Thursday, September 25, 2014

turning point

I’m in a book club on campus discussing a book about the situation of first-generation college students. Among the things we talked about were the different attitudes first generation students tend to have about college education and the work they have to do in classes. Among the issues was that we as faculty have expectations about the appropriate valuing of and attitude toward coursework, and our first-generation (and poor, working-class) students come with a different set. For instance, when I assign an article to read for class, and say that I expect my students to read and prepare to discuss the article in class, I mean that they should read carefully and work to understand the text. I say this specifically to them, too. But they approach the text in a way of their own, maybe at the end of a 6 am-to-midnight day of work, school, and family responsibilities. At that point, they don’t have much time or attention to devote to a complicated philosophy text, and at best, they skim through it.

On a drive home from Stockton to Turlock, Lauren and I talked more about it. She said, brilliantly, that my students reading these articles is like me reading Husserl in German. German is a foreign language to me, and I’m not fluent in it. Reading Husserl in German is slow and painstaking. I have to look up many words, stop and restart sentences, sometimes practically translate the whole thing rather than actually read it. Not only is the philosophical language foreign to my students, sometimes the text is also in a language foreign to them.

Now, I understood this implicitly, but the explicit statement is helpful for knowing what they’re going through. Plus, I knew immediately, telling them about this would be help my students understand not only that I empathize, but more importantly, what their relationship is to these texts, and what kind of work it may take to read them.
So I have had this conversation with three of my classes. I emphasized the need to go through this slow process, indeed its indispensability, and my eagerness to go through it with them. I said I believe they take a couple different strategies to reading that are unhelpful: giving up, and skating over passages they didn’t understand. In both cases, my assigning the articles achieves nothing.

I offered a different strategy, like the one I take with Husserl. I go as slow as I need to. I look up the words as I go, rebuild each sentence, then a whole paragraph, and often re-read passages four or five times before moving on to the next part. Today a student said that she does the same thing with our articles, and although she finds it frustrating sometimes, in the end she understands them, and it seemed obvious this provided meaningful satisfaction to her.

I challenged my classes to read this way, as much as they can, and that this was how to prepare for class. I also said that if they came to a passage in an article that they didn’t know how to get through, it was worth our time to stop there and work on that passage.

Every semester, each of my classes has a turning point—a single class session that changes everything about the class. It demands attention of even profoundly disaffected students who typically prefer to sit through classes simmering in contempt. For the students who are willing and already buying in, it turns everything upside down. It’s a class session outside of ordinary classtime. If I were into that kind of thing, I’d want to invoke Mircea Eliade and say that this class happened in sacred time, but it might do to relate it to Thomas Kuhn and say it’s a form of revolutionary science, a paradigm shift. The class session always turns reflection on what is going on in the class itself. The discussion is directly and provocatively about how they do or don’t do their work; how they relate to philosophy, to other classes, to each other, and to me; and about their responses, desires, and fears about the class, about learning, and in some way, really, about life. The class shivers from the unexpected candor and the openness to whatever happens next. It’s exhilarating and feels weirdly risky and naughty, and I can’t predict the outcome.

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