Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Why Read, Study, Learn

Each year at this time - on the first day of second semester, I ask my students to ponder the following two questions:

What do you dislike about the subjects you study in school?
What flaws in your intellect or character does this reveal about you?

You can imagine the blank stares as I pose the second one and then leave them to write down their thoughts. There isn't an option to disagree. The discussion that follows can get pretty animated and I generally play a serious Devil's Advocate.

These two questions come from a great book called Why Read, written Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia. Each year, as he hands out the obligatory class evaluations at the end of the semester, he adds these two questions. Edmundson's goal is to get past the obvious and general criticisms that students make about their education and instead get them to focus inward on what their relationship to learning is. Perhaps they don't like school because they don't have much discipline. In other words, they don't like to work or read or write or study or think, etc. Perhaps they have reached their level of incompetence, as we rarely enjoy those activities we aren't good at - and if reading is a burden, then higher education will be all the more so. The reality is that often subjects are innocuous - there is neither good nor bad. Thus, it's not that the class is boring or not - it might be that the student, however, is.

This is not intended to force the students to criticize themselves or see their approach to learning negatively. In fact, in a subsequent discussion, I seek to put a positive spin on the exercise. Understanding that some things are beyond our control, I urge them to consider the reality that the one thing - in their education - over which they will always have control is their thoughts. Thus, while the class or subject or teacher may be boring or frustrating - issues which they can't control - their perception or attitude toward the task is within their power. Thus, they may seek to find something positive in the class. They may seek to view mundane repetition as merely an opportunity to practice, refine, and even perfect a skill.

It's not a perfect discussion, but it certainly kicks off the second half of the year in an interesting way.

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