– Melissa K. Downes
Earlier this term, Hand in Hand published Paul Woodburne’s essay, “Everything is Hard – Until It Is Easy.” As Jeanne and I read it over and edited it for publication, I knew it was a good essay, raising important points about our roles and responsibilities as professors—and yet, I disagreed with it—and yet, I didn’t. It took me a while to understand that I agree with it in a complex way—and that complex reaction of both agreeing and disagreeing is part of my point.
Paul stated that a professor’s responsibility is “to make the difficult easy, to make the mysterious obvious.” However, sometimes our responsibility is also to make the apparently easy complex and to take what our students perceive as obvious and help them discover its mystery. More, part of our job may be to help our students embrace and even enjoy complexity. It is certainly our job to help them learn to handle the complex effectively on their own.
Much of what I teach to first-year students is skill based, breaking down their easy assumptions about reading, writing, research, critical thinking, and learning: reading a book isn’t just picking it up and highlighting (or darn well shouldn’t be); writing an essay doesn’t stop at inchoate word vomit at 2 AM; all sources are not created equal; two people can disagree and both be ”right.”
I want students to engage with complexity often and well: I ask students to embrace reflection and depth in their writing and thinking; to use and assess sources based on thoughtful criteria and not on ease or agreement, etc. I also ask students to dig into and find pleasure in poems and stories that require patience and attention and can be read in multiple ways. For example, I’ll ask students their initial responses to characters early in a text (perhaps Nora and Torvald from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House): since students may already have strongly differing views, we will often list the contradictory adjectives they use to describe the characters and consider what evidence the text gives for these different readings. Later, I will ask them how their responses have changed by the end of the play. Then I might complicate things further by giving historical and/or literary context that sheds a different light on what they’ve read: what might happen to an inexperienced woman who leaves her husband in nineteenth-century Norway? What choices does she have? What would happen to her children if she were to take them with her? Why would many audiences embrace this as a feminist text, but a number of critics insist it is not?
However, while complexity can be beautiful, it is not an end in itself; lack of sureness can slow us down, cause us to hesitate. Eventually, on some issues, one must take a stand. But awareness of the complexities of a problem can make one surer of where to stand.
We are all surrounded by complexities all the time: deep divisions in our politics and culture; local, national, and global problems that cannot be solved by an easy phrase or executive order; the spread of “alternative facts” and false narratives running parallel to legitimate and powerful differences in opinion and interpretation; ethical and interpersonal issues in our diverse professional lives; and the usual messy realities of our personal lives. The desire to keep one’s head down and cling to easy binaries and moral simplicities when faced with such complexities is understandable, but problematic.
When I was in high school and in the early years of college, I was often very sure of my rightness. (I have not entirely left that annoying tendency behind me.) However, over the years I have become more careful about a righteous surety in myself or in others. Even back then, my “rightness” was often grounded in research, reading, and thoughtful conversations; nonetheless, my desire for easy answers in something clear, true, and obvious got in the way of noticing and responding to nuance and difference. It also got in the way of understanding that what might be right for me could be legitimately wrong for others.
Yes, teachers should not assume that their students are like them; however, my desire for a world with easy answers—a world with simple rightness in it—is very like the desires of many young people entering college. Kidwell (2005) suggests that, developmentally, most college students in their first year move from being “dualists” to “multiplists” and, as they progress through college, their responses become more complex and the way they perceive the world more relative (see also Perry, 1970 and Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tartule, 1986). Part of our roles as professors is to actively foster that development.
It is likely that Paul and I are talking about different stages of teaching, but on the same continuum (see Figure 1). We can and should give our students templates and scaffolds that help them manage challenging questions, difficult problems, and daunting tasks more effectively. For example, in my composition courses, I break writing down into smaller steps (i.e., invention, drafting, revision, and editing). I also provide handouts focusing on mastering key smaller skills within each step. I emphasize these processes as iterative; we are stronger and more thoughtful writers and thinkers when we loop back and use what we have learned to build on what we have done. I have them practice each step and often assess my students on both the product and the process.
However, if students stay at the stage of simply filling in templates, we have not taken them far enough. Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a slippage in language, especially from many of our students. When discussing a desire to be effective, they use, instead, the word efficient. I want our students to be both effective and efficient. I don’t think their success will come easily if they (or we) sacrifice the effective for the efficient.
Of course it is not just young people who desire simplicity: I expect that most of us when encountering the new—or when angry, scared, or passionately involved —reduce complexity. Sometimes we ask our students to practice the discomfort of ambiguity, complexity, and failure without practicing it ourselves. We forgot how hard it can be to grow and change. We are better scholars and better teachers when we remember to challenge ourselves to move beyond our own perspectives.
As universities continue to change in this complex world, I believe we need to continue to advocate for the liberal arts and sciences—fields which can open up our students to complexity; allow them to see the world more richly and with greater empathy; and give them resources to adapt, problem solve, advocate, and thrive when things get hard. These skills are essential to an engaged and effective professional, civic, and personal life. I know that the teaching, learning, and advocacy of such skills is not easy—nor should it be—but it is a fine place to take a stand.
Belenky, M. F., Clinchy, B. M., Goldberger, N.R., & Tartule, J.M. (1986). Women’s ways of knowing. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Kidwell, K. S. (2005, July/August). Understanding the college first-year experience. The Clearing House, 78(6), 253-255. Retrieved from http://www.ecu.edu/cs-studentaffairs/saprofessionaldevelopment/customcf/Understanding%20the%20First%20Year%20College%20Experience%20by%20Kirk%20S.%20Kidwell.pdf.
Perry, W. G., Jr. (1970/1998). Forms of ethical and intellectual development in the college years: A scheme. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.
Melissa K. Downes is an associate professor of English at Clarion University. She loves teaching. She is interested in talking about how people teach and enjoys sharing how she teaches. She is an 18th century specialist, an Anglophile, a cat lover, and a poet. She can be contacted at email@example.com