Thursday, February 21, 2013


One of the most excellent things about teaching is learning from the students.  Even in such a situation as I am at my current institution, with students who are significantly academically disadvantaged, I learn things from the pupils in my charge.  It sometimes comes in the form of my learning more about sets of circumstances and backgrounds utterly alien to me; I grew up in a fairly "traditional" household in central Texas, so the experiences of my students on "the streets" and in other countries is far removed from my own upbringing.  Indeed, it sometimes makes it difficult for me to understand my students, their needs, and their concerns, which makes my job harder.

I hate that.

Sometimes, what my students teach me is less...fundamental, but fairly interesting.  For instance, there are times when my students respond to a regular assignment--say, the summaries that I require of my remedial English classes--with something that captures my attention.  This happened just this week; a student brought an article to my attention, I read it, and I found that I had something to say about it.

That article, Phillip Lopate's "The Essay, an Exercise in Doubt," appeared in the online New York Times on 16 February 2013.  In the article, Lopate asserts that the essay is in its traditional conception--from Montaigne forward--a means for expressing and grappling with doubt, rather than a means primarily to make and support a claim.  He does note that there are institutional pressures within schools that drive instruction away from the engagement with doubt in which a more traditional essay revels, but expresses concern over the tendency.  For Lopate, doubt is a necessary feature to growth, if for no other reason than that it frees a person to have bad ideas from time to time--the fear of which stifles thought.  The piece effectively speaks to some of the fundamental drives of essay-writing, such that it suggests itself as worthwhile reading for a college writing class.

Lopate confirms for me something which I have formally known for some time, and informally for longer.  Writing is an act of knowledge generation, rather than simply an act of reporting; even journalistic writing and technical writing, ostensibly devoted to conveying data about events and processes to interested readers, are involved in the creation of understanding.  What is newsworthy is determined by those who report the news, and how processes and analyses are conducted and ought to be conducted is mediated by those who discuss the processes and analyses no less than those who perform them.

Working to generate knowledge requires that there be in place a recognition that there is a piece of knowledge missing, somehow.  Without perceiving that there is something missing, there is no impetus to develop something to fill it.  And that perception is one fundamentally undergirded by doubt, a recognition by a person that he or she does not know something, that he or she is incomplete.  I tell my students that expressing the doubt and working through the process of resolving it, then expressing it on the page, is a good way to frame the kinds of writing I want them to do.  Too often, they do not heed the advice, and either try to discuss what they already know or slap together information found through hasty, cursory Internet searches (and then they wonder why their grades suffer).  Every so often, though, one of the will look at the surrounding world, find something not yet understood, and come to understand it a little better, putting the means by which understanding is attained on paper so that I, and maybe others, can read and ourselves come to understand.

That, I value greatly.

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