So I did that thing where you pretend you don’t know something in order to get students to show what they know. At least I think it’s a thing — I read it on a blog once, somewhere, one day, and now that I’ve done it, too, that makes it a thing, right?
Anywho, this was in my intro to literary study class, and we’re doing the unit on poetry, and people clam up when we do poetry, even though I think poetry can be so much easier than more narrative modes (it’s shorter, you can “cover” it all, and it’s often playful and clever and invites you to generate readings). But, you know, it’s technical (or it can be), it takes liberties with language (or plays with the liberties it gives you), it’s sometimes purposely evocative without being concrete, and it’s often both elusive and allusive. That all adds up to scary or challenging or, for some students who haven’t yet realized that there’s more to literature than “story,” pretentious and precious.
But yesterday, all sorts of people started talking who hadn’t previously talked, and I’m pretty sure it’s because I pretended not to know what certain strings of imagery were trying to convey in a poem we were doing. I even misinterpreted a word (one with multiple denotations) on purpose. And students jumped into the wide gaping hole I left open for them and straightened us all out (all very politely, actually). I started by saying something like, “I want to talk about this line, which I find really beautiful, but don’t know what to do with. What does it mean? And I mean that in the sense of, ‘No, really, I have no idea what it means.'” And later, as we got talking, I said, “I think this word means X, rather than Y. Let’s go with that.” And then, as discussion progressed, a student said, “Actually, I think it might make more sense as Y, because then…” and she opened up an oblique part of the poem that was related to the poem’s imagery, but not in any obvious way. And I said, “Oh, yeah, then that makes sense of [its immediate context],” and then other students chimed in and said, “And so then….” and “And also…” and away we went!
Whew! I wasn’t sure it would work and I’m not sure I could do this all the time — one does have to establish some authority and knowledge, even in a class where you’re teaching the basic skills of the discipline — but I might try it on a regular basis in my gen ed poetry class next semester. Of course, if I do it too much, students might catch on. We’ll see.
So, have you ever ceded your authority in order to get students to seize theirs?
ETA: Hey, it’s my Blogiversary! I’ve been blogging for — gulp! — 7 years now! Wait, *how* is that possible?? (Actually, my original blogiversary is a few days earlier, but I deleted those posts here, so now the oldest post is from Sept. 5, 2005.)