Student Blogs: Challenges

mi40mFwSome of you have asked to hear my final thoughts on the individual student blogs I used in one of my classes this semester.  I have a lot to say on the matter, but I may wait until I get the course evaluations back from my students before giving you my ultimate reflection.  As all you teachers well know, sometimes our assumptions about how things have gone turn out to be less than accurate from the students’ perspective.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share some PENultimate thoughts.  I put these down in a recent journal entry for a course I’m taking on IT in the classroom.  The journal assignment was to write about the challenges of integrating information technology into the classroom setting.  Here’s what I had to say.

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This semester, I had my students keep blogs.  I’ve used blogs in a course before, and then stayed away from them for years because they require such a time investment.  This year, I decided to take a stab at them again, and although there were a lot of benefits, I will think twice before using them in another course.

One of the main issues was that the course, as a whole, is brand new.  Although I spent a lot of time thinking about the general topics I wanted to explore, and the assessments that I’m REQUIRED to include in such a course (some sort of research component, an oral presentation, a 1000-word essay…), I was aware from the beginning that my desired learning outcomes were…vague.

I wanted students to think about the concept of “character” and examine how that concept is portrayed in children’s literature (these are Child Studies majors).  I wanted them to come away knowing more about the way we learn, the way we grow up, and the things we can do to make our lives, and the lives of children we know, better.  I also wanted them to think about reading, and whether reading is a valuable activity for children, and, if so, what children should read, and how the things they read will affect their characters.

So that adds up to a whole lot of thinking.  How can they demonstrate to me that they’re thinking?  By writing a whole bunch of stuff making connections between these different ideas.  And then having conversations that I can observe.  So a blog is perfect: they need to write regularly about the ideas we’re discussing in class, they need to make connections between these ideas and things they already know, and they need to comment on what others have written, generating conversations about these subjects.

The potential of these tasks to lead to deep, authentic, long-lasting learning is exciting.  Writing and commenting on a thoughtful blog post requires a high level of what instructional designers call “cognitive complexity”: the students are understanding, applying, analyzing, and synthesizing in order to create their posts.  Writing the posts involves a number of different “types of knowledge”: conceptual knowledge (understanding the theoretical works about childhood character that we are reading), procedural knowledge (understanding how to write a coherent post whose logic, grammar etc. communicate clearly) and a certain amount of metacognitive knowledge (not only are they reflecting on the theoretical material and how it relates to the novels they’re reading, to other things they know and to their personal experiences; but they are also, to a certain extent, recognizing those leaps of understanding when they make them, and recognizing that they are something worth writing about).

Which is to say: BLOGS ARE AWESOME.  They are, like, the perfect learning tool, if you do them right.

And I think, in purely pedagogical and methodological terms, I did them right.  I set out very clear requirements: they had to post at least three posts a month, and spread their posts throughout the month (one per week for at least three weeks out of the month).  They had to comment at least three times a month on others’ blogs, also spreading their comments out throughout the month.  They had to reply to all comments left on their blogs.

I promised to read and comment on every post.  I did my best to keep that promise for a while, and as I read and commented during the first month, I was truly impressed.  Some of them were just banging out the minimum, or not meeting the requirements at all.  Most, however, were writing very interesting things.  They were MAKING CONNECTIONS.  They were HAVING CONVERSATIONS.  It was clear that writing about the seven character qualities that children need to succeed, or the “licking and grooming” theory of parental nurturing, and applying these concepts to other things both fictional and personal, was helping them understand what these things mean.

So what went wrong?

What went wrong was that I hadn’t thought it all through.  Of course I hadn’t – it’s impossible to think a course entirely through before you teach it, no matter how well you plan.  The problem is, if you’re teaching a new course AND using unfamiliar (in this case, technological) tools, problems multiply.

The first came from my willful disregard for what I knew, from long experience, about many of my students.  Regular writing, including written discussion, about complex topics is a great tool for students who are already good communicators.  For students who have language issues, who are not habitual readers or writers, and/or who already have an awful lot on their plates, this kind of regular written communication is extremely demanding.

