Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Bad Ideas: I

As we consider the possible uses of technology in enhancing our students' learning, should we perhaps keep a watch out for Really Bad Ideas as well?

Our school librarian, in order to get some feedback about whether or not the school should subscribe, just sent us a trial link to an online database which offers students a "literary reference center," presumably to help students learn something about literature. My question is, what is that "something"? The site provides references for hundreds of titles, for each of which there is a capsule summary and a predigested analysis of text.

I can see two primary functions for such a reference center. One would be to allow students who have NOT read the text to get enough sound bytes into their head to be able to fake their way through a class discussion or an impromptu essay or pop quiz. The other would be to allow students who have read the text and not understood it to avoid having to think through their own reactions to the text. (I'll be charitable and not speculate about the third likely function.)

Here's my objection. Well, my first objection. The reason I ask students to read challenging texts in the first place is to give them practice in certain kinds of strategic thinking. I want to allow them, encourage them, to read, get stuck, ask questions, hypothesize answers, re-read the text in order to assess the relative merits of their hypothetical answers, and share the results of their explorations with one another. I want them to consider the question of how what the text is asserting connects to anything that they might have experienced or thought about in their own lives. I want them to be able to be part of a conversation that is based on the common experience of having read the text and on the un-common experiences and perspectives that each of them is bringing to it.

This "reference center" allows them, encourages them, to short-circuit that entire process. Clearly somebody thinks making this sort of resource available is a good idea. With all due respect for the time and effort and good intentions that have gone into the project, I think it's a Bad Idea.

Okay: second objection. One of the resource modules includes a listing of "Major Literary Themes." Here is the complete list:

The Dangers of an All-Powerful, Totalitarian State
The Damaging Effects of Social & Racial Bias
The Effects of Peer Pressure
Dealing with Imminent Death
Difficult Adult & Child Relationship
Fate Versus Free Will
The Dangers of Playing God
The Search for Enlightenment
Coming of Age
The Limitations Imposed by Social Class
The Difficulty of Choosing Good Over Evil
The Destructive Effects of Jealousy
Revolt Against the Socially Imposed Domination of Women
The Inability to Escape the Past
The Negative Effects of Parent & Child Conflict
The Destructive Effects of Love
Coming to Terms With Oneself
Disaffection as a Self-Protecting
Survival of the Fittest
Refusing to Accept Death

Whose listing is this? How accurate is it? How logical? How broad? How deep? The first thing that I notice about the list is the glaring predominance of words which define literary themes in terms which define themes through the use of negative terminology: dangers, damaging effects, death, difficulty, limitations, destructiveness, revolt, domination, conflict, inability, disaffection, survival of the fittest.

Geez, Louise. If those are the major literary themes of our age, is it any wonder that our students are running hard from the world of literature and into the worlds of pop music and video games? If this is what reading is about, why would anyone in his/her right mind want to go there?

Looking at it again, I note that the majority of the themes are couched in terms of power politics: totalitarianism, power politics, peer pressure, social class, sexism, historical determinism. "The Inability to Escape the Past," is less a statement of a theme than a statement of a socio-philosophical position. (Why that phrasing, especially in the context of all the others, and not " The Ability to Escape the Past?" or "Transcending Our Limitations?" Why "The Negative Effects of Parent and Child Conflict"? Granted that conflicts are inevitable, are they not also often productive in unexpected ways?)

And then I find myself wondering about all the other themes that I might conceive of, and how many of them are missing. I think it's a fundamental mistake to approach the world of literature through a conceptual lens that is this reductive. I think we're better off as educators if we encourage students to ask questions rather than "identify themes," which often, as in this list, turn out to be nothing more than large, thought-deadening clichés. And for students, it's a very short step from those kinds of clichés to the writing of thesis essays that attempt to "link" the theme to the text. ("The Catcher in the Rye shows the negative effects of parent & child conflict. My first example...."). I understand, if I squint at it just right, why we might be inclined to ask students to do this formulaic kind of thinking and writing. We think we're providing them with useful structures and a needed kind of support. But I think we do our students a disservice by encouraging them to think that this is what reading is about, or what writing is about. God knows, I don't want to have to sit down and read 40 of those essays. I don't want to have to sit down and read any of them. Don't get me wrong, I love reading my students' work—when it follows the line of their own thinking. But the essay that begins with the line I just cited is a cut-and-paste exercise. Even if it is carried off competently it is unlikely to deliver anything the reader or the writer didn't already know. So what's the point?

Christopher Clausen said in an essay some years ago, "All great literature addresses, directly or indirectly, two questions: "What kind of world is this?" and "How should we live in it?" If I run through in my mind the various trains of thought that might arise from a consideration of those two questions, and lay it against the trains of thought that arise from my consideration of the list above, I find myself in two different mental landscapes. And I know which one I'd rather ask my students to explore with me.


semiotic said...

Mr. Schauble:

Point 1: I commend your approach and dissection of this new tool, but I'm sure by the level and depth of your analysis you are also able to see a number of positive benefits as well (such as giving students a chance to browse what basically amounts to the back of a bunch of books in one single location saving them space and time and saving the librarian a mess, or making it easier for a teacher to decide which books to use in a particular section or to recommend to a particular student, etc.) However these possible positives are glaringly absent from your post and the overall tone seems to begrudge both the tool and whoever had the idea to introduce it. I'm not sure if there is some personality politics at play within your school or another spurious factor, but whatever it is, it makes me skeptical of your overall analysis—even though your argumentation is clear and persuasive. Just something to think about.

