Going [Nearly] Non-Verbal

Wesch clip - A Vision of Students Today
As much as I genuinely appreciate the digital ethnography work done by Wesch and his students, I’m irritated by the smugness of this video–the sense that it’s somehow OK for students to dismiss books and classroom lectures as irrelevant so long as antiquated pedagogies take the blame.

I say all this, yet supposedly I’m one of the “good guys”: I teach small classes where we mostly sit in circles and discuss current events and view wacky-but-insightful websites and interrogate visual literacy and collaborate with community organizations doing field work and hands-on curatorial work and writing and arts-integrated experimental learning . . . yadda yadda yadda . . . . Like I said, my classroom is not the sort directly critiqued by the video.

And yet . . . And yet I just spent 3 hours reading a book on metaphor theory–a densely written, scholarly text with almost no pictures. I had to retrain my brain to concentrate on the writing, sometimes reading passages to my slumbering dog and using colored pencils to sketch out the complex ideas unfolding in the text. And it was glorious. If I assigned this book my students might not read it unless I somehow coaxed them through it and helped them read it page by page. My personal techniques with the colored pencils and so forth could serve as models but ultimately learning from the reading of dense text is about sitting down and wanting to figure out your own methods for learning from words. According to Wesch’s students (and they’re probably right) most of my students would not read the book just because I assigned it–even if class discussions and reading responses were part of the assignment my students might not read the whole book but rather just enough portions to get the gist of it. Does that mean my students are lazy or does it mean that they’re savvy consumers of text?  Neither. That’s my point. That’s my dilemma.

Of course, I could assign more interesting texts. And shorter texts. And texts composed as comic books. And podcasts. Yes I do all those things. But I’m still not convinced that reading 8 or fewer books per year is OK, or that I’m a good teacher if I exhibit empathy for students who believe books are an outdated source of relevant knowledge or entertainment.

We’re living in this transitional phase where highly motivated teachers are doing everything we can imagine to navigate the space between how students want to learn and what we believe they need to learn. (Notice I didn’t say the gap is between how they want to learn and how we want to teach. I’m operating under the assumption that we want to teach in whatever way will help them learn. An attachment to a particular pedagogy is not necessarily the problem here. I also didn’t say the gap is between what they want to learn and what we want to teach–though I do believe that’s part of the dilemma.)

One of the things I believe they need to learn is how to actively (not passively) learn–and active learning doesn’t only mean being entertained and engaged by the learning; it also means deliberately doing the learning. Among the things teachers like me need to learn are: how to teach them to be (and to want to be) active, deliberate learners of things–even things that might not appear to be immediately relevant to their personal lives; also we need to learn what is most important for them to learn–what things will spark their desire to learn more on their own, and how can we best equip them (intellectually, personally, and otherwise) to do that digging on their own?

So what does any of this have to do with books? A lot.

My background is in rhetoric and composition studies. I believe that writing helps us learn. I believe that reading helps us learn. For a dozen-odd years I’ve taught writing in ways that I hoped would help students learn. The raison d’etre of academic writing is that it helps students to learn what they’re studying and to communicate they’ve learned it. We don’t teach academic writing so that students will do academic writing for the rest of their lives (unless they become academicians). We teach academic writing because it helps students synthesize, interrogate, articulate, and otherwise engage and demonstrate what they’re learning. Reading good scholarly writing helps them get better at it. Reading any kind of writing generally helps them get at least somewhat better at doing their own writing. In turn, getting better at writing typically entails getting better at thinking through one’s ideas, composing them coherently, demonstrating knowledge. Our great hope is that compulsive Facebooking and texting will somehow also enable students to remain sufficiently literate (as readers and as writers and thinkers) to continue strengthening their abilities to digest, interrogate, communicate, and demonstrate knowledge derived from non-Facebook sources.

I’m a reasonably optimistic person. I’m willing to set aside my Postman-esque concerns about Farmville and Twilight and so forth for now.

So it’s within that context that I’m beginning this thought experiment: What if the purpose of first-year composition isn’t to teach academic writing? This isn’t a new question, really. Lots of us in rhet/comp do multimodal composition pedagogy–meaning we have integrated visual literacy and digital composition into our writing courses. What might be different about my thought experiment is that I’m removing the words altogether. If the purpose of the first-year composition course is to help students locate, synthesize, and demonstrate knowledge, could that be done entirely through the kinds of 3D assemblage my visual rhetoric students did last spring? Or via a primarily visual composition with a spoken or written explanation? Or via a community-engaged, applied learning project accompanied by reflection that might be spoken or written or sung?

