Thursday, September 10, 2015

Party Time

Yesterday, in my two English 101 classes, I asked students to look around the room and tell me what they noticed, and how what they saw revealed something about us as a group. The exercise was about looking, about what it takes to observe closely. Writing, I told them, requires observation, and just a bit of suspension of distraction. It's a mind thing as well as an eye thing. Writers look for the surprising particulars as well as the big sweep of ideas. I wanted to hear what they saw in our little gathering.

They did a good job naming the things in the room -- the big teaching station, the VPU, the screen, the US Constitution, the American flag, the cramped feel of a room too small for our numbers, the industrial beige walls.

Then I asked them to speculate about the underlying values, beliefs, desires, fears, assumptions, and motivations of us as a group. Their responses were not surprising, but did reveal a divide between them and me. 

They are practical, likable freshmen, and I think they trust me enough to be frank. The great majority of them said they were at the university to get a degree and then a job. They were in this specific class because it is a required course. The upshot was that they expected nothing and did not plan on really learning anything. It was even acceptable that the class was boring to the point of torture.

They were amused when I told them I went to college because I wanted to learn to think, to learn about the world, and become a different person, one who could see things I didn't see before. In short, I wanted to wake up my mind and heart. Really.

They thought that was quaint and bit outdated.

I told them that the life of the mind requires cultivation, focus, fertilizer of ideas, and learning to see the life in all things, the life beneath the surface of things. Critical thought and observation presupposes effort, intention, curiosity. You have to work at it.

They nodded off, not unkindly.

I observed that they wore, almost to a student, some type of UA logo, that they were almost all white, that the boys dressed one way, the girls another. I also noted the patterns to their stories about education and what it is supposed to do. I tried to get them to see that we, our little classes, are a construction. We work within a context. That context includes the course, the department, the university, the state, and a corporate economic model that wants them to be good workers first, good citizens maybe later.

One of them looked at me and said, "It's OK," like I was some pitiable, doddering old man.

A lively, bright-eyed young woman with a pierced nose said, helpfully, "We just want to have fun." She sits in the front row and is one of the students who leads, who speaks up.

That summed it up, I guess. University education is, now, more about an entertainment package than it is about challenging academics. There is the business of the credential, the grade, and students are very mindful of their grades, but the end game is utility and recreation. The UA, in particular, with its nice weather, research and business emphasis, caters to the career-minded children of the out-of-state elites.

Just what is.

In some ways, I am in their way, interfering with what they seem to be here to learn. They want to make social connections, build a career community, get what they need to enter a shrinking job market. They are smart and practical. I can't blame them at all.

I have to say that the new curriculum caters to this technocratic practicality. The assignments are skills-driven. Get in. Get out. Head off to the game. College is more of a glorified high school.

The decades, to me, have had a flattening effect on teaching. The scope of practice has narrowed to skill and drill and test. The messiness that is writing has been ironed out into nice little hermetically sealed units.

I have to say that I have been mostly blind, in a self-protective denial, about these changes. I'm making it a point now to notice them, to sustain a cold, clear gaze until it surrenders its truth.

It's my job, what I do. I can take a page from my own playbook and put it into practice. We'll see what it is I find.

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