Making Adjustments

I love responding to students in my comments and spend way too much time doing it.  I have a kid in my course right now who always starts his writing responses with phrases like "This was dumb" or "I thought this reading was really boring."  He's not a strategic learner.  By that I mean he is not the kind of student who has developed a careful strategy for getting an A.  You know, the do-exactly-what-was-asked and no more kind of student.  These are the ones who figure out how to game the system, say what the professor wants to hear and become the most exacting little syllabus lawyers.
No, this kid just tells me he didn't much care for it, as if he alone were entitled to decide whether something was worth his time or not.  I actually like this in him and hope it doesn't get beaten out of him too quickly.  I always end up writing more back to students like these than I ever do to strategic learners, who usually receive some formulation of the following: "Hey, these are my ideas.  Go get some of your own."

So here was my side of the most recent exchange with my wonderfully non-strategic learner:
I actually like it when you tell me that you thought a reading was dumb or boring (as you did with the Stephen L.Carter reading).  It’s amusing and I think it’s probably good to assess the value of assignments.  In high school I had a teacher who assigned us to write the preamble to the Constitution backwards and to have it on his desk the next day.  Everybody (including me) did it but one guy: Sammy G.  But Sammy never did any of the work. He mostly just got high, occasionally by sniffing the gas out of lawnmowers.  So the next day, the teacher announced, “Everybody failed this assignment but Sammy, who gets an A.” 
The students were like “What the…?”  Sammy just smiled.  The teacher said, “Sammy was the only one smart enough to know that this was a dumb assignment.  You people are seniors and will be graduating soon.  You’ve got to start thinking for yourselves and not just doing everything you’re told.”   I kind of thought that was a dirty trick and hated that teacher, but he was right.  And I’ve never forgotten the lesson, so I guess he was actually a pretty good teacher.
So you should question what you are assigned to read.  Keep in mind, though, that not all professors will appreciate being told you thought a reading was boring or dumb.  They assigned it for a reason.  Me?  I’m just different that way.  I don’t mind.  Besides I actually did assign Carter for a reason, and it occurs to me that I am pulling the same stunt my high school teacher did years ago.  You may have noticed in class last time that every single person but one said they wanted Boss A, the principled, consistent, open and caring boss.  I even made them declare their choice by moving to one side of the room.   I wanted them on the record.
Today, of course, we met Mr. Machiavelli, who argued that you don’t want Boss A in charge of things.  In fact, such people are absolute disasters in leadership positions, especially in politics.  And did you see how many people changed where they were standing today?  That’s exactly what I was hoping for.  We should change our thinking when we encounter new evidence or arguments.  Carter’s not opposed to that, by the way.  Read carefully, he does believe a leader can and should change his or her mind when his principle is shown to be wrong.  Machiavelli is all about changing, too, although for tactical advantage rather than principles.  You could say his only principle is just win, baby.  How you get there doesn’t matter.
I keep saying this and it remains true: deep learning means change.  We all start with an idea about what good leadership is, but after we gather some new information, or look at it from a different perspective, or encounter a problem where our idea doesn’t apply, we may have to adjust our thinking.  That’s what real critical thinking is: adjusting to new understanding.   Not adjusting = not good.  It means your learning curve is flat-lining.  This isn’t to say that Carter is wrong and Machiavelli right.  I’m simply suggesting that we might want to closely question the assumptions of Carter and Machiavelli before we adjust our ideas on leadership.
You know who didn’t adjust?  Sammy G.  Saw him in a bar several years back and talked to him.  He was still all about getting loaded, and along the way he had been kicked out of the army and been in and out of various institutions (psych ward, prison).  When I asked him what he had been doing with his life, he just made his thumb and forefinger into a nice round “zero.”  So, yeah, keep questioning the readings, but keep doing them anyway.


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