It's Impossible to Teach What I Want My Students to Learn
It's also impossible to measure whether or not they've learned it.
The longer I do this college instructing stuff, the more convinced I become that it’s impossible to teach what I most want my students to learn.
What’s more, it’s probably also impossible to measure whether or not they’ve learned what I want them to learn, and definitely not possible within the timeline of a single semester.
Part of my problem is that I have a difficult time even articulating what I most want them to learn.
I teach writing, so I want them to learn skills, sure, but I mostly want them to have experiences.
With composition, I want them to know what it is to suddenly see “through” an argument and be energized at the thought of their own response. For the most part, their educations have turned them into passive receivers of information. I want them to realize that they have a voice worth hearing, that they are creators of knowledge.
I believe we call this “critical thinking” and claim it as the raison d'être of higher education, but I’ve never met an assessment that was anything better than a loose proxy for measuring this.
Perhaps a well-written essay demonstrates this, but how do I know the spirit behind that work? Is it too much to want them to do the job out of inspiration, rather the diligence or duty?
Does that matter? I think it does.
In creative writing, I want them to know the pleasures of a mind adrift, of experiencing the wonder of something bubbling up from the subconscious that they had no idea existed until it hit the page in front of them.
I want them stunned by a piece of writing, maybe even something of their own. I’m hoping for a series of “a-ha” moments, where they’ve told themselves a secret. This is the process of discovering their own values, the things that make them who they are.
That there’s no formula for teaching these things doesn’t mean they can’t be learned, which is increasingly how I see my role. Sure, I have information to share, skills to teach, feedback and encouragement (and admonishment) to provide, but the best thing I can do for my students is to create an atmosphere conducive to them having these experiences.
Just as yeast needs certain conditions to be met to do its catalytic business, I can try to do the same for my students.
This is hard, though, and uncertain. It’s easier to teach the things I know I can teach. I’m just less convinced some of those things are useful.
I used to spend a class period lecturing on comma rules, after which there would be a quiz where, in the immediate aftermath of the lesson, proper usage was well on display. It felt good, like I’d moved the needle.
Except the essays following the lesson usually weren’t any better on this front. My students had, at best, temporarily learned the most important comma rules. What they hadn’t experience is a desire and drive to use those rules properly because they were desperate to have their message properly understood by an audience. I could even argue the lesson was counterproductive, that I'd given them a false sense of security, and short-circuited them from pursuing this knowledge for themselves.
So I don’t do that anymore. Instead, I try to get them maximally enthused about what they’re writing. I let them know when I think what they’re trying to convey isn’t clear, and then point them towards the resource that will help them out.
The end goal, I suppose, is to make myself unnecessary as anything other than cheerleader.
But even as I doubt my ability to teach what my students most need to learn, I’ve come to know how necessary teachers have been in my own life. I remember very little of the content I learned in college and graduate school, but I have a vivid memory of my graduate school poetry professor John Wood shattering chalk on the board from excitement as he did the metrical scansion of an Adrienne Rich poem.
Honestly, I did not know that poetry did that to people. It was his example that made me want to find out how to make that happen for myself. Later in the semester, when I was tasked with writing a 15 page explication of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur,” it happened, as I read the final couplet for the 30th time:
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
A sudden rush came to my head, a literal leaving of my senses. I am not a believer in Hopkins' God, and yet there I was, stunned. I was humbled and inspired both. That was just shy of twenty years ago. It still feels like yesterday.
John Wood did not teach me this, but without him, I never would’ve learned it.
Nobody taught me how to use Twitter, either, but I'm learning it, bit by bit.
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