose female authors from a cross-section of eras and we try to experiment with a range of genres...For example, on this weekend we had a novel, an autobiography and a collective diary on the menu. Books are chosen on the basis that they all speak to a common theme - in this case, we were looking at generosity in pedagogical contexts.

In keeping with the theme, the weekend kicked off with a typical school dinner. As participants tucked into shepherd's pie, stories were exchanged about our individual acts of generosity. Leading on from these, the notion of generosity as a 'female virtue' was discussed. From there we proceeded to the salon to watch our first film: Music of the Heart. Based on the true story of Roberta Guaspari's creation of the East Harlem Violin Program, this inspiring story of a woman bringing music to inner city children set the scene for a weekend full of rigorous insight and lively exchange on everything from balancing generosity in one's vocation with the obligations of one's personal life, to the subtle nuances that underlie our daily acts of giving and taking.

Saturday morning found us looking at some classical and post-structuralist approaches to the 'virtue' of generosity. It also found the cynics amongst us probing those so-called acts of generosity that may produce good results, but are, at their source, of questionable virtue. Armed with ideas on generosity springing from theorists as far ranging as Rene Descartes and Paulo Freire, Frederich Nietszche and Emmanuel Levinas, David Hume and Benedict Spinoza, Aristotle and bell hooks, we struggled to find our own take on generosity and discovered in the process that each of us had a very different sense of what it means to be generous both in a teaching and learning context and in life in general.

This was, as it turned out, the perfect state of mind with which to embark on our second film experience: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie with the indomitable Maggie Smith in the title role. Miss Jean Brodie's unorthodox teaching methods only served to further complicate the whole idea of what it is to be a generous teacher - infuriating some of us while at the same time, exciting others. Saturday lunch found us enjoying a break from the traditional school dinner - Thai carrot and ginger soup followed by spinach and feta tart - whilst debating the question of whether generosity can be taught or whether it is implanted in our nature.

Under a brilliant November sun (!) a brisk constitutional was taken. Returning to our Nurtury school room, we entered a completely different world to that of 1930s Edinburgh and Marcia Blaine School for Girls. Suddenly we were in Long Beach, California in the wake of the 1994 Rodney King riots, where a young teacher called Erin Gruwell was evolving an innovative way of reaching out to a group of disenchanted youths living in what equated to a war zone. As we watched The Freedom Writers Diary unfold, we viscerally recoiled each time an act of institutional meanness and pettiness was directed towards this enthusiastic young teacher starting out in her career. Those 'old guards' can hang fiercely on to the done way of doing things, and we were starting to get a very good idea of what generosity is in relation to what it was most definitely is not. Equally, as the success of Erin's tolerance-based curriculum began to break through this negativity, our collective tension lessened and a tangible sense of relief could be felt throughout the salon. This actual bodily experiencing of generosity's presence and absence helped us when it came to working through the difference between 'justice' and 'generosity' the next morning - the former tending to demand an intellectual and considered measuring up of a given situation, whereas the latter often grows out of a more affective and spontaneous response.

On Saturday evening we relaxed, enjoyed a Moroccan-themed dinner, and were entertained by wwp band members (a number of whom happened to be attending this weekend).

After breakfast on Sunday morning we pulled forth a couple of exercises from the P4C movement - a philosophy for children initiative that we had looked at one of our salon evenings.
These games, designed to foster a more open and creative community of inquiry, helped us to question the kinds of connections we make between objects, words and ideas, as well as make interesting and productive connections related to the theme of generosity. Working from personal stories of our own ungenerous acts, we grappled with ways that we might change our responses to those situations that tend to trigger our 'ungenerosity'. We also considered the possibility that certain ungenerous acts might in fact have hidden generous results.

Summing up the books we had read and the films we had viewed, we each picked a scene from the whole corpus that stood out for us as an example of ungenerous conduct. From this we drew up a tentative list of what 'ungenerosity' looks like:

meanness; betrayal; disrespect; a rendering invisible of the other; a shutting down of the other; a manipulation of the truth; an abuse or misuse of power; an abuse of love; indifference.

Acknowledging that generosity is usually most conspicuous by its absence - and by extension, easier to discern than by its presence - this tentative list enabled us to shed new light on the meanings and felt sensations of generosity as we took a pre-lunch Socratic Walk - the purpose of which is to probe, through a progression of linked questions asked whilst walking, each other's understanding of a particular moral aspect of life.

These understandings were shared over a final lunch together. In bringing this weekend to a conclusion we also opened up a discussion on what our next book and film club theme should be. Contenders in the running are 'loyalty', 'passion' and 'pride'...Watch this space for more details!

Our heartfelt thanks go out to Wendy, Pat, Heather, Sue, Allannah and Bernice. Your incredible generosity over the course of this weekend embodied the wine women and philosophy spirit beautifully. If, as the ancient Greeks contend, generosity lies at the crossroads of magnanimity (the giving of one's self) and liberality (the ability to give freely) then you are all testament to what this human quality exemplifies. We can't wait to see you again next year!!