Following the considered and respectful instruction

I want to frame my response to this week’s readings with an idea that has recurred in our class discussion, the idea that we, as writing instructors (of various types) are teaching tools more than we are teaching English or literature or grammar or… Sneaking in my reading time late in the evening after plotting out specific guiding questions for a student struggling with the idea of reading what is in a text rather than what she thinks about the text’s subject or early in the morning on the overcrowded Q88 bus on which I repeatedly have to instruct the wee student-aged bodies to move to the back, I couldn’t help but realize that a lot of what I was encountering in the readings had to do with teaching students not just writing but how to be a student in college.  And, if I may, beyond simply how to be in college, all of the skills targeted by the readings’ practical suggestions were transferable and important life or “how to be in the world” skills.  I found all of these readings incredibly helpful (and permissive of my verbosity and precision in assessment) in a practical sense.  However, it’s these reflective observations that I want to expound here.

Each of the readings’ suggestions targets the skill of learning how to read and infer from directions and in so doing how to build your own ideas and critical thinking in response to said directions.  Bean’s article focuses on the importance of asking the right questions and making your evaluative tools explicit; Walk’s “Crafting Assignments” provides clear direction in giving clear, “sharp-edged direction;” and Lessner and Craig’s chapter offers ample options for helping students find their own thoughts regarding the (very clearly articulated) assignment.  Following direction and thinking for yourself within a framework are key to the students’ lives after university.  As I read, I felt myself split between a list-making, hallelujah-singing response (maybe critical thinking on the next essay won’t be like pulling teeth!) and a very serious sense that these inventive techniques and the crafting of an assessment to the understanding of a student with 13 fewer years’ experience than myself was essential to these tiny humans’ growth into responsible citizens.

Before anyone jumps down my throat for my grandiose tone, please note, every structural element of this post is on purpose!  Indeed, part of what came to light for me was the deluded sense that I had that I knew about what these students’ level was.  Moreover, the idea that carried around that these young folks would be able to automatically link the work in the classroom to their futures and to the crazy political society which we inhabit.  These reflections returned me to our class’s questions about explicitness and transparency.  What is the best strategy here for motivation?  Is it best to explain how these writing skills translate to their other courses and any job they will pursue?  Is there a way to more clearly build this into the syllabus and assignments?  (The Bean article does talk about this, but, given that these are not specialized writing classes for all nursing majors or all arts majors, it seems unhelpful to give say a memo or a critical review as a genre-based assignment.)

Perhaps you all can pick up these questions and threads in your responses or we can pursue these lines of thought in class.  Perhaps if we can answer these questions, we can hope to save the youth of our nation from their digitally-induced illiteracy, and I can continue to hope that if I do all of the teaching “right” (e.g. as the readings instruct) my students might actually be those kids who move all the way to the back of the bus both because they’re instructed to and because it is the considered, egalitarian, and respectful thing to do.

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2 Responses to Following the considered and respectful instruction

  1. Nick Earhart says:

    I’m interested in the idea of “life skills,” especially in terms of how we frame the academic experience. In the case of Gaipa last week, the aim seemed to be to draw students into scholarship—to demonstrate that the classroom is part of the real world and that ideas are interconnected. In Sarah’s post, meanwhile, there’s the question of how this endeavor can then be refracted back out again, showing students the ultimate use value of the highly specified work they’ve done.

    It’s hard to know how clearly to articulate the “skills” being developed: On the one hand there’s the risk that transparency will create easy categories that will undermine the rigors of the learning process. Critical thinking, say, means less as a concept than it does as a practice, and it may not help students to see this as a goal before they have a sense of what it entails. Also in this light, focusing on practical dividends may make academic work seem all the more remote, encouraging students to view it as a means to an end, rather than a chance to engage unfamiliar material. On the other hand, however, and where I’m on board with Sarah’s deliberate idealism, the notion of “life skills” can offer an anchor when an assignment starts to seem too arcane. Likewise, if the goal is to make academia seem “real”—that is, connected to issues students can relate to—then it makes sense to model the broader relevancy of papers, readings, and the like. While this conversation strikes me as especially knotty, I’m intrigued by the formula it suggests: that college is poised as a fulcrum, where experiences, ideas, and expectations are transformed in the service of a life beyond the institution. That may fall in with the adage of “preparing students for life,” but I wonder especially about the points of intersection between humanistic learning-for-the-sake-of-learning and the perhaps more earthbound notion of responsible citizenship.

  2. Sophie says:

    Nick, I like your idea about academia as a “fulcrum.” I think it’s an especially accurate one, and reflects our role as educators, as well as the different types of students in our classes. I think part of the difficulty we have in answering the transparency question just goes back to the types of students we teach: in any given class, there are bound to be not only the ones who are super into academia and into the esoteric assignments purely for their own sake, but also others for whom academia and its various assignments seem incredibly pedantic and completely detached from the “real” world.

    I wonder if the best practice, then, would be not to come up with a one size fits all model, where we advocate entirely for life skills or academic knowledge, but rather adjust our teaching model depending on the makeup of each class. One semester we may have more students who need more of a life skills format, and so would benefit more from the transparency that we have been discussing, in terms of how the academic skills we’re teaching them relate to the world at large; another semester we may have more students who just happen to be really engaged with the work we’re asking them to do simply because they find joy in academic tasks (and I certainly count myself among their number– hence my choice to pursue graduate studies).

    But I wonder if perhaps the question of transparency can also be applied to those more academically-minded students. Perhaps we should apply a similar mindset when teaching them, but be transparent about different things. Just because students are engaged with the idiosyncratic tasks we’re asking them to perform doesn’t mean they couldn’t benefit from the broader picture; it could be useful for them to know how the writing they learn their freshman year connects to their senior year theses, or to their graduate studies.

    Perhaps transparency itself should be a universal goal, but exactly what we’re being transparent about should be adapted to our students and what they perceive as their life outside our class, which could be a life outside the academy or not.

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