Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Look

Usually, I'm a pretty talkative person. (Insert joke here.) But if I actually have to think about something, I come to a nearly complete stop. It's like birding while trying to drive: I just can't do it and stay on the road. Oh, look, a hawk (which I say just as I say "hock," so there's a clue, linguists!), SWERVE! oops.

Now, in a committee meeting, since I'm not usually chatting, mostly people don't notice when I come to a full stop to think something through.

But when I'm advising (or teaching a class or conferencing in office hours), it's very obvious. I used to think I looked either wisely pensive or like empty-headed Bertie Wooster befuddled and flustered at Aunt Agatha's latest suggestion of an appropriate fiance, depending on your point of view. Student question. Bardiac, full stop. Tick, tick, tick. Student (or in class, students) waits a bit. Eventually the student looks on with increasing alarm, wondering if Bardiac is having some kind of apoplectic problem. Tick, tick, tick. Student becomes worried. Tick, tick, tick. Clearly something is wrong.

Meanwhile, my pathetic little brain is clunking along, more slowly than an epic conceit in The Faerie Queene whenas Spenser takes his sweet time, and ours, as the ever-so pedestrian Guyon slogs along missing the fun. I'm usually trying to sort out the issues, complications, possibilities as I think, "gosh, what a great idea! How can we make this class fit into Lovely Student's program? Who do we need to talk to?" or "oh, now there's a really great question! I wonder if I can explain blah blah in the time I have left today?"

And then, of course, even with my dulled consciousness (or subjectivity, if we want to pretend that I have one), I notice that my student looks visibly tense. The student doesn't want to say anything, but s/he's worried. And if we're in an advising meeting, s/he is generally worried about the class or program or whatever and imagines a serious problem.

At some point in my not so distant past, I realized that the look on my face probably doesn't resemble wisely pensive or amusingly befuddled, but rather "concerned" or "uh oh!" You know, that look the doctor gets on his/her face when looking or listening to body part X, before moving on without further comment, and you're too worried or scared to actually ask what the look means and what s/he was so obviously concerned about? That's what I figure my face looks like when I've come to a full, thoughtful stop. Except, of course, I'm the wrong kind of doctor, and Shakespeare has been dead nearly 400 years, so even if I were the right kind of doctor, it's pretty much a wash at this point.

So I've learned, when I come to that full stop and recognize that I'm not going to come out of it very fast, to stop the stop (yeah, that's articulate, Bardiac!), and give the student a rundown of my thinking process. Usually, I creatively begin by saying, "Here's what I'm thinking...." (Impressive, isn't it?)

I find several benefits. Articulating my thought process helps the student get a bigger perspective on issues and understand why we may or may not be able to work things out; it also models how someone with probably more knowledge or experience works through an academic or scholarly problem or question, trying to see multiple facets and issues.

In classes, it usually means we get to talk about meta issues, staging in Lear, or the ways language usage changes, or why someone's designed a text in a specific way.

Best of all, by actually articulating my thoughts, I give my student a chance to respond, ask further questions, clarify points, and become more active and engaged in taking responsibility for his/her learning. Often enough, my student has something to teach me, then, too.

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