Vroom Vroom

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I'm getting a motorcycle! I have a friend who's gonna sell me his 2002 Honda Shadow VLX Deluxe. I'm soooo psyched, even if I am borrowing money from my retirement fund to pay for it! LOL! But, besides the normal financial worries, what was most on my mind when making this decision were issues of fear and risk, as in "Am I willing to live with the risks that come with riding a motorcycle, even with a helmet?" and "OMG yes I took the safety course and yes I have my license, but am I ready to ride a 600cc bike?" Of course, in the context of this blog, this also has me thinking about risk and fear in terms of both me and my students. I have enough experience teaching now to feel relatively safe taking risks in the classroom, mostly because I can avoid the nastiest consequences. So, for example, sometimes an assignment just bombs but I can work around then in the class and course design to make sure the students don't have to pay for my risk and, as many posts have considered, I learn and grow from that. But I wonder about my students. I wonder if I create a classroom atmosphere that allows risk while helping them manage fear. Let's face it, my students fear a bad grade and that often controls the choices they make and the risks they're willing to take. I think, in fact, that somewhere out in the criticism there's work on how students hyperconform. That's OK to a point, but I think we've all witnessed and experienced beautiful growth from risks, both personal and in our writing. So how do I give my students that chance? One way, I guess is low stakes writing. I don't use an awful lot of that and maybe I should. More often, I talk with students about diving. In my universe there are two kinds of A papers. The first gets an A because it does nothing wrong; the second might have some faults (maybe even some serious ones) but it attempts to do something so original or authoritative or compelling or ambitious that, despite its faults, the risks taken translate into an A. That I call the "bang wow" A. My challenge now (as always) is to find ways to encourage students towards that kind of A. One thing I do is encourage students to look at the pieces of text we never discussed in class, the parts that everyone seemed to ignore. Often thinking through those pieces leads to whole new areas of argument that set their papers immediately apart. I need to do more. So what role does risk play in your classes? How do you make it OK for students to take risks, how do you minimize fear, and what do you do when they figuratively take a spill? Vroom! Vroom!
About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.