What’s more, they’re working on a platform that is new to them.  Most of them have never written blogs, and it’s not just the technological aspects that are unfamiliar to them, but the communication medium: what should a blog post consist of?  If it’s not an essay, then what does “logical structure” mean?  And so forth.  The instructions I gave them – not just on setting up their blogs but on how to earn a passing grade or 100% – were very clear.  However, because this clarity involves so many facets where blogs are concerned – one can’t take for granted that they know ANYTHING – these instructions were also extremely long and detailed, and students don’t fully understand them.  Even now, two weeks before the end of term, a number of students are not sure why they’re earning 59% even though they put up the minimum number of posts (“But Johnny, you didn’t leave any comments for anyone.” “But I did!  I answered the comments people left for me on MY blog!”)

There are things I can do to improve the evaluation scheme; for example, if I’m ever foolish enough to do this again, I will separate the grade for blog posts from the grade for commenting, and I will clarify and delineate criteria so that it’s possible to earn a passing grade even if you fall short in one area.  Nevertheless, figuring out how to grade this new form that has few formal standards is extremely challenging, and it hasn’t worked very well this time around.

Using a newish tool like blogging in a course has much in common with teaching a new course in general: it’s exciting and full of energy because you never know what happen, but it’s also messy and fraught and doesn’t always work because you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.  I’ll probably take a rest from blogs next time I teach this course (maybe a discussion forum would be simpler and less demanding?)

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I’d love to hear about experiences, successful or otherwise, that the rest of you have had with blogs in your classrooms.  What could I have done differently?  Is it worth taking another stab at it?

Image by Jakub Krechowicz

When the Syllabus Goes Wrong

mhC7ZMoI cannot tell a lie.  My new course is a failure.

This semester, I did a complete overhaul on the English course I teach for Child Studies majors.  The earlier version of the course was a solid one.  It focused on the topic of childhood relationships in literature: parent-child relationships, sibling relationships, and friendships.  We read a couple of books, wrote a couple of essays, researched famous childhood relationships and presented them to the class.  The final assignment was to write a story, fictional or non-fictional, about a childhood relationship.

It always went pretty well, but I was sick of it.  If I had to hear another presentation on the Jackson Five and their father, I was going to lose it.  And I was on a high from another course in which students chose their own readings, I course that I enjoyed teaching more than any other.  I wanted to try blogs again, and I was in love with Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed, an exploration of the character qualities that lead to success.

So I had a few epiphanies and redesigned the course.  I knew I’d be flying by the seat of my pants for most of it, but, because this had worked out well for me in recent memory, I wasn’t too worried about it.

  1. Because I wanted to use Tough’s book, I called the course “A Question of Character.”  The guiding questions: What is character?  How do we define it in real life?  How do we experience it in literature?  Can reading literature influence a child’s character?
  2. I wanted each student to read a different classic work of children’s literature.  I compiled a list of books for them to choose from, all of which I was excited about reading or re-reading, and they dutifully signed up.  The plan was for each student to present his or her book, and its lessons about character, to the class.
  3. I wanted to use blogs as a way for students to exchange ideas and explore their own thoughts.  In the first few weeks we spent a lot of time setting up blogs, addressing questions about image copyright and moderating comments, and ironing out other issues.  In the first month, I fastidiously read and commented on every post, and compiled lists of the best posts of the week on my own blog.  They were to receive a grade for February, a grade for March, and one for April, with suggestions and feedback as we went along.

In the beginning, everything rolled along nicely.  I didn’t have a lot of grading to do, so reading the blogs was not stressful – in fact, I loved reading them.  Even the banal ones were interesting at first, as I got to know the students and the way they thought and wrote.  We started the term by reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone all together, and the students were mostly ecstatic about it.  They also seemed interested in the ideas in Paul Tough’s work, and wrote thoughtful first essays in which they discussed whether Harry Potter and his friends supported or contradicted Tough’s theories.  I slowly read my way through the book list, revisting old favourites and discovering new ones.

