Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"Make It So!": Jean-Luc Picard and One-On-One Writing Conferences

Sometimes, I wish I could run my one-on-one writing conferences with my students the way Jean-Luc Picard runs his starship.

Who would skip a meeting, after all, with the no-nonsense, chrome-domed Captain of the Enterprise? Who would dare give Picard a “revised” draft that looks suspiciously identical to the one from the week before? Moreover, Picard wouldn’t delicately dance around the black holes in a student’s text; no, Captain Picard gives orders, not suggestions-- orders which he always punctuates with the ominous tag-line, “Make it so.” Granted, Professor Picard’s students wouldn’t gain much in terms of self-actualization, but in terms of a polished finished product, they’d certainly learn how to make it so.

Of course, while it would be easier to run a conference like this, it certainly wouldn’t be better-- for me or my students. But as an English teacher who meets frequently with his students in individual writing conferences, I always thought I could take something away from Picardian pedagogy-- namely, his commitment the so-called “Prime Directive,” which any card-carrying Star Trek fan would define as follows: when a Federation starship visits a new planet, the crew members can observe the indigenous cultures, but they cannot interfere with their normal evolutions. Basically, it’s the interplanetary version of the chaos theory-- the “if a butterfly flaps its wings on Jupiter” conundrum.

When I first started teaching in 1995, I used a model similar to the “Prime Directive” for my writing conferences: I saw myself as a visitor in these strange, new worlds my students committed to paper. And although I praised the things I enjoyed, or asked them to clarify moments of confusion, or perhaps helped them see untapped potential already inherent in their texts, I never introduced anything foreign into these worlds. We were simply having a conversation-- at least, that’s what I told myself.

And yet I couldn’t reconcile my understood role as “observer” with my recurring frustrations with conferencing. If I were truly just observing and conversing, why did I feel discouraged when the students didn’t incorporate our “conversations” into their drafts? Or when they did incorporate my suggestions, why the uneasy self-consciousness that they were pursuing these ideas for my benefit, not theirs? My students couldn’t win-- and because I couldn’t figure out why, neither could I.

Then I remembered my “Star Trek”: you see, the “Prime Directive” almost never worked. The Enterprise crew could never simply observe; their visits always seemed to affect change.

In a similar way, I could see that my comments artificially affected my students’ papers, that the gradebook gave me the power to influence their ideas; as a result, I could never have a true conversation with my students in conference, despite my best intentions and pretensions. Thus, for me, the “Prime Directive” model-- the ideal of instructor as detached observer-- proved just as unrealistic and unproductive as “Make it so!”

Here's the straight dope about conferencing, the plain truth that no English teacher really wants to admit: in conference, we're not simply observing; we're interfering in these worlds. We may try to maintain the illusion otherwise; we may preface a suggestion to a student by saying, “This shouldn’t influence your decision,...” but we can't resist the urge to make comments that can only influence his decision.

This charade manifests itself in other ways as well. For example, I talk about “audience,” but when you boil it all down, isn’t the person holding the gradebook the only one they really care about? Or in conference, I double-talk with comments such as, “Well, don’t do this just because I brought it up...”; but in reality, isn’t that what good students have been taught to do-- listen to their instructors?

The awareness of that power probably means I should abandon the ideal of “conference-as-conversation.” However, I can’t forsake the “conversation” model completely, because the alternative-- the overly-directive, “here, write this down!” approach-- is infinitely less appealing. So where does that leave us?

Somehow, we need to find a compromise: a one-on-one writing conference can’t just be a "conversation"; we need to give something to our students. We need to negotiate a place somewhere in between the two poles of “Make it so!” and the “Prime Directive.”

Some may blast this “compromise” as a cop-out-- that we’re being disingenuous with a student if we appear to be having a conversation when we’re really pushing her to think in a certain way through our leading questions. Perhaps with misleading prefaces such as “I don’t want to influence your decision...,” I am giving my students false sense of choice; on the other hand, I think the alternative-- eliminating choice altogether by saying something like, “You absolutely cannot write about this”-- has far more dangerous implications.

I started this entry with an example from science-fiction, but I'd like to end with an example from science-fact: the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Now, I'm not a science guy, and I acknowledge at the outset that I have a vague-at-best grasp of the whole thing, but here's the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle as I understand it: we can never "see" an electron in its natural state, because the very act of observing it affects it, changes it. There's more to it, of course, but I think this ultra-ultra-ultra-simplification works as a metaphor for what I'm talking about: as teachers, we can't simply "observe" a student text; our very role as teachers affects it. And instead of fighting it, instead of trying to convince ourselves otherwise, maybe we should just accept that fact.

After all, that's something else I've learned from Star Trek: resistance is futile.


Anathema said...

Dear Mark -

Upon reading this, I find myself surprised more and more that we don't talk more.

For the record, the crew of the Enterprise spent more time explaining why it was absolutely necessary that they BROKE the Prime Directive than actually following it. And then the crew of Voyager and DS9 just gave up on the Temporal Prime Directive.

Best wishes,


Branden said...

Hey my name is Branden. I don't know how exactly I came upon your blog but I am in college and an aspiring English teacher. This post really made me think about the philosophy of teaching. Specifically how involved an educator should be.

We know the point is to educate, which makes me feel like it is just fine to give corrections and make suggestions. After going to school for THAT specific reason, we know what people consider good writing. Now we don't want to limit creativity and originality but our suggestions are definitely somewhere to start that process.

Thanks for your insights about that. I won't think about revising papers the same way ever again probably.

Kimi said...

Teaching IS changing behavior. If you're not changing behavior, you are not accomplishing anything. The key is to be clear about which thought processes you are trying to affect. The students also need to be clear on what the task of the assignment truly is. Then they become better partners in evaluating possible pathways to reach that goal. Clearly articulated criteria are everything.