Recently, several friends and I went on a camping trip on the island of Maui, in Hawaii. The trip lasted four days and each of us was responsible for carrying all our own food, water, shelter, and gear. The hikes were challenging, especially considering the heavy packs, but they were also rewarding — filled with amazing distractions, from fascinating scenery to exotic plants and birds found only in Hawaii.
The first day of our trip was particularly demanding for those of US who are in the fifty and older category. The hike was eleven miles on fairly rough terrain with an elevation change of over 2,000 feet. Of course, our packs were also at their fullest and heaviest, too. We arrived at our campsite tired and a bit sore, but excited and satisfied that we’d made it.
After setting up our tents, one fellow announced that he had a “surprise” for all of us. With a bit of fanfare, he pulled out a plastic flask filled with an expensive, single-malt Scotch whisky that he had brought to celebrate the occasion.
Now, I don’t particularly like Scotch, and do not choose to drink it, but I truly appreciated the gesture. This guy had thought enough of all of us to purchase the costly Scotch, decant it into an unbreakable vessel, and carry the added weight of his “gift” both into the crater and out (you must pack out what you’ve packed in). AH of us, those who like to drink Scotch and those who do not, were most appreciative of his thoughtfulness and effort.
I share this brief tale to illustrate the difference between liking and appreciating. It is an important distinction, and one that is worth reflecting upon, especially since it has a direct bearing on teaching.
While the words “liking” and “appreciating” are frequently used interchangeably, their meanings are different. “Liking” refers to one’s personal preference. “Appreciating,” on the other hand, refers to an objective esteem for something’s intrinsic value, sentiment, or nature. For example, you may not like to weed in your garden, but you can appreciate the need for doing it.
The difference between “liking” and “appreciating” can be significant especially if you, as a docent, are working to have your audience “like,” rather than “appreciate,” your institution’s collection or resources. Such confusion can derail your teaching goals and, thus, your objectives. (“Goals” and “objectives,” by the way, are two additional words often misused or incorrectly thought of as interchangeable).
Perhaps, you have fallen into the trap of wanting your audience to “like” the objects or specimens you’ve selected to share with them. I know I have. It isn’t a bad thing, just misdirected. You like looking at natural history dioramas of waterfowl depicted in their habitat so you want your visitors to like them, too. This seems benign enough, but it can be counterproductive. The most apparent problem would be that you might spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on such dioramas even though your audience has either dismissed or become bored with them.
It is appropriate to promote an appreciation for the objects and specimens of your institution, whether visitors find them to their personal liking or not. Our institutional collections are important and worthy of appreciation. They are meaningful and significant, and we want visitors to explore them, make discoveries, and learn from the process.
Avoiding Judgmental Language
The language used when teaching makes a difference. For instance, asking visitors to discuss “meaning,” “significance,” or “relationships” can serve to build appreciation. On the other hand, asking visitors to discuss “likes,” “dislikes,” or “preferences” may not. The reasons for this is that one’s likes and dislikes are not necessarily affected by exposure and learning, but one’s appreciation often is.
Even after learning about the Victorian-era furniture in your historic home, some visitors may not like it or want it in their homes. But, hopefully, during the course Of your lesson they will gain an appreciation for what Victorian design expresses about the values, tastes, and customs of the era and for the craftsmanship inherent in its aesthetics and construction.
Communicating your own “likes” and “dislikes” can even be destructive to the learning process. As the tour leader and representative of your institution, visitors view you as an authority. So, if you tell visitors that something is “the best,” “your favorite,” or “your least favorite” item in the collection, visitors are faced with choices. They can concur with your personal taste, and feel smart (even though they may not know why they were so clever). They can disagree with your personal taste, in which case they can feel uninformed and insecure about their assessments and comprehension of other items beyond this one. Or, they can disagree with your personal taste and take that as license to reject your assessments or statements about all the other things you will examine together.
It would be my suggestion, therefore, that docents refrain from using judgmental language or asking visitors for judgmental responses to institutional collections. Rather, it is more appropriate to ask questions that request objective observations.
For instance, instead of asking visitors, “What do you like about Egyptian art?” ask them, “What might we learn from looking at Egyptian art?” Instead of asking visitors, “So, did you enjoy looking at Egyptian art today?” ask them, “What will you remember most about the Egyptian art we looked at today?”
While it may take a bit of forethought and, on occasion, some restraint, it is best to resist employing judgmental language when asking questions or making statements. Once you get the hang of it, it’s easy. Rather than ask visitors, “How many of you like abstract art?” try asking them, “What can works of art that are abstract communicate that others may not?” Or, instead of telling visitors, “I am sure all of you find air travel interesting,” try telling them, “I am sure you can think of many ways life would be different today if we couldn’t travel by air.”
Just keep in mind that your goal is to get visitors to discuss and ponder the objects, specimens, or sites you tour, not to like them. Certainly, there are historic homes whose design you won’t particularly like and wouldn’t want for your home, but you can still appreciate them as windows into an earlier era. Probably, there are plenty of paintings, sculptures, and other works of art that are not particularly suited to your personal taste but you can appreciate their power to communicate, their emotional content, or the way they challenge us to think about things. And, most likely, there are exhibits in science museums that can hold your interest far less than others do that are more to your liking.
As educators, we should refrain from transferring our biases —well founded and informed as they may be. And, we should work to prevent the visitors’ biases from limiting their exploration and consideration. It’s not unlike what our parents told us about tasting foods, “you don’t have to like it; but you do have to try it.”
Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor
Gartenhaus, Alan. “‘Liking’ versus ‘Appreciating’–An Important Distinction,” The Docent Educator 13.1 (Autumn 2003): 2-3.