Things started to come apart around midterm.

First, I started feeling the burden of reading 80 blog posts every week.  Which is to say: I stopped reading 80 blog posts every week.  I couldn’t grade everything else and do that too.  I’d met with students individually in mid-March to discuss how they’d done on their blogs in February.  I’d planned to do that again after the March blogs were done, but there simply wasn’t time; once I’d given them all their blog grades for March (by entering them into the online gradebook with a couple of comments), April was almost over and there was really no time for them to implement the feedback.

I was also utterly bogged down in the book list.  I resented the volume of non-voluntary reading I’d assigned myself.  I found myself beginning a book and casting it aside, feeling sorry for the student who’d chosen it – The Dark is Rising, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Call of the Wild… why on earth did I inflict these on anyone? I wondered.

Then we started with the oral presentations.

One of the requirements was that they each find at least one scholarly article on their book and discuss it.  It turned out that the literary databases at our college are so limited that it was impossible to find even a book review on novels as classic as The Naughtiest Girl in the School or From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  I had to adjust the criteria to the point that the research component of the assignment became basically meaningless.

I’d instructed each of them to present for 10-15 minutes, and we spread the presentations over 8 classes (5 presentations per class).  The first handful of presentations was enjoyable, but it became clear early on that requiring a “plot summary” without practicing how to make a plot summary clear and concise had been a big mistake.  The plot summaries dragged on endlessly, rife with minute detail, and the rest of the required components were treated in a couple of moments – a number of presentations were over 20 minutes long but consisted primarily of a brief biography of the author, lifted straight from Wikipedia regardless of my warnings, and a meticulous overview of the plot, followed by 90 seconds of analysis.  By the time we’d dragged through 5 or 6 of these, there was little time for anything else in the class period, and regardless of how different the books were, the presentations were ALL THE SAME.  It was agony.  Students stopped showing up for class.  I didn’t blame them.

One of my two classes is, for whatever reason, considerably weaker than the other.  I just finished grading the blogs for that weaker class, and the class average is 59%.  Ergo: this assignment was not a success.  The oral presentations were not a success.  They are working on their final papers right now, and were required to come in small groups to work on their outlines; barely half of them showed up for their small-group meetings.  The other class is faring better but there is still a general feeling, at least in my mind, that this course is a random, pointless mess.

Despite the issues, I feel some good things came out of this course.  Those students who kept their blogs diligently wrote some really inspiring things, and the conversations in the comments sections showed some deep and broad learning.  I certainly enjoyed reading the blogs more than I ever enjoy grading papers.  Some students reported being inspired by the children’s novels they read, and passing them on to younger siblings.  Some reported finding Paul Tough’s book extremely interesting, and their papers, blog posts and discussions about it indicate that most of them understood his ideas well and are applying them constructively to their lives and the literature.  So it’s not that there’s no learning happening, but I’m expecting a lot of scathing reports on the course evaluations about the confusing and meandering way that learning came about.

At this point, my plan is to shelve this course and return to its earlier incarnation, and take a couple of years to revise, revamp, reorganize, and reconceive.  I would love to hear your advice, and your stories.  Have you ever given, or taken, a course that just seemed like a bad idea?  If you gave it, what did you do to improve it?  If you took it, why was it bad, and what would you have changed?  Beyond that, can you see any solutions to the problems I describe above?

Image by Steve Woods

Prompt #3: The Writing on Learning Exchange: Who Taught You?

mq5ICKyWelcome to the third installment of the Writing on Learning Exchange!

Thanks so much for all of  you who contributed to the last two rounds.  If you’d like to go back to Prompt #1, or to Prompt #2, please do!  If you’d like to just start fresh with this round, that’s great too.

For guidelines on participating in the Exchange, please go here.

This week’s prompt: Who have you learned from?  What did he/she teach you?

