Intellectual Capital in FYC

Bright yellow flowers peek out through some snow. What have they been up to?

In this post, I will explore the role of knowledge in first-year composition research courses built around principles of genuine inquiry. I will examine this composition courses within the context of the American education system, showing that students enter college with an intellectual-capital deficit that FYC courses are in a unique position to correct, helping students understand how to construct their own knowledge, rather than striving only to consume knowledge created by others. I will show that this knowledge-consumption model, structured and directed by institutions rather than students, is inappropriate in a global information economy. I propose an inquiry-driven research course with open-access publication as both pedagogically sound for composition studies and beneficial for the creative capacity of students. In short, such a course would help transition students from being knowledge seekers to knowledge makers, capable of producing their own intellectual capital.

Three major problems confound today’s students when it comes to developing their own intellectual capital. Problems of access, authority, and application prevent students from realizing their creative potential in schools, and I posit that all three problems are created by the traditional education system.

First, our students are limited by access. The planet on which we live boasts 1.6 quadrillion square feet of surface area not covered by water. To be sure, that is an absurd figure, but it becomes more absurd to imagine teaching students about life on this planet within a classroom that occupies roughly 900 square feet. I recognize that this contrast is absurd, but if we carry the absurdity one step further, the problematic nature of the comparison becomes apparent. While sitting within those 900 square feet of classroom space, many of our students are carrying screens that have a surface area of roughly 4/100 of a square foot. Yet through those tiny screens, our students can access information from or about any one of the 1.6 quadrillion square feet of land outside our classroom walls. Why is it, then, that many schools insist that students keep their attentions of their phones and on a lecturer or a textbook? The traditional expectation of the classroom environment is the real absurdity of this scenario.

The second limitation to our students’ ability to build their own intellectual capital comes from a persistent and insidious revocation of their independent authority. Beginning with the push toward standardization that stems from the Industrial Revolution and refined to a science through psychometrics and standardized testing, our students are explicitly taught that the primary objective of their efforts while in school is to successfully master a test that is not of their own design or choosing. Indeed, the separation between student desires or interests and the design of the test could not be more drastic. Tests are created by an unknown authority, distributed by government agencies, administered by unfamiliar faculty members in intimidating circumstances, and designed to objectively measure student performance on standards created by an unknown entity, possibly before the student was born. The only thing the student is expected to do is produce correct answers that were determined in advance by yet another unknown authority. In essence, the definition of student success can be reduced to a student’s ability to correctly guess which among five letters on answer sheet is the same letter chosen by the test creators.

While students are training for their performance on this standardized examination, they are taught that the only true sources of knowledge are their teacher and their textbook, and the guessing game, essential to the test design, become standard procedure in running class: teachers ask questions to which they know the answers, and students are expected to guess the answer that exist within the teacher’s head. The path to that answer is through a textbook created by still another unknown entity, and students are expected to transfer the information from the textbook into their minds, ready to be recalled at the arbitrary demands of the teacher or examination.

At no point during this entire process is the student given the ability to determine what is learned, what is important, what their learning goals should be, or how to prove successful achievement of them. Our students are completely stripped of their authority in the classroom. This is the scenario we have created in the modern American education system in terms of information exchange: our students have no authority over their own education, and the greatest resource they have available – which they are quite adept at using once they are permitted to leave school grounds – is generally considered a distraction and rarely considered acceptable or appropriate for learning.

That dreadful situation is the context for the third factor limiting our students’ ability to develop intellectual capital: the application of their learning. As I just mentioned, students are often told that the end goal of their knowledge acquisition is performance on a standardized test. These tests provide no immediate benefit to the student. They are processed by a machine, and results are returned using a numeric scale that is so contrived as to be virtually meaningless to anyone but the test creators. In cases where such tests are not entirely appropriate, such as in writing courses, students often compose essays. For in-class purposes, these essays are typically graded by an instructor and sometimes returned it to the student for revision, essentially designed to make the paper more appropriate for the one person who will be reading its contents. Students are trained to create documents that are designed to please the one person who will consume the text. Along those lines, most teachers of writing courses and read grading more than any other element of their course, as it takes a considerable amount of time to assess. Yet it is arguably just as arbitrary as other testing scenarios.

