One of my fellow writing instructors and bloggers, Laura at Red Lips and Academics, recently wrote about the challenges of teaching students in our culture of over-share. I’ve written previously about why I actually don’t mind assigning a narrative essay, even if it does reinforce some of their more narcissistic impulses. But the post, my own brush with wordlessness, and being in the middle of grading papers, made me think about what, exactly, our students are saying.
The idea that I would be devastated if I were no longer able to talk/write/communicate is predicated on the fact that I believe that I have something meaningful to say. I blog here and elsewhere because I want to participate in the ongoing discussion regarding the future of higher education. I teach because I believe that I have knowledge that can and should be shared with students. People read, comment on, share, and compliment my posts, so I imagine that there are at least some people out there who agree with me. And my student evaluations are usually pretty strong, indicating that my students agree that I have something valuable to share with them.
But let’s look at what our students talk or write about: themselves, and usually not with very much depth or insight. Part of the narrative essay assignment is to get the students to reflect critically on a moment in their lives. A narrative essay has to have a point, and that point has to come from some self-reflection or self-awareness. When I talk about being a disruptive influence as a teacher, I want to push the “whole person” so to speak, to get them to think about what they say and why they are saying it.
But it has to go beyond just pushing the perception of themselves; they have to pop their heads up and take a look at the world around them. And not just look at it and react, but take the time to think and reflect. One of the things that has always startled me (although at this point, it shouldn’t anymore) is the superficiality of the “analysis” I read in their papers. One reason, I know, is that they don’t take the time to really think about what they are writing about; they simply grind it out and get it done. The revision process also seems to reinforce this superficiality; the ideas don’t get any deeper, even if the words and sentences used to communicate them are cosmetically more pleasing and grammatically correct.
This is where I come in as a teacher. I have a responsibility to assign them readings that challenge them, that make them uncomfortable, either because of the difficulty level or the ideas expressed (usually both). We can try to provoke them into thinking differently about their lives and what they consume (pop culture, etc), but unless we give them alternative models to try, then we are essentially dooming them to only ever being able to superficially engage with a subject. Critical thinking is meaningless unless we give students something meaningful to think about and some examples.
I go back to my example of “ancient” texts about education. Point me to a place where students can read contemporary arguments about education that explain its value in something other than economic terms? If I limited my students to contemporary texts on education, they probably would not have been exposed to the idea of education as something other than a way to make money and grow the economy. And that we are even talking about education; if polled, my students would almost universally tell you that this was a subject they had no interest in learning about, yet are all readily (and ignorantly) participating in the system.
I believe that students’ should have some say and control over what they want to learn. At the same time, though, they have to accept that learning moves beyond just simply remember facts and information. My job is to push their learning towards knowledge. This is not easy, but it is how we can help our students find something meaningful to say that isn’t just confessing something about themselves.