Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Student Autonomy?

Today, I stole one of my previous colleague's excellent ideas: I took my seminar students on a field trip to the research library.

In a million years, it never would have occurred to me to do this. As much as I want to see my students for the people they are, I can't help but fall back, sometimes, on assuming what they will or can do---because I did it when I was their age. As an undergrad, I happily drove all over hell and gone to various bookstores and libraries to get what I wanted. But students at Askesis, I have to remind myself, are different. Despite the fact that Big Research U. is 5 minutes up the road, many have never been, and are intimidated by the entire process of navigating the campus, and then actually using the library once they get there. As we rode back on the bus, there were a number of comments like: "We've been moving for 5 minutes and we're not even off the campus yet!" and "The most impressive thing is that they have a Wendy's on campus." :)

One of the things that I loved about the trip was the way that they rather effortlessly shared their knowledge with one another. C. knows the bus system because she uses it all the time, and so she made sure we got on the right one. T., who drove there on her own so she could go straight to work afterwards, got there before the rest of us, and so she was all too happy to explain how we needed guest log-ins for the catalog, and how the reference librarians could help us. M and L and K found that their books were in similar sections, and so I saw them roaming the stacks in packs.

One of the refrains that's emerging in this course is one that always takes me by surprise: "I've never gotten to choose what I wanted to write a paper on before."


On the one hand, I can't imagine that that's true. But maybe? It's certainly the case that some of my colleagues are dictatorial about student research. [My favorite is the one that requires students to read all of the course material BEFORE the class begins, and to choose a paper topic in the first week.] When pressed on the point, the students adjust their statement: "Well, I could choose between some options, but not just anything I wanted." [For the record, they do have specific parameters in my class. It's just that they're based on genre, not on time period.]

I've been turning that refrain around and around in my head all afternoon. Because, really, what's the frickin' POINT of being an English major if you can't write about what you want?! Honestly, if you're going to have to write what someone tells you to write, then you may as well be a business major. And yet, as I think about their experience navigating Big Research U., I have to revise my views a bit. Writing what you want is a lot like going up the road to Big Research U. for the first time. You don't know what you're doing, it's confusing, you have to constantly ask people what to do. You have to be willing to wander, and to live in the wandering for awhile, until you begin to make your way toward the knowledge you came there for. As many of my students said, before we went: "I need someone to hold my hand, or else I won't go."

It's certainly true that some of them are still in the wandering stage. Perhaps more realistically, some are in the I've-been-lost-in-the-wild-for-weeks-and-I'm-hungry-and-tired-and-panicked wandering stage. And if I'd been more dictatorial, they'd be further along in their research and in their drafts by now. But to listen to them work through ideas that are really their own, for what they perceive as the first time, feels well worth the price of progress.

If I'm to take my own metaphor seriously here (that's the one in which library visit=independent research/writing process. You got that, right?), then I would need to think carefully about how to set up more intellectual "field trips," in which they can get a buddy and try something new and scary together. Where they figure out which person knows the bus system, which person knows the campus, and which knows how to work with the librarians, and pool that collective knowledge to get to their own individual goals.

Somewhere in the pedagogical landscape, there is application of the perfect amount of handholding that gets students to their own work. Until I figure that out, I highly recommend the field trip. Pack a lunch, and keep your hands and arms inside the bus at all times.



OpenID bitternsweet said...

Inspiring! Both the actual field trip and the metaphorical field trip writing assignment.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008 10:07:00 AM  

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