A young man is given the task of investigating his own curiosity.
Note: This is the first installment of True Community, a weekly column in which Gint Aras explores his experiences as an instructor in a community college serving a lower-middle to lower class district in Chicagoland. True Community runs every Wednesday.
With the Spring semester having just started, last week I had an experience in an English 102 section I’m teaching. I feel it illuminates the education crisis I’ve been witnessing for almost two decades, one that seems to be hitting young men particularly hard.
Before the start of each semester, I try to come up with a method of motivating students to do the first two written assignments. These are short essays designed to measure the skills students bring to class.
I have tried to make these assignments “important” by assigning them “value” toward the final grade. I’ve also tried to make them light, assigning little weight but explaining they were important starting points. I’ve tried to give students complete freedom to pick topics, as I’ve also narrowed them down, sometimes basing them on readings we complete together. I’ve tried a middle-ground assignment: Identify a problem in your neighborhood and offer a solution.
The results are always the same: malaise and tedium. A student will ask, “Is this supposed to be written in paragraphs?” The students who really need to get off to a fast start flounder around, handing in barely readable essays loaded with clichés and platitudes, or they do nothing at all. These are most often men. The ones who do perform at a level that’s above average are most often women. Of course, there are exceptions; however, in my environment, the college-ready and well-prepared female student is rare. The college-ready and well-prepared male student is rarer still.
In fairness, the women are often older; a good portion of them have children and, as a result, balance more complex lives. When they’re in their late 20’s or early 30’s, they have more to lose and less time to play around. Unlike the young men, they tend to have more social capital, a network of aunts, girlfriends or coworkers who might help with childcare or offer emotional support, and they often work in fields, particularly health care, where they have some contact with college graduates or professional mentors.
The guys tend to be younger, fresh out of high school, and they’ve enrolled in college classes on the advice of some high school authority figure who has (to be very kind to this person) painted an unrealistic picture. My employed male students tend to work jobs in restaurants or stores where they meet few educated peers or superiors. The vast majority come from families without a single college-educated elder.
All the students have one thing in common, however: they don’t read very much. Their skills are limited and, therefore, their interest in reading low. They come out of a system that requires very little reading, and they have taken classes—my college is guilty of this—which can be passed without gathering many lessons from reading at all, this despite having “required” books.
My approach this semester was to avoid making my students read anything, at least in the first week. I did not hand them a schedule for the semester, a calendar loaded with looming assignments, and I did not show them a list of books. I did not assign any writing or a problem solving exercise. Instead, I showed them two videos, one a lecture by education guru Ken Robinson—who critiques our schools and argues in favor of developing children’s natural creativity—and another by psychologist Susan Engel, who argues that our contemporary education models repress natural curiosity.
After discussing these videos, I gave students one assignment to complete in 48 hours.
They had to come up with a list of at least three questions and bring them to class. The questions could be about anything: the trivial, obscure, obscene, metaphysical or practical. In her video lecture, Susan Engel uses the example of a toddler with insatiable curiosity, and I encouraged my students to access their inner toddler, to consider all questions fair game.
Have you always wondered about something or found yourself interested in how something works? Why are things one way and not another? Does anything about life, school, work or relationships confuse you? You should bring these questions and be prepared to share.
We would not try to answer anything. The goal, of course, was to generate research questions about contemporary or even age-old problems, to list them, to start building a community of curious people, and later to find resources to help us. The theory was that if the students were actually interested in the questions, if they had created or noticed a problem themselves, they would have greater reason to begin research and follow through. Perhaps a peer would think up something provocative and inspirational.
On the day this assignment was due, my first class met early. I was there to set up while students were already wandering in. One young man, barely nineteen, sat down at his discussion group and took out his notebook. He seemed stressed, so I asked him if he was worried about something.
He paused, glancing at the two women who shared the table. Then he shook his head, chewing the inside of his mouth. “I did the homework,” he said.
“Good,” I said.
The young guy pinched the bridge of his nose and fidgeted. He was obviously insecure about the kinds of questions he had thought up, and he gripped his notebook tightly as if it contained a difficult secret. “This homework,” he said. “This was like the hardest thing anybody ever made me do.”
He was not making fun of the assignment; if he spoke with hyperbole, he was not speaking with sarcasm. The women next to him sighed out, their shoulders relaxing in agreement, in obvious solidarity with the assignment’s difficulty. This seemed to calm him.
I have learned to be blunt with my students. I asked, “It was difficult to admit what you’re curious about?”
“The thing is…” He crossed his arms and pressed down on his notebook. “It’s because…” Lines appeared in his brow. “It’s because I didn’t know what was interesting. But I’m supposed to know what that is. That’s obvious. Right?”
Curious about the students’ questions? Click here.
Photo by Bilal Kamoon