The Guardian, the Gospels, and Sharing Knowledge between Teachers

I’m lucky enough to have my office in Middlebury’s new library (yes, it’s quite a wonderful mix of books and computers–my kind of place), and this afternoon, as I walked through the stacks, I noticed the crush of students staring at computer screens–cellphones, notebooks and textbooks strewn about the desks and tables–hammering out those last papers before racing out of here for Thanksgiving in front of tomorrow’s forecasted snowstorm. My own daughter, a senior in high school, was one of those students, sitting at a carrel piled high with dictionaries, concordances, and a Bible, wrangling with the differences between Luke and Mark for a paper for her college course, Introduction to Biblical Literature taught by one of Middlebury’s most esteemed professors. As she and some four dozen other students scattered about the library tried to figure out what the subtle shifts in language and focus reveal about these authors, who centuries ago were telling the same old story according to their own agendas, I went back to my office nearby, where in between appointments, I read a recent article in The Guardian (via Dave Weinberger) about why ownership of ideas is all wrong. And then a few minutes later I was paid a visit by a young woman just hired, mid-semester, to teach English at our local high school, seeking my advice about a creative writing course she suddenly found herself teaching two weeks into the new quarter. She was working hard to come up with an effective syllabus and needed help.

The correspondances and the ironies between these moments and these worlds fairly ricocheted off the walls: the many versions of the old stories (as my daughter says, “If there had been such a thing as intellectual property rights back then, Mark would have been one rich guy…”), the many scientists working through similar experiments to test their theories, and teachers trying out the same syllabi, teaching the same writers and ideas–moving through the old ideas, trying them on for size before exerting their own thinking on the world just to have those ideas considered and either built on or rejected by the next thinker to come along. Is this kind of sharing doomed?

I sure hope not. I just gave my students an assignment to find a magnificent paragraph written by any writer published or not, to read it aloud, to copy it onto paper, then to write their own paragraph repeating the patterns of the grammar. (Aaron’s example). We’ll talk about these paragraphs tomorrow, about what they have learned by “copying” the greats. This is how writing has long been taught–we stand on the shoulders of those who came befoe us–knowingly, and we converse with them in our work. This is what, I believe, T.S. Eliot was talking about when he said something along the lines of, “Everything good I wrote, I borrowed; everything great, I stole.” ( which brings to mind the great writer-editor relationships of Pound and Eliot, and Carver and Lish–would we have Eliot without Pound, Carver without Lish?)

I want my students to try on the writing of those who have come before them; I want my daughter to feel the differences between Mark and Luke; I want this young teacher to feel free to use my teaching ideas in her class. This is how we learn; this is how we find our own way–through looking and sharing freely, dreaming big, putting our ideas out there to see what comes back.

Maybe I’m writing this post because I’ve just finished teaching a research unit in my writing course, and I’ve talked long and hard about giving credit where credit’s due, how to cite properly, scaring the students as they try to draw lines between what they have absorbed through the generalized world and what they have gleaned from a particular thinker’s work– I am exhausted by all this attention to intellectual property in class, in the news, and on the blogs. I am shocked when teachers will not share their syllabi (all of mine are linked right here off my blog). Aren’t we working here to educate our young? Aren’t we trying to embrace ideas and chew on them and build on them in ways that shed light on the past or move us into the future?

That to me has been the beauty of the Web, (what I have been blogging about lately), and of Thanksgiving when we’re at least supposed to be thinking of sharing, of embracing the contributions of the group to the common good. I love the free spinning out of ideas, the way they ripple out from blog to blog and come back again in new form. When have we ever been able to gather the expertise, the imagination, the potential from so many minds and experiences together with our own flawed, individual musings? Blogging lets us float ideas–sometimes half-baked–however we want. Take a look at Worldbridges recent three-day online conference on EFL teaching and learning practices across the planet— this is free, open sharing of ideas, all to improve the teaching of second languages for as many students as possible. There’s no personal gain here. No one is going to get rich.

So, I have issues with intellectual property, I really do. I’m all for the Creative Commons, and now the Academic Commons. Tell the world where your ideas originated, who else is playing around with them, and then play around with the thoughts. I ask my students to take responsibility for their ideas–the flip side of intellectual property–privacy. We don’t use pseudonyms on our course blogs. If they write something, then, well, the students need to stand by that writing.

And so I’m urging high school and college teachers to post their syllabi, let other teachers, old and new alike learn from one another, mentor one another here on the Web and in the schools. Young teachers shouldn’t be left to their own devices but given all the syllabi, all the wisdom of their colleagues to consider as they make their own way into teaching. Schools employ us to teach, not to own our teaching ideas. We want our students to grow up bold and passionate and community-spirited, yes? Then we need to practice what we preach here on the blogs, in the classrooms, and with our colleagues.

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One Response

  1. Blog-giving Thoughts

    That to me has been the beauty of the Web, (what I have been blogging about lately), and of Thanksgiving when we’re at least supposed to be thinking of sharing, of embracing the contributions of the group to the common good.

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