Additional thoughts to inspire you:

  • We learn from our parents, and our teachers.  But who else?  Can you think of someone outside your home or your classrooms who influenced you?
  • Of course, if a teacher or caregiver or sibling is the first person who comes to mind, feel free to go with that.  Or to write about many people!
  • Totally optional: if this person is still alive, you might want to consider sending him/her what you write.  HOWEVER: VERY IMPORTANT: do not decide whether to do this until you’ve finished writing (ie. until all danger of writer’s block has passed).

Post your responses below or elsewhere – if elsewhere, please link back to this post, and direct us to your response in the comments here.

Image by Photonut

Prompt #2: The Writing on Learning Exchange: What I Want To Learn Now

mGBNBOqWelcome to the second installment of the Writing on Learning Exchange!

Thanks so much for all of  you who contributed to the last round.  If you’d like to go back to Prompt #1, no worries; there are no deadlines!  If you’d like to just pick up the ball from here, that’s great too.  This is not homework.  It’s for you (and for us, of course, if you let us read what you write.)

For guidelines on participating in the Exchange, please go here.

This week’s prompt: What do you want to learn next?

Additional thoughts to inspire you:

  • Is there something you didn’t value when you were young, and so didn’t actively pursue in school, that you would now like to learn more about or be better at?
  • Is there a skill that you want to have but that you’ve never developed?  Why haven’t you developed it?  Could you develop it now?
  • Do you have a hobby or interest that you’d like to investigate more deeply?  Or a project you want to undertake but don’t feel ready for?
  • Do you envy someone because of something he/she knows or something he/she can do?  Do you think you could turn that envy into action?

…or maybe this topic takes you in a different direction – great!  Post your responses below or elsewhere – if elsewhere, please link back to this post, and direct us to your response in the comments here.

Image by Michaela Kobyakov

The Least Stressful Job on Earth

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy husband sent me this article this morning: the Globe and Mail summarizes some key points from a list of the most and least stressful jobs on earth.  #1 least stressful job?  University professor.

I’m not exactly a university professor, and some of the conditions I work under are quite different from theirs.  My students, for example, don’t “generally want to be there,” at least not if by “there” you mean “English class;” in some cases, they don’t even want to be in college. There are also some university professors who are comfortable walking in, giving a lecture and then walking out and going off to do their own stuff while TAs grade their papers.  I can agree that such a job sounds pretty low-anxiety, and it’s not how I operate (although if I could get someone else to do my grading I would be ALL OVER THAT.)

However, I don’t have to administer standardized tests, and I have tenure and a good salary.  Do I have one of the least stressful jobs on earth?

Maybe.  I can agree that military personnel, airline pilots and taxi drivers have it tougher than I do.  That said, there are days when I think the belligerent students, sky-high piles of marking and standards of performance I set for myself are a bit too much for me to handle.

Post-secondary educators and those who know them: what do you think of this assertion?  Do university professors have the  least stressful job out there?

Image by Michal Zacharzewski

Prompt #1: The Writing on Learning Exchange: Learning About School

nkuVRWeWelcome to the Writing on Learning Exchange!  Every week or two I will publish a prompt that is meant to get us thinking and writing about some aspect of our learning and/or teaching experience.  Whether you are a teacher, a learner, a parent or just a citizen who cares about the growth and development of other citizens, I hope you will find some inspiration here.

Some guidelines:

  • Respond to the prompt in whatever way you wish.  It is meant to be a springboard, not a cage.  If the question or topic makes you think about something that seems totally unrelated, follow that thought and see where it takes you.  No wrong answers.
  • You could write a post on your own blog, in which case I hope you will link back to the prompt post, and also leave a link to your response in the prompt post’s comments.  (This is a great way to find some more readers – or maybe it will be the impetus you need to finally start that blog you’ve been sitting on?)
  • You could just leave a comment responding to the prompt.
  • Or you could write about the subject privately, for your own edification – if you do that, I hope you’ll at least leave a comment saying that you wrote about it, and telling us how the writing went.
  • I hope you will have time to read and comment on some of the responses of others. However, if you just want to write a response and move on, or just use the prompt as a basis for your personal internal reflection, that is totally fine.

