A favorite essay in Paragraph City is G. K. Chesteron’s piece on forging your own reality (or at least your own reaction to it): “On Running After One’s Hat” located here ( http://essays.quotidiana.org/chesterton/running_after_ones_hat/ ), in a lovely hodge-podge of public domain essays called Quotidiana. It’s been particularly windy in Paragraph City these last several months, with the result that I’ve spent more time indignantly chasing my hat than I have speny laughing at myself. It’s a trend worth reversing.
On the theme of creating our realities, I’ve been thinking of how students occasionally create their own versions of my assignments, though not in the positive, creative, way that intuitively aligns with the intent of the assignment, but rather the revision that defeats or alienates the assignment’s nature. (And yes, I’m still stuck singing the song of the alien-minded student.) Three examples:
- In an introductory literature class students research to support/extend their understanding of a poem; a Marge Piercy poem is one of the choices. I caution students against easy-to-find, unexpert sources and remind them about source standards for academic essays at the college level. When the papers come in, I find a student citing as a source a handsome website on Marge Piercy with fine generic information on the poet, but posted by a capable middle school student. In what way is an 8th grader an expert any self-respecting college student would quote? (Yet since the first, two more students have cited the same site.)
- For a Comp 2 essay, a student paraphrases a work on Martin Luther King Jr. with a title that strikes me as odd. Amazon has the book and a review from a children’s book reviewer: it’s a graphic novel, “comic book style,” 32 pages long, “targeted to middle school readers.” Shouldn’t a college student feel uneasy using a picture book for a source?
- In an online course, where both quantity and quality of discussion response carry some weight, a student writes a well phrased general response praising another student’s comment, then copy & pastes it to every other student comment in the discussion. When I asked why, she says she misunderstood the assignment.
Now these choices may have been poor, but I don’t think any of these students are stupid. So why did they redefine the assignment in ways that seem bizarre – at least to me? I can only come up with two explanations:
- to make the assignment easier in ways they thought I would not notice (enough students seem surprised that I read all of what they write to make me think they’ve encountered faculty who did not – or so the student thought).
- to make the assignment suit the time or energy or resources they had at hand.
So they made what they thought were reasonable alterations in the assignment, in ways that seemed “good enough.” Perhaps they learned from my response that it wasn’t good enough, that they set the bar for themselves too far below where I set it. But one other thing separates these students from students who score high on the same assignments: the alien mind students bent the assignment out of shape because they viewed themselves (and their schedules and their way of doing homework and the amount of time a piece of writing “should take”) as inflexible, certainly less flexible than the assignment itself. The reverse is true of the more successful students I speak with; they flex their plans, schedules, and abilities to adapt to the assignment.
The reason that’s a more successful strategy is because, it seems to me, that’s how most assignments are used to teach, and here I am thinking of teaching as producing change in understanding and ability. The assignment is meant as a workout; your workout changes you. Less successful students expect to stay unchanged, to “serve time” in school, and to make an assignment into whatever they can already do so they don’t have to break a sweat. As I write this, it occurs to me that this is probably a successful strategy in some some other field of endeavor, but isn’t it a design for failure in the college classroom?