John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.
Saturday, November 21, 2009
The good student
Many a graduate student has come to grief when they discover, after a decade of being told that they were “good at math,” that in fact they have no real mathematical talent and are just very good at following instructions.
Though never particularly adept at math myself, I was always a good student, an “A” student, an honor roll student. I was a teacher’s pet, because I wanted to please my teachers. Most of my fellow students thought me odd — probably still do — and some of them bullied me. I was a bookworm and uninterested in sports.* My teachers were more my friends than my fellow students, and I wanted to please them. The way to please them was to give the right answer.
That was the pedagogy I grew up under: There is always one right answer to be discovered, and the purpose of education is to produce students who get the right answers. It works for things that are susceptible to rote learning. Spelling, for example. You can teach phonics and instruct students in the general principles of spelling, but English is such a promiscuous, mongrel language that its numerous maddening exceptions simply have to be memorized, like Chinese characters.
Rote learning is not, however, of much use in teaching students how to think. If you keep giving the right answers long enough, you get to college, and you can skate a long time there on right answers. But I got as far as graduate school without fully understanding that scholarship is more about framing the right questions.
One day in my second or third year of graduate school in English at Syracuse, Professor Peter Mortenson — almost as an aside — described to my class that scholarship is a conversation. Trying to arrive at a deeper understanding of a text, you look at what previous scholars and critics have said about it. You notice something that has been overlooked, or you see something that is mistaken that you can try to refute; thus you enter into the continuing conversation on that text or that issue. Another student said afterward that it was the first time that any of his teachers had explained so lucidly what the enterprise of criticism was.
In retrospect, I see that that was the beginning of my discovery that, as much as I liked books and talking about them, I was not cut out to be a literary scholar. I had gotten to be pretty good at sussing out the answers the teachers wanted to hear, but without much talent for forming those questions myself.**
Fortunately, I found a career an editor, where what analytical ability I do have is put to use. And I try in my classes on editing to train my students to frame questions. But analytical thinking is hard to start with, and many students appear to come to college after a dozen years of conditioning to guess what answer the teacher expects to hear. That is why my students discover every semester that if they just look blankly at me long enough, I will break down and tell them what I see in the text. I hold out as long as I can.
I invite you to write in comments on this post about your own experiences in school, and to speculate on the reasons for the inadequacies. Does get-the-right-answer pedagogy persist simply because it is easy? Or are there deeper reasons for it — perhaps that we don’t want to train the young to be analytical thinkers because they will question us and grow up to be troublemakers rather than docile employees? Do we value learning, or do we merely admire credentials? Over to you.
*I still loathe all known forms of sport.
**To suss (largely a British usage, is to realize something or figure it out. It derives from to suspect.)
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