When I was in grad school, I developed a healthy obsession with Virginia Woolf. I had taken a class called “Virginia Woolf as a Public Intellectual” at City College and from there descended down a very productive and exciting rabbit hole. Funnily enough, the paper I wrote for that class was on small presses and not even particularly focused on Hogarth, her press with Leonard. Still, from that point on, I bought and read the volumes of her diaries, her letters, obviously all of the fiction, and many biographies. I had a little book that listed all of the Hogarth publications and their editions, and spent a good deal of time imagining her laying type at her dinner table. I bought my own Adana table-top press and took classes at the Center for Book Arts in the garment district. I never wrote another formal paper for school about her, but that class and very charismatic professor got me started on the deep dive, which occasionally flares up to this day.
This same thing has happened around Dostoevsky, P.K. Dick, Russian science fiction, classical rhetoric, the illustrator Virgil Finlay, and others. My own propensity for research, open-ended and for its own sake, is a through-line in my life.
I am guilty of some of things that I disparage in the teaching of research! In the past, I have taught research techniques using a very conservative approach. To be honest, and in my defense, I went to a school without grades for twelve years—not quite Summerhill, but with some counter-cultural propensities—and have at times over-compensated for my own free-form proclivities. I was not taught to write using even theoretical templates and in fact have a naturally anarchic brain, and I did suffer for it for a bit when I first got to college. I had to learn for the first time at seventeen how to be “normal,” and many of the aspects of my style and technique that had been rewarded as a kid became, outside of my college creative writing classes, a liability.
I’m excited to create assignments that incorporate “curiosity and delight,” but fearful for my students who cling to the surety of form and what they’ve known already. With that being said, I think the first step to this is making it clear that their grades won’t suffer if they take risks. That’s really what the engaged students worry about. Once it’s clear that they’ll be rewarded for striking out on their own, and that the process, not just the formal end product, will be emphasized in grading, I think that the ideas mentioned in the essay, and in the 1101 curriculum, can be embraced.