So here’s the first prompt: What are your first memories of going to school? 

Some details to consider (or ignore, as you see fit):

  • Where and when did you begin school?  How old were you?
  • Do you remember having any preconceptions about school before you began? Were there people around you (older siblings, older friends, adults…) who gave you information about school that shaped your impression of it before  you started?
  • What happened on your first day? What do you remember about the physical surroundings, the teachers, the other students, the activities?
  • If you don’t remember the very first days of school, do you remember any particular school experiences from your very early school years?

Just grab your first thoughts and impressions and go – don’t overthink!  And please share if you feel you can.  I look forward to hearing how this goes for you.

Thanks to Gayla Trail at You Grow Girl, whose creative writing club for gardeners, the Grow Write Guild, inspired the Writing on Learning Exchange.

Image by John Boyer

The Writing on Learning Exchange: A Project to Get us All Writing

It’s clear that I’m in over my head this semester.  I continually wish I had time to come over here to Classroom as Microcosm, ruminate at length about something going on in my classroom, and chat with all of you.  Instead, when I’m not teaching or planning or grading, I want to think about something else entirely.

Mostly, I’ve been in the basement tending my seedlings.

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Tomatoes!

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Onions!

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Poblanos!

When I read these days, I read about gardening.  My favourite gardening books are written by Gayla Trail, who also keeps the excellent gardening blog YouGrowGirl.  Last week, she introduced a new project: the Grow Write Guild, an online creative writing club for gardeners.  The guidelines for the Grow Write Guild are as follows:

Every two weeks I will post a writing prompt…You can choose to follow along and write a response that is made public on your own blog or kept completely private. Should you choose to make it public, come back to this site and share it in the comments by posting a link to the work. Even if you don’t make it public, I’d love it if you came back to share how the prompt worked out for you.

In response to Gayla’s first prompt – “What was your first plant?” - I had a lot of fun writing a meandering personal essay on garden vs. wilderness, violas vs. wild strawberries, and childhood adventuring vs. adult home ownership.  (I published this post on my homemaking blog, if you’d like to read it.)  I’ve also had a lot of fun reading and  commenting on the posts that other writer-gardeners have produced in answer to this prompt.

And then I thought, “Hey, this is a great idea.”

So it occurred to me that this might be a fun thing to do here on CaM; to share writings in response to specific prompts around teaching and learning.  This would be a way to get juices flowing and to reflect more personally on why certain issues are important to us, whether we are teachers, learners, parents or just citizens who care about the growth and development of other citizens.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

  • Every week or two between now and the end of May, I will publish a question or set of questions, about teaching and learning, meant to inspire a personal response.  (“What was your first plant?” is the sort of question I’m thinking of, although the questions will clearly be less planty.)
  • You could write a post on your own blog, in which case I hope you will link back to the prompt post, and also leave a link to your response in the prompt post’s comments.  (This is a great way to find some more readers – or maybe it will be the impetus you need to finally start that blog you’ve been sitting on?)
  • You could just leave a comment responding to the prompt.
  • Or you could write about the subject privately, for your own edification – if you do that, I hope you’ll at least leave a comment saying that you wrote about it, and telling us how the writing went.
  • I hope you will do your best to read and comment on the responses of others – this has been one of the most enjoyable parts of the exercise for me.  However, if you just want to write a response and move on, or just use the prompt as a basis for your personal internal reflection, that is totally fine.

I’ve been racking my brains trying to come up with a clever name for such an undertaking (“Grow Write Guild” is awesome, but I don’t want to be too derivative.)  I’ve been muddling around with words like “fellowship,” “tutelage,” “league” and “microcosm.”  For now, I’m going with “The Writing on Learning Exchange.”  If anyone has any better ideas…

Let me know what you think of this project, either by leaving a comment below or contacting me directly.  If even a few people show an interest, I will post up a prompt later this week.

Why You Should Fall in Love with Abed Nadir or Some Other Imaginary Person

I want my students to believe that it’s good to fall in love with fictional people.  But I may be wrong.

