On the third class day of the new semester, 30 first-year students were visibly grumpy with me. I arranged them into the groups in which they will be working through the course material – each and every day – until the end of the semester, when their individual term projects will be due. They glared at me with loathing, a white-hot hatred so intense that it was difficult not to hate them back.
After they were in their groups, they looked at me expectantly. Having told them that they were to “make sense of” C. Wright Mill’s “The Promise,” I said something along the likes of “Ready, set, go!”
Hands shot up.
“How are we supposed to talk about the chapter if we didn’t understand it?”
Wow. (I think I might have blinked back tears at that one.)
If you understood everything there was to understand, there’d be nothing to talk about. Play with it. Work with it. Poke it and see if anything comes out.
“How are we supposed to know if we’re right?”
Forget right. Right is overrated. Be fearless. Be creative. Be wrong.
“Aren’t you just setting us up to fail?”
No. In fact, I hereby promise each and every one of you that if you read each assignment closely and thoroughly and work to understand it before you get to class, make sure it’s fresh in your mind when you get here, and talk to one another about your understandings, your thoughts and your ideas, you will not fail this course. You will only fail the course if you do not do these things. I promise. I am asking you to trust the process. If you fully engage in the process, you will be fine. I promise you.
They looked dubious. A few of them looked less hostile, but clearly I did not understand how education worked. They were stuck with a complete wackadoo for a professor. And a passionate one, to boot. What could be worse?
I flitted about the room as they worked. A handful hadn’t bothered to read. A few hadn’t bought the book yet. They squirmed uncomfortably in their seats, for it was painfully obvious to their peers and to me that they had nothing to offer.
The ones who had read flagged me by each time I walked by, every one of them saying something like,
“Okay, we think that Mills is saying X….are we on the right track?”
Each time, I grinned in enthusiastic support and said, “Talking to each other about what Mills is saying is absolutely the right track! Asking me whether you’re correct or not, though – not so much. Ask each other. Stop trying to get it right. Try to get it… interesting.”
They did not like any of this. Some of them were outright pissy with me.
But before too long they appeared to have forgotten their annoyance. They were caught up in the puzzles they were setting up for each other.
“I don’t think that’s what ‘quality of mind’ means. It doesn’t seem like that’s what he means.”
“Maybe he means that ‘private troubles’ turn into ‘public issues’ when enough people have them?”
“It seems like over here he’s saying X but then later, over here, he’s saying Y.”
And suddenly there was thinking happening. There was thinking happening for the sole reason that I had given them absolutely no choice. They were being graded on the process. They had to play the game. I was listening to them, their peers were listening to them, and everyone had to try to string some thoughts together.
Some strings were, of course, stronger than others. Some strings weren’t interesting at all. But they were stringing. Most of them were thinking thoughts, questioning each other, pushing themselves. I caught a few of them rubbing their heads.
With fifteen minutes to go, I called a halt and checked in.
“How many of you are smarter now than you were when you walked in here today?”
25 of them raised their hands – and only about half of those did so grudgingly.
It doesn’t matter if they actually *are* smarter, whatever that means. It only matters that they have more confidence in the process. In themselves.
It was, after all, only their first day.