In My Opinion

I had a student approach me after class to tell me that they had nothing to write about.

“Well,” I said, “that’s fine for now.  We can brainstorm some ideas together and come up with a thesis.”

“No really,” they insisted, “I have nothing to write about.”

“Well,” I pushed back, “as long as you have opinions, you always have something to write about.”

Then, the kicker:

“I have no opinions on anything.”

They said this with a straight face.  More than a straight face; indifference. Apathy.  Looking at me like it’s my problem now.  Or my job to tell them exactly what to think and write.

At first I was angry.  You’re in college; society sees you as nearly grown; you live on your own; come on, of course you have opinions!  You’re being obtuse on purpose!

And then I was sad: they looked like they meant it.  They had obviously come to me in privacy because they didn’t want other people to hear; they hadn’t announced it in class the way a class clown would who was just looking for attention.  They really weren’t sure how to write the essay I had assigned because they believed there was nothing in their head worth putting on paper.

What do I, as a teacher, do in that situation?  How do I teach that you have opinions?  It’s always seemed something innate.  Something happens.  You think about it.  You have feelings about it.  Bam, opinion.

But maybe it’s not so simple.

Maybe there are whole groups of people who see something happen and…that’s it.  It happened.  They note that it happened.  They wonder if it affects them or not, but that’s not the same as forming an opinion on it.  So what is an opinion?  It’s the whole difference between observation and analysis, I think.

Observation: telling me what happened.  The facts.  The use of the senses.  Where, what, who, when, how….

Analysis: bringing in the “why”.  Why did this happen?  Why does it matter?  Why is it significant or not?  Why should I care (or not)?   These why questions often become subjective; they can become personal beliefs.

Perhaps opinion is the analysis.  And if my very job is teaching analysis (why, it’s even the name of my blog!) then it makes sense that it’s my job to teach opinion.  Well, not TEACH opinion; more like help students discover that they have one; or how to have one; or why it’s important to form one.

It’s tricky.  It gets too easy to just tell them what opinion to have.  When a student hands you a blank slate like that it’s satisfying to fill it with your own thoughts; to make them see the world the way you see it somehow makes you feel more validated in your own views.  Like, hey, there’s another person who thinks the way I do!  See, I wasn’t wrong!  Maybe that’s what happens with parents and kids sometimes…

I told the student in front of me that day, “You have opinions.  They’re in there, even if they’re not opinions about the prompt I’ve given you.  What do you like to do for fun?”

We spent the next few minutes proving that they have opinions on things that actually interest them.  Next step will be learning when to NOT share your opinion.  If Ned Stark had been in my class, he may have kept his personal beliefs about rulership to himself for a while longer…..Ned Stark, you needed more analysis, in my opinion.

  

(SHUT UP NED, NO YOU DON’T!)

Farmer

Tried the self-identifying exercise again.  I ask my students to write down 5 words/phrases which they use to identify themselves.  Then they write down 3 stereotypes associated with each identifier (positive or negative).  Then we discuss where those ideas came from in the first place.  As I’ve mentioned before: students say the darndest things.

Student: One of my identifying words is “farmer.”  I grew up on a tree farm and I worked the last 2 summers on a dairy farm.

Me: Oh, wow, how cool!

Student: No, not cool.  Miserable.

Me: Oh….um, what kind of trees did you have on your farm?

Student: We had 42 different varieties.  (student begins listing all 42 varieties)

Me: (Interrupting) Okay, well, nice, how was the dairy farm?

Student: A little better.  Did a lot of tipping.

Me: Cow tipping?!  You actually went cow tipping?!  I heard that’s bad for the cows!

Student: Nah.  Also, it’s not actually “tipping”; you can’t push a cow.  They’re enormous.  Instead you sneak up behind them and blow a horn in their ear.  They get so surprised that they fall over.

Me: Can they get back up?!

Student: Yeah.  They bounce right back.  After a while.

Ministered

For the past few semesters I’ve had my students do an exercise on self-identifying.  Which words would you use to describe yourselves?  Which stereotypes are associated with these words?  And where did you get these ideas in the first place?  Meant to be a deep and mind-blowing exercise, it almost always turns into shocking revelations.  Students use some crazy things to identify themselves and I always learn something new about them.  This has been my favorite so far:

Me: Write down 5 words you use to identify yourselves. What are your identifiers?

Student: Son, student, Polish, writer, registered minister.

Me: Wait, what? You’re a registered minister? How old are you?

Student: 18.

Me: Why are you a registered minister? Did you have to marry someone?

Student: No, I just did it for fun. Now I walk around the dorm offering to marry people. Especially drunk people. They think I’m joking and then they wake up hungover and married.

Me: I feel like….I should report you….to someone?