Mere anarchy loosed upon the world

I will let you in on a little secret if you promise not to tell anyone. Ready? Okay, here it is: I am not really teaching any of the material in my courses. I am not teaching the books, the ideas, or even the general subject matter. Indeed, my ultra-super-top-secret goal is altogether different.

The first step in my secret plan is getting students to build arguments from the text rather than simply responding with an “I like it or I don’t like it” reaction. Most have moved beyond this stage by midterm. They can show me with textual evidence that a book says what they say it does. Excellent! Now I can move to phase two, where I ask them to start connecting the evidence they have so ably summarized to something else. For example, one of them recently wrote about the subject of money in Gulliver’s Travels. Okay, that’s great, but now I want this student to look for connections. How have the other authors we've read felt about or depicted material wealth in their works? Is there a pattern or interesting distinction that we might tease out?

Or let me put it this way. We did an exercise in class during the first week of the semester. I showed the class six images (sun, sunglasses, car tire, car, tree...). Then I had them sort the images into various relationships, patterns, and categories. There were no right or wrong answers, only conceptual frameworks whose logic they could communicate. My only goal was to get the students to apply multiple conceptual frameworks over data. After all, those images were a data field as are the various texts in the course—a bit bigger and more complex, to be sure, but just a data field. So I am not teaching the texts per se, but how to construct interesting frameworks of connection and distinction with all, some or a only few of the texts. In other words, I want students to stitch together some new creature for me, to invent, to attach head and limbs and digits. It isn't about producing right answers; it's about how well they communicate the logic and evidence for their answers.

Now students who arrive at this stage often pick up on the idea that I like to see inter-textual connections in their work, so they start making a lot of them. Unfortunately, these connections and distinctions can be dull and prosaic: Milton and Plato are similar and not so similar in many ways. When they do this, I start asking “So what?” So what does this mean? How does it fit into the seminar’s themes? What’s the big picture here? Why should I care? When they can answer these questions, we're really getting somewhere.

In a nutshell, this is my plan. I want the students to build ideas from the evidence in the text, to connect them to other ideas, authors and events in interesting and creative ways, and then to evaluate the significance of their ideas in the larger context. If I can get students to do all this, then my evil plan is succeeding. I have just turned out some highly-critical, independently-minded, intellectually-dangerous little pains in the neck. All that remains is to set them loose upon the world.

(Fiendishly rubbing my hands) Nee-yah-ha-ha-ha!


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