Friday, December 01, 2006

"Collage Students," Part II: Curiosity and caring; or: Wheat from chaff

In Part I of this post, I said this of my students:

They're looking every which way because they have so many places to look, but they don't all have a place in common to look (and no, Google doesn't count). Thus the absence of appositives and, as I've noted with my students, the difficulty they have in thinking about abstract ideas and in presenting the arguments of people who might disagree with them. All is here and now and/but centers around the individual. Indeed, I'd go so far as to argue that in our popular culture there exists an unconscious but active resistance to the idea of having a common place to look, as embodied by the idea of "coolness" as I understand that term.

I wasn't/am not happy with the implications of that remark, though, seeming as it does to suggest a Cultural Literacy strategy for dealing with the problem of "collage students." The whole question of the merits of determining "what every American should know" is a subject for another time; suffice it to say, though, that by the time I see freshmen in my Comp classes, it's a bit late in the day to be engaged in culture remediation, especially in the 8-week versions of that class that I most often teach.

But even so, I was stuck as to how to continue this discussion. Although I say in that earlier post that information technology is both symptom and cause for this problem, I also think it might provide a means to a cure for it. And there was also in me a sense that perhaps my students, even as they appear to be engaged in ITianity, might also be just as overwhelmed by this profusion of sounds and images and words and so have taken to declaring their tastes, as opposed to sharing them, as a defense mechanism against all that's out there. It's simply easier to level out tastes and preferences than in assessing it all. Over at Clusterflock, where I left a link to the earlier post, commentor and Flocker-contributor Daryl Scroggins described that leveling out as "a homogenizing of difference as a means of sedation."

And then, on successive days, I read a couple of posts on other blogs that seem to me to suggest, if not a cure, then a strategy to use in classes filled with "collage students."

The first post was this one by Conrad Roth at his most-excellent blog, Varieties of Unreligious Experience. Mr. Roth is a curious sort, and he realized, as he was reading the Odyssey's Book IX, he didn't know what a winnowing-fan looked like, much less one that would look like the oar on Odysseus' shoulder (by coincidence, I'd blogged about this very passage from the Odyssey before, though my post ended up in a different place). I'll post no spoilers for Roth's post--just trust me when I say you want to read it. But here follows the reason I'm mentioning his post here--his concluding paragraph plus the sentence immediately preceding it:
The ancient is present, atavistically, in the modern.

This is how we learn to cope with the unutterable and terrifying gulf of time extending ever backwards—how we make sense of a past increasingly remote, and increasingly unknown. With our objects we preserve some fragile sense that such a past was, after all, much the same as our familiar present, only rearranged a little, like our words, and like the atoms of our bodies. We retain, at the same time, the hope that we will not be lost to the future: that whatever progress the world might make, the forms of our objects and ourselves will always prevail.

Technology, even as it renders certain things obsolete, nevertheless retains in its contemporary forms, like our tailbone, a rudimentary link to an older time. It evolves, then.

"Collage students," you're saying. I know, I know. I'm getting there. Geez--you're just like my students.

Then this morning, as I visited Roth's post to see if anyone had commented on it, I saw that he had linked admiringly to this post at Hank Heatly's blog, A Lake County Point of View.

(Aside: Mr. Heatly, aside from having had the fortuitous good taste to have been born in Texas, is a blogger you DO want to read, especially those of you who have said kind things in the past about good old Blog Meridian. It's humbling in the extreme to read his work--and addictive. Allow yourself plenty of time to look around his place.)

Anyway. Mr. Heatly's post is part thank-you to Mr. Roth for saying some kind things about him, and part comment on the post I linked to above. Here, he's commenting directly on the passage from Roth's post that I quoted above:
What is embarrassing is... well... our... uh... human tendency to... uh... think that so much of what we do actually matters. That is poorly expressed. Put another way, I am coming to believe that the only achievement is conduct. Not WHAT but HOW. There is nothing else. Maybe. We choose our own aspirational ideals for conduct. Or at least, we can. Call it religion or morality if you like. I'll not object. But it might just as well be a quest for excellence. (ellipses, italics and caps are his)

I have been thinking about this little paragraph all day today; I've been reading it as directed at me, in fact, given that I've not been entirely pleased with my teaching this semester. But it's here because I see it as of a piece with Mr. Roth's post--or, rather, the impetus behind that post.

