What have you figured out?

We’ve talked a lot about recursive questioning, assembling knowledge from the investigation up rather than imposing it dogmatically. I’ve got my classes set up entirely that way now, so I tell the students virtually nothing and instead show them stuff to figure out, then guide them through what it looks like to do so.

It must be said that in a class of any size, a bunch of students fall through the cracks of this approach. My sense – supported by feedback from the more vocally disgruntled – is that they’re waiting to be told what to do to get a passing grade, and when they don’t get that they just sort of shut down. These days I explain all this in the syllabus and then explicitly cheerlead the process from the start, but for these students all of that must just sound like the usual teacherly harangue, so they just put their heads down and wait for something that sounds more like a test nugget.

I’ve had some good moments lately too, most notably a series of student conferences about research projects. It’s interesting to see how automatic the assumption is that there are fussy little rules that need to be followed to do well. I’m not saying they’re wrong about that. So when I ask them ‘what have you figured out?’ there’s always this little startle response.

One student I’m really enjoying came in for a paper review and I started asking it questions about how it conceptualized slavery, and whether it was quite accurate to talk about the Spanish colonial encomienda system as slavery. The student came back with something generic about organizing the paper better, which I pretty much ignored, and eventually we were talking our way through the subtleties of coerced labor in its various forms, the transition in ordinary people’s lives from one group of overlords to another, and the ways that familiarity and habit can structure systems of exploitation. We talked about whether Adrian Peterson is, as he has said, a slave of the Minnesota Vikings. What’s the point of all this? A good essay is not about hitting upon the right magic formula of ‘right answers’, it’s about figuring something out.

The student I worked with today is ESL and quite conscious of a language barrier (its English is actually superb). It has said that it loves the class, but has never before been asked to figure things out for itself and feels underskilled. It worries that its papers are just data dumps. I said like any skill, it takes practice. We looked at the paper; the first paragraph was clear and competent in a generic kind of way. I asked it what it had figured out. It launched into a passionate and sophisticated description of economic change in colonial New Spain, leading to inflation that benefited the upper class and burdened the lower class. None of this was in the paragraph. I opened up a review note in the document and said, ‘write all that down here’. It said, ‘but I don’t know how to say it!’ I said, ‘that’s fine, it’s only a note in the margin here’.

When it got done with its magnificent new introduction in that unthreatening little marginal note, we talked about how it didn’t feel like it knew the words it needed to say things ‘right’. I told it the story of how I learned Italian when I was 12, and how when I started working in Italian in graduate school I realized my 12-year-old Italian wasn’t really up to the task. I had to learn the vocabulary that went with what I wanted to figure out. We talked about not using words just to use words, but instead adding words as they become necessary to say what you want to say. The student had been saying what it wanted to say about colonial economy just fine, so there was nothing to worry about.

This is not meant to be a weighty post; it’s just a journal entry. I’m saying this as much to myself as to any readers. Like another of my students, who has not yet handed in the terrific paper it’s working on because it can’t get ‘perfect’ out of its way, I can get paralyzed by the feeling that each entry has to be a perfect little essay. This blog will only become what it could be when I get over that and make it a record of moments and processes.

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4 Comments

  1. This fits with one of my long-time suspicions, which is that students will sometimes write boneheaded, thudding paragraphs because they feel “that’s what we’re supposed to do,” but have much more insights when engaged less formally. Sometimes it’s thudding all the way down. But this reminds me of what my dissertation director told me once, which was that my writing in my footnotes was much livelier than what I was doing at the top of the page. When I saw that he was right, I started imitating that voice I had only permitted myself in the footnotes. Blogging might come from the same sort of place.

  2. Yeah, you’re right. I’m having a lot of success recently getting through the thudding with the ‘what are you trying to figure out / what have you figured out’ rubric, and I think a lot of it is moving into an ordinary language where the discovery process is not burdened with the mysterious sociability of official expertise. Which, ironically, allows them to develop that expertise. It’s interesting and sad to think about how much potential brilliance is lost to failures to master the formalisms of our odd little milieu. But maybe I’m just being romantic.

    I’m thinking about blogging as academic practice again because I’m fixing to apply for promotion again. I’ve accepted at this point that there’s no way to get it to count as scholarship, but I do think that’s a mistake, even if it’s a kind of rough-draft, back-channel scholarship that doesn’t read as finished authority.

  3. Pingback: Figuring out figuring it out | Dead Voles

  4. Pingback: Figuring out figuring it out | Attention Surplus

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