The Question of “Can We…?”

Students in my classes have been asking a particular kind of question this semester, and I have mixed feelings about it. The questions I have in mind all start with the words “Can we…?” or “Can I…?” In this post, I ponder what those questions reflect about pedagogy—both mine and other people’s.

I try to encourage freedom, creativity, and flexibility in any assignment in my classes. I try to create an atmosphere where students are comfortable—no, encouraged to—suggest alternate ways of doing things that will work better for them. Because to me, getting 72 identical copies of anything—from papers to graduates—is a very boring and bad thing. So I make a personal goal to create this kind of flexible environment that allows for adaptation to suit my students’ needs.
And you know what? That’s hard.
It’s hard to create that environment in a classroom because it conflicts with the general rule of what a classroom is: It’s supposedly this space where teachers say, “Let’s do X,” and then students do X, usually to earn the approval of the teacher. Trying to give students freedom to choose, alter, or even define what X is causes problems.
First, letting students determine the nature of the task they will perform involves a tremendous amount of risk on their part. They are putting their grades—the one piece of socially recognized currency they stand to earn in class—on the line. Because if the teacher is expecting a very particular or specific X, changing the task might lead to failure and a lack of credit because the student didn’t do quite what the teacher wanted.
I’m convinced this is a problem of setting expectations, and it’s exacerbated by years of students getting caught by a lack of clarity. Say, for instance, a teacher wants to read essays on a particular idea. The teacher tells students to write an essay. Clear enough, right? Then a student completes a 500-word, 5-paragraph paper as was the norm in middle school. The teacher, however, really meant something a bit more substantive by the word “essay”, so the student fails to earn credit. What the student wrote did not meet the [unspoken] teacher expectations.
The natural response to this is to clarify expectations. The assignment goes from, “write an essay,” to, “write a seven-paragraph, 1,250-word essay with a one-sentence thesis at the end of the first paragraph that addresses topic Y and makes an argument about it. The argument must incorporate the views of authors read in this chapter. Use Times New Roman 12-point type on 8½ × 11″ 20-pound white paper. Submit with a cover page and following precise APA manuscript formatting guidelines. It is due at 10:29am on Thursday.”
Suddenly, in an effort to clarify or specify exactly what the teacher would like to see, that becomes the entire point of the assignment—the teacher. Completing the assignment becomes an exercise in following seemingly arbitrary requirements, rather than one of actually learning anything. Students have to worry about checking the minutiae of the assignment instead of the actual point or purpose. The teacher’s job, then, becomes dismally dull. When reviewing these papers, the specificity of the assignment ensures the task will be one of tedium. Every paper will be exactly the same.
It’s like baking a dozen chocolate-chip cookies, then sampling each one not for the flavor, but to compare it to some pre-defined standard model of “cookie”. You worry about texture, softness, and chocolate saturation, but there’s no chance to sit back and savor the deliciousness of the moment.
I want my students’ work to be delicious, and I want to savor each morsel of what I see.
So here’s where my problem with “Can I/we…?” questions comes in. If I give an assignment, I want my students to be free to achieve the goals of that assignment however they’d like. I tell them the goal, and that goal is what determines success or quality. Really, I want that goal to be more a determinant than I am, but that’s another post.
By way of example, I recently had my students introduce themselves to a colleague’s classes on Twitter. The instructions were pretty simple and straightforward: “We want you to meet one another. Send a tweet to introduce yourself to our classes. Include a picture so we can see who you are.” The assignment was intentionally simple, and it included clear goals: 1) Introduce yourself. 2) Include a picture. The rest was intentionally left open, and that vagueness created some questions that quickly became predictable because of how often students asked.
“What hashtag are we supposed to use?” (My class had an “official” hashtag, and my colleague’s classes had another.) The correct answer to this question, of course, is based on the intention of the student. Which class do you want to get the attention of? Should you tag both?
And then I started getting the questions that flummoxed me: “Can I say what music I like?” / “Can I include a picture of my dog?” / “Can we write back to them?” / “Can we post more than one photo?”
In each case, I had to bite my tongue from saying, “Of course!” in a dismissive tone that could easily have made it sound as though I was saying, “Like, duh!” Instead, I tried the measured approach of asking them what they wanted to do and how their idea would help them do it. In each case, the answer was yes. That was a default. But I wanted to make sure my students knew why they could do what they’d asked about, and more importantly, to see that however they wanted to achieve the goals of the assignment, they should go that route.
As I thought about it, though, I started to almost resent the fact that students asked these questions. It meant that, even with an assignment having a real audience and a real-world purpose, they still felt compelled to ask me permission before taking action. I was seen as their gatekeeper, determining what they could and couldn’t do.
Congratulations, previous teachers: You’ve taught students that they cannot make decisions on their own, and that taking a risk is a bad idea.
Can you include a picture of your dog? OF COURSE YOU CAN! The world needs more pictures of people’s dogs.