My English course for Child Studies majors is called “A Question of Character.”  We’ve spent the last few weeks discussing  what “characterization” means in literature, and what “character” means in life.  Along the way, we’ve talked a little about whether reading literature can influence our personal characters and, as a result, our success and happiness in the present and future.  This is a question I want to explore more deeply in the coming weeks.

Our foray into this topic has corresponded, accidentally, with my sudden, random, out-of-control obsession with the TV show Community.  This obsession is inconvenient because it means that I can’t grade papers, can’t read the 45 books I need to read for this class, can’t really leave the house or do my laundry.  I can’t do anything but watch CommunityI devoured all 74 episodes in 2 weeks, and when they were over, I was so grief-stricken over the loss that I went back to the beginning and started again.  My husband is getting a little worried.

That said, my obsession with the show IS convenient because, although it is a multifaceted obsession, it is also focused.  I love the writing, I love the bizarro universe, I love the many layers of meta-meaning.  Mostly, though, I love Abed Nadir.  And I think my love for Abed is an appropriate discussion topic in a course that deals with character.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, Community has followed a band of 7 oddball students and their equally oddball teachers through their first 3 years of community college. (The 4th season has just begun, and I’m disappointed with it so far – a lot of changes have happened behind the scenes – but I still have high hopes.)  Abed is, at least on the surface, the oddest of them all.  In the pilot, another student, irritated with Abed, barks that he has Asperger’s Syndrome, and he does seem to be a textbook case.  His consuming passion is pop culture, and he makes terrible movies that reveal some of his buried emotional truths.  He’s rigid and aloof, yet remarkably sensitive; a genius, yet utterly naive.  He repeats the phrase “Cool.  Cool cool cool” like a distracted owl, and he does a lot of blank, fish-eyed staring and subtle head-cocking.  He’s able to connect with the people around him only by imagining that they’re all in a film or television show – when his friends pressure him to flirt, he channels Mad Men’s Don Draper; when he dresses up as Batman for Hallowe’en, he turns into an actual superhero.

Abed isn’t really capable of loving anyone, but the closest he gets is his relationship with his best friend Troy, former high school quarterback and prom king.  Troy, for his part, loves Abed to distraction.  When a girl Troy’s interested in says Abed is weird, Troy walks out on her.  (Abed: ” I AM weird.”)  When he thinks Abed might be stolen away to England by a pen pal, Troy’s jealousy leads him to go “all psycho girlfriend,” as Troy’s actual girlfriend gently describes it.

It’s not just Troy, though; everyone around Abed loves him, even though they don’t understand him.  His friends listen to his advice because they know he has absolutely no emotional investment in their problems.  They step in front of bullies who want to pick on him; they pay for film courses that his father won’t cover, because they want him to follow his dreams.  From the moment he appears in the first minute of the pilot, telling the leading man his life story and THEN his name, he gives Community its wonky center.  And the fans love Abed with a love so demanding that some critics think it will warp the show’s orbit entirely.  (The Facebook page of the actor who plays him, Danny Pudi, has over 15,000 fans, and I would wager that at least 14,000 of them know Pudi ONLY as Abed.  That’s a LOT of love for a character who can barely make eye contact and has shrieking meltdowns when clocks are reset for Daylight Savings.)

It’s Abed who keeps me glued to Netflix for 6-hour blocks.  I want to spend all my time with him.  In the beginning, I had only a vague, inarticulate understanding of why this was, and a feeling that it would make a good basis for a lesson.  Also, great news: if I teach a lesson about Community, and Abed, I get to spend more time watching Community, and Abed.

My initial, intuitive analysis went something like this:

  • I love Abed because I’m just like him: socially awkward, unintentionally aloof, isolated inside my own mind and often unable to connect with others. (I always score in the borderline-to-Asperger’s range on autism self-tests.)
  • I love Abed because he’s so, so much better than me.  He’s adorable.  He’s charming and funny.  He’s completely self-assured – he fears losing his friends but has no fear of losing himself.  (And he doesn’t lose his friends.  This is also important.)
  • Abed therefore represents an ideal, but one I can actually aspire to.  He’s not realistic, but he feels real; I recognize so much of myself in him that it seems possible I could, someday, be as wonderful as he is.  Maybe loving him will improve me.

