on the paradoxes of teaching

My last class was Wednesday.  I told the young women in the class that if I had know, the class would have been about feminist theory, not Spike Lee. (Although, there is plenty to do regarding women’s roles when studying Spike Lee’s work. )  They agreed that it would have been better. While further discussing questions of literary theory, they said htey had only been taught date and names, definitions but never how to apply this theory. When I asked why they hadn’t asked to be shown, they said they didn’t know to ask.

This is the paradox of teaching.  One assumes that  students will ask questions, but how they ask if they haven’t been taught how? of given the background in general inquiry?  I never really adjusted to seeing students either quietly passively copying down notes, or texting and giggling in the back row of the class. One behavior or the other but the source is the same.  Knowledge is facts, memorized. Why bother to pay attention if you are just repeating, or for those who are interested in the facts, then knowledge stops at this point.  It is passive acquisition of facts.

I see this trend back in the states.  This is the effect of multiple choice tests, or teaching to the test, of grades surpassing knowledge. How can you, a college professor, in one short term reverse the tide?  How can you encourage these students to ask questions, not just in class, but elsewhere? Where is the native curiosity that is so evident in small children? Where does it go? Does it disappear entirely?

Is the replacement of reading with the internet and ‘educational software and games” that is a source?  Active engagement is the result of reading, while the limits of creativity are firmly in place in educational software or games.  What I also don’t understand is that one of the best things about the internet is the access to newspapers from all over the world.  If you want to understand another culture, just read its daily paper. What sorts of stories are reported? what is the theme behind them?  But then again, I was raised in a house where we read three major dailies as well as the local paper, which came out weekly. We all went to the library once a week, and new books were routinely an item of great interest. 

So, the best teachers really are those setting the tone at home. In school, reading, if not reinforced at home, becomes a burden.The real purpose of reading, to reinforce creativity and curiosity, becomes buried under quizzes. By the time many students reach college, reading is something one spends a lot of time avoiding. Spark notes, google, wikipedia all replace reading. Search, click, copy, paste. 

So, how can you teach if the students have forgotten the joy of learning? And is it really possible in one term, in a class, meeting once a week for 90 minutes?  Is it possible when so many students have become accustomed to passive engagement in the classroom? How do they know to ask? And if they don’t ask, then are we teaching or just relaying facts, like a breathing wikipedia?


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