I have the kind of job where I often get the chance to think, "Wow. I'm really interested in what this student wrote."
Where I sometimes get to think, "Wow. I'm really proud of what this student has ended up writing."
And then there are those very rare moments when I get to think, "Wow. I wish I had written what this student wrote."
Sometimes, I am lucky enough to read a piece of student writing that leaves me with a true sense of wonder. How can someone so young say something so simply, so beautifully? Usually it is in moments when they are writing unselfconsciously, as in an email written late at night, or in the writing journals I have them keep. It was in one such journal that I came across this sentence:
English is the study of poorly defined questions.
I find myself...lingeringly troubled by this statement. Not because I think this student was knocking his English class, but because of those two descriptors: "poorly defined." As if to ask a question without a rigid shape, and without an easy answer, is something not quite to be trusted. As if by making a question blurry, it loses some of its potency; loses some of its importance.
Here's what I have to say about poorly defined questions (which, I warn you, is probably going to be a little obtuse):
They ask you not to calculate, but to explore. Not to find some right answer--the what--but the WHY. Why do things fall apart? Why do things hold together?
I understand why these questions are troubling. Poorly defined questions are steps into a dark tunnel, not knowing what you'll find there; they are expeditions that could lead you anywhere, or everywhere, or nowhere. They can make you feel like you're throwing yourself off a cliff with no means to claw your way back up. But they are also about making connections between different ideas, different threads, different moments in a piece of literature, and using them to find a larger possible truth. Why do things fall apart in Lord of the Flies? There are many reasons, and they all lead back to the question of whether we, as humans, are inherently good. Whether compassion and empathy can withstand the blunt force of the need to survive and to control. Are there clear answers to these questions? Are there easy answers? No. But might they lead us to conclusions that matter? I think so.
For me, poorly defined English aren't about answers. They are about the means by which you seek those answers--intellectually and otherwise--and what you might discover along the way. I love asking these questions in my classes because I learn about my students through the answers they give. I can ask a room of students, "What is the American Dream?" and they can answer in one of so many different ways, all of which can be both right and wrong. All of which will give me some insight into what interests my students, and what drives them, and what matters to them, which ends up being what matters to all of us.
What do I love about poorly defined questions? That essentially they are all asking about the same thing: about what it is to be alive in the world. And those questions will always result in different answers, and the same answers.