This week’s post is by guest writer Mark Koyama. Mark is a writer, musician and graduate of the UMass MFA program. Mark taught College Writing and has served as a mentor to first-year teachers.
I’ll wager that if you look out over your fresh batch of 112 students you can count at least half-a-dozen Red Sox Caps. Am I right? Welcome to Red Sox Nation. As it turns out, a Red Sox Cap ain’t just a Red Sox Cap—it’s also a form of protective headgear. Before long, several young men will pull their caps down over their foreheads, slouch down, and in this defensive stance, be thoroughly protected from the chance of learning anything.
I’m making a Terrible Generalization. I’ll do the requisite back-pedaling in due time, but before doing that, let me indulge in another T.G: you know those students who refuse to make eye contact? They aren’t shy. They’re texting.
I know, I know. This is turning into one of those “kids these days” rants. The thing to remember is that they’re not dumb, and they’re not trying to be bad and they may not be really texting. That’s so high school. It’s not that they don’t want to learn. Most of the students are genuinely excited about being in college. What is it then? What makes it seem like they just don’t care? It’s really no great mystery. It’s actually quite simple.
They’re trying to be cool.
The paraphernalia of cool may shift from generation to generation, but the fundamentals remain the same. Since time immemorial, being cool has been a posturing game. To be really cool, one has to know when to fit in, and when to be aloof (and, of course, one must never use the word “one” as a pronoun.) The “fitting in” part involves wearing the obligatory emblem of regional pride – the Red Sox Cap. The “being aloof” part involves pulling the cap down and feigning disinterest in the anything proceeding from the mouth of anyone older then twenty-five years of age (who uses the word “one” as a pronoun.)
As a teacher in the a first-year writing course the “fitting-in” part of the equation is not your concern. It’s the “being aloof” part that you need to worry about. It can be a killer. It feels, at times, like there is direct correlation between the earnest fervor with which one tries express an idea, and how much the students greet that same idea with blithe disregard. Earnestness, you see, is anathema to cool. To be earnest, you must be willing to commit to the truth of an idea. But commitment, too, is anathema to cool. These things – earnestness, truth, commitment – they are probably listed in the thesaurus as antonyms for “aloof.”
But again – the aloof thing is not about the students being bad. No. Remember, the students are in a critical moment of transition in their lives. They are figuring out who they are and what is important to them. They are picking and choosing. It makes sense that they will do this from as safe a vantage as possible – from under the Red Sox Cap.
What’s your job? Do you order them to take off the Red Sox Cap? Do you coerce them to take it off with some grading policy stipulation? Or do you just let them keep it on?
I think it’s important that you try, early in the semester, to establish a culture in your classroom. The best learning, I think, takes place in a culture of discussion. Discussion is the dynamic that slowly, and imperceptibly erodes the aloof culture of cool. Discussion has the power to transform something you think is important, into something we find to be worth thinking about. Discussion fosters an environment in which people discover that it’s OK to let their guard down and get excited about an idea. They may not even know its happening—they may feel uneasy, but that’s alright because real learning happens when students are out of their comfort zones. Learning happens when the students get so worked up about the truth of an idea, that they lose their cool. That’s why the culture of the classroom – your College Writing classroom – should be the culture of the post-cool era.
I think the College Writing 112 curriculum is actually pretty amazing. If you think about it, the Unit 1 essay is the perfect opportunity to begin fostering a culture of discussion. You are asking them to write about themselves – which is risky for them. You are asking them to write about what they believe and why. But they may not know what they believe until they start writing about it. Writing, in this sense, is not about recording who one is, as much as discovering who one is. This surprising reality is a great doorway into discussion. If this strange dynamic elicits even the barest glimpse of honesty from the mouth of one of your students, make sure everyone in the class recognizes what just happened! This will jump start the slow process of engendering the post-cool-era-classroom.
Don’t be disappointed if, at the end of the semester, you look out and see that only a handful of caps have been taken off. You are teaching the entire class – but you may really influence only a handful. Don’t underestimate the power and the significance of that influence – those students may remember you for the rest of their lives, because you showed them something important. It’s a beautiful thing.