by I.A. Isherwood
I have a crazy belief that the future of the liberal arts college will be decided upon the quality of teaching and mentorship we offer our students. So I approach my profession with seriousness and accountability for what happens in my classroom. As such, I do a lot of debriefing after class trying to think of what went right, what went wrong, and how I would do things differently if given the chance (hence the blog). The emphasis is usually on MY performance. But that’s only part of the picture. So today I want to focus on THEIR performance because it reveals something really important about this group of students and my relationship with them.
Last week I sent my First Year Seminar one of those occasional emails that teachers send out telling students to up their game. Things had gotten a bit sluggish and the conversation a wee bit stale. They were clearly getting bored and I was getting frustbored that my questions, ones I thought were explosive, were landing as duds. So I told them to get it together, in so many words.
How did this play out this week in the classroom? On Tuesday, we discussed the Inklings, the reading group of Oxford intellectuals associated with J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis who met, discussed, and debated their works twice a week over tea or beer. Though much mythologized, the Inklings were a special group of like-minded people who fundamentally wanted to create deep friendships based on intellectual repartee. So what did these twenty-first century American students have to say about an elitist Oxford reading group formed eighty or so years ago?
- Creativity: by reading together, the Inklings cut through the impersonal notion of a profession, which gave room for experimental imagination.
- Cohesion: They were an intellectual orchestra of different instruments. Each distinctive but playing together for a common purpose.
- Debate: Reading together gave a chance for discourse outside of the formal institution. Debate in an informal environment that led to better creative expression.
- Trust and Improvement: The group helped each member to improve through trusted criticism.
Then we talked a lot about passion and creativity and adulthood and jobs and emotional repression and gender (beer, beef, pipes, and misogyny!) and the importance of having real friends and all kinds of things that are really tough to empirically measure – meaning I wouldn’t have the foggiest notion about how to quiz them on this stuff – but the topics covered are things that are really important to understanding just being human. I walked away thinking that I really didn’t know what happened, but I did know it was of positive benefit. I know that because I took a lot of notes on what they said (instead of the other way around).
Yesterday we followed up our discussion of the Inklings by starting The Hobbit. This resulted in an explosion of unabashed nerdery rarely seen. We talked about genre, adventure, morality, heroism, comradeship, war, courage, humor, pocket-handkerchiefs, Gandalf’s total awesomeness, and a whole lot of stuff about dwarvish a) stylings b) singing. After seventy minutes of semi-controlled back and forth, I lost control of my classroom, as at least four separate conversations/arguments erupted on the book. Bewildered, I turned to the PLA (our equivalent of a TA) and told her that if I left the room, no one would notice. She laughed and said, ‘you really didn’t expect it to go this way, did you?’ No, I did not. When I shouted that our time was up, some sighed mournfully because they weren’t finished talking.
So what do I get from all of this? I have a penchant for formalism – in all its variations – that sometimes makes me think that in order for students to learn, then the goals that I set out in my lesson plan need to be addressed, if not met and vanquished. In a good seminar, though, anything can happen and students can learn in many different ways, definitely in ways far beyond the limits of my lesson plan (this is not a new revelation). The impression I got this week was that the seminar had one of those rare moments of coming together – they understood that we need to address issues of content in an intellectual way – but they had fun doing so because they began bantering with each other (and not with me). They posed questions to one another, began to discuss and debate points across the room, and at times ignored the direction I wanted to go altogether in favor of another. What I learned from this was to trust their instincts, and at least some of the time, to loosen up a bit on the reins so that their minds can expand out loud. In short, to let them take the lessons drawn from the week and become Inklings in their own right.