Thursday, October 22, 2009

"Why are we doing this?" Education as explanation.

"Why are we doing this?"

I was in the midst of asking my Literature & Creative Writing (English 273) students what sounds vowels make and then having them, Christian Bok style, write sentences in which they used as much of one vowel as they possibly could. We were reading these sentences out loud when the student next to me asked this simple question.

I was annoyed. I put him off. And then, for the next day, I contemplated the question, which was, after all, a good one. Why were we doing that? My intention, which I had not yet stated, was to have the students think about sound. When they enter the class (these are introductory level students), they read poetry out loud as if their voices were filtered through a tone-reduction device. Their renderings are flat, affectless, unmusical. We spend a lot of time in class reading out loud, precisely to mitigate this atonality, this lack of engagement with sound. The students are bathed in music by their ipods, but have not been immersed in the musicality of language.

So I asked the students during the next class to say simple sentences like "how are you today?" as if they were in very different contexts. As if they were speaking to a lover, or to a lover they thought had cheated on them, or to a dog (not to be confused with that middle term). We talked about what it's like to find oneself surrounded by speakers of a language we don't know, and what we can tell about the speakers simply through the sounds of their speech. We talked about listening through a wall. And I'm hoping it began to make sense to them, why we were indulging in the non-sense of a week of sound poetry.

But that question also resonates in a larger echo chamber. Why we do what we do is not something teachers and scholars do well. That lack of communication shows, when you read the comments section of the local newspapers, or talk to people who wonder why you're not at work at 10 a.m. on a given day, or who ask how many hours a week you teach or how many books you sell. (This reminds me that I was once confronted at a Halloween party by a man dressed as a gypsy who loved the football coach, but wanted to know how many hours a week I was in the classroom; I responded that I was pretty sure the coach only coached three hours a week.) What we seem precisely to lack is what we're constantly asked about: product, and quantity of product. Who knows if explanation will work; during my recent trip to SFSU I was told that the cutbacks are so severe that they're allowing students to enter classes five weeks into the term. Needless to say, the classes are larger than they had been, and faculty are teaching more of them. But we owe it to ourselves to explain the value of what we do to those who do not consider it important enough to maintain during this recession.

What is our product? We like to think that we teach critical thinking, observation, even enjoyment. But what is that? I like to think that in encouraging my students' creativity, I am freeing them from the very questions we are always asked--about practical realities. These are interior qualities, not something one can see, or purchase. They are not consumables. That one of my students came to me at the end of his college career and said he had discovered a love for theater and opera touched me deeply, but just won't cut it in the public sphere. There, intangible goods are not good; they are excess, luxury, inessential.

My husband, who is a high school science teacher, says that our "product" is those students who graduate and make the state work, the lawyers, the politicians (well . . .), the teachers, the architects, and so on. He says we need to claim that we're creating something tangible in this way. Much as my idealism still pushes hard against my gorge, I think we must say these things. We also need to assert, as my colleague Joan Peters did to me yesterday, that the public sector cannot be compared to the private, as it so often is in the comment streams. It exists for other reasons, and in another economy. But no one who succeeds in the private sphere who went to a public university has done it "alone," without the support of a community larger than self, than family.

While we cannot lay claim to our students' successes, we can fairly lay claim to having provided the materials and the methods (critical thinking, creativity) for their success. Let's start making lists of UHM grads who are prominent in our community, and elsewhere, and send them to the newspapers and the television stations. Recently, my blog post on the UH crisis went viral, my colleague S. Shankar wrote an op-ed in the Star-Bulletin, and several of my colleagues wrote and signed a letter in the Advertiser. Our union's website archives letters by faculty to the administration. Ku`ualoha Ho`omanawanui wrote an open letter to her school friend, Lee Cataluna, whose opinion piece in the Advertiser presented the university's faculty in a very poor light. This is all to the good.

Today a facebook friend sent me a link to the UK Guardian about the four-day weeks Hawai`i schoolchildren are facing as of tomorrow, the first "Furlough Friday." (The school week in public schools will actually be three and a half days, due to early dismissal on Wednesdays.) And what will the end result of that be? I tell you, that's a rhetorical question.


Sophie Mayer said...

I'm planning my teaching for tomorrow, Susan (found poems and Zukofsky sound translations) and I'm given hope and focus by your thoughtful answer to the student's question. Thanks for this reasoned meditation.

ShantelGrace said...

Since June 2009 (only five months), I have attended four classes as a pre-grad student at UH after a seven year academic hiatus. During that short amount of time, I have read more than forty books, studied more than 100 poems and countless poets, published 12 editorial stories in local papers and magazines, and finished my first novel. The thought of losing the building, not to mention the program and its professors who inspired me so deeply, is a loss of consequence. I am one of twenty thousand stories.

susan said...

Stephen Canham

Susan and all: This was in a UHPA newsletter quite a long time ago. It remains one of the best formulations that I have encountered of the of those "intangibles" that fine teachers value and sometimes do indeed touch. Not for filthy lucre, but for hope, for promise. Steve

"Teaching is the most difficult task a human being can do because it involves changing the lives of strangers by touching their thoughts and experiences. Further, this touching and changing must not compromise the integrity of the learner's life. When I teach, that life is my most important text; my job is to cause an evolution in the learner's interpretations of lived experience. I attempt to evoke reflection in the lives of learners by creating tasks that require critical thinking, caring design, deep perplexity, unyielding ambiguity--tasks that may not ever be complete. These requirements reflect the conditions of professional life, and my students are challenged to live up to them in their work for me as they will be challenged to live up to them in service to others.” David Carr, Rutgers University, c. 1995

Jill, publick schoo teacha said...

Susan, I list the goals for the day on the board. And I try to point out the GLOs (General Learner Outcomes: complex thinker, effective communicator, ethical user of technology, community contributor, self-directed learner, quality producer) for the day also on the board. But still of course, I have a few "why are we doing this?" looks from the students. So yesterday we had a discussion about skills vs. qualities (standards vs. GLOs).
I did this because we just had a PC day where the presenter said college professors cited lack of critical thinking skills as one of the main problems with students coming from high school.

So this week I asked the students how do you become a critical thinker? Why do you think many high school students arenʻt complex thinkers? Why would college professors feel this way? How does a teacher teach you to be a critical thinker and what does it mean to be a critical thinker? Why might being a critical thinker benefit you and your community? I got a lot of responses, but I think the best response I got was from a student who said: high school teacher give you everything you need to learn and college professors make you reach for it.