Saturday, June 26, 2010

How Do I Know So Much?

Okay, I know the title of this entry sounds a bit, well, arrogant, but honestly, I've had students ask me this question before. I teach Composition 1 and 2 (among other writing and literature classes), and I usually allow students to select their own topics. Allowing students to self-select topics makes them more interested in the writing and makes me more interested in reading their resulting essays (can you imagine reading 40 essays about the same topic, any topic? I can't.). It also leads the students to do better writing and thinking because they care more about the topic, perhaps even have a personal investment in the topic.

However, allowing students (mostly) free reign on topic selection means that my knowledge will be pushed to the limit. Not my knowledge of the English language or writing or research; they seem to understand that my knowledge is sufficient in those categories. No, it's things outside my degree that I know that they seem impressed by (or sometimes aggravated by).

For instance, I may have to point out to a student that she doesn't have a clear understanding about what a "bifurcated needle" is, and therefore shouldn't simply use that phrase because she saw it in a journal article about small pox without explaining it to the reader. Or I may have to explain to a student who is writing about the Berlin Wall that he hasn't capitalized the nouns properly in his all-German epigraph. Or I find myself commenting on a student's essay that organic doesn't necessarily mean healthy; rather, it is a term that indicates that the farm's processes have been certified organic by the USDA, and that some of the practices that certified farm uses may still not produce healthy (or happy) food.

So, small pox needles to capitalizing German nouns to organic food--that's quite a range. How do I know all this stuff?

The answer to that question is something that I desperately want students to understand: your education doesn't come solely from a brick building. Life is education...if you take the time to open yourself to it. And you can find education everywhere.

  • Read books. Lots of them. All different kinds. I learned about the bifurcated (two-pronged) needles used to administer the smallpox vaccine in a book I read: Gina Kolata's Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic. I also learned about the Flu Pandemic of 1918, the Swine Flu debacle in the 1970s, and a potential terrorist-induced smallpox epidemic and what it would take to prevent and/or react to such an epidemic. It was a fascinating read, and I learned a lot that I had never knew before. Now, when researchers worry that the new Swine Flu might turn out to be as much a killer as the Flu of 1918, I understand what they are talking about.

  • Make connections between what you learn and what you know. I've never spoken German, never visited Germany, never even known any first-generation German. So how did I know that the German language capitalizes nouns? Well, that actually comes from a class I took on History of the English Language. Our English words have been influenced by many other languages, Anglo-Saxon (a Germanic language) being one of them. It was during this class I learned that German languages capitalize nouns, so I was able to point that out to the student. But then, I connected that to a question I had always had about Early American writings. You've probably seen them--words in the middle of a sentence strangely capitalized, even though they aren't proper nouns. Have you ever wondered, like I had, about why they were capitalized? It's a holdover from the Angl0-Saxons' influence on our language. Next time you see those strange capitalizations in the works of our Early America writers, notice that they are nouns!

  • Take a broad range of classes. I've heard students complain about taking a math course, or a writing course, or a statistics course, and the complaint is nearly always the same: "I'm going to be a ____________; why do I have to take this course, since it has nothing to do with my future career?" First, how do you know it won't have anything to do with your future career? What happens if you are an award-winning mathematician and you have to write an article on how you discovered the answer to a mathematical conundrum? If you don't know how to write, you'll look like a fool--in print, no less! Maybe you're going to write the Great American Espionage Novel. If you know nothing about biological warfare, how will you write convincingly of it? The point is, jump into each class and learn as much as possible. You never know when you will need that one bit of knowledge, and every bit of knowledge you glean about the world around you will only help you. Nobody ever died because they took a course that they thought was irrelevant to their future, but many students have said later they were glad they took a seeming irrelevant class, because it helped them to better understand some important concept. Your degree is designed to give you a "well-rounded education," to lead you into classes you might normally not take--and that's a very good thing!

  • Soak up and research your personal experiences. As you go through life, you gain wisdom and experiences. Think about what you've learned in your life. Obviously, the older you are, the more experiences you've had to learn from. But don't just accept your experiences; learn more about them! For instance, my on-and-off battle with cancer has led me to do a lot of research about nutrition and the food we eat, which has led me to better understand what organic means--and it isn't necessarily healthy. Much depends upon how the farmer has raised the animals and grown the food, and organic only means that a certain percentage of the food has to be organically grown according to the USDA's lenient criteria. As a result of my research, I've drastically changed the way I shop for food and feed myself and my husband; I now grow my own vegetables and herbs without pesticides and herbicides, and I've become an advocate for healthy food. And, of course, I was able to help the student who was writing about organic food get clarity on the issue.

  • Ask questions. You've heard the adage, "The only dumb question is the question that is never asked." So why not ask questions? We have no trouble asking them when we are children. I once babysat a young boy who was clearly in the "why" phase of his childhood. Anything that happened, anything I said, was followed by his question, "Why?" When do we lose our curiousity? Or are we just taught not to ask questions of authority figures as we grow? Slough off your concerns about "sounding dumb," "feeling stupid," "rocking the boat," and ask those questions! If your teacher uses a word you don't understand, ask him to define it for you (or look it up for yourself). If someone says something hateful to you, a great way to diffuse the situation would be to ask a question: "You seem really angry. What are you upset about? What can I do to help you?" Don't be afraid to ask your teachers or your boss why something is done a certain way, why you must use a certain citation style, why a statement is considered to be true. We learn by asking questions and receiving answers. Questions are an opportunity for you to grow. (Caveat: Tone will be really important when you ask questions. Be ever mindful of your tone.)
So, how do I know so much? I really don't, in the scheme of things. I have a smattering of knowledge in lots of different areas and an impulse to ask questions and research topics I don't understand. I always keep in mind the lyrics to A Piece of Sky from the Yentl soundtrack:

The more I live,
The more I learn;
The more I learn,
The more I realize
The less I know.
I'll never know everything, and I realize that I know so very little of all the knowledge available in the world. But I keep reading, making connections, taking classes, researching, and asking questions.