I have just read a thought-provoking article which was published in the NY Times today. Susan Engel’s report documents an experiment, or a project, undertaken this past Fall semester at a high school in New Marlborough, Massachusetts, where a small number of students were allowed to essentially create their own curricula, their own schedules, their own assignments; to research the content of the courses themselves and teach each other, and then to give one another evaluations – no letter or number grades – all with consultation and guidance from teachers.
The concept, as presented in the article, is compelling, and Ms Engels makes some excellent points about the ways in which our educational norms as practiced today fail to prepare kids for the so-called “real world.”
…our current educational approach doesn’t just fail to prepare teenagers for graduation or for college academics; it fails to prepare them, in a profound way, for adult life.
We want young people to become independent and capable, yet we structure their days to the minute and give them few opportunities to do anything but answer multiple-choice questions, follow instructions and memorize information. We cast social interaction as an impediment to learning, yet all evidence points to the huge role it plays in their psychological development.
I agree with this whole-heartedly. Still, I am skeptical of a project such as this, especially if it were to be extended to an entire school, or proposed as a model for what high school should be (something this article is not explicitly suggesting, but…).
The idea of letting kids define their own curricula, teach themselves, etc. fails on one major point – namely, that I think the vast majority of high schoolers can’t be trusted to know what’s good for them in terms of their education, just like some of them may not have grown out of hating vegetables yet.
Much of the point of high school is that there is a certain body of knowledge that is essential for being a productive member of society, educated adult, and responsible citizen. (There are of course other aspects, too, which plenty of studies have argued, such as the function of public schooling to instill a sense of national identity and patriotism, but let’s put that aside.) … I have profound issues with the high school English class canon of literature, but that also aside, I think it profoundly important that students at the high school level not simply study what they want to study, but that they actually get a solid foundation in chemistry, biology, physics, earth science, US history, “world” history (that’s a whole other can of worms, there, but nevermind), critical writing skills, etc.
And of course there’s the argument that high schoolers can’t be trusted to know what’s good for them, which I have to say I agree with. Sure, there are those who are responsible young adults, looking forward to their adult lives and thinking in a mature manner about the value of school, but there are many more who are of the “I’m never going to use this in my real life” school of thought, not recognizing or appreciating the value of a well-rounded education, or of the ways in which social studies, foreign language, math and science do show up in everyday life in the adult world.
But getting to my point, I found this article especially thought-provoking for me, as it relates to my thoughts on the grad school experience. Graduate school is meant to prepare us for careers as professional academics (or, the credentials can be applied to any number of other career paths, but as you know if you’ve been through grad school in the humanities, for the most part it is funneling you towards that one destination) – it is meant to teach us how to be independent researchers. Yet, we are still quite restricted. We read what is assigned to us, we study the subjects that are offered as courses, we are limited in our research & writing by schedules and deadlines (how many times have I felt I could do a much better job on a paper if only I had more time?), and even when we are working on our thesis or dissertation, there are numerous restrictions as to the kind of research that is expected of us, the format it should be in, the language that should be used. What constitutes “good” research or “proper” academic writing seems, sometimes, more restrictive than it needs to be.
I have had professors get upset with me that I have not taken fuller advantage of the resources here on campus; people I know online, on forums and such, who are not in grad school, get upset with me when I post about something without taking advantage of the extensive resources on campus to research it properly first.
But I rarely feel that I actually have the time to be doing that kind of on-the-side research. I’m constantly doing homework or readings or papers for class, and I do indeed often wonder when it is that I will have the time to go and take fuller advantage of the resources here on campus, to research whatever topics I feel like, rather than the topics directly related to my proposed thesis topic, or the topics directly related to whichever classes I happen to be taking that term. And I’m not talking about squeezing in time here and there in between classwork or thesis research; I’m not talking about side projects. I’m talking about having the full-on free time, no other responsibilities, the opportunity to make the side projects the main focus, and to have fully free days, or weeks, to go to the library and study whatever scattered different topics may appeal to you at that moment, and to write about them.
I can’t remember the last time that I felt like I had the free time, and the freedom more generally speaking, to go and fully delve into a topic totally unrelated to classes, to my thesis, to my stated choice of field or specialty, and to do so without having to cleave to the strictures of what my professors might judge to be “proper academic writing” or “quality scholarship.” Well, actually, I can: the dramaturgy efforts I have been doing for our upcoming kabuki play here on campus fit that description quite nicely. No pressure to write it up as a proper full paper with deep thorough analysis and evidencing the requisite degree of engagement with theory, but the freedom to just investigate whatever aspects of the play I want, to keep jumping from one point of interest to another, to in the end, ideally, come up with something that in aggregate can be collected together to form a body of knowledge about this play, its setting, and the cultural and historical context within which it is set (and the context within which it was written and originally produced).
