Playing With Brains

Lord Vetinari and his dog, Wuffles

In a later Terry Pratchett novel, a character muses that the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork is not exactly a monster, because monsters don’t play with your brains while they’re still in your head.  While I aspire to be Lord Havelock Vetinari, I know that I am not him, yet in some small way, I too have been playing with people’s brains while they’re still in some heads, and learned a few things that disturb me.  Well, duh.

Last week, reading bell hooks and John Holt, my students came to the conclusion that they learn best when they are able to collaborate and talk with each other.  Great!  I exclaimed, and like a shark going for the easy bait, I assigned them a collaborative project. I gave them general directions, set up Blackboard to allow them to collaborate in any way they chose, and said, “Here;  be free, be freaky, do what’s best for your group.  Have at it.”

And then (people who have been teaching for more than ten minutes are already laughing), the email started.

“What do you want us to do?”

“Where do you want us to post our homework?”

“How should we get in touch with each other?”

“I don’t know what you want me to do.”

“We can’t figure out where to post our essays.”

This marched on for a whole weekend.  One student sent me ELEVEN emails asking various questions with an underlying “tell me what you want me to do” theme.  The only group of students that developed its own plan and executed it independently was, significantly, a group of older students (ages 30-50), who are all returning to college this semester.  Most of the 19-year-olds gave up on the assignment, despite their assertion that they wanted to work together.  (And yes, meeting physically outside of class with no technology whatsoever was ALSO an option.)

The problem wasn’t collaboration, it was freedom.  Want pushback in a classroom?  Give people freedom.  This morning, we had a lively class because several people were really annoyed with me for not giving them specific, easy-to-follow instructions.  We managed to pull that into a great discussion, and I think some people learned something, as did I, but I find myself now feeling faintly depressed.

I want to believe, against all hope, that my students want to improve as writers.  The evidence suggests that they want me to tell them what to do, and in some cases, think.  And they don’t know me at all!  They have no idea what kinds of nonsense I might foist off on them as truth!  They just know that I’ve got the professorial role, so it’s my job to hand over the specifics, along with how many points they’re worth.

We are reading texts about the way education is self-acquired no matter what the delivery system.  But it’s not sinking IN.  Instead, these texts about how one acquires an education become flattened — one more thing to read and check off the list, rather than something that can change one’s world and how one thinks about it.  It’s like reading a bunch of books on swimming and never actually getting into the pool.

In class, when one person manned up and actually said, “we just don’t know what you want,” my eyes bugged out like a Wile E. Coyote cartoon.  I might actually have yelled.  I.Want.You.To.Think.  Make your own decisions.  Carve out the path that works for you.

Terry Pratchett also said that a weapon you don’t know how to use belongs to your adversary, and that includes brains.  I have been busily unsubscribing from people on Facebook who post ignorant, unsubstantiated, hateful, and disrespectful speech.  It feels good to do that, but it reminds me that if we don’t learn to use our brains, somebody else will.  Here’s some food for thought about that:  they may not be as intent on our general good as I am on my students’.

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