At George Washington Community High School in Indianapolis, I helped to kick-start an open-source initiative that provided more than 50 computers to students in need. I also ran a workshop on open-source publishing and magazine creation. Students created their own newspaper, while I redesigned the school’s website in order to better suit the needs of a multilingual community.
Teaching game development to the next generation of scholars.
Each year, the Rutgers Future Scholars program introduces 200 first-generation, low-income and academically promising middle school students from school districts in our four Rutgers home communities of New Brunswick, Piscataway, Newark, and Camden to the promise and opportunities of a college education. I teach introduction to game development and nonlinear narration.
When I saw “Dissent and Debate” on the syllabus, I became worried because I knew I was not good at arguing my ideas, let alone explaining them clearly. However, this class has definitely made me a better writer. Writing essays has always been a painful experience because I could not properly express my ideas. But now it’s not as painful. — MN
I definitely feel that I’ve improved as a writer from taking this class. Understanding the rhetorical realms really helped me write a kick ass scholarly essay without sounding boring. — DC
I am going to be blatantly honest. At first, I despised this class, even dreaded it. I assumed that because we did not share the same beliefs that you would make the class miserable for me. And, at times you did. But, about halfway through the semester, I figured it out: you were trying to make me uncomfortable, but not without reason. It was to make me feel something about my writing; it was to help me make stronger arguments and support my claims based on what I believed. I found my voice as a writer which I otherwise may not have found. — KM
philosophy // v.0.1
Dewey famously said that thinking only happens when we’re faced with a problem. If the sentiment behind his words must persevere, then today’s educators need to redefine some terms.
While University is certainly about the acquisition of marketable skills (we want our students to find jobs after graduation), the primary duty of the educator is in constant conflict with this demand. Thinking is not the same as training. Without the freedom to explore the frontiers of creative thought, students have little reason to attend school apart from obligation, apart from some erroneous belief that University equals Ticket to Success. This belief makes it all but impossible to distinguish between student and customer. Consequently the relevance of scholarly experience suffers under the heavy hand of corporatization. Accountability becomes more important than responsibility.
Obviously educators need to be accountable for their pedagogics. Both students and customers come to the classroom with certain expectations (usually listed on the syllabus). By semester’s end those expectations need to be met. Every class should finish with a sense of money well spent. However it’s not the job of the educator to be responsible for rote training. The complete scholarly experience has never been a matter of mere memorization slash indoctrination. Instead teachers must encourage sovereignty of thought, independence of mind beyond the scope of industry. Especially in the humanities, where we shape behavior, the job is as much about inspiration as it is about inculcation.
It’s too easy to dismiss the very idea of inspiration as high-minded pretense. The word itself is meaningless without context. By “inspiration” I mean we ought to arouse in students a desire to question the value behind the very skills we teach, because the usefulness of those skills is only sustainable so far as the student believes in their benefit. Upon graduation our students should possess the abilities to find truth uncovered by independent means.
But how to create inspiration?
Nowadays when a student faces a problem, the answer is usually in her back pocket. With the press of a button the meaning of Dostoyevsky glares back on her retina display. All of the skills she’s learned seem worthless if only she invested in a faster computer. She feels duped and disappointed. The knowledge is there, on the internet, in a comfortable, digestible form.
So instead of demanding rote memorization—instead of demanding the “right” answer—the educator must embrace mistake, misunderstanding, and misrepresentation. The path to truth should be challenging and full of missteps. Yet also rewarding. Finding meaning within oneself, even if it is the “wrong” meaning, is an essential component to academic discourse. Otherwise the very act of thinking is in danger becoming obsolete. It’s just too easy to concede to Google.
I provide students an unrestricted space to play with difficult problems. Every idea is considered so long as it comes from a place of authenticity. I do my best to guide students in the “right” direction, and of course I offer students the traditional rhetorical syntax. But more importantly, I urge students to seek out truth for the sake truth itself. My responsibility as their educator is the preservation of the scholarly experience through the fostering of liberated thought. My hope is to inspire them to see the benefits of education outside of the classroom experience. If I need to ask my students to repeat whatever trivial fact they learned the week before, to test them on whatever bit of information they could have Googled, then I’ve failed them.
The problems I create in my classroom cannot be answered with a quick Google search. I ask students to come to terms with impossibilities. I present them with dilemmas that frequently cause anxiety and cognitive dissonance. Yet I do so in a way that is inviting, never allowing the fear of dismissal to overshadow the free exchange of ideas. My classroom functions as a think-tank in which students engage with the very process of learning. Inside of this environment, I am a guide, always committed to providing the tools students need to organize thought processes they already possess. In effect, I build confident thinkers.
I may teach logic and reasoning, thesis and structure, but more than content or form I try to instill in my students the conviction that these rhetorical tools are critical to the development of both professional and personal identity. In order to keep them interested, and because I’m aware that the skills I teach are applicable across the curricula, I make each class as accessible as possible through the commingling of literary artworks with new media and non-traditional texts, putting each into the conversation of learning. By employing a diversity of cultural artifacts into every lesson, I am able to construct an environment of participation. If my students become better writers and better thinkers, it’s not just so they can meet the demands of the workaday world, but rather it’s the result of a collective search for truth and clarity.
I am a regular contributor to Wikipedia. I also use the open-source MediaWiki web software on my own domain as a pedagogical tool and content management system. The software allows me to maintain an active community of engaged collaboration, while simultaneously tracking changes in draft and composition. It has a straightforward interface.
Since I sometimes use MediaWiki in the classroom (to foster student learning and to keep track of course scheduling), my own installation is heavily restricted. The core code has been altered to allow for even more privacy. Unlike Wikipedia proper, access to article editing and content creation is restricted. You’ll need to be approved by an administrator in order to participate in discussion.
I believe in the free exchange of ideas, especially in academia. My own content on russo.xyz/wiki is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Please assume, modify, or redistribute whatever information you find useful. My syllabuses, lesson plans, and other teaching materials are all up for grabs. No copyright.