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Instead Of Assigning Make-Work …

July 29, 2012

I’ve been rereading an essay by anti-public-school activist and former award-winning teacher John Taylor Gatto. He basically argues that schoolwork is makework–and he’s right. When was the last time anyone ever wrote anything in a composition class that really mattered? Surely matters are worse at lower levels, but even at the college level, most of the papers students write don’t matter. Hell, most grad school papers don’t matter. This is a shame.

So why not stop assigning makework? Why not give students real work to do? I’ve been flirting with this idea already for a while–next semester, I’m going to have my students write Wikipedia articles as I teach them secondary research skills–indeed, they’ll NEED the skills I’m teaching in order to make halfway decent articles! Real articles that people can use; real writing that matters.

But I think I can go one better. What’s the point of having students write meaningless audience-of-one research papers and criticism about literary texts that have been studied for a hundred years? Those papers just go in a file once I grade them, and eventually into the garbage. Why not set the bar much higher? Why not use each class to write a book-length resource (whatever the format–wiki, ebook, blog, whatever) with my students, start-to-finish? There are many great books well-worth studying that have never been written about, so they could spend their time with me producing real, useful knowledge, and the task itself would be sufficiently vast that I could model everything at an expert level and then assign them real, cognitively demanding jobs within that framework. Laboring together, we could create meaningful products, and in the process they would learn the necessary skills.

Such an idea, of course, could go far beyond lit-crit. A public-policy class could compile a meaningful report on an issue for the community, establishing the facts and offering a balanced menu of policy suggestions: a starting point for later public discourse. I see no reason why a poetry or fiction class couldn’t produce an anthology. Are we teaching journalism? We could write a comprehensive restaurant guide to a local town. Hands-on training is good enough for dentists and doctors, after all, so why not for college-level writers?

Obviously some students’ work will be seriously lacking. They will have to work harder than most, and will probably absorb more professorial attention, but if you show the whole class how you would edit a flawed paragraph, or ask hard questions for twenty minutes to force a student to really come up with a useful idea to explore–a genuinely knowledge-advancing idea–then all will benefit. And if the class doesn’t end up producing anything worth putting out into the world, you tell them that. “Sorry. We failed. I hope you’ll learn from this failure. For your grade, send me a detailed letter with your thoughts on the entire project. If students are passionately interested in bringing this project to completion with me, we can work on it outside the semester.” If classes produced good work, work that would be used in the future, then in a few years students might put their coauthor credit on their resume.

Obviously there are huge problems to be solved before such a concept can be implemented. But why not start throwing out makework?


From → Teaching

  1. Love it! Thanks for even considering teaching outside the box.

    • ionathandiakonos permalink

      I think it’s worth trying, anyway. I’ve been getting frustrated trying to create artificial contexts for teaching skills that really only get taught by doing real work.

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