Teaching Un-thinking

August 7, 2007

Although it tends to get overshadowed by my German exam, which looms large this weekend and contains horrors such as the spoken part of the test, I have not entirely forgotten that I am also studying Archaeology and that that course is also slowly nearing its end.

This does not flood me with the same kind of relief that the prospect of the end of my German class does. The German class has been great fun: once again I have enjoyed myself quite extraordinarily, despite frequently making an idiot of myself in front of 15 people (and laughing loudly when others do likewise). I liked our teacher quite a lot – she has a good sense of fun, and is quite capable of stepping out of herself and laughing at herself, at India, or at the coming together of the two in the most absurd fashion possible, going by what I understand of the events that she sometimes narrates to us (in her super fast, super fluent German, of course).

But, despite all the fun, it’s quite horrible having to sacrifice 5-6 hours on both Saturday and Sunday every week for 16 weekends! This, my Archaeology course does not demand – an hour or two every weekday evening, four days a week seems to work just fine for that. That’s why I’ve decided to take a break from my German course and continue with Archaeology, when common sense demands that I do it the other way round.

In the approaching German exam, lots of things are quite familiar. The exam consists largely of multiple choice answers, which test your understanding of given text and of the rules of grammar, sentence construction, parts of speech etc. That apart, there’s a letter to be written, which smacks of English classes about 20 years ago. The spoken part is the most nervous-making, but even that reminds me of the viva voce sections of lab exams in school. So, in a sense, nothing is altogether unfamiliar about the entire examination process.

With the Archaeology course, it is a different story. I’m just not used to reading a subject for an exam and not having to memorize anything. I’ve never done this. I keep thinking as I read: how on earth am I going to remember all this? Then I realize: hey, I don’t have to; if I need this, I can open the book and look it up. Then I feel massively guilty, as though that’s cheating. But the way my Archaeology course is structured, it’s just not. The assessment is based on an assignment, and that assignment is your answer to a question. The questions are provided to you along with the course materials, at the start of the course. You are expected to read the questions beforehand, and if you have an idea of which one you’re going to work on, well and good. Then you’re expected to keep your selected question(s) in mind as you read through the course material, so that you can make note of the relevant information as you go. This soooooooooo looks like cheating! I can’t get used to the thought that it is not only ok, but expected and demanded that you should have your text books open as you write your “exam”.

In the Indian education system I’ve been accustomed to, studying means learning what’s in the text books and spewing it out as close to verbatim as possible. Diverging from the printed material is not encouraged and questioning it is tantamount to heresy. To my alarm, I find that in this “new” educations system, far from spewing out verbatim, even merely ingesting an idea and presenting it in your own words is considered plagiarism. To my greater shock, it is considered plagiarism even if you conscientiously and dedicatedly quote your sources from beginning to end. Measured by this yardstick, every exam I’ve ever given in my life, with the possible exception of German, has been based on plagiarism. Not because I wanted to plagiarise, but because I didn’t know any other way. In fact, I didn’t even so much as know that there was another way.

Apparently, there is. The other way, the way that allows you to open as many textbooks as you please while you write your “exam”, tests not your memory or your understanding of what is in the textbooks, but rather, tests what you think about it. This, to me, is extraordinary. Me, think? Who ever allowed me to think? Why, when in school days I tried to think, I always came up with questions; and when I raised questions in class, I was told to shut up, or to go stand outside the class. Nobody wanted me to think, not even in thinking subjects like math, physics and chemistry, which I liked and I was good at. What my teachers couldn’t understand was why on earth I would even need to think when all the thinking had already been done and set out in the textbook for me. In fact, most of the teachers had ceased to think years ago and had forgotten how.

I did try to think a bit, when I did my Bachelor’s degree in English Literature. It was easier then, because I had already switched to distance learning by then, and hence I had no teachers to stop me from thinking. I did an absolutely unheard of thing and actually read all my set texts, straight from Chaucer, through Shakespeare and Milton, and all the way to Eliot. What’s worse, I quite enjoyed it. Then I did the even more unheard of thing and went and read all the best, most famous, and most controversial critics. I even enrolled in the British Council Library just to get access to these books. I can’t say I enjoyed reading the critics, but, perhaps for the first time, I found I had the freedom to think. I realized that I agreed with some of their views, disagreed with other views, and could defend my point of view quite satisfactorily – well, to myself at any rate.

I’m not quite sure why or how, but I passed that degree. Not surprisingly, though, I wouldn’t say I scored very highly in it.

I didn’t know it then, but I had taken a small step towards thinking. Only now do I realize what a tiny little first step that was. When I agreed or disagreed with the critics’ points of view, I was, perhaps, still guilty of plagiarism, because, though I acknowledged that it was someone else’s view, I did not take the next step and state my own view. (Probably just as well, or I might not even have passed!) I think that I sometimes had a view of my own, but it was not clear to me that it ought to be stated.

In this course, Archaeology, the Leicester University guidelines for assessing the assignment clearly state that presenting known views and supporting them with citations is not only not sufficient for a good grade, but is considered rank plagiarism. You have to have your own point of view, you have to present arguments for and against, but ultimately you have to take a stand that is your own. In other words, you have to think.

That’s scary!

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