In the cycle of teaching second-semester English composition, my favorite season rolls around this time of every term: Learners begin their bio-critical investigations into the lives and one or more works of an author they read earlier in the course. We’ve read, discussed, wrestled with, cussed at, and written about so much. Now the course leads to this ending project in the semester’s closing month where their curiosity takes over from the syllabus’ unit by unit litany of obligatory readings, quizzes, and writings. Even though the most onerous project of the term lies before them, a research paper, they enter the library with a sense of liberation now that the search is their own, their curiosity their guide.
I love watching them work, as they prowl the stacks with a scratch sheet of titles and call numbers and then open their eyes widen in amazement as they arrive at their author’s section and find not just the 3 or 4 books they jotted down, but rows and shelves of books by and about the object of their search. I wonder if the gold-hungry Fortyniners of old Californy had more joyous expressions on their faces when specks of gold flashed in their panning screens than these scholastic fortune-hunters show when they discover those mother lodes of and books and volumes arrayed before them.
The students use searchable online databases to find articles and information, too, but nothing prompts the old-school in me more than a group of students seated around a reading-room table with a messy stack of books and journals spread before them, their notebooks open and pens poised as they pore over indexes and tables of contents and pages of books, mining out the knowledge they seek amid the overwhelming information they’ve found in their search.
As a teacher, the process reminds me that the student’s self-directed critical inquiry leads to the highest order of learning. I can lecture and demonstrate and remonstrate for hours on end, but at this point I shut up and stand aside as they assume ownership of the task. They flatter me by occasionally asking questions, but for the most part, they’ve “got it.” And so do I as I stand aside, available to intervene if necessary, but mostly admiring the fruition of pedagogical labors that led to this hour.