31 October 2005

Selling Short

In my composition class today I showed "Shaped by Writing," a short film produced by researchers at Harvard who did a longitudinal study of the class of 2001 (their website has links to the film itself plus a summary of what they found; students in the film make the point that feedback is essential to their development as writers, and that writing was the means by which they made sense of their education). My students have been working on an assignment where they've been interviewing people about what writing is, what makes writing good, what kidns of writing is expected in college. Some of them are interviewing people who aren't yet in college to find out what expectations for the future are; others are interviewing students further along to find out what's next for them. And we're writing reports. (All my students, btw, are in a thematic cluster of courses for people who plan to be teachers.)

I teach at a comprehensive urban university, a campus with students fresh out of high school and students who started taking classes 10, 20 years ago. We're not an open admissions campus, but we exist in part to make a college education accessible to a broad range of my state's citizens. Most of my students are the first in their families to attend college, and they're here to make a better life for themselves. 4/5 students work, and the average number of hours per week they work is 30 (more than 40% work more than 35 hours a week, in fact).

It's midterm, and my students are tired. Some of them laughed, quietly, as the movie opened (the first words are how a first year writing class changed the life of the speaker). Through the movie, the Harvard students talk about how important writing was to them" "Writing made me claim the classes, it made me claim the texts, it made me claim what I was reading," says one. Another explains how writing helped her learn to talk in class. Another says that writing was his means to discover that he belonged in college, that he could think, he could find something to say. Another says that writing was how she learned, the place where epiphanies happened. It's a movie about writing, but it's also a movie about learning, about the end of an (admittedly elite) liberal education.

I asked my students to react to the movie afterwards, and they shocked me. The first comment: "those students are way too enthusiastic about writing." They thought the Harvard students only said those things because their majors require more writing than their Education major will. Some of them said that they just aren't good writers, that they never had the chance to write much before, so they're not good writers, and they can't be good writers. They said that writing was just something to do for other people (one said, in fact, that writing in like taking out the trash: just something to do and not something to think about. That's another thought I want to write about, but in the meantime, on Wednesday, we'll be talking about composting as a better metaphor.)

This shocked me. I've heard these sentiments before--anyone who teaches composition gets used to selling the course, selling the very idea that writing can be learned, selling the virtues, benefits, excitement of getting involved with learning. And I like that work; the chance to work with first-year students at a campus like this is what I love about my job. I know that at Not Harvard, it's hard to relate to Harvard (some of my students probably went into the viewing thinking that they had nothing in common with these Ivy types). But it shocked and saddened me that they could hear other students talking about how they learned and grew over four years at Harvard, and think "Oh, that's not me. I'll never be so excited about school." They are all future teachers, and the talkative folks said "I just want to take courses that will be Useful To Me As A Teacher." I'm not sure how I want to approach this issue on Wednesday. I don't want to scold them, but I want to say: you're selling yourselves short. You should want that enthusiasm about your education. So many of my students have such obstacles already, what with precarious finances and too many hours at work. Passivity in school isn't going to be an asset. Your education can make you a different kind of thinker, a different kind of communicator. Education can matter.

I don't mean this to be a whine about my students, whom I like a great deal. But I'm saddened, in a way, about this, and I'm not sure what to say to them that doesn't sound like a scold. And I'm not entirely sure why (after 12 years on my campus) this particular experience feels different.

1 comment:

Phantom Scribbler said...

I'm going to have to come back to this after I've given it some thought. I'm a product of that Expos class described in the film, and someone I know was teaching in the program at the time the film was made. The idea that learning to think (through learning to write) is a skill restricted to the elite classes is extraordinarily troubling to me.

Perhaps I'd better watch the film before I say more...