It’s about that time when the New Semester smell is starting to fade, replaced by pumpkin spice everything. My students’ initial reticence has broken. Or their swagger is slumping. Either way, now that I’ve been a professor for one whole year, I feel more than ready to deal with it.

This time last year I was conning my students into thinking that I had a clue what I was doing. I had a clue, but that was about it. I just wanted to stay one step ahead of them on the learning curve. It’s amazing the difference even one year of contextual knowledge can make. I feel more confident making tweaks to the curriculum—what readings or assignments to remove because they didn’t connect, or where we might benefit from some thoughtful experimentation. I can almost anticipate the very questions my students will have in each class discussion.

And then the shooting in Oregon happened. And then Arizona. Then Texas. In Oregon, the carnage happened in a first-year writing class much like mine. And so I had to deviate from the script. I figured my students might have some questions, or at least would want to talk about it.

They were quiet and somber at first, not really sure what to do with the academic space I was giving them. Then the floodgates opened. Of course we want to talk about it, they said in so many words; it’s just that no one’s really asked us before. I watched them gargle words and phrases they’d heard parroted by their parents or in news soundbites. I urged them to sound the arguments out using their own voices. They bandied catchphrases like gun control and mental illness and second amendment without even knowing what they mean, because why would they? They people they heard them from have rarely given it much thought.

What do you mean by the phrase gun control, I asked one student. She stared at me for several seconds, cranial cogs whirring. Then she shrugged. I don’t know. Good, I said. Great, in fact! Not knowing is often the impetus for finding out. If a phrase like gun control doesn’t have any meaning to you, give it some.

This is how we teach students to read critically. This is how we teach them to write critically. And hopefully how we teach them to think critically. It’s going to be up to them at this point. I’m not sure I trust the people currently wielding power to do it. Maybe I imagined it, but something sparked among my students in the classroom that day. They can do this. All we have to get them to do is ask the right questions. And to think.


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