Wednesday, July 16, 2008

On what basis do we choose?

In my junior year of high school, I took a course called Research Seminar, in which we were supposed to learn how to do research and write papers. The class was intended to prepare us for college (it did not). Pretty basic stuff: we researched topics, wrote papers of varying lengths, culminating in a fairly large research project and paper. (It was in the context of the last that I was later accused of plagiarism. A long story, not worth going into, except to note here that it contributed to my deepening sense of the arbitrariness of power.) We took class trips to the research library at the nearby University of Delaware. I remember thinking to myself, as I observed college students working in the library, looking things up, doing research, that I would never have the personal resources needed to put in that kind of effort.

Early in the semester we were assigned a relatively simple task. The teacher had a collection of articles, I think, or print items of some kind. We were to select any one of these items and write about it. I don't remember much more about the task. What I do remember is that I couldn't do it. I sat there, and I watched the other students make their selections. I watched them begin writing. And I sat and sat, sorting and re-sorting the collection, getting nowhere. Did I not understand the task? It was fairly straightforward, so it's not that, not quite. Here's what it was, I've only recently realized: I didn't know on what basis we were to make our choice. How were we to decide? How did the others know? What was I missing? How would I find out?


Robert said...

I don't understand. Are you calling into question the efficacy of learning the discipline of "researching" absent any guiding motivation or interest in the topic to be researched? In any case, there is always an element of B.S. involved in the writing of compulsory essays - one is forced to manufacture a viewpoint or interpretation on a topic one probably cares little about. But this is so much of what being a good student is about - rote work, devoid of personal investment or passion; jumping when told to jump, however high, etc.

Richard said...

Um, not really, though I can see why you might think that.

I'm trying to say something about how we know how to choose, no matter the setting. This is only one personal example towards a more general discussion (of which choice is only a part). If that makes any sense.