UMBC logo

Faculty Development Center

February 2009 Archives

Curiosity As a Learning Device


In 2006, a year after the latest remake of King Kong, Curious George finally came to the screen. Curious George, in the books by the husband and wife team, Margaret and H. A. Rey, has given generations of parents a new look at the world. Through George’s wondering eyes the world is a fascinating place of nooks and crannies, things to explore, people to upset.

We seem to have a deep suspicion of curiosity. People who are curious provoke our irritation: they poke around in other people’s business and show scant regard for the niceties of social interaction. They seem to come in at least two varieties. There are the ones who blunder and crash their way through life, yanking up growing things to look at the roots or fiddling with wires and buttons until something goes boom!

These are the ones that high-school chemistry teachers fear, the recurring nightmare of the disheveled, relentlessly cheerful 10th grader whose string of disasters usually begins with the line, ‘Heh, what would happen if I put this junk into this other stuff?. . .’

The other group grows up to become mystery writers, investigative reporters, engineers, scientists, teachers and artists. Theirs is often a more solitary form of curiosity worked out in a lab or a studio, a coffee shop late at night, or the wells of thought deep within the soul.

If the first group survives into young adulthood they have every chance of landing in the front ranks of the professionally curious, perhaps as cops or detectives or munitions experts, vulcanologists and sky-diving instructors.

But Curious George delights us in part because he reminds us of ourselves—before we learned that curiosity could lead to punishment. Somewhere in the long tunnel that is American education the curiosity of many students was asphyxiated. Maybe it was too much visual stimulation and not enough imagination, or a shrinking attention span, or textbooks that piled on useless information. Whatever the causes, many students simply lack curiosity about what they study.

Okay, I’ll grant you there isn’t much time left for wonder in the average student’s day when the first priority is what must be done to pass the course. Pragmatism and efficiency are the watchwords: students find the shortcuts and they don’t waste time in speculation once they see the assignments list. Get in, get the job done, and get out seems to be the modus operandi. That’s great if you’re part of a SWAT team but it’s not so good if you’re trying to synthesize ideas. That’s a higher order of thinking and reflecting that takes some time to acquire. But simple curiosity as to how the world works is the beginning of learning.

John Gardner, novelist, poet, and writing teacher, suggested to his students that they watch the edges of the action, the people at the periphery. That’s where the real story unfolds, he said, in the shadows with the people most often overlooked. Everyone sees the figures in the spotlight—no surprises there. But what does the guy operating the spotlight think? Does he pride himself on hitting the mark exactly right, night after night, as the singer takes to the runway and drops into the crowd?

"Consider the lilies," said Jesus. They toil not nor do they spin, but who are the people who raise them, harvest them, and send them to market? Look at your stapler, a humble device to be sure. Where do the staples come from? What is the tensile strength of the wire that is used? And what a great design idea to put that little spring-loaded thingie at the back that thrusts the staple train forward!

Remembering that ‘curiosity killed the cat,’ we are also reminded that cats have upwards of nine lives, the better to indulge their curiosity, no doubt. I would hope for my students that they become—and remain—curious. It’s the door to possibilities that lift the spirit and the mind.


Why Writing is Hard

bcasey.jpg

“Writing is hard work. . . .If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things that people do.”
—William Zinsser, On Writing Well

“How long do you want this paper to be?”

It’s an irritating question from a student. It assumes that the subject assigned can be measured out like twine and cut to the desired length. But even worse, it puts the burden of responsibility on you, not the student. The student is merely the supplier trying to fulfill the customer’s order.

That order can be filled by copying and pasting, pulling together a quilted arrangement of unattributed quotes, stitched throughout with a few original but insipid transitional sentences. Or if the hour is late and the need is high a paper in the proper style and length can be bought.

The machinery for grinding out such fodder is well-oiled, maintained with precision, and apparently provides a lucrative return-on-investment for the entrepreneurs in the business. Despite Turnitin.com and other means of sniffing out such chicanery, upwards of 50 percent of students cheated and plagiarized in 2002, says Donald McCabe, an expert on cheating from Rutgers. That percentage has dropped ten points recently, but many universities are installing anti-plagiarizing software, anti-cheating hardware, and student-monitoring devices in classrooms.

We can look at this another way. While the outcome may be framed as plagiarizing or cheating, the context in which this plays out can lead to other conclusions. People act out of character when they are afraid or unsure; they try to reduce the odds of failure by any means necessary. If they’re afraid of writing they’ll do almost anything to avoid it.

Writing is hard, says William Zinsser, and he should know. During a career as a journalist, critic, editor, and teacher he has written over 15 books, many of them on writing. His best-known, On Writing Well, now over 30 years in print, has been revised, updated, and expanded through four editions. Each time Zinsser returns to it he reworks, rewrites, and cuts. What makes it so hard? Making it simple, making it clear.

