Today was the day my students came back with their research essay topics. I always have high hopes that the multiple brainstorming processes we do in class, the constant encouragement to think broadly, the models of creative essays written by others that we read, the ideas we toss around for days, and the intense discussions about what constitutes an argumentative topic versus one that will result in a report will yield at least marginally interesting or even (dare to dream) new topics, but instead what I get are the usual suspects like Myspace, cell phones, AIDS in Africa, or hip-hop. Okaaaaay, what about those topics? Umm, what is Myspace? What kinds of cell phones do teenagers use? How big a problem is AIDS in Africa? Well, those still aren't very argumentative questions, you see, because we could find all the answers to those questions in an encyclopedia entry, so what can we do to make them better? And thus ensues an entire class period during which we (read I) shape their amorphous, pedestrian topics into something someone (read me) might want to read. If I sound egotistical, the truth is that students at this stage (and in this era) need much coaching to think creatively and to imagine something new about the (tired) topics that surround them.
So then we begin the (let's admit it) arduous process of teaching them to research these topics without relying solely on Google and Wikipedia, which is all they really want to do. We start slow: a library scavenger hunt! Looking in specialized encyclopedias for more ideas! Blogging questions about each other's topics! But within a very short time (even shorter during a summer session), we have to get down to the nitty-gritty they despise. Scholarly journals are hard to read! Books are heavy! What do you mean, I can't use more than one website?! You want photocopies of all these sources to make sure I'm not plagiarizing? Seriously?! The problem at this point is that our goals are so vastly different: I want to familiarize them with the conventions of academic research and teach them how to use sources to create an engaging, argumentative essay. They want to write the required number of pages as quickly as possible and be done with it. So all of my stipulations are just standing in the way of their goals while their complete lack of intellectual engagement makes my goals virtually impossible to reach. On good days, I think I can inspire them to care. On bad days, I read articles like this one and think with resignation, "yep."
But tomorrow (in a summer session) is another day and another chance to make it all better. Here we go!