By Dennis Paoli, Coordinator of the Reading/Writing Center and Co-coordinator of the Writing Across the Curriculum Program at Hunter College, City University of New York. He also writes plays and films and is Donor/Adviser of The Heidi Paoli Fund for cancer patients. He met Heidi in Madison.
Hi. Dennis Paoli, University of Wisconsin Class of ’69. You know, the golden age. “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven!” Wordsworth was writing about the French Revolution, but he must have gone to Madison in the 60’s. In my four years, the football team won one game (that was a party). The band could barely make a W (we didn’t jump around so much as hop from foot to foot to keep warm). And the defining moment of my college experience was walking out of class into a cloud of tear gas. Good times.
You don’t read much about our class in the alumni magazines; they just don’t run a lot of stories about long-haired pot-smoking protestors, much less free-loving acid-dropping hippies. And truth be told we didn’t leave much of a mark on the campus or the city. The house I lived in senior year on West Washington has long since fallen down and disappeared, and they built the Kohl Center on the lot where we used to spend Spring Sundays playing ball. A few of the protestors went on to change the practice of law so it’s less likely we kill the innocent, and a few of the dealers helped create the conglomerates that feed the media and sell us worthless real estate, but except for them and Soglin, we don’t seem to have accomplished all that much. Sure, a few of us—maybe a few more—are on the radio, in the papers (how quaint), in imdb and Wikipedia, but who isn’t? And maybe we made the Vietnam War harder to prosecute and ultimately shorter than it might have been, and made the wars that followed, like the ones we’re in, more subject to citizen scrutiny and stricture. Maybe.
But damn, we had fun. And damn, we got a good education. And damn it if those weren’t the same thing. Two of the great lessons I learned at the University of Wisconsin were that learning stuff could be fun and that having fun could teach you something (and yes, protesting was serious fun). Oh, I learned lots from sitting in a lecture hall listening to Madeleine Doran read Shakespeare or Lee Dreyfus (yeah, the red-vested Governor guy) read Peanuts. And hanging from the rafters listening to Harvey Goldberg rhapsodize on Danton. “Bliss it was.” But I learned half of what I learned in Madison from explaining Hamlet’s hang-ups to, borrowing the latest R. Crumb comic from, and arguing the ideals and realities of revolution with other students. Who didn’t?
I have taken that certainty with me, that the best education is communal, challenged and shouted and shared, to my life’s work at Hunter College in New York. It’s why I run a Writing Center. For urban public college students, whose days are a blur of commuting and working and watching the buffer circle spin waiting for the wi-fi to kick in, with classes thrown in there somewhere, a Writing Center might be the only place they spend time, maybe the only time they spend all day, talking about what they read, what they wrote, what they learned with—well, with anybody. And if they can talk through that piece of writing (theirs or some other author’s) with another student, who understands first hand their struggles, who is an authority in the challenges they share, they—the student writer and the tutor—can learn those great lessons I learned in the Rat, on the Terrace, marching up State Street to the Capitol.
“Don’t worry, Dennis. The social media’ll take care of that.” Amen, and maybe, and here I am blogging, right? But excuse me if I reserve my uncritical embracing for friends and Chinese food (and even then it’s not so uncritical). Yes, the internet is the knowledge technology of the age, of the ages, collecting all the facts in the world (www.factual.com, which “curates” and “canonicalizes” data), organizing our discoveries (goo•gle, vb: to Google), writing our papers (that’ll cost you money). I have followed many a link to many a lecture (there’s usually an entertaining one at http://comment.rsablogs.org.uk/videos/). The word has never been more powerful—the keyword, the password, the pleasure of the text. Facebook—it’s a book, man!
And in those halls where Prof. Doran’s voice intoned genius, Shakespeare’s and hers, teachers now powerpoint, i.e. bullet point, their lectures and student participation is clicking in class. Sure, there are viable, wonderful ways to use these platforms for learning, but it takes best practices, and who has the patience to practice? Quick—grab some ConcepTests and start with the Peer Instruction, “an entirely new approach” (Amazon) to STEM discipline teaching “created by” Eric Mazur of Harvard (brand name). Anybody know if Prof. Mazur ever worked at or went to a Writing Center, where “to teach by questioning rather than telling” has been the mission and the method for more than half-a-century? (Perhaps he visited Helen C. White Hall from 1996-1998 when he was on the National Visiting Committee of UW’s New Traditions Project, charged with “Revitalizing the Undergraduate Chemistry Curriculum.” Do you know if he stopped by, Brad?) And now that higher education, at last, like K-12, is student-centered—and we know this because the phrase “student-centered” has been shoe-horned into every college mission statement and university strategic plan within an administrator’s reach, appearing somewhere between “research institution” and “world-class faculty,” not far from “flagship” and “digital literacy” (remember “diversity”?)—shouldn’t the Writing Center community get some of the credit—I would argue most of the credit—for this “large scale educational change” (Turn to Your Neighbor: The Official Peer Instruction Blog)? The Mazur Group techniques are indeed, as they tell us on their Web site, “innovative teaching methods,” but they’re old hat at Writing Centers.
There is no educational platform so interactive, so user friendly, so just-in-time as a peer tutor. They only help, whether it’s through coaching, instructing, advising, contextualizing, commiserating, questioning (never “canonicalizing”). “Student-centered” is redundant when used in reference to a Writing Center. And truth be told, if we could only know it, education has always been student-centered, for every student is at the center of her learning experience, in the middle of confusion searching for understanding, and he takes that center with him, up the hill and down into the subway, to the bar and to the movies, online and in dreams. Students learn everywhere; we certainly did.
That is Jeff Lustig’s point in “The University Besieged”, his rallying cry to faculty to resist the corporatization of the academy. He quotes the same lines from Wordsworth, too, recalling his student days at Berkeley. His education was “special,” he claims, because it was “the product of two realms: the classroom and the plaza.” I am not as concerned with the marketplace model of education prevailing as Prof. Lustig is, primarily because I am more cynical and recognize that it won the field long ago. That cloud of tear gas I walked into in the Fall of 1967 was set off to disperse students protesting the Dow Chemical Company recruiting on campus. But I am concerned that the plaza has shrunk (not the tavern, I’m happy to learn—extra sauce on the side, please). Course management software lets faculty “lecture” students 24/7, wherever; my friend Joan Mullin at Illinois State has likened the capacity CMS gives colleges to monitor students to Bentham’s panopticon. And economic pressures have forced students into decisions and behaviors that tend to narrow the focus of their learning to what gets them a grade, a credential, a job. (One of my course objectives in all my classes is to teach my students something they will never use on the job.)
Two friends from college and I were trying to write a screenplay about our time in Madison. Who hasn’t? We called ours “Very Heaven.” We couldn’t finish it because we couldn’t fit all the bliss in, and because we’re still, some better part of us, trudging up the hill to class. But writing together was fun. “Oh! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!” That’s the first line of Wordsworth’s poem, and it’s what I think, and feel, when I stand in the open door of our Center and watch students working together to express their best thoughts, searching, not for information, but for their best selves. We need to give them the room.