Be Interested?

A few weeks ago, at the SUNY Council on Writing Conference, I heard Richard E. Miller give a fascinating keynote called “Who’s this for?: Audience in the Classroom without Walls.” What I found most exciting about his remarks was his description of an assignment he gave a creative nonfiction class: Be Interested. My understanding of what this means is that Miller  asked his students to “produce a research project that others would read willingly.” My first reaction was of the “I want to steal that assignment” variety.  But as I thought more about the prompt, I began to wonder if a student would be as excited as I was. Miller mentioned that he had students who grappled with questions like “How do you become interested in anything?” and struggled with finding a way to experience curiosity in a moment when information is “superabundant.”

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The more I toyed with this kind of assignment, the more I found myself wondering more about what I’d actually be asking students to do, what it actually means to genuinely be interested in something, and what that might look like in writing. A cursory glance at the OED shows that the word “interest” is defined using terms like “concern,” “curiosity,” and “sympathy.” But, interestingly, one definition also lists “to share in something.”

The idea of “sharing” seems central to composing, at least to me. But, often, I think it is this component–that of engaging and collaborating with an audience outside of the “teacher”–that I think might be lacking for many students (and here I’m thinking specifically of the freshmen I work with). To return to Miller’s prompt–I suppose the “assignment” is really to be interested and to be interesting. And, I also suppose that in an environment where students are perpetually in some kind of rubric quest, this probably feels very very scary.

But, on the flip side, this kind of opportunity is one that we should hope students encounter more and more. As Gardner Campbell points out:

We might begin with a curriculum that brings students into creative, challenging contact with the history and dreams of the digital age, perhaps in a first-year experience that asks them to reflect critically on their own digital lives as well as begin to shape and share their own digital creations, both intramurally and publicly. Research into the neurobiology of learning, building on decades of educational research, has shown that students learn deeply when they are asked to narrate their learning, curate their creations within the learning environment, and share what they have curated with a wide and, when appropriate, a public audience. As students understand that they are not simply completing an assignment at a professor’s behest, but in fact beginning their life’s work, they will necessarily become more engaged and produce more authentic work reflective of their own growing interests.

This excerpt is from part 4 of Gardner Campbell’s excellent series of posts on “The Road to Digital Citizenship,” this one subtitled, “Fluency, Curriculum, Development.” Campbell connects student investment in their own work with developing a pedagogy that allows for rigorous reflection on what it means to live a digital life. Campbell also makes the important connection between “sharing” and “publicness,” an important link where the truly interesting might occur through the kinds of conversation digital compositions enable.

Asking students to approach this kind of inquiry marks an important shift in the definition of what it means to write an “academic essay.” I wonder if what is actually happening is a return to Montaigne’s sense of the essay as a “series of attempts,” or Francis Bacon’s “dispersed meditations.” By encouraging students to “be interested” and “curate their creations,” the usual chore of the “paper” becomes more of an experiment in invention or “making.”

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It is no coincidence that “Composition as Explanation,” Gertrude Stein’s sonic exploration of what it means to “create a composition,” employs the verb “to make” as one of its central repeated words. For example: “This makes the thing we are looking at very different and this makes what those who describe it make of it, it makes a composition, it confuses, it shows, it is, it looks, it likes it as it is, and this makes what is seen as it is seen.” This work is also the first time that Stein refers to her sense of a “continuous present” which was crucial to how she thought of her own process.

steintokEducation writer Audrey Watters lists “The Maker Movement” as one of the “Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2012″ and describes the importance of this kind of pedagogical approach as, “we need more learning by making, through projects and inquiry and hands-on experimentation.” When we actually ask students to physically invent something, to take objects and turn them into something that did not exist ten minutes earlier, this is a very different kind of learning from writing a 3-5 page paper. It marks a return to the kind of “learning by doing” that John Dewey advocated for–“Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.” In other words, when we are engaged in the act of “making” or “doing,” that is when real learning occurs, and that is also when I think the sensation of “being interested” is rediscovered.

In many ways this post feels like its own experiment in what Stein might describe as “beginning again and again is a natural thing…”–I wanted to think about this idea of “being interested,” which consequently was so interesting to me that only now have I realized what the connection is to my own recent experiences in the classroom. Meechal recently wrote about one of my latest forays into technology in the classroom, one that I am still processing. When given the chance to use the MaKey MaKey with my 2 composition 2 sections (thanks to Mikhail & BLSCI), I jumped at the chance, trusting a gut feeling that “making” something physically might teach us something about what happens when we “make” academic essays.

Picture1In small groups, the students were given MaKey MaKeys, a number of different materials that conducted electricity, and access to a laptop and told to “make” and “invent.” As a teacher, what was interesting to me was to watch the groups’ progress–many began by seeming a little confused, admittedly not knowing what to “invent,” and feeling at a loss for ideas (or “interest”). But, I also got to watch each group work collaboratively and experientially and ultimate discover the spectrum of things they  might do.

