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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Posting on the break

I find I'm checking e-mail sort of obsessively. Two students--one from the problematic 101, one from the poetry class--are "talking" with me about their paper ideas. The poetry paper isn't due until the second Monday after the break, so the fact that that student is already working on ideas is particularly delightful. She wrote initially to find out about the Writing Center, but now she's lobbing thesis ideas in my direction and getting my usual long-winded, question-filled replies.

I need to come up with a name for the student in the 101, as I have a feeling I'm going to be talking about her a lot. She started the semester with a lot of resistance: every time I'd put the students in groups she'd call me over and ask me what they were supposed to do. (It felt a little like the scene in Big when the adult toy developer keeps maliciously saying "I don't get it" as the boy-adult pitches a toy idea.) However, something in one of the articles we read hit a chord for her, and she relaxed: her body language changed, and she seemed much more comfortable talking in the whole-class discussion. Then she sent an e-mail that was filled with questions about the second submission of the essay they're working on--and her questions suggested to me that the problem had been that she was facing a kind of insecurity that she'd never felt before. In class discussion, she said high school was "too easy" (a lot of her classmates had a "What? You're kidding me!" reaction: clearly it wasn't easy for them)--and in her e-mail she said that she heard what I was saying but couldn't quite grasp it, or figure out how to apply what I said to the work she needed to do. She also said--rightly--that the topic "Education" is huge and amorphous and that she was having a hard time figuring out how to approach it.

I wrote a long e-mail back, interlining my responses with her questions--and I immediately started to worry that I'd overwhelmed her with information, so I wrote again and asked her if what I'd said had helped. She said it had, but that she knew she'd have more questions once she started writing. In fact, that's what's happened: although she's getting closer to having a specific focus, she's struggling to nail down her ideas into a debatable thesis. Yes, I told her: that's what happens. That struggle is absolutely right.

So, I've sent another long-winded e-mail, and now I'm waiting to hear back from her with more questions. But I love that she's working on it--and asking the questions. Most of her classmates won't even start to think about it until Saturday or Sunday, and then they'll have no time to go through the struggle she's talking about. I'm proud of her. She's doing great.

But her struggle and the struggle of the student in the poetry class reminds me again of how important it is to explain one particular truth about a thesis. Students invariably think that the way to have enough to say is to have a huge, general idea--and it's the opposite. The tighter and more focused the thesis, the more there is to say, because that precision allows for depth. I use the analogy of a laser beam as opposed to a floodlight: the laser beam can cut through to deeper levels; the floodlight has no particular focus. But I want to come up with a new analogy, one that will make more immediate and intuitive sense.

In any event, these two students are making me very happy right now. I hope I can find a way to use their experience to inspire their classmates. I gave the two 101s my "panic earlier" lecture, but they don't believe it yet. Well, that's part of the learning curve for them. But these two young women are doing precisely that; they're able to panic productively because they're panicking earlier. Good.

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