April 19th, 2010

Good Courses and Good Papers


I’m always on the lookout for new teaching metaphors and I found a good one this weekend.

“What magic is it that removes the barrier—that allows teachers to converse with, rather than to talk at, our students? It’s my private theory that the solution is analogous to writing itself: that good classes, like good papers need a thesis, a plan, a problem, and, finally, a sense of larger significance.” (p. 38)

This comparison was crafted by Luke Reinsma, a professor of English at Seattle Pacific University. He elaborates on the metaphor. “A good class … needs not only a topic but also a thesis. What is it we really want to say in a class period? What’s our argument? It’s precisely when we reduce our class periods to information dumps that we confuse knowledge with understanding, memorization with learning.” (p. 38)

He explains how many student papers are full of separate and not well-connected paragraphs. “Your paper reads like a heap of stones (I say nicely) that have yet to become stepping stones, each paragraph advancing the argument, each a step on the path. To use another metaphor, how often do we as teachers offer our students a rich shopping bag of information—peas, ice cream, potatoes, and peach cobbler—leaving it to them to turn what we have brought into a menu and then a meal? So a good class needs a plan.” (p. 38)

Good classes, also like good papers “need to pose questions or problems that put a bend in the road ahead, that tear out a bridge or two along the way in order to encourage, even compel, our students to think for themselves, so that they will learn, not despite us, but with us.”(p. 38)

As for that larger significance, that response to the “so what” question: “we teachers are obliged to make some attempt to connect our immediate and peculiar interests to the larger lives of our students to suggest to them why the class matters, to fit the puzzles piece of a class period into a larger framework.” (p. 39)

Reference: Reinsma, L. (2010). Teaching as a subversive activity. Response, 33 (1), 37-39. [Response is the alumni magazine of Seattle Pacific University.]