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As I’m working this evening, I am humming songs from Hamilton and reflecting on sessions from the Cs in Houston in April and NADE in Anaheim back in March — threshold concepts, transfer, critical reading in the writing classroom, IRW, accelerated programs, calls for action.  These professional meetings energize and inspire me to have “a mind at work,” and I always return to campus full of ideas and projects and research proposals, amazed at “how lucky we are to be alive right now…”  (Hamilton has come up on Pandora again).

But how do I translate that energy for my students at this point in the semester?  Back in my classroom this morning, I heard myself saying, “If you take nothing else away from this course, remember that …”  Over the years, that phrase has come to signal discussion of the threshold concepts that define and structure my classes; in fact, I was framing my courses in this way well before I knew what  a threshold concept was, much less how such concepts might shape disciplinary conversations or a writing program. 

With only two weeks left in the semester, I face pedagogical angst:  have I made the points clear?  Have I created the opportunities to invite students into liminal spaces and encourage them to experience threshold concepts for themselves?  Have I paid attention to their comments–have I listened well enough to recognize their tentative efforts to deal with the confusion which inevitably accompanies our initial encounters with threshold concepts? How can I revise the text of my classroom (as Donald Murray’s revision checklist always comes to mind)?

I find myself preaching the concepts (as the wife of a preacher, pulpit-talk comes easily to me), whispering them in conferences, jotting them in the margins:  If you take nothing else away from this course, remember . . . you are writing for readers who will make their own meaning based on your lexical and grammatical choices.  If you take nothing else away from this course, remember . . .that you are a textual matchmaker, introducing your readers to your sources; in that position, you have both tremendous power and tremendous responsibility.  If you take nothing else away from this course, remember that language–and writing–reflects our identities and discourse communities.  If you take nothing else away from this course…

These threshold concepts may seem simple, but they are not.  They are much harder to acquire than a paragraph template, a comma rule, or pattern for writing introductions, in part because they require agency and self-efficacy (one of those words I heard at the Cs) — stances which my students have rarely been asked to take (or, in some cases, actively hindered from taking).  More than once, weary eyes have met mine:  “Professor Moore, just tell me what to say and I will say it.”  Ahh, at this point in the term, how easy that would be.  And how terribly unfair and cruel to these readers and writers. 

I’ve got just two weeks left in the semester.  Two weeks to craft responses that illustrate these threshold concepts.  Two weeks to resist asserting control over student writing.  Two weeks to invite students to experience the exhilaration of revision and the mot juste.  Two weeks to assure them that composing is hard work, even for their teacher…
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton gets it.  I may not be “just like my country,” “young, scrappy,” or “hungry,” but I’ve got two weeks left.  And I’m not throwing away my shot.

 

In this series of posts (see also Teaching the Election: Intro and Teaching the Election: Appiah) I’m talking about how to teach the election without promoting a single political point of view or allowing students to get stubbornly stuck in us vs. them political positions. Another great reading to help with that is Gilbert.

 

Daniel Gilbert, in “Reporting Live from Tomorrow,” looks at how truly awful our imaginations are at predicting our future happiness. And really that’s what any election is all about: which candidate will lead in a way that offers me the most happiness for the next four years? Answering that kind of question, Gilbert shows, is anything but easy.

 

Unless you use surrogates. For Gilbert, surrogates are people who are living an experience you hope to have. For example, if you want to find out if you’re really going to be happy as a doctor, then you should talk to someone who is a doctor. I think you could have students explore this concept, and its limitations, in relation to the election. What kind of surrogates might we locate to help make our voting decision?

 

Of course, Gilbert also points out that people are loathe to use surrogates, believing that they are so special that in no way could someone else’s experience predict their own future happiness. That’s something for students to explore as well, considering the challenges to using surrogates in election decisions and life more generally.

 

Critical thinking often lies, I believe, in complication. Thinking about future happiness in the context of the presidential election is a wonderful way for students to work on complicating Gilbert’s ideas. In the process, not only will they become more adept at working with ideas in general but perhaps they will, if nothing else, examine their own thinking processes in relation to their political choices.

 

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