Astronomy was so bad, really, seriously, probably one of the worst experiences that I had as a student in college. I know there’s a kind of collegial professionalism that’s supposed to happen here (never critique another teacher in the trenches when you’re one of them), so ‘ll just give you one detail: on the day that we wrote our student evals, he collected them himself and waited in the room to read what each student had written before handing off the envelope to a volunteer.

So when a sub showed up to teach one of the classes, we were ecstatic.

While my only memories of the actual instructor of record usually involve him berating a student in front of the whole class, I remember the sub’s lesson vividly. At 10:05 sharp, she came out from behind the lectern, arms waving, and said, “Professor _____ asked me to cover binary star systems with you all today, but instead I think,” her eyes widened, “we will discover them.”

Yeah, total super nerd. And we loved it. Her enthusiasm was infectious. To this day, on most nights of the year, I can still point out Sirius, a set of two stars spinning around one another at nearly 60,000 km an hour. And get this, the smaller of the two, the white Sirius_A_and_B_artworkdwarf, is comprised of highly compressed carbon, which is, technically, a diamond… the size of the earth.

While I’m not sure I would ever say the same thing in my class, “Discover” would probably come out cheesy and inauthentic, the attitude has stuck with me.

Whatever the content might be in our classes, learning can feel like discovery. Thesis statements, PIE paragraphs, quote sandwiches – these are the elements of our written composition courses and if we’re not paying attention, we might forget their profound implications for rhetoric and the way human beings understand one another. One might be the billionth person reading centuries old math theorems, the Bechdel Test, or Newton’s Laws, but in the mind of the learner the feeling of coming upon these things can be as thrilling as if being the first to see them.

The two attitudes mark a different approach in both the teacher and the student. To see our course content as something which must be covered is to suggest that each lesson only functions as a means to the next, a gatekeeper – “Prove you memorized this thing, put it on a test, move on and repeat.” To discover is to be fascinated with the content for it’s own sake.

Victor Weissfopk supposedly said in his physics courses: “It doesn’t matter what we cover, it matters what you discover.”


6 thoughts on “Discover

  1. Amen, Brother. Discover more than cover, if you’re going for student learning. Like being an asker rather than a teller as I’ve heard some others say, or being a teacher as opposed to a professor. Professors profess, covering a subject by telling. Teachers teach, helping students discover a subject by asking. So why do professors get so much more respect?

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I love the infusion of passion that you describe in this post. These days, in the context of the classroom, I think my sense of passion is directly connected to that of the students. Well, not always. But there is something to be said about providing guidance to students and allowing them to be in charge of their path through a topic. And such instructors who can do that are so inspiring!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “To discover is to be fascinated with the content for it’s own sake.” I agree, I agree, but I don’t think many of my ESL international students are into discovering English as a way of communicating clearly what they believe. No one has ever asked them before what they believe. Many don’t have a voice. English is merely a means to an end for most international students. I know this sounds discouraging, but it is a fact. It is a totally different situation with our resident students. English has a major role to play in the process of these students’ becoming part of American society. In this case, your argument has a chance.


  4. Thanks for blogging about this subject, Ben! It makes me think about how, aside from genuine enthusiasm, to make the mechanics of writing–PIE paragraphs, quote sandwiches–the elements, as you say, of comp courses exciting, and to feel like discovery for my students. One thing, I suppose, might be to find writers who do these things in fresh ways, and try to get students to see them and to try them out on their own. I wonder if it boils down to students really being interested in what they are writing about? Perhaps we might see ourselves as guides to helping them find topics that excite them, and in doing so creating more incentive for them to take the process of discovering how to write PIE paragraphs, to create meaningful quote sandwiches? These are real questions that I struggle with as I design my courses and day-to-day lessons, and I’d love to hear any further thoughts you have. Thanks again!


  5. Awesome blog post. I do think we need to be like your sub no matter the student response. Rich speaks to a frustration I felt my first quarter when some students were unable to “discover” or connect no matter my enthusiasm or student-centered dog and pony show. But I do think it’s still the preferred method. I will always resist that question, “Can’t you just tell me what you want me to say or write?”


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