Monday, November 26, 2012

The Dreaded "Why?" Question, Part II

The first post on the dreaded "Why?" question focused on research.

Every "Why?" question, in other words, is a small research project.

But research without proper packaging just won't pop.

 Imagine if all your Christmas presents were just sitting out under the tree unwrapped.

Where is the excitement in that, right?

Often then I tell my students that the best wrapping paper is a story.

Earlier in the month I worked with a student on his "Why U of Chicago?" essay.

His first draft read like a set of bullet points.

Some great points.

Just no bow and bright ribbon.

So we discussed what kind of stories he might tell from his own experience that would connect with the essay prompt.

In the end, he unearthed one story that really tied in creatively and cogently with what he loved about U of Chicago's ethos.

In preparation for the spring English final, my teacher, Dr. Powell, drew six big buckets and added the following -isms over each bucket: Puritanism, Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Transcendentalism, Realism, and Modernism. He then asked us to put each author, poet, and literary work that we read all year in American literature in their appropriate bucket. At first, some students in my class just assumed that each writer belonged in only one bucket. Nathaniel Hawthorne was a Romanticist. Emily Dickinson was a Transcendentalist. Twain was a Realist. But then I raised my hand and asked Dr. Powell, "Well, couldn't Dickinson also go in the Modernist bucket too? Her poetry reflects anxiety, uncertainty about the world, and a fragmented confidence in institutions like the church. Isn't that 'modern'?” Dr. Powell wryly smiled and quipped, "Right." Before I knew it, my classmates and I were debating which buckets the writers fit into, and if they could fit in more than one bucket. Dr. Powell never told us if we were right or wrong. He never forced his opinion on us, and he never forced a writer into any bucket. We instead had to “do the bucket work”.  In other words, Dr. Powell made us take ownership of our educational experience.

The University of Chicago is a learning ethos where one will find buckets without lids.  Students are invited, like we were in Dr. Powell's class, to fill the buckets up with "outside-of-the-box" kind of thinking. So often we want only one answer to our question. We desire an equivalency where A=B. At the U of Chicago, A can equal B, but it can also equal C, D, E, and F.  What Dr. Powell's class did for me is solidify that the most effective way I learn involves dialogue that allows something organic, synergistic, and seminal to emerge from the seeming chaos of open-ended debate and free inquiry.  U of Chicago fosters this kind of democratic pedagogy, and I sense, therefore, that I would fit within this learning environment the way, I concluded, Emily Dickinson belonged in both the Transcendentalist and Modernist buckets.  

It's a good thing to tell U of Chicago that you love the way they teach students.

It's a great thing to show U of Chicago that you love the way they teach students.

Research tells.

Stories show.

The challenge then involves trying to find ways to integrate both research and story in a dynamic and ingratiating way.