You're not getting it.

One of my students came up to me this week just as class was ending and said, "Maybe I'm just dumb or something, but I try to read and it doesn't make any sense. I just can't get it."

Unfortunately I had to race to the other end of campus to teach another class in less than 10 minutes, so I didn't have much time to talk to him.  All I could do was reassure him that he  wasn't dumb and that I knew the texts I had assigned were challenging.  In the past eight weeks he's had to tackle sections of Saint Augustine, Boethius, Dante, Machiavelli, Luther and now Shakespeare.

I told him I don't expect him to be an expert on this stuff, but I do expect him to read and come to class ready to discuss what he didn't understand. The more he reads and writes and discusses, the more he'll understand.  It's a process.  I go over all this the first week of class, but students' mental models change slowly.  And this guy--like many of my students--operates with a model that equates learning with getting it.  This is exactly what I don't want him to do.

The verb to get means "to come into possession of; to receive."  Getting it implies there is some stable, discrete set of facts or ideas that can be neatly packaged, transported and unpacked.  First I had it.  Then  I gave it to him and now he's got it.  That's not education.  That's playing cooties.

How do I explain that I want him to construct something, not get something?  I want him to say, "You know what's really weird?  The very actions that got crooked politicians and popes placed in Dante's hell are being recommended as sound political advice in Machiavelli's The Prince."  And then I will reply, "You're right. That is pretty weird.  What do you think we should make of this insight?"

Indeed, everything I'm doing in the course is designed to forge connections and draw distinctions between texts, historical eras and the past and present.  I can't make these connections for students (much as they want me to). If I do--even just to show them an example of what I mean--that exact connection will show up in their next response.

Getting it is actually pretty easy. Working out the connections between things is, well, work. The task for the students is to make me get it, not them.  Show me how you got there.

Yesterday I emailed my student and tried to explain all this to him. I also offered him some tips and encouragement. I fully expect he'll be frustrated with my response.


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