Taking care of mind and body – the Corona Semester as a challenge for the ‘leib’

A working note. By Andreas Ken Lanig.

In this article I would like to discuss a few of these and reflect on particular experiences from distance learning that can be helpful in countering such deficits.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this too in these strange days – Staff and students are doubly tired:

First, the amount of video conferencing has become routine in this digital summer semester.

Further, the cognitive level, which is important in design, is suffering from this strain.

How can we, as teachers, react to this situation? What historical design references can we draw on to teach design today in a sophisticated and virtual manner?

These are two key questions, the first of which I would like to explore in greater depth from a practical teaching perspective. The second question is certainly also interesting but not necessarily to be answered in the current article. Nevertheless, I would like to start with it and hope that others may contribute.

Almost 100 years ago (in the winter semester of 1919/1920, to be exact), Johannes Itten had already envisaged three dimensions in his didactics: the sensual-experiential, objectifying, and formative study. Within the Bauhaus, the learning discourse moved between these three poles until the dissolution of the university (Buchholz et al. 2007, pp. 70-73).

This early framework of Johannes Itten’s work highlights the intertwining of intellectual, emotional aesthetic, and spiritual development. Each was intended as mutual conditions necessary to the practice of design and its teaching.

Owing to an increase in instrumentalization and even commoditisation of higher education since the 1970’s onwards, we have either lost, or had to fight to retain, the sensual-experiential element in schools and universities. In Itten’s teaching, for example, it was an important ritual to do gymnastics with the students as part of a holistic curriculum, not a separate subject to be studied in isolation.

In philosophy, a similar move to understanding the world as fully experienced emerged in Phenomenology, challenging the separation of thought and experience. It was arguably Merleau-Ponty who emphasised the need to see aspects of being as fully embodied and not independent of one another: the importance of wholeness of mind, soul, and body (cf. Waldenfels 2002, p. 174). We read the physical, sensually experienced subject in a concrete and spatial situation as the reference point of the process of cognition:

One should turn to the things themselves. Not constructs and models. Otherwise, you no longer have a body-phenomenology that allows this world to emerge anew in the senses […] and has a ‘strong’ concept of experience: there is nothing ‘given’ [in the sense of ‘data’]; [experience is] not only data, but experience is a process in which the experienced person changes and the world changes as well.

Metzger 2005, 4:00-6:00, emphasis and additions in the sense of readability A. L.

These two positions confirm that a person is far more than their intellect alone: certainly more than language. However, if we think of a classical digital lecture, we have exactly this. It is through language alone—not least through the inevitable monologs of teachers—that we act in digital lectures. Thus, we forget that ‘bodies also hang’ on the digitally connected intellects, to paraphrase Merleau-Ponty.

But, in this working note, I am not only interested in integrating additional gymnastics – in reconciling the mind and body. The spirit of a person is critical too and this is where language gets in the way a bit.

Top: T. Lux Feininger, Physical education at the Bauhaus: Gymnastics for women on the roof of the Bauhaus, 1930, Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin. Copyright: © Estate of T. Lux Feininger // Bottom: Andreas Lanig

In German, the word ‘leib’ means ‘more than body’, a slightly tricky concept to properly convey through literal translation. The cultural connotations of the word ‘spirit’ have already been debated editorially!). But there is an importance and value to considering matters beyond only an intersection of mind and body.

There is no need to invoke magic or other epiphenomenal matters – consider this as a cognitive phenomena, process or entity: our thinking systems (brain, cognitive structures, central nervous system, all of it). We use this whole system to think, learn and (of course) to design. It’s a complex system.

But how often do we talk about it? How often do we tell students that thinking like a designer uses a lot of your body’s energy (20-40%)? And that this is often distributed across multiple cognitive areas and systems in our minds (a different type of fatigue)? Or that learning is actually a process of physically changing your mind (another type of fatigue)? Or that mental health is cognitive health, inseparable from the rest of you?

Better mental health and wellbeing leads to better designers.

I propose that we aim to instil, encourage and foster: deeper thinking and acting in design projects that makes use of our fully embodied thinking ‘systems’ – whilst at the same time recognising the importance of looking after and caring for these same systems.