If we compare these limited, separated, and arbitrary senses of audience and application of knowledge/work that students experience in class to the opportunities they have outside of school, we quickly see a distinction which paints education systems in a very unfavorable light. Any student given access to technology that is connected to the Internet (which, again, most have with them in their pockets at all times during the day) needs only push a single button to deliver content to a very specific and very broad audience. If a student creates a blog post, the “publish” button can make that content available immediately to anyone on the globe. (There’s that pesky 1.6 quadrillion square feet again; why is it only seem relevant outside the classroom?) On the other hand, if that button is the “post” button on Facebook, or the “tweet” button on Twitter, the student’s message is immediately distributed to a very specific and targeted audience, though that audience often still numbers in the hundreds of people. What benefit can we possibly imagine giving our students by having them write text with a solitary audience member with whom their only relationship is not of adjudicator? The Internet has given our students a very public forum for expressing their ideas, and the feedback mechanisms built into many of the online social systems provides more consistent, timely, and personally meaningful feedback than anything an instructor’s grade could do. How can schools compete?

The problems I have thus far identified are essentially issues of pedagogy writ large — teachers have a particular obligation to provide access to the world beyond the classroom walls; schools and school districts need to design curricula that encourage the application of student learning to real-world contexts; and the educatio
n system needs to end its obsessive reliance on standardized tests for measuring some arbitrary standard of student performance. Rather than proposing policy-level solutions, I intend to show how rethinking issues of access, authority, and application can reform classes in my area of research interest: first-year writing classes.

Many students gain their first exposure to academic research methods in their English or composition courses. This is particularly true of primary research methods, as the research process in secondary education typically consists of exclusively secondary research. By far the most significant rationale for emphasizing introductory research courses is this: primary research manufactures intellectual capital. If we want our students to create intellectual capital, what better way to get them there than to have them perform their own research projects? By introducing students to the concept of primary research, we can explicitly illustrate the process of knowledge construction through original findings and communication of those findings to others. (While this would be an excellent opportunity for a tangent regarding open access to publication documents, such topics are well outside the scope of this current discussion.) The greatest antithesis to the standardization of primary and secondary education is to encourage students to create their own knowledge. Schools with active research agendas clearly benefit from an early attention to research methods, and smaller schools can use research projects to develop active citizenship or other community involvement in their students.

I should highlight here that my point is not to assign arbitrary research projects to all students; such a goal would serve the same arbitrary purpose as traditional problems discussed earlier. Primary research projects are only appropriate and can only be successful because of my second assertion to help develop intellectual capital and students: genuine inquiry infuses research with purpose. Students given arbitrary topics and students told exactly what steps to take in a research project are both doing assignments because they have been assigned and following orders because someone else has identified an arbitrary process that is designed to be “one size fits all”. However, by creating research projects around student interests, we can ensure students can draw from intrinsic motivation to complete their work. More importantly, students should be able to identify a purpose and potential audience for their research that extends beyond the classroom walls. Simply encouraging students to research issues that matter personally can combat the issues of access, authority, and application. When they are motivated by something that matters to them personally, students are more likely to use any resources at their disposal. Students researching issues of genuine curiosity would use any strategies they have access to to be able to find an answer to their research questions. By determining their own research topics, students are asserting their authority early in the process, and teachers could leverage student authority to help motivate them to complete their projects. And finally, because students are interested in the topic they choose, whatever they discover would at least be relevant to them; further application would be up to the student to determine, but it would probably be rather evident given their attachment to the issue.

The idea of a portability of student projects is worth additional comment. Thanks to the widespread popularity of online social networks, many of our students arrive your classes pre-equipped with both network resources they can tap into and predefined audiences, often divided or sorted by areas of interest. (Friend lists on Facebook, circles in Google+, or even entire social networking sites for different interests all help users target their messages to an audience that would be inherently interested in messages appropriate for that audience.) With access to these networks from their mobile devices, students would be able to poll like-minded individuals for opinions or collective knowledge. Access to these networks provides an in-class resource that very few teachers currently take advantage of.

By making active use of these resources in our classes, and by structuring primary research projects around the genuine inquiry and student interests, we can use first-year composition courses as a springboard for further academic development as well as an opportunity to recognize and value the intellectual capital students bring with them to their college courses. Introductory research courses can use genuine inquiry to draw out the self-reliance, self-interest, and intellectual capital in our students. Intellectual capital in FYC courses can best be built by knowledge-making through primary research based on genuine inquiry directed toward authentic audiences.