He points to Thoreau’s Walden as a model of plain and orderly simplicity. On every page we see the deliberate and patient stride of the celebrated walker from Concord who rid his life of clutter by reducing it to the essentials. And we, says Zinsser, can free ourselves from clutter by thinking clearly. “Clear thinking becomes clear writing,” he says. “One can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English.”

E. B. White agreed in The Elements of Style, saying, “Fortunately, the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind; writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.”

Writing is hard because clear thinking is hard. This is a surprise only to those whose writing originates from their inner mud-puddle. “Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?” says the Tao Te Ching. Simplify and clarify.

Which brings us back to the question we began with: “How long do you want this paper to be?” They are the words of someone acutely aware that the teacher holds most of the power in the classroom. They are the words of someone trying to minimize pain and maximize benefit. Someone who has learned to hide a lack of meaning behind a pile of clutter.

At times, as a teacher, I have answered that question with Sphinx-like equivocation: ‘How long? As long as it takes to make your point persuasively.’ There is a cloud of assumptions behind that answer. It assumes that the student knows a persuasive answer from a hole in the ground. It does not show that writing is a process. And it can encourage the confusion of length with erudition and spontaneity with creativity.

If we want students to write well we need to help them learn several things. First, clear writing is a product of clear thinking. Second, clear thinking usually begins as a social process of ideas thrown together, pressed down, shaken up, and poured out. Third, clarity and simplicity emerge through subtraction, not multiplication. We get to the meaning of the idea by throwing away everything that doesn’t advance the story. Finally, all of this takes time. Simple is harder because simple takes time. Better to do one long paper well than to do three short ones badly.

"I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter," said Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician, in a letter to a friend.

And with that gentle reminder I shall cease.

The Diverging Road

bcasey.jpg


In the course of teaching for over twenty-five years I have sometimes met students who suffered from an excess of interests. Not that being curious about life and wanting to follow many different roads is wrong—far from it. But for these students the thought of tying themselves down to a particular major and a specific employment track is agony. There is a lot of pressure on them to conform, too. Parents look at the tab running up at the Student Accounts office and wonder what their hard-earned money has to show for it. Friends who are less encumbered by curiosity and more disposed to follow a single childhood dream nod and make sympathetic noises, but privately shake their heads. Teachers look askance at a fifth-year senior who gives no indication of settling into a prescribed course of classes leading to graduation.

In talking to these students it is clear that they are not without goals and motivation. On the contrary, they have many goals and they are highly motivated. What is particularly difficult for them, however, is the idea that going down one road shuts them off forever from traveling on other roads. At this point Robert Frost’s poignant words chime in: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/I took the one less traveled by/And that has made all the difference.”

In three phrases Frost tugs at some assumptions we hold. The first is that choices are more or less forced upon us; roads diverge and we must choose. The second is that the less traveled road is more interesting. Or maybe it’s that we want to be thought of as the interesting person who took that road. And the third assumption is that it matters immensely. It matters so much that we might as well chant, “This is the first day of the rest of my life.”

There are two schools of thought on this. The first, which I call the apocalyptic, says that every decision has ultimate significance. No act is trivial, all are of equal importance, but some decisions—like the pigs in Orwell’s Animal Farm—are more equal than others. There is no time for experimentation, no room for mistakes. Every decision implies a judgment.

The other perspective is the dynamic one. In this view, most decisions have a cumulative effect rather than an immediate one. A slip here, a missed opportunity there—over the course of time it adds up—but each day we are given a new start with new possibilities. It’s not that this perspective encourages recklessness or irresponsibility, either. People who believe this show up for appointments, pay their bills, and make plans for the future. But they do so believing that we define the significance of our moments instead of the gusts of history. It is a modest view of one’s role in the world, for who can know what history will judge as the liminal points of our time? Instead of the tyranny of future expectations they are intent on doing their best in the possibilities of the present. Think of it as a light-footed dance instead of a stolid march.

Thus we circle back to our assumptions. Diverging roads bring us what William James called a ‘forced option:’ we have choices but they are limited and we cannot not choose. Not choosing is in fact having made a choice, James reasons, and asks whether we wouldn’t rather do our best with what we’ve got. The second assumption is that the less familiar is the more interesting, a natural result of curiosity and blissful ignorance. But the whole game rests on the third assumption that everything we do has eternal significance and either impels us forward to the finish line or sends us sprawling far short of the mark.

But there are no straight lines in life, at least none we can see from beginning to end. We ride on a wave of rising ellipses, up and back and down, but ever forward through our moment of time. On the way we carry the certainty of death inside the travel pack of our present. Traveling in this way demands reason and patience, but it also calls for courage and hopefulness. When the road diverges, as it must, gather your true self in the moment and follow the you you want to become.