This afternoon, after four days of rethinking a small group exercise we began last week, and are continuing into this week, I created a post for our course blog indicating changes for tomorrow’s class. I felt my initial proposal was sound: students will be writing an essay examining a text calling for change, a text from within the community they are writing about this semester, so in their groups they were going to look at similar texts from whatever community. I dug around on the internet for a while last week, posting some suggestions on the blog, but was ultimately dissatisfied with the selection, and told them in class that they were welcome to choose from the list, but could find their own texts, too. Some of them picked a text from the list quickly. Some groups looked around for a little bit, and all of the groups who decided to pick their own text found commercials or political ads on YouTube. The groups who found their own texts had a decidedly more enthusiastic vibe around them, as opposed to, say, the sort of perfunctory attitude that slunk around the other groups (it can’t do more than slink, or just hang out, if it’s perfunctory, can it? I could feel the “func” right there in the middle).
On the drive home that day, I thought, why don’t they just all do ads? It works, they can still practice rhetorical analysis, and it will be more interesting for them in class. I worried, though, about the leap between such an exercise and the analysis essay, and then between that essay and our preparation for the proposal essay. So I let myself think about it over the weekend.
This afternoon, in the middle of grading, I started thinking about the proposal analysis I had my students at another school do last summer. It was the original inspiration for my 1020 class, but the website which fed it, from the Detroit News, has been long since cleared out. On a hunch I googled it anyway, and found the same proposals posted on an MSU page. Problem solved! I could have my students examine these proposals instead, and all would be right in the world.
Except some of them might have been working ahead.
And some of them might be really excited about their ads.
And some of them would think, what, didn’t she think about this beforehand?
The thing is, no matter how well we plan a class, even a mini-lesson, we don’t know how it will turn out until we are in the moment. Do I think my students would have done fine if I left the assignment alone? Sure I do; I wouldn’t have presented it to them otherwise. Do I think this change will help them do better? Absolutely.
And beyond that, I think that by exposing them to my last minute decision, I am demonstrating something very important: the power of reflection on our work in progress.
A writing class that encourages inquiry and discovery in students’ research and writing, but only allows for rigid, pre-planned lessons for class time, presents a problematic contradiction. I’m telling you I am open to what you might find out in your work, but I myself am not open to finding out anything new. In fact, I have this whole thing all planned out, and I am always right the first time. My audience doesn’t matter. My resources are perfect. I will never change my mind, or stop to think, or admit I don’t know something yet. And if something starts to feel like a good idea, but isn’t in my plans, I can’t do it until next semester. If it wasn’t in the syllabus, it’s too late.
That might sound funny, but I think it reflects the way we are too often comfortable teaching: as if there is no time for things to be different, as if we have to stick to the schedule, as if our students don’t sometimes know better how they should be taught.
I think a lot about inquiry pedagogy and how to make it work in composition courses. In exploring Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity, a text which I have come back to again and again throughout my graduate studies and teaching career, I reflect on the charge the authors give me to imagine what I would do in my classroom if suddenly “all of the syllabi and curricula and textbooks in the schools disappeared” (59). They argue for a “Questions Curriculum” based on what students want to know and need to know (70). When I consider how such a curriculum would work in a composition classroom, I think that it must take a lot of improvisation, a lot of being willing to run with the moment, to consider why something isn’t working, and why something else would be better, and I think that it requires a teacher who is willing to think about her role in the classroom differently than we traditionally think of that role (and I would be happy to talk more about this in another setting). And based on my experiences this week, I have thought about something very important: that we will teach better if even our teaching matches up with the kind of inquiry we hope students will engage in, if we’re willing to sit and digest information before we respond, if we can say “I don’t know, let’s find out,” or even, “I might have been wrong, let’s try it this way.”
Postman, Neil and Charles Weingartner. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York, Dell, 1969.