Suddenly I realized I was the only one in class who was "into it," the other thirty souls were dutifully scribbling down what I said or whatever wisdom I could elicit from the students who dared to catch my eye. Then I saw what was going on - a light went off in my head - my students were being dutiful, taking pages of notes, not sleeping, not staring out of the window, or at each other, just hearing words and writing them down.
WASHINGTON,DC (Catholic Online) - Something was wrong, I could feel it. In my classroom at Mercer University in Atlanta, Georgia, there were no empty seats, no backward baseball caps to irritate me, or tobacco chewing jocks spitting in styrofoam cups in the last row. The assignment was to read and discuss a chapter from the great Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. Who can't get into the story of a man who is about to be put to death with a rope crushing his head?
Suddenly, I realized I was the only one in class who was "into it," the other thirty souls were dutifully scribbling down what I said or whatever wisdom I could elicit from the students who dared to catch my eye. Then I saw what was going on - a light came on in my head - my students were being dutiful, taking pages of notes, not sleeping, not staring out the window or at each other, just hearing words and writing them down.
I stopped moving around the room, as was my habit, and stopped asking questions about the reading. I stood there as the narrative played through my mind: These students had all been taught that note-taking is how to learn, particularly how to prepare for a test. Memorize the relevant pages and earn your A or B (anything less caused considerable anguish).
So, I said, "You know what, I want everyone to stop taking notes," and for a moment I saw most of the students start to write down, "stop taking notes." Then one-by-one they looked up at me completely puzzled."I mean it. I want you to put your notebooks under your desks." With a bit more urging they cleared off the tops of their desks and waited for what kind of craziness would come next.
Then I said,"Thank you," and started explaining what I had realized:Their note-taking was getting in the way of their learning. It was a substitute, a way of satisfying the requirement to attend class, but without being actually present to the class or to me for that matter.I asked them what they did with their notes. Did they wait to study them the night before the test? "Yes," they said. "How much of what you memorize will you remember next month or next year?" I asked, and they laughed, as did I.
I asked the class to start over, to start from the beginning, without notes. A few of the more earnest ones, with their eyes on graduate school, complained about being able to prepare for tests. "If you listen and stay engaged in the discussion, I guarantee you will make at least a B, probably an A - all you have to do is stay involved."
Then I asked the class to tell me what made them remember things they had not written down to memorize. The answers were predictable: things they had enjoyed, were new or intense, times shared with good friends and family, things that seemed really important to remember to reach a specific goal. "I want this class to be all of those things for you,for all of us," I responded. "This is a philosophy class. If we can't enjoy it and each other, make it intense, get to know each other, and understand our goal then we are doing philosophy, and ourselves, a disservice.
For the remainder of the semester, the students took no notes. There were times when their attention drifted from the discussion - after all, it's hard to keep 30 young adults focused on the same thing for an hour. I made sure they didn't know what was going to happen when I walked through the door for each class. I deliberately started the class differently each day, sometimes asking a student to teach while I took a seat, or asking about the movies and music they were listening to and asking if they saw any connection to ideas like virtue, happiness, love, justice, fate, suffering, or God. Of course they did, they always did!
As a teacher I rarely gave students anything but an essay test - I wasn't interested in teaching philosophy as a list of names, dates, and related ideas. I wanted the students to discover that they really enjoyed, perhaps loved, reading, talking, and learning about the ideas that guide our lives and shape our societies. I wanted each student to experience that "Ah, ha!" moment, not merely about the meaning of an idea, such as happiness, but a realization that thinking about these things fed a part of themselves they barely knew. Most of all, I wanted my students to feel the attraction, the pull, of seeking to understand the great ideas and the great books where they are found.
At the end of the semester, I asked all the students to write a paragraph about the difference between the beginning of the class and the end. What difference had it made to put away their notebooks.Almost without exception, they thanked me for making the class much more personal, more interesting, and a lot more fun. But what struck me most of all was how many of them said they had learned "how to listen." Real listening, they explained, was something they didn't need to do while taking notes.
© Deal W. Hudson, Ph.D
Deal W. Hudson is president of the Morley Institute of Church and Culture, Senior Editor and Movie Critic at Catholic Online, and former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.This column and subsequent contributions are an excerpt from a forthcoming book. Dr. Hudson's new radio show, Church and Culture, is heard on the Ave Maria Radio Network.
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