Woke up this morning, went snow shoeing with the significant other (just enough snow, very little wind, clear views from the mountains down to the cloudy city below–a pleasant excursion), then returned to the clouds and to an unusual grading-free Sunday to tackle some other projects.
But then I decided that catching up on reading is a project, too, darn it.
So I finally got around to reading Tim Clydesdale’s recent Chronicle essay “Wake Up and Smell the New Epistemology” (still available for nonsubscribers here). It’s one of those wonderfully thoughtful wake-up call essays that shake us academics out of our everydailyness of grading and teaching to recognize something that’s been nagging at us (ok, at least nagging me) for a while. Students these days are different, but I’m not of that ilk who think it’s a bad different: I like students these days–more so than 10 years ago, in fact. Yet, among my colleagues, I seem to be the minority voice on this subject. And this essay addresses at least one possible reason why:
“Of course, this new epistemology does not imply that our students have become skilled arbiters of information and interpretation. It simply means that they arrive at college with well-established methods of sorting, doubting, or ignoring the same. That, by itself, is not troubling. Many professors encourage students to question authority, and would welcome more who challenged and debated ideas. But this new epistemology carries some heavy baggage — indeed, it is inseparably conjoined with personal economics. Short of fame or a lottery win, today’s students recognize that a college degree is the minimum credential they will need to attain their desired standard of living (and hence “happiness”). So this new epistemology produces a rather odd kind of student — one who appears polite and dutiful but who cares little about the course work, the larger questions it raises, or the value of living an examined life. And it produces such students in overwhelming abundance.”
No, this isn’t true of all of my students: there are still the young rakish and assertively nonconformist men and women who truly want to suck out all of Thoreau’s marrow, so to speak, but they are rare. And there are returning students who, having squandered their earlier college years now come to class with a burning need to make up for lost time, knowledge and skills. But, the vast majority are there because they recognize the value of the degree, moreso than the value of the skills and knowledge itself.
I find this situation to be breathlessly challenging.
The author continues by offering a concrete example of how we can address this challenge–and when I read this, I silently inserted “intro to American lit” when he refers to “survey of dance” :
“Perhaps an example would be helpful. Take the survey-of-dance course, offered nationwide as a way for students to satisfy fine-arts requirements. Instructors traditionally organize this course the way the discipline is structured, beginning with prehistoric dance, following with the diversity of tribal and folk dances, then moving on to the emergence of dance as high art, and so forth. All of those topics are important, mind you, but I can see students nodding off from here.
By contrast, an instructor who respected students as arbiters of knowledge in their own right might begin with the forms of dance students know or do themselves. Next, the instructor could encourage students to articulate the criteria by which they decide which dancers are better than others, and which dance forms are more appealing. From there, the instructor could demonstrate how the dance forms that students already know have evolved out of prior forms and genres, and have a dancer demonstrate evolving styles within a genre or two. Next, the instructor could take the whole class through a dancer’s workout, lest the students think good dancing requires little effort. From there, the instructor could go in a number of directions, such as introducing students to the art of choreography, showing video clips to demonstrate how different choreographers stage the same piece, and illustrating how some of the most innovative choreography is rooted in deep historical and cultural knowledge of dance.”
I won’t be teaching the Survey class again until next winter, but oooh, this little example expands my universe and my syllabus. Yes, I’ve tried some of these ideas in dribs and drabs but O, to suddenly see a way to reinvent that course in its entirety–now that just rocks my Sunday afternoon.