Breaking Radio Silence
I learned a couple of things in that writing program years ago. I learned that I lacked the ambition necessary to become a serious writer, but I also learned that you can't wait around for the muses. Sometimes you need to start without them, so here goes:
This new semester has begun well (they always do). I'm especially keen on my Humanities 102 section. The students have really taken to Dante. We finished the Inferno on Tuesday and this morning they will be commencing their CFDs (crappy first drafts) for their unit synthesis papers. So today I'll be doing in-class triage, hopping from student to student and answering queries on thesis statements, citing evidence, formulating body paragraphs.
My other courses are going well, although I'm a bit perplexed by my first-year honors class. They're a quiet bunch, but their written work is thoughtful. Sometimes you encounter the odd quiet students who offer only one or two comments the entire term, but you're astonished when you read their work. They've actually been listening and thinking deeply about the subject. There's that old saw about "still waters," I know, but I think it's more a peculiar cognitive style. They prefer to hear an entire spectrum of ideas before they venture their view. Being a Chatty-Cathy myself, I'm a little mystified by these sorts of people. But this semester it's like I have a whole room of them. They just keep blinking at me with their big, moist doe-eyes. It's as if they're saying, "Keep talking, teacher boy. We'll let you know when we've got something to say."
I'm also pleased with some of the things happening in my freshmen seminar. I had these students for a three-credit seminar last fall, and I meet with them for one 50-minute period a week during spring semester. I really like this set up. It means you can teach them through the whole developmental cycle of their first year in college. You actually get to see them changing.
This week, for instance, we were discussing chapter two of Ken Bain's What the Best College Students Do, which describes various student learning strategies. Some students try to survive by memorizing just what they need to pass the tests (surface learners); others are geniuses at figuring out how to game the system for higher grades (strategic learners), but a few (deep learners) are having an entirely different and far richer experience in college.
We talked about these approaches to college learning and went over some of the research on intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation. What struck me was how quickly they recognized what Bain described. They had no language before to discuss their dissatisfaction with how they were learning, or even why some courses, subjects and professors were more engaging to them than others. Once they could name what they were experiencing, most spoke of wanting something more satisfying than "plug and chug" or gaming the system. They were so hungry for something better.
One of my first-year students even wrote in her response that she recognized herself as a strategic learner, someone focused solely on grades and working the system. She said during high school she never took a risk, never went out of her comfort zone, and never shared an opinion for fear it would be the wrong answer. Everyone was thrilled with her GPA and she graduated with honors, but she confessed to secretly feeling like she hadn't learned a thing. At the beginning of this semester, I asked each of my freshmen to set a personal goal for the term. She had set a goal of earning a perfect 4.0. In her response this week, she asked--very humbly--if it were too late to change her goal.
I wanted to frickin' cry. Lord know this job has its frustrations. But every now and then...