The Risk of Risk

September 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

This is by a brilliant artist whose name I can't remember

This is by a brilliant artist whose name I can’t remember and whose trace I cannot find online. But it’s hers, not mine, and I use it this one time for nonprofit purposes, with humility and gratitude.

Is it just me or are students becoming more averse to intellectual risk-taking?  No, I’m not about to indulge in a rousing round of student-bitching–mostly because I don’t think students are to blame.  In fact, were I to facing a daunting heap of student debt or the punishing schedule of work-school-family that so many have, I’d be skitterish, too.

I think there’s something more going on.  Maybe it has to do with how much information we, as educators, now spell out for students.  Syllabi that used to be two or three pages have bloomed to eight, nine, or more pages.  Some even sprout a table of contents, glossary and index.  Okay, I’m lying about the index.

Still, we hand out rubrics for every assignment, take pains to explain procedures step by step, use simple syntax and action words at every turn.  We drown them in minutiae, leaving nothing to chance or speculation, avoiding confusion, frustration and anxiety at all cost.  We build a pedagogical fence that values procedure over somersaults.

Yet what is the cost?   Because it’s there, I think.  When so many parameters are spelled out, students naturally start to believe that they are required to march lockstep, that their grade depends on their ability to follow orders as opposed to–oh, say, being creative or thinking outside of the box.  And so students ask me about assignment trivia that honestly, I couldn’t care less about, because, as one said, “I don’t want to lose points.”  Points!   What does that  have to do with the thrilling intellectual discovery that higher education is supposed to be?

Damned if I know.

Let me clarify–I wouldn’t take risk either if I was had a crushing tuition bill, a crammed schedule, full-time job and family.  Just doing school is a risk, under those conditions.  And I have nothing but admiration for students who take it on.  But…how can students learn to engage in the kind of risky thinking and writing and creating when they feel compelled to be constantly looking over their shoulders at their grades, their debt, their schedule?

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