An unfortunate incident during our Writers Retreat has me thinking about the obligations of curriculum. In the wider scope of life, it wasn’t perhaps the biggest deal, a policy violation, but also a demonstration of disrespect and immaturity. It is something I take seriously, but I don’t really want to talk about that but rather about what that event has me thinking today: the obligations of curriculum.
I don’t want to be one of those old-timer profs saying "kids today blah blah blah," though I am technically getting old enough to be the age of my students’ parents. Honestly, I don’t see students today as really being less mature than students when I started here in 2001. However I do think that I have changed. I know I have, and I’m starting to think differently about what I want our program to look like.
First of all, I’ve never been a big proponent of "teaching the whole student" in the sense of making every aspect of student campus life into a "teachable moment." Students need privacy. They need to make choices and mistakes; they need to suffer the consequences of those mistakes. In many ways college life is about finding your limits, especially since we are so protective of our children these days. I think it’s great for students to have support when they need it, but they also need to get out there on their own.
Our professional writing program has been a very supportive and even permissive environment. There’s a couple of reasons for that. The program is fairly small so everyone knows everyone. There’s a strong sense of community. Second, my colleagues and I are gentle souls for the most part. Third, we’ve sought to build our program and as such we’ve gone to some lengths to be inviting to new students. Finally, our program has attracted many "creative writers" who have created a student community ethos that is rebellious and romantic in the way young creative people often are.
Now I don’t want to paint all of our students with the same brush! We have many excellent students. We have students who are truly talented writers who are getting published on and off campus, who regularly win campus writing contests, who have high GPAs and go to grad school, and so on. This isn’t about "bad students." It’s about changing the culture of the writing program. In a way it’s about becoming more serious and asking for more seriousness from the students, about shifting the balance between play and seriousness in the curriculum.
For example, I teach this "Writing in the Digital Age" course. I have emphasized play, playing around with new technologies, largely because students have expressed such trepidation about using technology. However, perhaps I shouldn’t be assuaging their fears so much. Over the years I have simplified the intellectual content of the course somewhat. We still address key issues but we read less academic texts. Maybe I should be pushing students more in terms of academic content, giving them more constraints for the assignments, and asking them to deal directly with this difficulty.
It’s not that I want to erase the notion of play in our curriculum. However I do want to redefine it. Obviously we tend to define play in opposition to work, where work is unpleasant, requires effort, and can be difficult, play is easy, enjoyable, and without significant consequence. I want our students to play: to experiment and take risks, to take pleasure in writing and thinking, and to approach their work with a certain lightness, insouciance. On the other hand, I am thinking I need to insist upon more effort….