TITLE: Getting Serious About Open, Honest Dialogue AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: December 12, 2011 4:43 PM DESC: ----- BODY: A couple of weeks ago, I read this article about the syllabi that late author David Foster Wallace wrote for his intro lit courses. This weekend, I finally got to read the syllabi themselves. I've generally found Wallace's long fiction ponderous, but I enjoyed reading him at the scale of a syllabus. He sounds like a good teacher. This passage, from pages 3-4 of syllabus, is an awesome encouragement and defense of asking questions in class:
Anybody gets to ask any question about any fiction-related issues she wants. No question about literature is stupid. You are forbidden to keep yourself from asking a question or making a comment because you fear it will sound obvious our unsophisticated or lame or stupid. Because critical reading and prose fiction are such hard, weird things to try to study, a stupid-seeming comment or question can end up being valuable or even profound. I am deadly serious about creating a classroom environment where everyone feels free to ask or speak about anything she wishes. So any student who groans, smirks, mimes machine-gunning or onanism, eye-rolls, or in any way ridicules some other student's in-class question/comment will be warned once in private and on the second offense will be kicked out of class and flunked, no matter what week it is. If the offender is male, I am also apt to find him off-campus and beat him up.
Wow. Perhaps this stands out in greater relief to me as this semester's Programming Languages course winds down. We did not have a problem with students shutting down other students' desire to comment and inquire, at least not that I noticed. My problem was getting students to ask questions at all. Some groups of students take care of themselves in this regard; others need encouragement. I didn't react quickly enough this semester to recognize this as a too-quiet group and to do more to get them to open up. The real problem only became apparent to me at about the 75% mark of the course. It has been driven home further over the last couple of weeks, as a few students have begun to ask questions in preparation for the final. Some of their misconceptions run deep, and we would have all been better off to uncover and address them long ago. I'll be more careful next time. The above paragraph sets a high standard, one I'm not sure I have the energy or acumen to deliver. Encouragement and policies like this create a huge burden on instructor, who must to walk a very tough walk. Promises made and unkept are usually worse than promises never made at all. This is especially true when trust they seek to develop involve the fears and personal integrity of student. With promises like these, the professor's personal integrity is on the line, too. Still, I can aspire to do more. Even if I don't reach Wallace's level, perhaps I can make my course enough better that students will achieve more. (And I love reading a syllabus that makes me look up the definition of a word. Those literature professors...) -----