Me: Why are going to talk about reading in this writing class? Why is reading important?
Student: Because reading makes you a better writer.
Me: Yes! Why is that? How does reading make you a better writer?
Student: (Pause) I don’t know. It’s just what my last teacher said.
There’s a scene in the movie Good Will Hunting when Matt Damon’s character, Will Hunting, Southie Boy Genius, confronts a Harvard know-it-all in a bar. Will reveals that the Harvard guy is simply spouting off what he read in textbooks and doesn’t have anything particularly insightful to say, at least nothing that he came up with himself. But, as the Harvard guy points out, he’ll have the degree.
Ah, the degree. Be it from Harvard or from my rural state university, the undergraduate degree is the current brass ring, the ticket to a better life. But I keep asking my students: what is your degree going to represent? What are you here to do: learn or do just enough to get through? Are you going to wait for me to tell you the answer or are you going to go out and try and figure it out for yourself?
But what is my job as their teacher? I’ll admit that I can’t stand silences, so when I ask a question and no one answers, I will answer. I shouldn’t get so frustrated, then, when I read students’ papers and the only insight or ideas I find are my own. I’ve tried reading prompts, online and offline discussion questions and groups, reading free writing, seemingly everything short of standing in front of the classroom in silence for the entire class period or until someone finally offers an answer, whichever comes first. I’ve explained how active reading will help them write papers because they’ll actually have something to say, how critical thinking or working to acquire knowledge will help them in all their classes and in their lives after college, and how dangerous uncritical thinking can be. Do you want to be like the Athenians who were manipulated into going gladly to fight and die by Pericles? Or do you want to be able to decide on your own what is right or wrong?
Later in the semester, we are going to be talking about education, what it is, and what could or should be. We are going to be talking about current trends in education reform. At least, I hope we will be talking about it, and it won’t just be me telling them about education and what’s wrong (and what’s right) with education reform. I don’t need to tell them that high school sucks. But what I need them to do is to start thinking critically about why that is. And I need them to start thinking about how to make it better.
Check that. I need them to start thinking critically about anything. I don’t want to be telling them what they should be thinking about education reform, or anything else for that matter. It is so easy as a teacher or professor to fill those silences with your words, thoughts, ideas, and insights. And the students, for the most part, will dutifully write them down, repeat them on the test or in their papers. Most of the students will forget what we have said to them as soon as the class is over. But some will remember and become, in some form or another, that Harvard guy from Good Will Hunting. I want my students to be able to take what we learn in class and apply it to their other classes, their lives.
I’m still working on it. I just wish sometimes that it didn’t seem like in a class of 30, I am the only one.
Lee Elaine Skallerup has a PhD from the University of Alberta in Comparative Literature. She has taught in two Canadian provinces and three States, and is now branching out as an Edupreneur. You can visit her blog at collegereadywriting.blogspot.com and follow her on Twitter (@readywriting).