So, I recall teaching a summer composition course some quarters back, one that I inherited from a teacher who had pulled out of the class at the last minute. I had been stuck with her theme and books: “Conscious Evolution,” explored through some classic science-fiction texts such as Brave New World. I tried to discern what she intended with the theme, and pulled together a syllabus that incorporated her books and supplemented them with a couple of movies and some episodes of the old television series Twilight Zone. I was transparent with students from the first day about the jerry-rigged nature of the instructional plan, and this awareness helped to form (and inform) our development as a community of learners who were reading and writing and talking the summer days away, trying to consciously evolve into something.
The impromptu syllabus seemed to work pretty well, and the students engaged fully with class discussions and participated meaningfully in the writing exercises. The class was the second of a two-course sequence at this school, and the course outline called not so much for the introduction of new skills or genres but for a deepening of the content from the first composition course. In this vein, the final project was to be an analytical paper of considerable length, and I made clear in the lead-up period before the final weeks that I would set the bar for its assessment high.
As the students began their preliminary planning, one fellow came up for some assistance in determining his theme and approach. He was a non-traditional student – an older, married student who was taking some time off from work to finish his education for career advancement – and he was unsure about getting past a surface analysis of any of our source materials. We talked about different ideas for a while, and then I recalled a scene from one the TV shows in which a woman willingly complied with the casual request of a man for the keys to her car so that he could drive. I asked the student if he wanted to try something dealing with the agency and objectification of female characters.
For me, those were just grad school buzz-words, something to start intellectual play.
For him, they were they keys to whole new world.
To his everlasting credit, the student's first response was to say, without pretense or shame, “I don’t know what that means. Explain it to me.” That led to a vigorous conversation about philosophy, psychology, feminism, and literary analysis; I pointed him to a couple of sources for further background. His reaction was one of wonder: he had literally never thought of understanding relationships and behaviors in this way, and he was excited at the prospect. He went on to draft and revise a pretty darn good analysis of the presentation of women characters in the works we had examined, and the ways in which those presentations contrasted with the purported high-mindedness of their themes.
I felt rewarded by this whole interaction, since it demonstrated so well the power of teaching. Not only did this student gain the skills he needed for immediate outcomes – writing at the level that the course demanded – but he gained a whole new way of thinking about Story, as well as a way of thinking about Thinking. But perhaps most importantly, I like to believe that he gained a level of social consciousness that he had not had before: that this lowly composition class had not only given him the tools to become a better student or better employee, but also a better husband, father, neighbor, and citizen.
Pretty good conscious evolution, that.