Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Two Steps Forward...

Sometimes as a professor you have a good idea. Sometimes it's a really good idea. And sometime the version of that idea that you've used successfully in one place simply doesn't hold up in another. That doesn't mean getting rid of the baby and the bathwater, just admitting to a class that you have to re-tailor an assignment.

In this particular case:

At Texas A&M, I always began a composition class with a research assignment. Visit the university archives and find an event or tradition, give it a context, and offer a brief argument as to why a current student should know what you now know. It played particularly well at A&M, given the culture of tradition there, but I stand by my thoughts that it should work at any institution of higher learning. This is the first time (most likely) in a student's career that s/he has chosen where to learn. By that very fact, some part of the student's identity is wrapped up in the university's identity, either aligned or opposed. Finding out about your college or university is finding out about yourself. It also means working with primary materials, not just going online and bopping around until you get something that looks kindasorta helpful. There's a respect for the material, for libraries, that comes from working with old things. When you look at a photograph that's 70 years old, it's very different than looking at a copy of that photograph in a textbook. Finally, it teaches students how to work with librarians, one of the most helpful things I teach them in the entire class. Librarians are a sorrowfully underused resource, and often a maligned one. I want my students to respect them, to learn from them, and to use the help they so gladly offer in most cases.

This semester, my first at UNE, I wanted my students to do the same kind of research. I met with the archivist at the Westbrook College History Collection, Bobby Gray, and worked out some meeting times. We talked about potential research topics. Everything fell into place quite nicely. Then came the first couple of days of class, and the discovery that most freshmen here don't have cars. The WCHC is about a 35-minute drive from the Biddeford campus where I teach. I tried to arrange carpooling. It started, then stalled. I tried to access a student driver or drivers and a university van or vans. On such short notice, it was going to be very aggravating. In short, this field trip, and the subsequent individual/small group research trips, not going to happen.

I found an alternative in town. There is a free bus that runs very close to the McArthur Library in downtown Biddeford, which also contains archival materials. The librarians there have offered their assistance to all 40 of my students (in fact, they seem overjoyed that we'll be taking advantage of the collection). The assignment will be modified, but should still benefit my students in most of the ways I want it to.

Now I just go into class on Wednesday and tell them all of this. I don't mind setbacks - it gives me a chance to talk about them. I'm very open about my pedagogy in class, often explaining precisely why I do something, and if something doesn't work, explaining to the class why I think it failed. No matter what, there are valuable lessons to be extracted here. Given that the overall theme of the first quarter of class is "context," my misunderstanding of the context of UNE (transportation-wise) should be a lesson in and of itself.

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