The answer is No, to the extent that first-year composition is a service course to other academic disciplines expecting us to teach MLA/APA citation formats and grammar and the writing of literature reviews. But if our goal is to teach the acquisition of knowledge and the synthesis of ideas–would it become our job to teach composition as a cognitive act as well as a communication task? Would it require us all to learn how composition–the arrangement of information–connects with the acquisition and transmission of knowledge in all its forms?

What then?

And shouldn’t we already be teaching that?

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A Pause Before Diving Back into the Blog

The academic year resumed and I dropped off-blog. I need to spend the next week or so catching up with the comments and reintegrating this writing into my day-to-day life. (Easier done once final grades are in.)

I’m wrapping up a spring first-year writing course with the theme “Genius” in which I attempted to establish a flexible space for exploring connections between academic writing, reflection, and the kinds of ingenuity that inspire us. I hoped that such an approach would enable my students and me to explore deeper and more diverse ways that a liberal arts education can help us tap our own creative potential.

As the years pass–I’ve now been teaching at this institution over 8 years–I find myself more committed than ever to the principle that what we do in first-year courses absolutely must include stimulating the creativity of our students. Some who share my commitment call it “critical thinking” rather than creativity. So be it. I’m using the word creativity right now because I need to emphasize a kind of openness, resourcefulness, ingenuity . . . playfulness too. These things aren’t always encompassed in definitions or discussions about “critical” thinking. What I’m looking for includes joyful discovery and an expectation of/faith in serendipity.

We don’t have time to wait for other people to be creative. We have diseases that need to be cured, an environment to heal, life-spans to extend, cycles of ignorance and brutality to halt and transform. We can’t think of ourselves as “not creative” for doing so just perpetuates our own mediocrity. This all seems so obvious to me and yet all around me I see people who may, at best, purchase tickets to a performance or watch a nifty video on YouTube. Art-integration is approached too passively, if at all. People keep missing the connection between art and personal agency. They miss opportunities to pay closer attention to what they see and how it might connect to their own lives and work and vision for the world.

There are so many things I would do differently with the “Genius” course next time around.

One thing that nags me is the sense that I didn’t do a good enough job of fostering ways for students to make meaningful connections between the creatives they admired and their own lives. We spent too much time wrestling with the notion of what “genius” is and looks like, not enough time doing things that would enable them to experiment with their own ways of knowing.

I keep thinking about that TED.com video about the use of origami by engineers.

What’s leading me back to it, I think, is my current situation: the semester is ending; I’m planning to take more art classes over the summer. One in design, another in sculpture, probably some more weaving. I’m exposing myself to as many media and techniques as possible so that during the school year, when any art-making must come from my own time and talent (such as it is) I’ll be better able to realize my vision.  There are things I need to make, compositions in 3D that have been calling me and that I just need to complete–get them out of my head and here on the table. But my skill set is limited. Heh. Not as limited as it was last year, though!

What studio artists and artisans have that everyday people don’t is this: an ability to conceive of copious, diverse uses for things beyond the customary ones. I’ve discussed this before elsewhere. The resourcefulness thing. Into that category of artists and artisans I would like to add engineers, mechanics, chemists, nurses, cooks . . . people who do problem-solving in three dimensions. I emphasize artists because they are trained to think imaginatively at a level that most others aren’t. It’s their job to create something astonishing out of nothing. It’s an intensification of creative purpose, almost an urgency. Musicians don’t just make sounds; they make music. It’s OK for them to just make nice music. But to some degree the musician won’t feel like she’s really doing her job if all the music she ever makes is merely nice or merely an accurate reproduction of the notes in an arrangement.

As someone who works with first-year college students every year within a liberal arts institution–the kind of place intended above all others to cultivate intellectual versatility for the betterment of our world–I can’t ignore the opportunity (heck, the civic responsibility) to develop courses that do their share to construct the scaffolding needed for further creative inquiry. My field, rhetoric and composition, is rooted in the western academic heritage. And yet I still worry about appearing to neglect the teaching of writing in order to do the teaching of thinking. I want to do a better job of teachings style and grammar–but those things aren’t all that I teach. I’m not teaching functional literacy; if anything, I’m teaching academic literacy. Academic literacy is about knowing why you are researching something, why you are writing about it, how it could matter (or not) and to whom. It’s also about preparing yourself to do consequential work as a researcher and writer–learning how to draw upon what’s known and make something new or different from it, and to generate more worth knowing.