Monday, February 13, 2012

In the early days of teaching creative writing and the rhetoric class, occasionally a student would ask how the material was applicable to the "real world." In response, I'd ask "isn't this the real world?" And that would usually end the conversation, not that I wanted it to end but my question always came off as a joke rather than an open inquiry. I mean, really, what about the classroom is not real? Am I not real? Is this conversation just a dream? Combating the fallacy we sometimes tell ourselves, that when there is more at stake we work harder and do better. From what I've learned, doing well is more of a habit than a talent, and the issue of the real world, waiting for it, becomes an excuse not to be fully wherever we are. One of many.

Last semester I started thinking about outcomes. In the curriculum development class the instructor shares a lot of student art work, and it's striking how much of it is good in a technical sense. Clean lines and concepts. Work that is truly finished. Whereas in the rhetoric class I teach, very rarely does an essay, a proposal argument for example, reach a point where it's unquestionably finished. Or say, the writing of an English as a second language learner, even though it might be very well thought out and organized, there will be grammar irregularities and other signs that keep it from perfection. Maybe it's not fair to compare visual images with writing, but there is a difference between expectations. With writing, at least as I've experienced learning and teaching it, the goal is improvement. Yet if you write a grant proposal, you either get the grant, or you don't. It's a binary in the "real world" yet at the college level, it's okay to fall short.

Maybe this is part of what makes an American style education an American style education: room to experiment and try new things and slack off and charge forward and give up and restart and in general, an education that gives us room to consider the process along with the material. People from all over the world come to universities here despite all the bad news about education in this country. But there must be something to the material fact that it's never life or death in school. I write this not to get all rah-rah about an American style education, but to point out this strange paradox between process and product. If we think about testing, No Child Left Behind and increased standards and measures by which to determine success, education becomes a matter of life or death, of funding and economics and resources. Of jobs and students and numbers. Our interactions translated into dollar values, a real-time symbolic logic that takes us away from where we are, and what we are doing.