Art for Art’s Sake Doesn’t Hook the Skeptical Student

Lindsey’s post gets at the problem of the skeptical student, an entity with which I never quite know what to do when I encounter it.  What I mean by the “skeptical student” is the student who is skeptical, not of a particular lesson or the course’s content, per se, but those students who seem skeptical, rather, about the whole learning thing.

On the one hand, I can rationalize myself into a state of not-caring: This student is a grown-up, not a minor child, and if he/she makes the choice for him/herself not to participate in what we’re doing in class, turn in the homework, etc., then fine, his/her loss.  As long as other students aren’t harmed by the skeptical student’s lumpishness in the back of the room, so be it.

On the other hand, sometimes that inner-city teacher movie with Hilary Swank will come on TV, and I’ll think maybe the line between teaching and mentoring should be blurrier than I’ve invited it to be.  Maybe I should worry more about helping my students to care about the content as much as I’m trying to teach them what the content is.

The truth is, I care an awful lot about my skeptical students, and they break my heart—but I really don’t know what to do with them!  And I especially don’t know what I’m going to do to get the value of taking a literature class across to them in a way that makes transparent application to the “real world” of whatever career they are going to go on to pursue (as our readings suggest is a worthwhile thing to do).

Simply put, I think readers of literature are better people because they have read literature.  I know the company line (as Alicia summarizes in her post) is to talk up all the great critical thinking and problem-solving skills that come out of the experience of having to read a text and then craft an essay about it.  But honestly, I think the true value of reading literature is how it invites me to experience parts of the world that I otherwise wouldn’t experience, how it challenges me to open my mind to new ideas, to consider perspectives and worldviews different from my own, to expose my heart to previously unfelt or unexplored emotions.  And, also, that it’s just beautiful, and to be appreciated for its aesthetics as much as for anything else.  That art for art’s sake is a valuable ideal…  What a cheeseball I must sound like to the skeptical student.

So I appreciated the inclusion, among the “six types of understanding,” of perspective, empathy, and self-knowledge alongside explain, interpret, and apply.  And the examples given—about the “rigid” girl who “just knows” she’s right; about the basketball coach screaming at his players—definitely corroborate with my gut instinct, which is that reading literature invites you to become a better person; it’s a form of character education, in a way.  But I’m still not sure I know how to get the skeptical student on board.  I find that skeptical students are not only reluctant to apply their minds in class, but they are also unlikely to apply their emotions and personal experiences.  I wish there were some sort of Hilary Swank-esque way I could raise the stakes for them, and I’m open to hearing any and all ideas others in this class might have about this.

One incredible success story I have heard, though, comes from my friends in the military, some of whom teach at a military academy.  This friend taught a junior seminar on poetry, and some of the students challenged the relevance of the course in the context of their military careers—they’d enrolled because they thought it would be an easy “freebie” that wouldn’t actually challenge them with any military rigor—and my friend was able to persuade these students that the study of poetry is just as important as the study of military tactics.  That military officers rely as much, if not more so, on their moral compasses as their navigational compasses, and that the study of ethics and human feeling provided by poetry is as relevant, if not more relevant, to success, humanity, and effectiveness in the on-the-spot decision-making the battlefield requires.

But I’m not a military instructor, and I’m not Hilary Swank.  Do I gotta getta gimmick?  Is it enough to teach to the students who care enough, or is there something I should be doing to try to reach the skeptical student, too?  And in trying to reach this skeptical student, how hard is trying hard enough?  I wish we talked about these more “squishy” aspects of teaching with a bit more frequency—unlike Blau and his perfect audience of engaged students, many of the students I see in GMU classrooms are just sort of along for the ride, and I feel like it’s my job to somehow get them behind the wheel.