Given the collage-like nature of living, our cultural and sociological diversity, and how our world is presented to us now via multiple media and sources for those media, I think the days when we could expect our students to be in possession of a commonly-held cultural canon are past us. That's not necessarily a bad thing, in that those things I wish my students knew have not been lost, and I don't mind quickly filling in the gaps when and as I'm able. What my students appear to lack, more than intelligence, are two things: a) a sense of curiosity: the desire to seek out information about what they bump into in their reading, their listening, their looking around them; and b) excellence borne of caring--that is, the sense that what interests them will interest someone else and thus is worth the trouble of expressing clearly and with attention to detail in writing. It's that lack or, perhaps more accurately, their not actively exercising their curiosity and caring so as I can see some evidence of it, that creates that sense I have that they don't know why they've chosen what they have for their collages but, by golly, they're glad they have them.

I would like to get my students to see that these mere bits and pieces they possess by themselves don't mean much, unless they do two things. First, I'd like them to develop the habit of being curious by figuring out what links those bits and pieces together on their own (the bits and pieces'--not the students') terms, just as Roth did in his post. Don't just collect them; learn about them. I'd dearly love for them to have insights into these forays into the past of the sort that Roth concludes his essay on, but I'll happily settle for what I have seen happen with my students again and again when they learn something they hadn't known before: the desire to learn more, to expand that perimeter of knowledge and so experience the truth of the statement, The more you know, the more you realize you don't know.

Then comes the caring, the conveying to an audience why this should matter to someone other than the writer. None of this "It's just my opinion" stuff; excellence is never shy and retiring, though it can certainly be modest. The bits and pieces themselves don't have to be excellent. We all have our aesthetic blindsides, our palate-cleansing guilty pleasures; the trick, and it comes only with time and the continuing exercise of curiosity, is to recognize them for what they are. Sooner or later, they'll bump into indisputably good stuff. What I would want to see in my students' writing is a sense that they know that what they know is worth someone else's knowing, too, and for reasons other than "it's just my opinion."

They'll develop their own canons this way, their own lists of What Matters. That doesn't bother me, so long as they can show me they know how they're connected to what has come before. I think as well that they will, over time, realize that some things are worth knowing by virtue of the fact that so many other people know them and make reference to and use of them. Wheat from chaff. The Internet becomes, with some practice, an electronic winnowing-fan.

A classroom run on this principle would be de-centered; the instructor would be more of a facilitator than a lecturer. But that suits me just fine. I tell my classes that my goal is to help them reach the point where they can teach themselves what they need to know. And what better place to start than to get them to begin by reading and interpreting their own collages of knowledge?

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R. Sherman said...

I've been "powerless" for two days. The heat and light are now on again, and I'm coming back to this.


John B. said...

I was wondering about that earlier this week. I'm glad that y'all are getting thawed out.

Ariel said...

Very perceptive post. I especially appreciated a couple observations you made:

...perhaps my students, even as they appear to be engaged in ITianity, might also be just as overwhelmed by this profusion of sounds and images and words and so have taken to declaring their tastes, as opposed to sharing them, as a defense mechanism against all that's out there.

I see this at the high school level, I think, as students use convenient labels and slogans, not as provocative starting points to guide thought, but as rhetorical shields to hide behind - or perhaps verbal mallets to hit people over the head with. In this culture of ITanity (I like that) "Declaration" has become a means of self-defense. I'm afraid I see this in various aspects of the church as well.

None of this "It's just my opinion" stuff; excellence is never shy and retiring, though it can certainly be modest.

I've always found that "It's just my opinion" has a way of stifling meaningful discourse. If we really believe something, we should have a reason for doing so, and shouldn't wince at explaining our rationale.

Conrad H. Roth said...

John, you've done a fine job of weaving together your own previous ideas with those of Hank and myself, and creating something new therefrom... I'm impressed!

John B. said...

Ariel and Conrad,
A belated thanks for your kind comments. The more I have thought about all this, the more I want to try developing a course that would quite deliberately get my students to play cultural detective and write up what they find in their papers. It'll be a bit chaotic, but I think it'll be fun for them--or at least a Learning Experience.

Anonymous said...

Sounds fun!