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8 or fewer books per year is OK, or that I’m a good teacher if I exhibit empathy for students who believe books are an outdated source of relevant knowledge or entertainment.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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One thought on “Going [Nearly] Non-Verbal

  1. Your post made me think back to when I was in first grade and there was an ongoing contest to get every student to read 100 books during the year. Were there guidelines? (page length, genre, etc.) Nope. Was there any form of discussion to help first graders comprehend what they were reading? Negatory. In fact there wasn’t even any way to prove that the child actually read the book, a parent’s signature was all that was required to get the shiny star sticker next to your name. The only thing that fueled us to pick up a book was that at the end of the year we would recieve a mystery prize.
    No one ever taught me to enjoy reading and writing, especially factual. However I do enjoy it. I’m not sure if I can pin point when exactly I found a thirst for words on a page but I can definately highlight when my vision widened.
    Speaking as a student of yours I think that your class hits the nail on the head as to what a COMP I class should encompass. Reading Momoday allowed me to experience a book being written in three different voices. Doing the playlist profiles allowed for a serious in depth (that was fun a quirky) research project. Your class helped me to think outside that box and to look at the world in a differnt light!
    Various techniques that you have taught has made reading and writing for academic purposes much more enjoyable. Basically all the mish mosh of grammar and literature that has been shoved into my brain for 18 years has finally come together. I can really hone in on all kinds of techniques, knowledge and theories and apply them to everyday life…and WRITING!

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