Taking academic risks can help students learn more effectively
Two important things happened to me in middle school: I was accepted into honors English and President Obama was inaugurated after an election season that sparked my deep interest in politics. And while this country has changed profoundly in those eight years since President Obama took office, the way I wrote my English essays stubbornly remained the same: formulaic and utterly predictable.
So a couple of weeks ago I staged a little protest and chose to examine the fallibility of leadership in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with the voice of perhaps the most fallible, unqualified and just plain stupid leader alive: Donald J. Trump.
It never really hit me that this might have been a bad idea.
I wasn’t particularly hell-bent on making a statement or being funny. My goal, first and foremost, was to make an original argument on a seminal piece of children’s literature. I just didn’t want to write another essay that would begin to collect dust the second I turned it in.
As the number of English majors declines across the country and students’ interest in literature becomes a second thought to the prospect of a better-paying job, it’s especially important that students are making academic decisions in step with what makes them happiest.
For me, that meant combining the thrill of the political process with the thrill of good writing.
Writing in Trump’s voice helped me engage with the Wonderland more actively than I would have otherwise. Each year it seems I have more difficulty really sitting down and getting in between the lines, so to speak. Forcing myself to look at a text with a fresh perspective seemed like a worthwhile challenge — one that would serve my goal of providing interesting literary analysis.
Of course, the space between good intentions and a final product is often vast, and that’s exactly the space my professor occupied when she busted out the red pen to grade my paper. But her comment that my essay “doesn’t represent (ahem) standard academic discourse. (To say the least!)” was a point of pride.
Her criticism also confirmed what I feared the most: that writing in Trump’s voice — an idiosyncratic mix of discursivity, lack of focus and brashness — would detract from my first priority to write an essay that fully delved into an argument. In a way, my essay turned out to be a metaphor for Trump’s entire campaign: dotted with holes and unclear explanations — but, at least to me, entertaining as hell.
The writing process itself was a difficult exercise in balancing the speech patterns of a whiny fifth-grader with the elevated prose expected from a college essay. Add the fact that I was writing my essay well into the morning it was due and you have a recipe for some sentences that were… less than excellent. Sad, even. The challenge of composing this essay blocked off the part of my brain that would normally tell me: hey, are you really putting 25 percent of your grade on the line so you can get in a joke about Marco Rubio being little? Are you really risking your credibility to imitate a man Fareed Zakaria unpretentiously called a “bullshit artist?” Does that give new meaning to BS-ing an essay?
But, in the end, it was an essay that I couldn’t have written earlier in my academic career. For most students, I would hope there’s a realization sometime in their schooling when it becomes clear that a poor mark on a test or an essay isn’t going to be the thing that wrecks them later on in life.
That isn’t an excuse to go out the night before a test, but rather to start taking academic risks. Not all the time — it’s good practice to hedge risk by taking safe bets that might include, for example, following the prompt. But enough so that a student can reaffirm to themselves that they ultimately determine what they learn — not a teacher, class or tutor.
It was a small consolation, this Trump essay, but it reflected a long period of frustration with my work. And though I won’t be writing anything similar for a while, it’s not because of the threat to my grade. It’s because there are tried and true methods of learning — that do require the active participation of the student — that are fulfilling when taken seriously. This is also why I didn’t feel as excellent about the Trump essay as I thought I would. It was just an alternative.
But, if you are so inclined to take a risk, do it with gusto. Do it bigly. Do it huge. Yuuuge.
And, if you’re lucky as me, you might get a more-than-generous ‘B’ for your work.
Written by: Eli Flesch — firstname.lastname@example.org
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