14.5, to be exact

by Carl Dyke

One of my little missions as a teacher, as usual at least partly a selfish one, is to teach the kiddoes to intake information the first time it’s presented, whether it’s directed to them personally or not. I take this to be a dimension of responsible being in the world, and a minimal first step toward developing the sort of disciplined attention and monologue tolerance that enables participation in the abstractions favored by high culture; which in turn I take to be the substantive point of a liberal arts education. Of course the dispositions of class guarantee that this will not be a widely-distributed skill, which is what makes it so valuable, both in its actual achievement and in its pharmaceutical simulation. Although it is rare to find someone who cannot focus their attention at all when they find the situation ‘interesting’, suggesting that it’s not attention itself that is in deficit.

Anyhoo, yesterday a student I quite like personally came running into my office carrying its journal, and breathlessly announced that it was turning the thing in then as another student had told it it must. I smiled to myself and told it that this transaction was fine with me, although as I’d mentioned in both the syllabus and in class the previous day the standard journal turn-in protocol was to bundle it with the final paper, due next week.

My student friend then proudly announced that the journal contained exactly 14.5 entries. Now we’ll need a little background to see why I almost laughed out loud at this point. As again described in detail in the syllabus and discussed at length in class, the journal is intended to be ethnographic field notes from the semester, a reflective record of the social processes of teaching and learning, in our class and others. The number of entries is not specified, but at least one or two a week are recommended. Easy math gives us a figure of roughly 30 here, but counting is not the point. For the final tally to be manipulable to achieve a target of 14.5, there’s already probably been an epic fail with respect to the actual purpose and process of the assignment, although there are certainly ways to do a passing journal that could wind up around that number.

So, why exactly 14.5, you may ask? Well, because the day before, the final day of class, two separate students at separate moments in open class discussion asked me to personally tell them how many entries should be in the journal. For the first, I explained the above and reminded it of previous discussions in detail of the journal. By the time the second one asked I’d had enough of that conversation, so off the top of my head I invented a preposterous number (not preposterous enough, I’m afraid), 14.5, and stated it flatly as if it was a reasonable answer to a reasonable question. That particular student smelled a rat and asked if I was serious; I said no, I was teasing it, and referred it back to the syllabus for further guidance; knowing, however, that if it hadn’t been doing the journal all along as intended there was no help for it there except a possible glimmer of understanding that it might want to pay more attention next time.

It is from this information-rich context that my student friend plucked 14.5 as the correct number of entries for its journal. I can’t wait to read them.

5 Comments to “14.5, to be exact”

  1. You mean you have to read the 14.5 entries now instead of just declaring an epic fail? That’s dedication.

  2. I don’t think I’ve ever written a “journal” assignment on any day other than the day before the whole thing was due, and no one I know has either. It’s the nature of the beast.

  3. Who knows, Undine, there may be pearls of wisdom or hilarity in there! But yeah, otherwise it’s all part of the virtue self-narrative that makes this life livable.

    Slawk, that’s how I did them too, feverishly reconstructing half-remembered events and impressions, making up the rest, three or four pens and pencils to simulate production over time. In fact I joke with my students about that right from the start, and I do get some of those (of course I can tell; some of them can even be pretty interesting in their own way for the snapshot they offer and for the theory of development revealed by their rhetorical choices in simulating it). I also get a lot that are pathetically perfunctory, and a lot that start out with good intentions, then trail off into sporadic reiteration as the semester hits the long grind. But those very few students who take to the task and do it right give me rich access to a different perspective on a common experience that makes the whole exercise worthwhile.

  4. P. S. I love how you’ve sidestepped the whole he/she, ze/hir thing by just using “it.”

  5. Thanks! It’s fun.

    I’m interested of course in what this story and so many like it reveal about the students’ relationship to formal education. They look pretty stupid sometimes, but I’d venture to say they’re ‘stupid’ only in the sense of being inflexible, having locked in habits that previously worked just fine for them. So what situations can we read back from this critter’s habits?

    Well, it’s perfectly willing to like the teacher, so it associates teachers with intersubjective validation. But it has no habit whatsoever of actually listening to the teacher, which would seem to indicate that it’s received its validation without any demand for reciprocity – its mere good-humored presence was enough to get it the pets it wanted. It is in fact quite a friendly, likable sort of critter. Clearly it’s used to being personally fed on its own whimsical schedule the information it needs to perform at a shockingly low level of actual competence, suggesting that the actual material contents of formal education have never been placed between it and a reward it sought.

    Its eager willingness to selectively hear a preposterously arbitrary number as the real magnitude of success in a task better conceived as complexly substantive is diagnostic of all the above. But it further suggests a previous experience with empty assignments arbitrarily evaluated. The whole performance exudes a long history of successful exchange of good nature for going through the motions.

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