Sunday, November 9, 2008

A teaching experiment

Ortho has requested a "not boring" post. It's a tall order, but I'll see what I can do.

First, I would like to say that I had an extremely modest book-related breakthrough today (on the New Semi-Chapter that I'm sort of writing), and I'm therefore feeling pretty good about things. I'm also startlingly on top of my course-related reading for the week, and we're moving into what I think will be fun territory in a couple of classes (mitigated by the Milton and Kempe that I'm teaching in two other classes), so things are looking up.

Perhaps I'll take a stab at being interesting by doing something that I don't normally do, which is to talk about something that I'm doing in my classes. This is an experiment that I'm conducting in comp. We're just about to start it, and I'm nervous, but in the idealistic haze that I was apparently inhabiting in late August I decided that this was a really exciting idea.

So. This idea came out of some frustrations that I've had with the culture at Field--not so much with the individual students, whose personalities and interests (naturally) range all over the map, but with the ways in which I've felt that students are Expected To Be on this campus, and how very different that is from the culture at my undergraduate institution. I've blogged before--somewhere--about coming to terms with the differences between the elite SLAC of my formative years and Field; I understand those differences better now that I did last year and I'm okay with some of them. But sometimes, especially in comp--where we talk a lot about current events and issues and suchlike--I've been frustrated and alarmed by what I perceived as a deep apathy in my students. Now, they may not have been genuinely apathetic; for all I know they just hated comp and didn't really want to talk to me. That's fine. But there's so little activism or global awareness of any kind visible on this campus. There isn't even a recycling program (although that seems to be changing, finally. Welcome to 1993, Field!). Earlier this semester, some students put up fliers about the importance of voting, and they were taken down because they were "too political." These were nonpartisan fliers, people--they were just reminding students how important it is to vote. But apparently we all must pretend that nothing in the world exists outside of this campus of under 1000 students, or something. It's very disturbing.

And then I think about my incredibly idealistic and exciting and quite likely irritating college years, when I felt that everything! could! change! and I could live exactly the life I wanted! and I'm so much more aware of global problems and their solutions than my parents! and so forth (did I mention irritating?), and it makes me sad that there's so little room for that kind of excitement here.

We have the power to change our lives. (I swear, I'll get to comp soon.) I don't mean that the poor can simply will their way out of poverty or any of that Secret crap. I mean something much more basic--that our habits are our habits, and we can change them. That we can choose (in my case) vegetarianism, or to stop using plastic bags at the grocery store, or to quit watching TV. Not life-changing stuff in itself, but realizing that power can lead to the recognition of more and more ways of actively choosing the manner in which we live in the world.

And we can choose, in at least some ways, who we are. For example: One really powerful moment in my life came about when, at the age of 20, unemployed and just out of college, I was invited by a friend to leave the next morning for a cross-country drive with no projected return date and nothing in particular for me to do when we got there. I stewed about it all day. I wrote in my diary that I wished that I were the kind of person who could just take off for a cross-country trip at a moment's notice, with no plans and no expectations. And it hit me: The only thing that was distinguished me from "that kind of person" was that the latter would say yes to my friend's invitation. And that's what I did. It was a really fun trip, too.

So. Back to comp: here's what I'm doing. The whole course is about how we interact with the world--how it affects us, how we affect it, what our responsibility is. And in the last month of the course, each student will have to undertake a "life experiment": to change something--dramatically--about how he or she lives in the world and to sustain that change for at least one week. (And to write about it, of course.) It could be, for example, to commit to not buying anything made using sweatshop labor (perhaps during Christmas shopping), which would involve research into which companies treat their workers humanely; to eat only locally produced foods; to produce no garbage at all, composting and recycling everything (except toilet paper, of course); or maybe even to practice unconditional kindness all week.

I really don't know how this is going to turn out. I have a terrible fear that they'll all pick something super easy (despite the fact that they need to clear their projects with me) and then fake the results. Well, I can't control the latter, I guess. But I hope that at least a few of them will start to recognize the incredible power that they, as new adults, have over their very own lives.

Too idealistic? Probably. And it might just baffle the hell out of them (I'm not always the clearest explainer). But I'll let you know how it turns out.


Belle said...

What a great idea! One of our comp profs got a service learning gig going with a major counter-terrorism organization in our city, which has now turned into a regular and beloved comp section. They do oral histories of the families/survivors, have created teaching tools that are used all over the country - and it's amazing. The students love it. Another section works with Ronald McD house - they get their service learning out of the way, learn something and get engaged.

You go girl!

Ortho said...

Heu, thanks for the shout-out. It's official; this post is not boring!

I agree with belle; you're idea is fantastic!