Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Curiosity, doggedness, open-mindedness: a new pedagogy

I sat in my office the entire day on Tuesday, for my undergrads to drop in whenever and pick up their graded assignments.

10 of the 40 came. And you know who came? The student who got 100%. And the three who got 95%, several more in the 80s, and the couple of 70s student who are trying really hard and slowly bringing their marks up. Most of them had a draft of the next assignment with them, and asked if they could show it to me. YES.

It is ever thus, in more or less every scenario.

Those who make a little extra effort, who are a little extra keen, who make an extra appointment, who send me links related to the readings, who follow me on Twitter, or show up at department events, they do better. This is true among non-students as well. I see it in every context I circulate in: research, service, yoga, running, team sports, kids activities.

I know that "Do What You Love" has its problems, and I agree with all the critiques of that line of thinking. But "Be Interested In What You're Doing" is something of a different proposition, I think.

Curiosity, doggedness (or, "grit," I guess is what the kids are calling it these days), and open-mindedness are qualities that seem, almost invariably, to bring success. Success needn't be absolute; maybe it's relative in a lot of cases, but the process always brings better results than not, and is more rewarding, to boot. Let's move away from my students for the moment and consider an example from my own life.

As an athlete, I'm an excellent literature professor. My gifts of strength, endurance, balance,  and grace, are not naturally numerous. I can't run fast, or throw far, or jump high. And yet I wound up as captain of my high school volleyball team in my senior year. I once won MVP of my team in a softball tournament. I've been hired by my studio to teach yoga. I ran 5k yesterday, slowly, but I've managed to do it at least once every week this term. I'm not actually very good at any of these activities, but what brings me whatever measure of success I've managed to cobble together has been curiosity, doggedness, and open-mindedness: I really want to be better and I'd like to know how I could do that; I keep trying and trying and trying and trying; I am open to constructive feedback on my performance and try to change my tactics accordingly.

Reading and writing about literature has always been, if I'm being frank, super easy for me. If I was going to teach my students the way that I best learn that material, I would dump a bunch of books on the table, and say "Go." But the majority of my students do not learn like me. Their reasons for being in my class are various, their level of intrinsic interest and aptitude as variable as you can imagine. I want them to succeed, so I find that more and more, I'm teaching curiosity, doggedness, and open-mindedness as much as I am the explicit content of the course.

I find I'm making deliberate efforts at "selling it" all the time: I'm trying to hook them, to pique their curiosity, to light whatever spark of genuine interest can for them, help them nurture that little flame so that it might be self-sustaining. I'm also crafting assignments that required sustained effort over time--like this research paper that has five stages and five milestones over five weeks. And I employ what I call my "pedagogy of provocation," where I deliberately try to push them to consider and explain and try out ideas or concepts they find difficult--in this vein, I also give substantive content-related feedback on all their assignments, which they often get to rethink and rewrite.

It's a lot easier to teach the content. I can deliver that easily enough. The emotional work involved in actually teaching each class like a sales pitch for the work is substantial and the results uncertain. And it means I become invested in the outcome, which is problematic for a number of reasons. But when I see the spark light up in someone's eyes, or that student who asked what needed to be different to get a 90 instead of an 80 have something click, or that other student who argued from anecdote and gut suddenly get discomfited when a contrary perspective begins to have an impact? Worth it. I hope they feel the way I do when I managed a run in the rain, or when I balance in a crow pose after falling over for two years. Like the act itself has become a reward, like something meaningful just happened.

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