The inheritance of classroom culture

A recent episode of This American Life includes the account of David MacLean, who loses his memory in India. It’s a terrific story for many reasons, and want to pick up on a detail that comes up along the way.

Having regained some of his memories and visited his family in Ohio, MacLean returns to his apartment in India.

I was alone, and lonelier than I thought I could be in a room filled with things that I had selected. There were books. I opened them and found my handwriting in the margins. Still nothing. I had read these books. And now I had to read them again. But why bother? If I lost my memory again, all that work would be futile.

I have a related feeling about undergraduate teaching, at the level of the class rather than of the individual. With greater and lesser degrees of tinkering, I use most of my syllabi at least twice, sometimes more. The first group of students and I spend a semester reading together, developing a slow-developing conversation in which we compile a set of shared readings of passages, understandings of how each person in the room reacts to texts, and so forth: a collective version of MacLean’s marginalia, some of it recorded (in papers, message board conversations, and so forth), most of it not.

The next group of students, however, inherits none of that classroom culture, and to me, starting the new class feels like forgetting. I appreciate the pleasures of discoveries that feel new; for example, I love watching class after class find their own ways of talking about the narration of Wuthering Heights as a function of Lockwood’s relationship to Ellen Dean. But must we forget everything a class has learned when the semester break comes? I wonder whether our courses can, like Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” recognize the wonder of “first looking” while also prizing the community implied by appreciating what has come before.

Our current practices enforce forgetting. Grinnell, for instance, is a Blackboard school; as far as I know, that software has no way to pass message board discussions from one group of students to another. Even if it could, institutional protections of student privacy would raise serious barriers to such sharing.

What, then, do I need to cultivate a new approach that allows both for new insight and for inherited classroom culture, that allows for the celebration of primary and secondary discovery?

My main answer is this: to be the teacher I want to be, I need to become a better computer programmer. I need to be able to create environments where students can record their learning, share it, build on it, structure it so that it welcomes and grows from the participation of their successors. I also need to work with institutional authorities to make good-faith sharing of academic thoughts easy for students and professors.

My first, modest effort to create this effect involved The Transatlantic 1790s, a database-backed site created by a small group of students and me (they writing content, I writing code) in 2004. The following year, a seminar read some of those students’ work and contributed to the site’s bibliography as part of the work the class. That all went well enough to make me want to do more: with more skill and experience, I could routinely bring together the learning of students in multiple classes, and then the learning of others, to inspire the cultural evolution that stems from inherited thoughts.

What happens when a group of students can recall the work of previous students they may not have met? I look forward to finding out.

Note: this post is cross-posted at Teaching Romanticism.