Wednesday, December 19, 2007

If I'm too good to discuss hubris...

An interesting trend that I'm noticing as I move through the collegiate ranks is the transition from the closed to the open universe: from what are essentially solved problems to problems that are actually worth trying to find the answer to. The biggest area where this is showing up is of course research, but also in other classes; it's nice to get the occasional Transport problem where I'm allowed to remember that what I do just might be applicable to something. Take an optimization problem, for instance: the focus isn't so much on "getting the answer right," mostly because there isn't a right answer. There is, however, a right method, and that's what's being tested.

One class that I might have the opportunity to take next year is something about "undergrad thesis writing." Very much the "unsolved problem" approach--there's clearly a right and wrong way to write a thesis, at the same time as there's no right or wrong thesis. I looked at a sample syllabus online, and it included a revolutionary lesson plan: discussion. I didn't think you were actually allowed to do that at Tech, until I remembered I had something similar back in good old English II.

Maybe you're not allowed to have these "discussions" outside of LCC classes.

LCC, of course, is the school that offers mandatory English classes, the thesis writing class, and various artsy film classes that I'm not sure anyone actually has time to take. It stands for "Literature, Communication, and Culture," and hosts the much-maligned STAC ("Science, Technology, and Culture") degree. That said, an LCC class was one of only a few occasions in my educational history--until recent advanced engineering classes--where the "closed problem" approach was avoided entirely. There were no tests. There were quizzes, to make sure we were actually keeping up with our reading, that counted for relatively little of the final grade. Then there were papers, where we developed ideas and wrote about them, drawing off examples from the books.

In other words, I had learn-discuss-prove you understand.

Contract that to earlier English classes, which were more like learn-memorize-okay, did you memorize well enough? The best part of English, of literature, heck, of the entirety of liberal arts, is the ability to scrutinize a problem and discuss it both subjectively and objectively. This is the one field in all of academia where "what you think" is actually valid. (Try expressing a personal opinion in engineering, or economics, or law.) Too many English classes discard this concept entirely. It would be like treating fluid mechanics without calculus, or ethics without Aristotle.

Take high school lit staple The Odyssey. Fine book. Immense cultural and historical significance. Plenty of material for discussion, except that it's presented as a solved problem. "Children," a thousand high school teachers might be saying in unison, "this is hubris."

"Is that going to be on the test?"

A much better method would, of course, expect students to understand the role of hubris in the context of Ancient Greek society and religious beliefs, and write an essay on it with things like citations to the text. Is that too much to ask of students, particularly ones in high school?

And is thinking having "hubris" shoved down one's throat in itself hubris?

"Children, this is irony. Yes, it's going to be on the test."

Currently listening: Songs for Christmas, Sufjan Stevens

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