Richard E. Miller

Be Interested: On Giving Assignments Titles

Blog Post created by Richard E. Miller Expert on Sep 30, 2016

Ann and I like our assignments to have titles that tell students exactly what we expect from them. So, our syllabi don’t say, “Paper #1 due . . . ,” and “Persuasive Essay due . . .”  Who could get excited about anything so formulaic?

 

Our “Be Interested” assignment, for example, which is the first step in a longer project, asks our students to demonstrate their interest in anything that touches on the world of ideas. Pursuing their interest should ideally involve going someplace that’s new to them: they can attend a scholarly lecture or an artistic event on campus, or they can go to a city planning meeting or sit in on a court trial. What they choose doesn’t matter to us; what does matter is that they are actively interested in what they’ve chosen. Being interested is a habit and we want them to get in the habit of having new experiences and encountering new ideas.

 

The assignment explains how we want our students to make their interest visible to others:

In advance of attending the event you’ve chosen, do preliminary research that puts you in a position to ask a good question once you get there. After the event, write up an intellectually engaging account that introduces the event’s central problem, concern, or question. Write your way to a question that the event raised for you, one that can’t be answered with basic information alone but that requires thought and research beyond the time you put in before the event.

 

Then begin to do the research required to address the question the event raised for you. We expect you to begin with informational sources and to keep digging until you find two sources that advance your thinking in significant ways. We are interested in the two sources that you find after you’ve moved beyond the basic background information.

All the students we’ve had do this assignment have experienced some level of difficulty completing it. Most of our beginning students have never voluntarily attended a lecture or gone to a gallery or attended a civic meeting; most don’t know where the university publicizes events that are free and open to the public. Some students haven’t found any of the available options to be of interest and have asked to be allowed to watch a lecture on the Internet or visit a Web site. And we’ve had more than one student come to class empty-handed, saying they’ve been unable to find anything out there that interests them.

 

Being interested, it turns out, is a lot harder than it seems at first. To get our students practicing, we begin by teaching them how to exhibit the habits of the interested mind: ask questions, do research that drills down past the first link, ask more questions, follow details, and locate original sources. Being interested is not the same as being entertained; it’s an active endeavor and to get there, you have to work at it.

 

In one of our classes, we had a graduating senior who declared that she couldn’t do the assignment. This wasn’t an act of resistance; she had spent all of her time at the university preparing for future employment, she explained, and was focused on her internship and building her resume. She had tried her best. She’d gone to a lecture about mass incarceration; she’d poked around on the Web. Nothing clicked.

 

All those classes, all those credits stacked up, standing at the threshold of her college education’s conclusion, this student was telling us, “Be interested? I don’t have the time . . . or the interest.” There are many ways to respond to such news: as a depressive, despair is my first sensation, but that isn’t pedagogically useful.

 

A better response is to see that students, in general, struggle with being actively interested in their own educations because their own educations don’t teach them how to be interested. They’ve written research papers; they’ve generated arguments and they’ve tried to be persuasive; they’ve had topics and topic sentences: they’ve produced the outer trappings of interest, but most have never actually had the inner experience of being interested as a habit of mind. This is different from being into rock climbing or being a news junky or being obsessed with gaming: interest as a habit of mind is question-driven; it is the lived practice of being curious. Teaching them that being interested is a practice and getting them to engage in that practice is our job. Then, when they’re faced with a more traditional writing assignment, they’ll be prepared to make themselves interested because they’ll have learned how to use writing as a technology for thinking new thoughts.

 

Where to begin, then? By looking at how writers show interest on the page.  Our students come to class expecting to discuss the argument in the assigned reading; they attend lectures and seeking out the speaker’s main point. We want them to learn to ask: what is the question that drives this work? Without the animating question, arguments and main points are just context-free factoids. What motivates a research project? A question that nags, that haunts, that refuses to be settled or dismissed. 

 

What’s the question that drives Habits of the Creative Mind? In its most general form: what is creativity and can it be taught? These are questions without definitive answers, but that’s as it should be: the practice of engaging with the unanswerable is the essence of humanistic education.

 

Next: The follow-up assignment: Be Interesting!

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