It's the end of the fifth week of classes and I have been hammering students with writing assignments due at nearly every meeting. All of the qualities of good critical engagement I painstakingly laid out the first week have been so far willfully ignored. Some students have been working hell-for-leather to give me the right answer; others have yet to fully comprehend that reading the syllabus can be a helpful tool for remembering when things are due.
Everyone is at a different place, but one or two have been trembling on the launch pad all week. They are just now beginning to get why I have been making them write and write and write. It's their voice I want to hear engaging the text, not mine. Yes, summarize ideas in your own words, gentle reader, but cite them too. Citing keeps you honest. It forces you to deal with and honor what is actually on the page.
Wednesday we worked on posing our own questions to the text and looking for connections and patterns. I have been asking them to do this from the beginning, but only now is it dawning on a few of them that this is what good critical reading means: how is Andromache's speech in Book VI of the Iliad like Phoenix's speech in Book IX? Is Achilles' refusal of the treasure in Book IX the same mistake as Agamemnon's refusal of the priest's ransom in Book I?
Many of the students set personal goals the first week to become stronger readers and writers, and I have been working my rear off to honor these goals. It took weeks of reminding them not to quote-bomb me or simply spit back the examples I offered in class. It took weeks to get them to cite their summary and then to cite both ends of an inter-textual connection. It took me writing, "Yes, but what do you make of it? numberless times at the end of each paper to get them to trust themselves enough to venture an opinion on what they have read. So it was with great relief that I was able to write this earlier this morning:
Now you are doing some good critical reading and writing. Why do I say this? Well you have connected the texts together and constructed an understanding that's all your own. Moreover you drew some parallels between Achilles' choice and your own life decisions. Do you see how much smarter and more engaged this is than circling an answer on a multiple choice quiz? Now how do I keep you doing this? More please, much, much more. I finally feel like I am getting to hear what you to have say. And I like it.
You just have to burn a ton of fuel to get the rocket an inch off the pad, but it remains a thrill every time one lifts off.