Friday, June 14, 2013

A Defiant Friend


One of my academic writing students wrote what I would call a “defiant” final reflection essay, one in which he used academic discourse to poke fun at the lame things he had to learn (and admitted he needs to know) about academic discourse. He even wrote an apologetic note at the end in 24-point magenta font, letting me know that this wasn’t personal, but that the opportunity to tell the truth and vent a little helped him to let the words “flow”. I admittedly enjoy reading the defiant students’ work just as much, if not more than, those students who write exactly what the instructions suggest they write. It doesn’t even have to be defiant, though, so long as it’s creative and keeps me awake when grading that huge stack at the end of the quarter.

On the last day of the course, I like to try to leave students with some sort of inspiration--usually a pep talk about all of the “cool research writing” they’ll get to do in their more advanced courses. (Okay, not so inspirational for some.) In any case, this last class took a different spin because that same anti-academic discourse student announced to the class how much he likes TED Talks, and seemed pretty interested in watching one together as a class as a “fun” end of the class activity. So I went to the TED Talk site, filtered the results by “Inspirational” (trying to stick with that pep-talk theme, after all), and clicked on the first one that popped up without really looking at which one it was.

It was a TED Talk by Sir Ken Robinson from 2006…about how school kills creativity. Oh, blast it.

The students’ eyes lit up like firecrackers, especially those of my defiant friend.  I had seen this TED Talk a long time ago, so I knew the gist, but I had forgotten the details. Sir Robinson, while appearing as though he might be a straight-laced stuffy academic at first, was witty, smart, charismatic, and took a few moments to let the audience laugh quite frequently.

And after I did my best to tie the first half of the video to academic writing as it played - pointing out Sir Robinson’s logos, ethos, and pathos, his thesis development, and his use of narrative to give examples of his points – Sir Robinson said, in so many words, that “our educational system has one mission: to produce more professors”. Everyone looked at me with eyes saying, “What? Heck now, I don’t want to be a professor! What are you doing to us in this school?!?”

Oh, blast it again.

I let the video play, nervously laughing. I did what most teachers do and talked through it, getting everyone’s thoughts on “the point of academic writing” and of college, more broadly, for a few minutes before class time had run out. My defiant friend had a smirk on his face; he knew I had to sleep in the bed I made and seemed entertained by my improvisation act.

We had a lot of honest discussion about what “academic means” throughout the course, and I did my best to defend the values of usefulness of academic writing despite Sir Robinson’s claims. I’ll admit that I felt a little defeated. But then I realized that this moment was really the home-run for me. My defiant friend had, in fact, learned about academic writing, he knew what he didn’t like about academia, he could write an argument about it (even citing himself as an authority), and he knew what engaged him and how to engage me and everyone else. I suppose that discussion of discourse, that argument, that engagement were the whole point of this course. And perhaps “defiant” wasn’t the right word to describe my friend after all. And perhaps my class and its "academic" content weren’t stifling creativity – that “flow” my friend talked about - like I worried it might have been.

Sir Robinson, come hang out in my class.

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