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What's the Subject of a Class?  

by Forrest D. Poston

     (Partially revised Dec. 4th, 2005, which has created some problems. A full revison will have to follow when I can get back to it. In the meantime, thoughts and reactions helping that process will be appreciated.)

     Until a few years ago, I was silly enough to assume that the title of a class was also the subject. When I taught a class titled Composition and Rhetoric or Freshman Composition, I thought that the subject was writing, pushing 40, turning gray, and I still had such outrageous notions. Eventually, I managed to find my way from the vague feeling that something was wrong to the realization that the subject of any class is each individual student sitting in it.

     Life consists primarily of one two-part question: who am I, and what is my relationship to the universe? Of course, that's not a static question at all, but everything else derives from how we view (or avoid) that question. I've come to believe that the question for the teacher in each class is, "How can I help my students use this perspective in order to live better?" For the students, the question is essentially the same, "How can I add and apply this perspective to what I already have in order to live better?" It only works well when both sides are actively asking the question.

     When we think that the title is the subject (English class is "about" English), then the purpose of the class all too often becomes merely transferring information about that subject. As the teacher, I supposedly know more about "how" to write than the students do, so I'm expected to tell the students how to write. Many teachers think they are allowing students to think by giving them choice of subject or by forcing them to add detail, but the game is lost from the beginning because there are so many assumptions about genre and form.

    Tell students to write a "personal experience" paper, and you can expect a narrow range of narrative styles telling what happened at one time. Tell students that the next assignment is an informative or how-to paper, and almost all the narrative sense, adjectives and adverbs, will vanish. Tell students to write a certain length, and a certain number of drafts, and they will do so, more or less. When you say this is the final draft, the students will turn in the draft and move on to the next project.

     The result is a very passive experience for everyone, and the results are papers in regurgitated form and almost devoid of content. When the process becomes passive and mechanical, the results will be passive and mechanical -- the papers and the students. Also, since we tend to make the most important thing the subject, we're also telling students that the material is more important than they are, that a comma outranks a person. Students don't know why there's a thesis statement, but they know their grade drops without one in the "right" place.

     However, when writing becomes a means, a way to learn, then everything changes. I've learned much about how writing can help people learn, and I can create situations that will move students toward thinking. I can even predict that most papers will fall into a fairly narrow range of problems because I have the experience of watching hundreds of students go through the process.

     What I can't do is tell is student just what it is that they need to learn right now, what it is that writing can and needs to teach them. I may well manage to see clues in the writing before the students do, and I can suggest that they look in a particular direction. At certain times, I can even tell them what others have done or found along similar paths, but I can't walk the path and tell them what they'll find or I've stolen the path, made it mine. I've stolen the learning and that personal inflection that connects the general ideas to the specific experience.

     It sounds messy, chaotic, and even unproductive, but it works. It works for the simple reasons that we are built to seek and learn, and even though we are each different, there is a limited range of experience in being human. Things such as the need to eat remain as constants no matter how much some push the limit. For those reasons, an active mind will create pattern from chaos, and that pattern will almost always stay within certain bounds that others can relate to, certain social and environmental patterns that we share.

     Certainly, an active mind will tend to alter the world when the world needs altering, but we cannot stop that. The world changes. When we don't trust human nature, we try to dominate it. We try to stop crime by making laws and punishing those who step outside the lines. We say, "Thou shalt not commit murder" but we rarely say why not. Because I said so has never been a good answer. Still, there's a good reason why murder is a bad idea, and any sane mind allowed to follow the path far enough will come to that conclusion.


Special Note and Favor Request: According to the traffic stats I have access to, a fair number of people visit this site. However, the design of that traffic report is bad to the point of being useless. I will be switching to a different traffic report eventually, but in the meantime, I would appreciate it if visitors would take just a moment to let me know what page or pages they visited and what they think. The how and why you came to the site would be potentially interesting as well. Although the reports claim I'm getting traffic, I only hear from two or three people a year. If anyone has e-mailed and not gotten a response, there's a glitch I don't know about.

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     Would you like to know when the site gets updated? Drop me an e-mail, and I'll add you to the list. Much of my writing has been for the antiques site lately, but I have a long list of essays in assorted stages of revision for this site. The people who e-mail often apologize because they assume I'm swamped with e-mails. I only wish it were true. I'm a teacher from the marrow out, so give me questions. I'm a writer, so I also need an audience. Sometimes that means applause, sometimes rotten tomatoes.

     From time to time, a student decides to use some of my ideas, or perhaps they even quote me in a paper. Great, I'll take what fame and traces of immortality I can get. However, I should also warn such students that my ideas are not always the things that your teachers want to hear. I'm a stubborn idealist, and that puts me at odds with quite a bit of education theory and literary criticism. Sure, I think I'm right about some things, and I'm sometimes convinced of my own brilliance, but don't jump into the fire blindfolded.


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