Sprouting Acorns

On my rather long drive in today, the first day of classes, I noticed  that the leaves have conspired to announce the academic year as they transform from a deep summer green to the yellows and oranges and reds soon to become the mosaics beneath our feet.

Landscape with Trees, Piet Mondrian, 1933An abstract painting in mostly greys and browns
Piet Mondrian, Landscape with Trees, 1933

The University, whose former logo had an oak leaf bearing acorns, welcomes what it conceives of as student seedlings transplanted for our–the faculty’s–cultivation.  It may be supposed that we are in the business of ensuring that “an ook cometh of a litel spyr” (thanks be to Chaucer). What does the University expect of these students?  That’s what every entering student wonders when settling into the first classroom on the first day.  What fruits will I bear–and how many pages does that mean I will write?  When they enter your classroom, they may well believe. . .

  • that instructors are masters who can grant them the ability to write.

We’re looking for shared investigations.  This doesn’t mean that instructors should cede all control and let students write the assignment prompts or pick the texts.  Instead, think of your role more like being the principle investigator in a study that you are all undertaking.  (Don’t give the undergrads the drudge lab work, though.)  If you, the instructor, is interested in the transformations and ruptures in the way power is wrought in a post-Foucauldian, digital world, then ask them to respond to a prompt that lets them weigh in.  Or maybe ask them to think about how a short story by Julia Alvarez unsettles the description of assimilation that Richard Rodriguez has published.  They may well know and use Tumblr, so ask them how gif galleries pose some problems for the way John Berger talks about art. See what they have to say. 

  •  that you will help them master “the essay,” which they have typically regarded as an unchanging collection of formal components they must learn to craft in precisely worded and technically correct prose.

We want them to become aware of what choices they make in conventions and the form in response to the writing situation, the sense they want to make,  and the effects they hope to achieve. 

  • that the goal of reading non-fiction is to absorb information they can later demonstrate they’ve read; that reading any other text is a just a requirement to be gotten out of the way (and not something they might choose themselves, even if they are avid Manga readers), the goal of which might be (enforced) pleasure or, in some college classes, to unlock its hidden meaning.

We want students to work on the readings, to participate in what is produced from them, to engage actively with the thoughts and words others have offered. The readings become a site for us to find our stake and write about it.

  • that the assigned readings can be completed the night before in a quick skim alone in their dorm room (iPod is totes de rigueur).

We like to introduce students to texts that have the same level of complexity they’re likely to encounter in their other UConn classes.  We want students to rid themselves of the belief that everyone gets everything on the first reading performed in isolation. We see meaning as part of a social process. 

  • that everything interesting has already been said and they just have to say it better (or at least competently).

We want students to engage in the work of the university by producing new knowledge.  We’re not looking for them to cure the common cold, but we do want to encourage them to find their stake in a topic by bringing to their work their particular experience, their way of seeing and being in the world.  We try to do this by asking them to situate themselves in relation to what others have written, to consider how their experiences might pose problems for what others have written.  

  •  that writing is difficult, vexing, exhausting.

About that I wholeheartedly agree.  We also want them to see that writing alongside others engaged in the conversation can be exhilarating, enlightening, and enlivening.