What does this have to do with my class?

I decided to find out by doing some research, and came across an article in the journal Children’s Literature in Education called “Why Readers Read What Writers Write,” by Hugh Crago. Crago presents us with the term “emotional matching,” which he defines as the way “a work of fiction has matched or paralleled the reader’s ‘self-narrative,’ that is, the shadowy concept most of us have about who we are, why we act the way we do, and the sort of ‘history’ we have had in the past and expect to have in the future.” (280)

Crago gives us a couple of examples to illustrate how “identification” works as powerfully with a fictional character as it does with a real human being.  For children, especially – and my course is a Child Studies course – an imaginary person can be an (unrequited but never rejecting) friend and role model, someone to connect to and also to admire, to seek comfort from and to imitate.  When we love Anne Shirley or Harry Potter, Tarzan or Nancy Drew, we feel, “I want to be like that, and I COULD be like that, because that person may be awesome, but he/she is also like me.”

Is it really this straightforward?  It feels so magical and chemical, so deeply personal despite its universality, this infatuation with a person who doesn’t exist.  Could it really come down to a simple Lego model of the soul – if your piece fits onto my piece, I get bigger?

Come to think of it, that IS kind of magic.  Maybe it’s why kids love Lego, too.

Or maybe it’s even simpler than that.  Maybe we love these characters because, by watching them or reading about them, we can feel what it would be like to be as amazing as they are, without doing any of the work required to actually be so.  This is a less encouraging scenario, and certainly undermines the pedagogical validity of my lesson.  Are Harry Potter and Anne Shirley and Abed merely ways for us to escape our real selves, to put on, in our own minds, costumes that make us appear to ourselves to be more than we are?

Mark David Chapman and Holden Caulfield immediately spring to mind.

I have written about the benefits of obsession before, but am I making excuses for something that is usually a waste of time and sometimes dangerous?  The greatest achievements in art and other creative pursuits are often the fruit of a creator’s obsession – or perhaps “grit” or “focus” would be a nicer word – but can passive, compulsive consumption of a sitcom or a novel ever lead to real personal growth?  Or can it only offer us, at best, comfort?

Maybe it doesn’t matter.  As any lonely, bullied, awkward or frightened child will tell you: such comfort is nothing to sneeze at.  This moving post, by an autistic woman who saw, in Abed, the first authentic reflection of herself on television, would convince anyone that simply recognizing oneself in the other is one of the most life-changing experiences we can have.

My plan is to start my lessson by asking my students to think of a book, a film, or a TV show that they have, at some point in their lives, loved to the point of obsession.  I’ll then get them to watch an episode of Community, to name the character that they each like best, and to discuss why.  I’ll ask them to guess which character I like best, and that will give me an excuse to talk about Abed for a while.  And then we’ll look at Crago’s article, and discuss the uses of “identification,” of “emotional matching.”  What do kids, and the rest of us, learn from falling in love with people who aren’t real?  Can we learn to be better versions of ourselves?  Or can we mostly just take refuge?

And if it’s only refuge, isn’t it still worth an awful lot?

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Some related and worthwhile links:

Community is TV’s Most Ambitious Show

The Curious Case of Abed Nadir: Community and “Pop-Orientalism”

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Corporatizing Education: A Justification

speckled paperSo let me just put this out there.

Yesterday I attended a talk by the renowned/infamous literary theorist Stanley Fish.  Fish’s talk was entitled “What are the Humanities Worth?”  He began exploring this question by referencing Louis Menand’s article “Live and Learn: Why We Have College.”