I love taking classes. I am not one of those people who just can’t wait to be done with classes so that I can move on to the dissertation. In fact, the thesis, or dissertation, terrifies me. And, I suppose I can’t really complain about any lack of freedom in choosing which classes to take – my program is far looser than most, in terms of having any kind of stepped mandated set of required pre-requisites to take as your singular defined path through the program. I don’t have to take intro, then micro and macro, then X Y or Z like Econ students, for example. I love taking classes, learning from experts, learning from presentations and discussions and not solely from books. I love being exposed to different subjects, and having professors get you interested in things you would not otherwise have been interested in, or known to look for, or thought to look into. But, at the end of the day, there is a strong feeling of strictures that make the whole grad school experience for me far less like the academic community of independent researchers it could/should be, and far more like merely an extension of undergrad, which is in its own ways merely an extension of high school. I cannot count the times that a class has gotten me interested in investigating a certain topic, but then I couldn’t do so because term papers were coming up, and I’d already picked a different topic, and I had to focus on that, and had no time for side-projects.
As I sit here, I have a 200-page book on my desk that I have to read for class, a pile of books about kabuki that I want to read but can’t right now because I have to read that 200-page book for class, and because these kabuki books not only have nothing to do with my official coursework assignments this term, but also have nothing to do with my chosen thesis topic. And I can forget about going to the library to go research anything else, such as the Mongol invasions of Ryukyu or anything about the Hachisuka clan of Awa province – I have a 200-page book to read, and a paper to write on 1930s neo-traditional painting in Republican China. … And then, next year, I’ll be devoting myself to my chosen thesis topic of depictions of Okinawa and Okinawans in (mainland) Japanese art, 1600s-1930s, sticking closely to the requirements and expectations of my advisor and of the academic community at large, with little time or freedom to go off on a tangent and investigate the painter Yamamoto Hosui, who apparently was sent to Okinawa in the 1890s by the Meiji Emperor himself as part of some kind of secret mission.
If not now, as an MA student, then when do I get to really be free to take full advantage of the resources here, and to be fully free to pursue my own research? I imagine it’s not going to be much different as a PhD student – you still have to pick one single topic for your dissertation, on which to focus for 3-5 years, and to stick to the forms and styles and modes demanded by your advisor. Is there time, and leeway, to research other topics? … Do you get to do that as a professor? Is that the time that you get to be finally free to research whatever you want, on whatever time schedule you want? Somehow I doubt it…
So, in short, I am wondering if it might not be advantageous to have a similar experiment at the graduate school level, allowing students, once they’ve taken their foundational courses and “theories and methodology” requirements, to set their own schedules, to go out and do whatever research they want. And to have discussion sections that aren’t about the professor making sure that you “got it” or making sure that you’re contributing properly, but rather discussions that are truly engaging, and that have that engagement as their primary chief goal. I had some excellent discussions with visiting grad students at a conference here recently, as we sat around and drank beers after a day of sessions, switching from topic to topic, not being controlled by any professor nor sticking to any one set of assigned readings, but just talking, and having a more engaging conversation about Japanese history than any I’ve had on this campus before or since. Isn’t *that* what grad school is supposed to be about?
I want to be free to read the books that interest me – not just those related to one set topic I’ve proposed for my thesis. I want to write papers based on those books on my own time, on my own schedule, of whatever length and style and form and content as I feel the subject – and my thoughts on the subject – demand. I don’t want to be nailed down to a single topic, even a topic of my choosing, for a year or three or five. And I don’t want to limited by the expectations of my advisor or of the academic community as to how much theory I have to use, or how I have to argue it, or whathaveyou.
… I guess, maybe if I really really devoted myself to such things, and didn’t spend time blogging, or on Facebook, or on these kinds of kinds, I suppose I could in theory find the time to do more side research. Is that how it has to be done? That the real work, the real independent research, has to be done in those rare scraps of time in between assigned readings, term papers, attending class, thesis research, and other official responsibilities? Is that how it has to be done, that the real discussions only happen outside of class, over coffee or beer, when you put aside your other responsibilities?
From the outside looking in, I imagine it feels like grad students are independent, initiative-taking, scholars working on their own independent projects. But let me tell you, from the inside, as a grad student, I feel constantly overwhelmed by responsibilities and obligations, to my classes, to projects I have officially taken on, to my thesis, and I do not feel that I ever am free to act independently on that initiative, to be the independent scholar I want to be. No matter what I am researching or working on, there are always other things that intrigue me, that pull at my attention, and which I feel I am forbidden from pursuing, due to time pressures or other expectations, obligations, and restrictions.