And, after the class session, students blogged about what they experienced through “making.” A few sample responses:

  • “If we just looked at the surface of today’s session, we would see that we were just playing around with the Makey Makey and doing things that are totally unrelated to our English class. However, if we think more deeply, we will see many similarities, especially with the process of writing. At first, we need some ideas to invent something amazing with Makey Makey; if not, we will just be playing and there will not be any creation. It is like writing our essays; we need a specific thesis to write a good essay based on the thesis.”
  • “Making something with the Makey Makeys very musch resembled the writing process. In class on Monday we were supposed to “outline” our plans and ideas for what we wanted to make today in class. An outline plays an important role in essay writing so that the writer has their thoughts and ideas organized and ready to be written down and explained. Each invention also required several “revisions” and “rewrites” in order for it to reach its “final draft” stage. I know that my group changed plans, inventions, and strategies a few times throughout the class period.”
  • “For a good portion of our time we were bouncing back and forth between these questions and sitting there thinking about what we should do. I felt frustrated at the fact that with all these tools we were just stuck, it was like our creativity was at a standstill. However after revisiting the objectives of using the Makey Makey and playing around with it, things made a turn for the better. With developing a greater understanding and applying that understanding to ideas we had, we were able to center on one idea and go with it…Relating to writing, when have that moment where you know the message you want to communicate and gather all your information; everything comes together and flows. Centralizing your idea and making attempts towards it can assist in your creativity. Whether is be the next groundbreaking IT program or your final paper, the initial beginning may prove to be the most difficult; but after you overcome that, you will have your masterpiece.”

Comments

  1. Hey Erica, I feel like I should comment on this because your post feels like it’s pulling a lot of things together and trying to make them talk to one another…in that sense, this post is a lot like an essay, a “try” like you said. I like that. I think this post asks the question of the trajectory/purpose of writing–the “so what?” question. I think this is an important and difficult question. It reminds me of a saying that I heard recently–that it’s easy to write about the revolution, but actually creating a revolution is much more difficult. It’s also like Sartre’s idea that writing a novel is incomplete without political activism/worldly actions. Making seems like a partial answer to the question. So does interest in way…anything that leads to a measureable, worldly reaction. The problem is that the reaction to literature often isn’t measurable. Sartre’s essay “Why Write?” talks a lot about literature’s efficacy. He argues that literature imposes a moral/ethical obligation on the reader and writer. One of the greatest compliments that Sartre gave was to Che Guevara, saying “he lived his words, spoke his own actions, and his story and the story of the world ran parallel.”

    I also really like this part of Gardner Campbell’s quote:

    “As students understand that they are not simply completing an assignment at a professor’s behest, but in fact beginning their life’s work, they will necessarily become more engaged and produce more authentic work reflective of their own growing interests.”

    I think that often I’ve had students complete assignments with this understanding, but I find it very difficult to explain how it came about…it’s not a formula. I think that giving students freedom, probing them for their nodes of interest, and not being shy about expressing my own curiosity and passion are the best strategies that I know of. Then, once students are engaged, it’s very difficult to balance positivity with critique.

  2. erica kaufman says:

    Thanks! I have to admit that one of the things that scared me about posting this post was that I wanted to be true to the things I was thinking through–in other words, I wanted to not edit out the wandering my thinking took or the swerves my ideas took. I also did not want to write any sort of summation or closure to the post–I wanted to end on student reflection, which I am still reflecting on. I really love the quote you share from Sartre–““he lived his words, spoke his own actions, and his story and the story of the world ran parallel.” It reminds me of both Gertrude Stein and Joan Retallack–Specifically, Stein’s idea of “continuous present” and “genius”–“One may really indeed say that that is the essence of genius, of being most intensely alive, that is being one who is at the same time talking and listening. It is really that that makes one a genius” (from “Portraits & Repetition”). And, Retallack’s “poethics”–The making of language (poesis) into a complex form that has the character (ethos) of living in the author’s contemporary experience of the world.”

    I’m not sure I fully understand what you mean by “reaction to literature often isn’t measurable”? I’d love to know more about this…I’m thinking a lot about assessment and how one assesses writing-based teaching strategies–if that is even possible? I am admittedly a bit in the clouds when it comes to my own pedagogical hopes, but I think I somehow do measure student reactions to literature–if only by the way that when something really grabs a person’s attention, their writing changes. And, if, as writing teachers, we have our students write all the time (in and out of class) that change should be visible. I also really love that portion of Gardner’s quote–and I love your reflection on your own experiences with student assignments–right now, I’ve asked my students to “fall in love with a poem”–but, many of them are just picking the same Robert Frost or Emily Dickinson–how do we gently guide students so that they can discover their own interests? Why, if given an assignment that is not really an assignment, do students revert to the typical? I get very excited about things like writing and poetry and sometimes I worry that my own excitement might make things worse?

    And, here I am, wandering in my response again, trying out responses. I guess what I really want to ask, what I am curious about, is what does it actually mean to be really interested in something today? And, how is that feeling somehow linked to making–specifically writing?

  3. I don’t think that academics like to admit it, but I think that having interest in something often means that it touches us–it informs or allows us to explore some aspect of our identity or of our humanity. It could also signify a kind of growth that we find meaningful–new knowledge that can empower us or enable us to perform better. What interests us doesn’t just determine what we read, but also how we read–whether we read to live vicariously, whether we read as creative writers who want to learn about craft, or whether we read as critics/theorists/philosophers. Bakhtin said that the listener (reader) is in a greater position of power than the writer, I guess because it is the listener who interprets and to whom the writer is appealing.

    When I was writing about measuring the reaction to literature, I meant in terms of worldly action or change rather than writing assessment. I guess this is similar to Lytle Shaw’s work when he asks “how texts and art objects mediate, transform, and disrupt (rather than simply “reflect”) the cultural and social possibilities of their moments” (http://english.as.nyu.edu/object/lytleshaw.html). Sartre’s answer to this in the “Why Write” essay is that “the book is not, like the tool, a means for any end whatever; the end to which it offers itself is the reader’s freedom.”

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