Menand  poses a similar question, often asked by students: “Why do I have to read this?”  Menand’s initial response is “Because this is the sort of book students in college read.” Menand feels this response is inadequate, but according to Stanley Fish, this is exactly what we should be telling students: “Just because.”  What are the humanities worth?  Don’t ask that question, Stanley Fish replies.  (But you just did, Mr. Fish!!)

The auditorium was packed with students, and as I looked around, it was clear that many of them a) had no idea what he was talking about, or b) were unconvinced by his assertion that the poem “The Fore-runners” by George Herbert is  its own justification and that we shouldn’t need to say anything more about the issue.

My main problem with his (entertaining and erudite) talk was this: he started by referencing Menand, who wants to determine why we should REQUIRE STUDENTS to study certain things.  He ended by explaining why the study of the humanities should continue to exist and why colleges and universities should continue to fund those studies.  (Sort of: his talk was also a sort of rail against the whole enterprise of “justification,” a position I also take issue with: more on this in a moment.)  These are not the same question.  Sure, the study of, say, literature, has all sorts of value that can’t be quantified, but Menand isn’t asking about that.  He’s asking a question that I often ask.  Why should every single student who enters a given institution, regardless of his/her personal goals, be required to study literary analysis, philosophy, etc.?

Fish’s premise in his talk was that “justification” entails explaining the monetary benefit of something, and he scorned the attitude that the purpose of an education is to qualify oneself for a good job.  This is all very well for Mr. Stanley Fish, who outlined his own career trajectory nicely during the Q&A: he finished his doctorate in the ’60s, was immediately hired as an academic, and has been in a comfortable tenured job ever since, in addition to having the passion and skills required to be a world-famous cultural critic.  For my average student, who has limited literacy, whose parents may well be scrabbling to make a living after their recent arrival from another country, and who doesn’t particularly like school but knows that he/she has no hope in hell of earning a decent wage without at least a college degree, the problem with viewing an education as part of a career path may be less obvious.

I’m not sure such a student needs to be investing him/herself in the study of George Herbert.  I’m not sure that a CEGEP education, as it is currently organized, is serving that student as well as it could.  I agree that many students benefit from spending time with poetry, or the living conditions in medieval France, or the works of Aristotle.  For some students, though, these studies are frustrating and impenetrable, and the upshot is that they leave these courses having learned little, and feeling relieved that they jumped through one more hoop on their way to the life and career they want.

I have an odd little educational fantasy that might not be fantasy at all – I’m surprised that it is not a more active reality.

What would happen if established corporations, industries etc. set up their own “universities”?

For example: say you graduate from high school and you are currently inclined to work as a telephone technician.  To do so, you need to apply to “colleges” established by major telephone companies like Bell Canada. These colleges do not just involve technical training; they are created by teams of highly trained educational consultants, as well as corporate managers, who determine together what kind of community they want the company to be, what qualities employees should possess, and what kinds of study would encourage these qualities. Literature and philosophy courses, therefore, would have a focus that might seem clearly relevant to students, even if they would also expose students to larger ideas, like the broccoli your mom pureed into your delicious buttery mashed potatoes.

Credits from these colleges would be transferable and recognized by other companies.  Let’s say you apply to study with every telephone company in the country and are accepted by all of them; you choose to study with Bell, but when you graduate, no jobs with Bell are available.  Not just your education but your application history would be valuable information on your CV, and hiring practices would need to account for an applicant’s entire experience.  If you complete some of your studies but decide that working with telephones is not for you, your application to study with a local plumbing company would need to include a personal reflection on what you’ve learned so far and why it makes you a good candidate to study and apprentice with them.

What are the problems with such a system?  What are the benefits?  When I look around at many of my students who are struggling to make ends meet, to fit in all their required courses, and to find the relevance in a lot of their class material, I ask myself what might provide them with greater motivation and therefore greater learning.  Telling them, a la Stanley Fish, that they shouldn’t be looking for relevance, that they’re asking the wrong questions, is not going to cut it with most of them.  Would it help if the goal was clear, and if it was really and truly the student’s own personal goal?

Image by Billy Frank Alexander

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