The first paper in my ENGL110 class is Socratic Dialogue (where students pick an issue and then explore both sides of the issue through arguments in a dialogue form). A worried ENGL110 student sat in my office, knowing that she was not understanding the assignment but not knowing how to express why or how she did not understand.
“What do you think about the assignment?” I asked.
“I mean, it’s okay. I just have a hard time with it,” she said nervously, speaking faster and shifting nervously in her seat. “It’s really hard for me to think about what someone else might say. I really only like to think about facts. You know; things that are actually true.”
This emphasis on facts and truths—of knowing something absolute—is something that I feel like I’ve devoted my teaching life to challenging. One of my favorite things about teaching is getting students to the point with papers when they are nervous and uncertain and have to suddenly think in different ways that they have had to do before. That said, the US education system that Cathy Davidson mentions—one of tests and categories and memorization—hinders this kind of exploration that brings students (and myself) to an uncomfortable place without facts and test questions.
In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, there is one scene when King Arthur and his knights must cross a bridge guarded by a man who will only allow them to cross if they can answer three questions correctly (if you want to see the whole thing, look here). Lancelot goes first and gets some pretty easy questions (“What is your name?” “What is your quest?” “What is your favorite color?”). He is allowed to cross without a problem. The second knight boldly steps up to answer his set of questions and is thrown a loop with a third question: “What is the capital of Assyria?” He cannot answer this question and is thrown off the bridge. The third knight is given the same set of questions as Lancelot, but he cannot answer the last question and it also thrown of the bridge. Then King Arthur steps up:
“How do you know so much about swallows?”
“Well you have to know these things when you’re a king, you know.”
King Arthur obscures in his answer the fact that he learned about different swallows from some French men guarding a castle he wanted to storm. His way of answering the question of how he obtained this knowledge implies that he is naturally intelligent or was trained in the arts of being kingly. Further, his knowledge destroys the question-asker himself and makes the bridge safe for all who would come after him.
I think that school feels to many students like this sort of arbitrary question and answer game. There are right answers and wrong answers and some people just know how to get these answers better than others. Teachers, I think, often come across as the great holders of truths/facts. They have this power of question-answering which they acquired somehow and just memorized better than others.
I’ve been in the same shoes as my question-fearing student. I’ve been afraid to consider the fact that things are not as they seem (and the teacher does not know all of the answers). But the “answers” to questions about the world are complex and multifaceted and are always changing. As Davidson says, “The process of unlearning in order to relearn demands a new concept of knowledge not as a thing but as a process, not as a noun but as a verb, not as a grade-point average or a test score but as a continuum” (19).
And I wonder: How can we teach unlearning and flexibility in our writing classrooms? How can we really show students how to call “facts” and commonly held assumptions about the world into question? How can we do all of this within a very resistant school structure which demands an old-school style of learning measurement? Am I–are you–willing to give up our notions of teacher authority in order to allow for the teaching of unlearning?