Tuesday, January 09, 2007

"Collage Students," Part V: Two models, and a solicitation

(Those interested can find links to all the previous "collage student" posts here.)

First things first: I am duty-bound to make note of the contributors whose own posts and their ideas served to spark and then spur on this series of posts: Randall (and the EMBLOS), with an assist from Walter J. Ong; Winston; a collective thanks to the good people of Clusterflock (in particular Daryl Scroggins and Sheila Ryan), where earlier posts in this series found homes and excellent comments; Conrad, whose post provides a model for what I'm after; Hank, whose post provides the attitude for what I'm after; Raminagrobis, whose oh-by-the-way mention of the meaning of a-leitheia is the reason behind what I'm after; and, finally, an interview with Brian Eno, the source of the term "curator" below.
The orchestra has begun playing, so I'd better get on with things:

Here's what I'm toying with as a priori assumptions regarding the sorts of students I see today and which I'll be using as a guide for shaping class discussions and assignments in my Comp I classes this spring:

1) My students--we all--are "collage students": that is, we are assemblages of experiences and knowledge, some of it commonly held, some not, the commonly-held things not understood or thought of in the same way from person to person to person.

2) We can divide "collage students"--specifically, their relationship to the things they know--into two basic types:
a) "collectors": the subject is meaningful to the student at a personal level, but that interest, for whatever reason, doesn't extend beyond the personal. That is, the student feels no compunction (or, perhaps, lacks the ability, or just flat hasn't tried) to explain its meaning to someone else. This student, if asked why s/he likes or is interested in something, is likely to say little more than, "I just do/am."
b) "curators": the subject interests the student at both a personal and an intellectual level. The latter means that the student is able to speak about the subject in such a way that s/he can convey to an audience why the subject should matter to others. This is the realm of comparison, the establishing of context, analysis, synthesis, etc.
3) The goal, I hope would be obvious to them, is for them to begin to think like "curators." I want them to think about that goal in relation to two things:
a)the definition of Truth as a-leitheia: "the absence of forgetting," along with Heidegger's further gloss on that word as "the uncovering of that which is hidden."
b) Neil Postman's distinction between "news" and "information" and how the finding and hanging onto of Truth--"the uncovering of that which is hidden"--these days has become both harder to do and never more important to do.
Okay: Those are the pedagogical assumptions and my first-day mapping out of those assumptions. Below the fold comes the solicitation.

Psst . . . c'mere, buddy . . .

Given all the above, do any ideas for writing assignments suggest themselves to you? I have some, of course; and, this week being my college's Faculty Development Week, I have occasion to ask my colleagues about all this as well, but I'd like to cast the net as widely as possible. The one framing requirement I have to keep in mind is that we have six writing assignments, five of which employ some of the rhetorical modes (example or definition, narrative or process, division/classification, cause/effect, compare-contrast) and the last must be persuasive. I've toyed with the idea of asking them to choose one "subject" (just about as broadly defined as possible)--something they are passionate about and think others wouldn't care about but should--and make it the focus, or at least the starting point, as the spirit moves them, of the various assignments. My fear is that students might find that limiting, but if I make it clear that they choose something that they are truly and deeply passionate about, my hope is that they will, with a bit (or a lot) of thought they should find plenty of things to say, and ways to write, about their subject.

The idea of audience will be especially crucial this semester, too: curators are teachers, after all.

Oh, yeah: if you think all this is just nuts, please say so, because I need to hear that, too. But please tell me why it's nut I will just say preemptively that what they'll be doing in this class--to not just regurgitate information but really think about getting at why this matters to them and should matter to someone else--will be by far the most challenging thing I've asked any freshman comp class to do. I've tried to design assignments before that (I thought) would yield papers of the sort that I want these to do this spring, but to no avail. Thinking about things in this way, though, just might do the trick. The other preemptive remark: I know my students are in a community college. All the more reason to push them.

Thanks for reading this far, and thanks in advance for whatever thoughts you care to share.

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The County Clerk said...


SMM said...

This interests me from the standpoint that many instructors at the post-secondary level are horrid at writing essay/paper topics. Many are brilliant.

This idea would thrill me as a student but that is because that I did my post-secondary studies between the ages of 39-44. I was there with bells on and have been a seeker all my life and from what I saw not many of my fellow students approach school in that manner.

I say give it a whirl. I just hope more than half have even a clue what they are passionate about beyond their sense of entitlement.

My one question would be what do you mean by this statement? "The other preemptive remark: I know my students are in a community college. All the more reason to push them."

John B. said...

Hank and smm, thanks for coming by and commenting.

Smm, what I meant by that statement was this: Many of my students see that term "community college" and think that translates to "Academic Easy Street." Our particular school doesn't have that reputation, but even if it did, I'd want to to what I could to disavow them of that notion.

Winston said...

John, I'm late to the party. Been off-track for a couple of days.

Seems to me a great idea, which if introduced carefully, might not totally overwhelm the students. I like your suggested idea for subject. To minimize confusion and bias in their selection process, you might consider - without telling them they're going to be writing about it - asking them to think about one thing they are passionate about but others are not, and get them to write that down and committed prior to making the writing assignment. Otherwise, they may get so bound up in thinking about the writing itself that they have trouble choosing that "one thing." Or... perhaps that does not even matter. Only you would know.

An alternative that just came to mind: the inverse of your proposition. Something that many around them were passionate about, but they were not. Research why others are. Defend why I am not. Explain why I should be. This presents an entirely different intellectual exercise and dynamic than the flip-side which you proposed.

Methinks being a student in your classes would be a blast...

John B. said...

Thanks for the comments and the compliment. I especially like very much your second suggestion, which would cause students to be a bit skeptical (and thus keep their emotional distance) as they begin their investigations and thinking. There is, after all, such a thing as being too close to one's subject, and your suggestion would help in that department.