Professionally Curious

DebateI’m walking in circles these days, dizzy spirals around the library under the rounded hangar ceiling of our school. Once in a while I’ll pause by a computer and a student, stopping to give advice or ask a question, but most often its a leisurely drift, digital eavesdropping on the eleventh-graders as they start their research projects.

My students are researching American authors in the next few weeks, looking into the backgrounds, distinctive styles and far-reaching influence of these writers. I asked them to pick someone that they either already loved or had wondered about. Like the juniors themselves, the author choices were diverse–encompassing Edgar Allan Poe and Laura Ingalls Wilder, Charles Schulz and Ralph Ellison–and we laugh at the selections hanging on the classroom wall. “These authors,” I told them, “Will become your friends. You’ll feel like you know them by the time you’re done.”

A frustrated sigh arrests my pacing.

“Um, Mrs. Gaster?” a student beckons. “I can’t really find anything about Louisa May Alcott’s influence on the world. Except, like, fan fiction. Um… did she maybe not have any influence?”

“What do you mean?” I ask, trying to avoid giving away the answer that seems so obvious to me, that Louisa May Alcott had–continues to have–an enormous influence on the world.

“Well, I can’t find anything about her,” my student sighs.

I point out a few directions she could take, exploring the film adaptations still beloved by many, or searching for recent revivals on Broadway and a web series on Youtube, then sit down to do some investigation myself.

A Google search, the simple kind that I tell my students won’t work, brings up an NPR segment and a New York Times article. Saving the segment for later, I read the article while my students tap away at their computers, getting up every few minutes to answer a new question.

“Does this site look reliable? I’m not sure if he’s really an expert.

“Um, do you know how to cite a chapter of a book that’s online? I mean, it’s a book, but it’s also online.”

“My computer… it’s just not working. Like, it starts to work. And then it just… doesn’t.”

As I told my students a few days ago, I only did one research paper entirely without the Internet, a project on Oregon in the fourth grade. The rest were Internet-aided, so I’ve walked before them through evaluating websites for reliability and citing complicated electronic resources correctly. Like them, I’m by generation a millennial, used to constant information at my fingertips, and I love it.

I didn’t always love research. Watching them, I’m remember the author that I once got to know. We never became friends, strictly, but I did have a strong feeling of compassion for Fyodor Dostoevsky, for his unhappy childhood and near-execution, author of dark romance and unfinished family drama. Predictably, I’d loved reading the books themselves, but the extra research seemed like torture then, endless hours of searching for a paltry stack of notes that hadn’t come out of my own infinite imagination. Some fifteen years or so later, I find that I’m more interested in the background of these books than I used to be, and can spend hours getting lost behind the scenes.

Perhaps this is my mind’s coming of age, in which imagination and facts finally coexist, instead of battling for my energy. Where once I’d rather spend every moment creating my own worlds, now I can’t get enough of exploring this one. I still love writing and reading fiction, but I’m finding real life just as engaging lately. This article on Little Women is fantastic, explaining why not only the first but also the second and third books in the series are worth reading in the 21st century.

Lately, “I’m not sure,” has become one of my favorite answers as a teacher. How did Emily Dickinson die? Why didn’t e.e. cummings use capital letters? Because “I’m not sure” is the beginning of a search, and the pleasure of finding out is greater than any false pride in my own expertise. I recently told a class of juniors that curiosity was one of the most important qualities they could have in school. In the end, I said, what you know is a little less important than whether or not you want to know more. There’s always more to know.

Finishing the Times article, I email it to my skeptical Alcott Scholar, as another student turns around at her desk to tell me that Steinbeck’s dog ate the first draft of Of Mice and Men.

“So he had to handwrite it all over,” she adds, stricken with sadness for this literary master. “I had to tell you that.”

There’s always more to know.

Debate 2


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