This approach should be extended to all curricular areas and made explicit in each. This recognition of holistic embodiment (mind, body, spirit) and the constellation should drive us—design teachers—to do justice in this almost pastoral responsibility.

I would like to end the working note with some practical examples an suggestions:

  • Let us explicitly and programmatically take up the current discussions about yoga, meditation, forest bathing, and other techniques of embodied cognitive self-care. I have had good experience with letting students do a warm-up themselves before the lecture. These can be small exercises in progressive muscle relaxation or very specific yoga exercises. These introductory exercises help us to switch from our family or professional environment to an online lecture. Of course you can’t do this spontaneously, but it is possible to set this task as a kind of homework and then prepare individual volunteers in a private conversation.
  • Let us place the everyday practises of our students in a professional framework of digital design creation. The well-established project diary can help to shed light on this increasingly important intellectual aspect of creative work. Talk actively with the students about the emotional challenges of motivation that are necessary in this peculiar semester. Make it a criterion in the project diary so that students can exchange ideas about it. The protected space of a lecture is predestined for conversations like these.
  • Let us invent formats that have a personality-building effect, ‘despite’ the digital summer semester. Remember why you became a teacher? We want to accompany people on an artistic path. On this path there is a lot to see right and left, which often makes a straight path impossible. Don’t you also think that online teachers often come out too straight on the result? That we do not stop too often to address interesting issues on the way? Here it depends on a harmonious rhythm to switch between sprinting and lingering skillfully.
  • Let us consider this as a challenge to contrast and compliment to handicraft design competence with ‘spiritual’ competence. This complexity is a task that in art education is traditionally regulated via the space and the people in it. In didactics for distance learning in design, which have been developed over a decade, this connection is already well developed. Throughout the operational contexts of the Corona Semester we should not forget that it is this physical complexity in design learning that is at stake.

This should also be a task for teaching design after the digital semesters that may still follow.

Buchholz, Kai; Theinert, Justus; Ihden-Rothkirch, Silke (ed.) (2007): Designlehren. Wege deutscher Gestaltungsausbildung. Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences. Stuttgart: Arnoldsche Art Publ.
Itten, Johannes (1978): Gestaltungs- und Formenlehre: Mein Vorkurs am Bauhaus u. später. Ravensburg.
Metzger, Stephanie (2005): Interplay of senses and arts. Stephanie Metzger in conversation with Bernhard Waldenfels. artmix.conversation. Further participants: Stephanie Metzger. Thomas Gerwin (director): Bayerischer Rundfunk. Available online at http://www.br.de last reviewed on 24.07.2017.
Waldenfels, Bernhard (2002): Bruchlinien der Erfahrung. Phänomenologie, Psychoanalyse, Phänomenotechnik. 2nd ed. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp (Suhrkamp paperback science, 1590)

2 thoughts on “Taking care of mind and body – the Corona Semester as a challenge for the ‘leib’

  1. Hi Andreas, I could not agree more. And I would even go further than considering the own body as a complex system to considering the interaction of our embodied dasein with the embodied dasein of others (peers, family, tutors, the world). It would be lovely to expand the embodied experiences in preparation to an online lecture or seminar to interact with others, to react to others, a bit like ‘stille Post’ of bodily experiences.

    You’ve offered a good critique of the language-heavy digital interactions in distance education. How can we diversify this by considering everyone’s embodied experiences? How do you capture and share such an experience without manipulating it for sharing? Of course, any recording is already a manipulation, but I’d really like to explore how we can touch the dasein of others much more deeply at a distance.

    If we use multiple channels to create our experiences, then do we need multiple parallel channels to share them? Thanks for this thought-provoking article. And I would recommend Arturo Escobar’s book on Designs for the Pluriverse to you, which goes beyond considering your own complex body, too.


  2. Hi Nicole, thank you very much for your comment. It is very pleasant that our thoughts meet at this point. “Touching the existence of others from a distance” is probably also a claim that every teacher has, independently of the digitalisation of education. And the concept of ‘leib’ after a brief insight into the context of Arturo Escobar’s work, there are many colleagues here who are thinking about it. Especially new media technologies of immersion give realistic hope to deepen this discourse. In any case, I have downloaded the PDF for next week’s holiday and will be happy to read it. Thank you very much for the tip! See you soon!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: