Thursday, February 24, 2011

Fresh and Processed Fruit

So I've been promising a Fruit Studies update for a while now. They are excited (well, mildly interested is as about as excited as they get) for some topics that are much further along in the syllabus, and have all fought to sign up for student presentations for that week or so. "When can we talk about _____, Mrs Cog?" they whine. "This stuff's so depressing."

"________ is not Fruit Studies." I say. "That's useless entertainment shit."

"No, no, it's Fruit. It's the essence of Fruit. And so fun." My students respond. Any other group of students would be using exclamation points, but these are remarkably passive about everything. That and I don't think they recognize what an exclamation point is. Seriously. I had one not look abashed, but surprised, when I mentioned that zie needed to capitalize the letter "i" when talking about hirzelf. "Like, even in the middle of a sentence?" Yes. And you should get in the habit of including verbs in every one of your sentences, too.

Anyway, ______. Back to the conversation. I think about it for a second ---- it is possibly, potentially related to Fruit Studies, in a debased, commercialized, co-opted kind of way. It's like those Fruit Roll-Ups that have maybe two drops of fruit juice and the rest is high fructose corn syrup and zantham gum. There are more important topics, real topics, topics that are more like an actual fruit than this one.

So do you start with the sweetener or the bitter, unadulterated, unprocessed piece of fruit? I can see drawbacks either way. And my officemate seems to be having a much better time of the class this time around, so maybe I will tweak the syllabus and things will be better in the fall. Syllabus order is always a big sticking point --- when everything's holistically connected, where do you start? Everything is a prerequisite for something else. And right now they are raw little recruits --- one joked that zie was raised by wolves when I was trying to get them to discuss how outside forces might shape childrearing, and I kinda feel like in a way that is true for this class --- and don't see the point of this class or the point of studying Fruit, except for light entertainment.

So whatever goes at the end, when I have built up the slightest framework of a critical apparatus within them, will be the most successful of our discussions. And yet I feared that putting the Fruit Entertainment at the beginning might set a precedent of enjoying without thinking, so I put all that stuff at the end as a reward and started with some blatant, obvious examples of violence and oppression. And made everybody cry in one class period. Sorry! I even apologized to the class --- "I see why no one signed up to present on this week. I'm sorry; have tissues. It's depressing, but important to think about." Of course that was some sucky class discussion after we watched that violence, but I couldn't think of much to actually say about it either. Except "Ahhhhhhh! Quick, go ... do something!"

Actually, that right there is the heart of my problem with this class. But first, I want to talk about what we did today.

Ok, someone --- I think Tales of a Wayward Classicist --- was posting about how he didn't ever do games in class. And in the comments there were a whole bunch of comments in agreement with the fact that doing games and entertainment in a college-level class was terrible in stupid. But then people chimed in that they loved "activities." And "activities" got the nod while games were bad. I confess I was lost, because I don't see anything so bad about games --- I have friends who constantly use that Jeopardy template that is available on the web in their lit classes and they say it works great --- and furthermore, didn't see anything qualitatively different between games and activities as they were described. But whatever. My problem is that I can never think of a good activity (or game) that is relevant to what is being covered that day. I can maybe come up with something that actually links everything together once a semester. If they work, they are carefully hoarded as prize activities (or games).

Anyways, I was pondering this games/activities distinction and also my students' apathy and lack of engagement and unwillingness to talk and suddenly thought: what if I literally have them make a game? Like, take this process we have been learning about, and the concepts of individual vs collective action I have been pushing them to think about, and had them make a game with rules and a goal that would teach these concepts? I even mentioned this to a permanent Frutairian who generously loaned me candyland and chutes and ladders so I could have them revamp an existing game if they so were inclined.

I actually think this is a tough, difficult assignment to do well. Especially if they paid any attention to the actual complexities of this process.

I wish I could say I had a marvelous experience like Belle regularly reports when she has students make videos and presentations on objects and interpretive dance and all that. I count today as a success, but only because most of my students in the two groups talked and they struggled with open-ended, problem-solving skills. This does not mean that they demonstrated much of any understanding of the process or how it was applicable to their lives. And the one group kept trying to just actually play candyland. Luckily someone picked up a card and said "you know, I can't understand now why this was soooo my favorite game when I was little. There's not much to it..." Or else I might have had them regress back to age 4 or whatever right then and there.

But my students were surprisingly resistant to the activity. (Or is it a game? I guess it's more work than just playing the game.) They found it simultaneously both hard and infantilizing, which I thought was interesting. They were not at all appreciative of the fact that it was creative or even that it meant they didn't have to use the reading for that day. They were probably not happy about the discussions since they had to be on task discussing the topic and negotiating power amongst themselves (the leitmotif of my class, admits the Foucault scholar, so I wouldn't be surprised if they thought I was "doing it on purpose.")

So now I'm tapped out for "activities" or games or creative things to do instead of having a quiz on the reading and then me using the Socratic method (or the teeth-pulling method) to get them to figure out what the reading was about and have the occasional thought about it. And I'm still thinking about how to get them --- how to get them to care, I guess. There is probably no magic bullet, but I bet there are better ways to suck them in and get them over to my side. I'm still brainstorming, pondering, experimenting.

Because this lack of caring --- which is both plain old apathy of the shrug when they see they earned a D on the first assignment, and well, that's good enough for me (and I'm currently at 2 out of 5 presenters have bothered to show up on the day they were presenting, so there is a big disconnect between what they are thinking college is and what they really should be focusing on) --- this lack of caring is both apathy as students and a complete lack of interest in the material, material which is really the lives of other human beings. When I see horrible violence done to someone, my reaction, as I say above, is that we must do something about it. These students see the same and are sad, and then shrug and say, "whaddaya gonna do? At least that's not me." They are so passive, so incurious about the world, about even each other and their problems. Since I am a passionate person, raised in a family full of people who care deeply about all sorts of different things, I don't know how to change an apathetic person into a person with passions and interests. How can you produce a "lightbulb moment"? Is it even possible?

And they are cynical. Everything is completely fixed and unchangeable and they are completely powerless in the world, so naturally if you have that world view you would be very passive and inert. I like using films and documentaries, particularly for poor readers, since they are very immediate and visceral and accessible, but I am worried about using too much because it is such a passive mode of learning that they love love love. They put their heads down and sleep during it, or just zone out, and then feel proud that they were in class and it didn't even hurt or require effort. And yet, it's more work for me to create writing prompts and worksheets and "activities." My comp students --- maybe 5 of them --- just put their heads down and refused to do the thesis worksheet I handed out today. And that was my big fancy interactive idea!

So having written all this --- I'm not sure I'm up to the asking advice from you peeps yet; I'm still trying to figure out my reactions and thoughts --- my problem, as I see it, is that I want to find active, critical thinking-type projects --- activities? --- in class that are not passive, easy forms of learning, that do not reward rote memorization and simplistic thought, but also that can force students to work through ideas at an actual college level. Because I agree once you get something down to a simple visual level or something that can be cut out or colored, you've probably simplified it way down below college-level thinking. But then where is the "engaging" part? Hmm. Still pondering.

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