On Teaching (11/2007)

A friend once explained to me how he has improved his business by better using resources it already owns. "It's like," he said, "they hired me to run a grocery store, and they had the checkout lanes at the back, far from the doors. All I'm doing is saying, "Hey, why don't we move those registers up front?" He observes the possibilities, makes the case for action, and brings about change. His simile, I think, nicely captures what liberal arts students should be learning: to take notice of the world, respond to it, and shape it. I believe learning to see more, and more clearly, is key both to becoming an active, independent learner and to becoming an imaginative, effective citizen; as an educator, I try to train my students to become more incisive observers and to understand how all the individual pieces they see add up to the wholes of life and culture. In and out of the classroom, I move regularly between two key teaching roles: that of guide--telling, showing, modeling--and that of mentor--setting challenges, coaching through difficulties, encouraging students to creatively solve problems and pursue interests on their own.

Those roles and principals guided me even in my least conventional teaching position, as director of an interdisciplinary grant program for undergraduates. My grant students were given a full year to develop large-scale interactive multimedia projects, including, for example, a room-sized interactive theater space and a children's museum exhibit designed to teach music fundamentals. As a guide to our "Tell-a-Vision" grant teams, I taught students to meet the expectations of a call for proposals, choose appropriate roles and personnel for their projects, set achievable goals, and imagine the process that lay before them. But the program's aim (and my own) was to foster student-driven work, so as soon and as much as I could, I became less a guide and more a mentor. As a mentor, I advised students about approaching community partners, coping with team dynamics, and managing setbacks, but I sent them out to do the actual approaching, coping, and managing themselves. One team, for example, returned from a client meeting disgruntled that the client had objected to elements of their well-crafted interactive kiosk design. We talked; we strategized. But they redesigned the kiosk themselves, so they were able create an interface that pleased all involved and was still very much their own. They learned both to bend their ideas to meet a client's needs and to sell their ideas more effectively. By coaching our students through their work, we helped them to make the shift from thinking like eager but dependent students to thinking like self-driven professionals. More fundamentally, we helped them learn to see more--more pieces necessary to building their projects, more possibilities in teamwork, more potential pitfalls and outcomes.

My film students learn the vocabulary of film art so they can name and describe filmic techniques when they see them. The course begins with early shorts like Lewin Fitzhamon's 1905 Rescued by Rover (featuring the original heroic movie dog). As a class, we look at how Rover uses panning and cutting on action in innovative ways, and we talk about how those techniques enhanced the storytelling and made the film popular. Later, we screen work by Chaplin and discuss how pantomime, music, and sound can contribute to a story. Because these films are unfamiliar, students easily see how their directors have stylized them; but I also show more familiar contemporary films, including Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark. Prepared by earlier viewings, students notice how even blockbusters are full of filmic storytelling choices. All the talk about the pieces of film pays off for them when they internalize the new words, ideas, and ways of seeing so that, passing beyond the need for a teacher, they can experience a film not with pedantic attention to detail but with greater appreciation and insight. Film is split into pieces so that it can be put back together in more interesting, meaningful, and pleasing ways.

Of course, written literature can be observed "in pieces" every bit as much as film can. Certainly there is as much (or more) difference between Sandra Cisneros and James Joyce as between Chaplin and Spielberg. Just as film students learn to analyze the elements of film, literature students learn to notice and discuss the elements of language and storytelling. They use literary critical language--conflict, characterization, setting, imagery, plot and story--to talk about how a work appeals to or interests them; and, if things go well, their growing familiarity with literary language and art helps them to appreciate literature they might otherwise have rejected. In a recent discussion of poetry, for example, I juxtaposed a series of very different writers: Jack Kerouac, William Blake, Bob Dylan, T. S. Eliot, Tom Waits, H.D., Andrew Marvell, and even, for extreme contrast, songs by Madonna and the Clash. We looked at how meter plays a part even in Madonna's lyrics, but also at how the figurative language in a typical Madonna song pales against a richly synesthetic work like Eliot's "Preludes." As we asked how each piece might be considered poetry, my students used the language of poetry analysis to discuss the differences they saw. Here, too, I alternated between an expert learner role--pointing out poetic elements and scansion, unpacking metaphors--and the role of challenging mentor--asking students to tease out the merits of a given work on their own, always with the goal of helping them learn to describe the parts so as to better appreciate the wholes.

As a teacher, I am always interested in helping students see past standard readings, prefabricated literary critical "wholes" that limit their comprehension of a work's complexity. For example, I began a recent discussion of A Streetcar Named Desire by showing a musical parody of the play from The Simpsons (O Streetcar!). My students and I talked about how and why the Simpsons writers could reduce the play to a few famous scenes. But rather than concluding (with Homer Simpson) that if only Stanley had been more respectful to Blanche, her fate would have been averted, we took a closer look at the way Stanley and Blanche engage in a summer-long contest over how life should be lived and how people should act, and we considered the ways that Stanley's domination of Blanche comes with great price for all involved, including Stanley. We also examined the way that the failure of old Southern social institutions makes it impossible for Blanche to successfully play the kind of feminine role she prefers, and we looked more generally at the ways the main characters in this play try to fill basic social roles--as friends, lovers, married couples, neighbors--but are foiled by each other's differing expectations about how those roles should be performed. We closely observed the parts of the play, and we found more to say about the play as a whole.

In another kind of observation exercise, my writing students create a series of six vignettes about their experiences as learners and communicators. They then examine the six to discover commonalities and themes. They tend to notice things like the importance they place on family, connections between communication and action, or a tendency to learn through work or play. In the context of readings and class discussions about literacy, rhetoric, and education, their vignettes become the basis for more polished literacy narratives built around those discovered commonalities. This assignment tends to reverse the usual undergraduate writing process by forcing students to start with too much material, rather than not enough, and it gives them a taste of the messy cutting, pasting, merging, and organizing process familiar to experienced writers. It also encourages them to notice how stories can be used to communicate ideas and values. Again, close observation--here, of themselves and their storytelling--shows students how much they can see if they look, and talking, thinking, and writing about their observations shows them how much they can say about what they see. Like the exercises I describe above, this one helps students become compulsive, empowered observers of themselves and their environments, the sorts of people who notice the subtle, systematic interplay of parts that add up to the wholes of their lives.  With discussions, exercises, and assignments like these, I cultivate my students' observation and communication skills, their imaginations, and their independent-minded engagement with communities and cultures.


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