On Being Purposefully Undeclared

Yesterday, I had a few thoughts about the importance of being an “undeclared major” for the first year or more of college, thoughts prompted by ideas from Matt Reed on Inside Higher Ed. Today, I’ve got some thoughts about what students should be doing instead, prompted by ideas from a different Inside Higher Ed commentator, John Warner. John’s a strong writer, but more importantly, a generous and thoughtful critic of the whole higher ed enterprise, in which he’s been an adjunct faculty member for a long time. He exemplifies the idea of student-centered teaching.

Anyway, a couple of months ago, he asked the question: what if every class was a version of ‘music appreciation?’ That is, what if our fundamental aim was to help students understand a new way of thinking? To help them realize that they themselves can start to think that way? And then to help them imagine which ways of thinking are most exciting, most fundamental to their emerging sense of self?

John writes movingly of his high school music appreciation class, which he took for its easy grade, but which led him to understand why music mattered, led him to be able to clearly hear (and later, to perform, though that wasn’t the course’s goal) things that otherwise would have been muted. He then talks about how he uses that in his creative writing classes: “Most of the students in that kind of class already love stories and reading, so to set aside some time for me (or one of them) to read a story out loud in class and spend a few moments afterwards marveling about how it worked its spell on us is as natural as anything.” He proposes a similar course in humor appreciation:

I could share lots of things which would engender laughter, after which we could ask why exactly we were laughing, the same way my music appreciation teacher could ask why we were bopping along to the music at our desks. Students could also bring humor to me, expanding the palate of what we discussed beyond my own preoccupations. Later, they would attempt to write their own humorous pieces, bringing their understanding from observation, to self-generated theory, to execution.

What we typically do with the “core curriculum” is (as one student put it) give everyone the opportunity to do a number of things they’ll never, ever be forced to do again. They’ll have to learn how to calculate a derivative, and memorize the 206 bones of the body, remembering for a moment which was was the radius and which was the ulna. They’ll take Intro to Psych so that they can have a new flash-card vocabulary to forget—behaviorism, cognition, Skinner and Piaget, somatic and autonomic. They’ll take US history so that they can chronologically order the world up through about twenty years before they were born.

Let’s imagine another way. Let’s imagine a year of evangelism, a year in which students are introduced in thoughtful ways to a series of obsessive adults. They would get to see in detail what historical thinking looks like, what mathematical thinking looks like, what musical thinking or storytellers’ thinking or scientists’ thinking looks like, and why those differences matter. They’d have carefully structured opportunities to practice those modes of thinking themselves, to discover which ones fit natively… which ones are excitingly new… which ones remain alien even with their best efforts. At the end of that year, they’d know themselves, which is the “core” of any informed choice of major.

I taught first year writing at Duke for four years, and all the teachers got to design our own way into the work of teaching academic writing. The very best version of it that I ever concocted was about stages of life, looking at the ways that our culture keeps inventing stages of life that hadn’t previously existed, and what those inventions say about us. We talked a lot about how ill-defined adulthood was, the phase that one might think would stand at the center of all. And for the last four weeks, I asked them to imagine something about their own pending adulthoods that they were looking forward to, or afraid of, and to discover what the research literature had to say about it.

Oh. My. God.

They learned to write an academic paper in a social science mode, for sure. But they learned so, so much more. They learned about their own struggles with body image, with ethnic identity, with money and class, with family heritage and the ways that legacy can be both gift and burden. They wrote anywhere between well and brilliantly, but far more importantly, they learned more about what they wanted from the world, and developed some paths to achieve those things.

So it’s not enough to say that the first year is undeclared. It’s not even accurate, if we do it right. The first year is an opportunity to make a declaration: a declaration of self, a declaration of purpose, a declaration of the community with whom we aspire to belong.