Action as Inquiry: Listening to Their Message

posted Feb 3, 2015, 6:13 AM by peter richmond   [ updated May 18, 2015, 12:01 AM by Margaret Riel ]

"I didn't like any of the articles you assigned, Mr. Richmond. Who cares about a homeless guy in a canoe? Or the director of a movie I'm not going to see? Who cares about old grass? How about stories that matter to an 18-year-old? Like student debt? New Yorker?  You have to do better. I am declaring an `interest challenge.' Publish a story that matters to me and I'll buy up every issue of that magazine."

            Edward's honest response to my assignment was a shot across my bow. In de-sanctifying the text of my literary holy grail -- The New Yorker! -- Edward had confirmed what I'd come to suspect as the first month of class progressed: That what I considered great "journalism" was, for some of them, about as enjoyable to read for some of my students as a hymnal, the words on the back of a cereal box, or the assembly directions for a guided missile.

            The stories I'd been asking my first year college writers to critique came from a thorough and widely praised anthology that revered the reporting and researching and writing of the likes of Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson and Tracy Kidder. My people...back in the day. Some of the class liked reading these classic examples of "long-form narrative journalism." But some didn't.

            How had I forgotten that it had been just a few weeks earlier that I'd been chatting with a sophomore who was bemoaning all the Old Lit (see Dickens) he had to read? It wasn't that the language was too difficult, he said; it was that it was "unfair" to ask college kids to wade through plots that held no relevance or hook to their own experiences.

            So: It was clearly time to take action. It was time to find readings for my classroom cohort that would spark their reading/writing fire. It was time to scratch that amazing New Yorker story of the kid who was falsely arrested spent three years in jail...because Rikers Island is a long way from the daily realities of Northeastern Pa., where the student has an off-campus job, and both of his parents have a job, and they will learn to love to read and to write when those transactional processes matter.

            And so, after Edward's essay, as I interviewed the students one-on-one as part of my data collection for my action research master’s thesis, amid questions about family, upbringing, school; life, favorite music, I now added this one: "What kind of journalism would you want to be reading? Why?" 

            "Things that we care about," was one answer. It resonated. As a writer, I'd been blind to the lack of any overlap between my own experience and my students' experience.

            And so it was time to take action again: to find texts and topics that would engage my eighteen students. To use Freire's banking metaphor, it was time to stop depositing my ideal of the brilliance of Hemingway's war reporting in their brains and start finding well-written journalism that would engage them so that they could have a Rosenblatt moment. Where the text belongs to them: to react to, to be excited by, to learn from in a way that will endure: for the student, for we, her/his eventual pupil.

            Where am I now on the action-research cycle, in terms of my journalism class? Adapting. I am now paying more attention to modern and current and relevant-to-my-students journalism: The Daily Beast, and Huffington Post, and, and Slate, and Moyers & Co.: the authentic daily journalism digests that cater to a newer way of thinking about journalism: good writing, good reporting, and the encouragement of thinking. 

            And by encouraging free-flowing dialogue in class (free-talking: the parallel track to Elbow's free-writing) I'm discovering the topics that matter to them: the topics that will engage their journalistic brains. And produce writer/readers who will change our world by means of the power of their words.

            And the action-research lessons of the story? By taking action as inquiry, I identified the flaw and am modifying the syllabus to better engage the students, guided by Dewey's belief (in Education and Experience) that "There is an intimate and necessary relation between the processes of actual experience and education."

            Yes, Edward, for me to be an effective teacher of writing, I have to take new action each and every time. Would you agree, ARNA web visitors? In my next blog, I’ll review the etymology of action and why it matters to me.