Point 2: A couple times in the post you make reference to the proper (or at least a better) way of teaching student that involves asking questions and providing them with opportunities to struggle with a text and find their own unique line of thought. I wonder, if there isn't some contradiction to be found in such an assertion since you are simultaneously criticizing the makers of that list of cliché themes for providing students with mental dead-ends and trite/superficial tools with which they might oversimplify the text. While I most certainly agree with your point on the subject of the list, I'm not sure your philosophy of openness is logically coherent without allowing someone to believe that the text is essentially about one of those themes. The letter of your post implies that you embrace (or at least are willing to) any point of view as long as it is original and authentic (something that hearkens back to “Self-Reliance” by Emerson quite well I think). However, your tone and the implication of the piece seems prejudiced against the readings of the texts provided by the tool. It's one thing to say that short, simple readings without a manner for sustained engagement (i.e. A class discussion on the tool's reading of Catcher about whether or not it is indeed superficial and wrong) do a disservice to students. But it is indeed another thing to say that the tool is a priori wrong in its readings.

Point 3: You end your post with the Clausen quote quite aptly methinks. While I might be able to press point 2 a bit further here, calling into question your appeal to Clausen about universal themes as a source of authority while you undeniably doubt and reject whoever wrote the summaries for “the tool.” But I think that it would just be pedantic to belabor that anymore than I just have. I will, however, say that I think Clausen's two points of literary archetype/universal are not mutually exclusive of the list provided by the tool. In many ways, I see them as complementary.

A student will undeniably use whatever shortcuts are available to them and with the advances in modern information technology, there is no shortage of shortcuts. I agree with you that these shortcuts are obstacles both to the student's ownership of learning and to the teacher's ability to evoke struggle and thus permanence in the learning process. But I take issue with categorizing any form of new technology as a “bad idea” simply because you can demonstrate how it might be used as a shortcut, especially if you don't fully examine the potential benefits. It seems to me that the truly committed teacher (which you most certainly seem to be, I mean, you have a blog about the subject for goodness sakes) will see this new obstacle to learning as an additional opportunity to teach. Technology, much like economics, is made “of Indian rubber” and will bounce over any political barrier placed in its path by those who resist. I find that going with technology while working with it intimately to find new and innovative ways to incorporate (using it as an enhancer) it into the educational process makes much more sense. Plus you then enable yourself to make use of the energy it possesses rather than wasting yours fighting it.

Again, I commend you for your effort and analysis. Just some food for thought to return the favor.

Jason Beazley (Oren's Roomate)

Bruce Schauble said...

Hi Jason,

Thanks for the thought-provoking reply. Since you make your points in sequence, I'll try to reply in kind.

Point 1: First of all, I'd like to make it clear that there's no school politics involved. This isn't a closet argument about what direction the school should take about technology. Our librarian frequently finds out about new services available online and asks the department heads and other teachers to check them out to see whether we would like to have the school subscribe to them. I'm grateful to her for doing that, but I don't always think that answer is yes, and in this case, I thought that the answer is no, for the reasons that I gave. And you're right, I wasn't attempting a balanced assessment. My guess is that a lot of people would assume that a tool like this is a great idea; I was expressing my reservations.

Point 2: I don't see the contradiction you point out. I have no problem with someone who, after investigating a text and thinking it through, comes to the conclusion that the text is indeed about any one of the items on that list. What I do have a problem with is the itself, which seems to reduce the number of themes to be considered to a very narrow set that seems to have been put together from a fairly particular, and somewhat pessimistic, point of view. I worry about students—especially high school students with a limited experience and limited confidence in their own emerging judgements—coming to such a list, which presents itself as a range of alternatives, and feeling somehow that the "correct" reading must fall into one of those categories. I did not say, and do not believe, that the themes on the list are "wrong." I just think there are a lot of other possible themes other than the ones on that list.

Point 3: Your statement that "these shortcuts are obstacles both to the student's ownership of learning and to the teacher's ability to evoke struggle and thus permanence in the learning process" is a pretty good summary statement of my basic concern. I'm not objecting to the technology itself. Technology is a tool, and it derives its value from the use we make of it. There's nothing inherently bad about a baseball bat, even though it can be used as a weapon. My point is simply that as teachers we have choices about which tools we want to encourage students to use. I wouldn't put a baseball bat in the hands of a two-year old; the chances that he would make good use of it are far outweighed by the chances that he would hurt himself or someone else. Likewise, I don't think it makes sense to encourage high school students to use this particular tool. It might make an excellent reference tool for, say, graduate students who need to get a quick refresher on a text they have read but don't remember, or for young teachers looking to scan a listing of classic texts in order to put together a course curriculum. But for high school students, maybe not. It's difficult to be a good reader. It takes time and patience and sustained attention and a willingness to ask questions and think through the answers. In my experience, a lot of students are all too happy to try to find an easier way. For generations students have been going to Monarch Notes and Clifff Notes and Spark Notes precisely because those tools offer an easier way. If that's what they feel they need to do, I can't very well prevent them from doing so, but it's not one I would encourage them to make if they actually want to emerge from school with something that resembles a real education.

Thanks again for your comments...

semiotic said...

Mr. Schauble-

All fair points. I especially found the clarification regarding the list of themes not being "wrong" persay but rather potentially misrepresenting literature in a monolithically negative light, a good and apt one.

again, thanks for the stimuli.