Emirates Education Platform

Margaret Mia


Rabbit Holes | Inside Higher Ed

I think I was in my 30s the first time I heard the expression “go down a rabbit hole.” In this context, it means following a trail of this-leads-to-that much farther than initially expected or intended. YouTube and Spotify are common sources of rabbit holes. A video reminds me of a song, which reminds me of another song, which …

Hours go by. I’ve gone down a rabbit hole.

As commonplace as rabbit holes are now, they’re mostly pretty recent. Until broadband got widespread and streaming services raised their game, there just weren’t that many options. Yes, one could get lost in a book, but books are/were expensive and, before Amazon, getting interesting ones in much of the country was a hit-and-miss affair at best. Video rental became a mass market thing in the ’80s, but for a couple of decades it involved driving to a video store, hoping the particular thing you wanted was in stock, paying for it, driving it home, watching it in the allotted time, being kind and rewinding, and driving it back before being charged a late fee. There was enough friction in the system to make impulsive binge-watching difficult.

Yes, one could always plant in front of the TV, but that involved submitting to somebody else’s choices, and it certainly wasn’t research. The most seductive rabbit holes often start out with a question: “Whatever happened to …?” is a good one. So is “I wonder how this fondly remembered scene/song/show holds up now …?” Recently I discovered “reaction videos,” in which random people on the internet listen to a piece of music and respond to it as it goes. If it’s a piece of music with which I’m familiar, it can be oddly thrilling. I don’t even want to admit how many times I’ve watched the video of classical composer Doug Helvering and his friend DJ Rae reacting to the Pat Metheny Group’s “Minuano Six Eight.” It’s a great bit of music that I’ve enjoyed since college, but the interplay between Doug trying to analyze the song and Rae mugging for the camera takes it to another level. There’s something almost Muppetish about their interaction, and I mean that as a compliment.

When I mention falling down a YouTube rabbit hole, people always know immediately what I mean. They’ve done it, too, with their own idiosyncratic interests. The metaphor of falling down is telling; it suggests effortlessness. Although it often involves the answering of questions, it doesn’t feel like homework. It feels like discovery. It’s fun, and the lessons stick.

It’s a great model for teaching. Once the students are bitten by the bug, teaching is so much easier. At that point, it’s mostly filling in gaps. The trick is getting the students to the place where rabbit holes are likely to happen.

Really good projects can be like that. Individual creative work can be like that. Now that we have instant access to far more resources than I ever did as a student, it’s at least theoretically possible to make other sorts of learning like that. Yes, rabbit holes presume the existence of time, which many students have to devote to working for pay. But once a question becomes intensely interesting, students find time for it. The trick is getting to that point.

Wise and worldly readers who are currently teaching, does this ring a bell for you? If so, is there an assignment you’ve found that reliably sends students down rabbit holes in a good way?

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