Webs of Fear, Webs of Fascination

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A week ago, I would have cringed, ducked (and maybe even shrieked) at the image on the left, captured recently by a skillful neighbor.


This fall, though, I’m a brand-new student in an evening Master Naturalist course, and so I find myself leaning into such sights, empowered by the fresh knowledge that this is a harmless, even dazzling, yellow garden spider. Not only that, I can see details I would have missed a few days ago. I can discern the telling zipper pattern on the body, and with a quick glance at my notes, I can even confirm the Latin name, Argiope aurantia, and show off my knowledge that the webbed zigzag of silk is called a stabilimentum. What I used to ignore or avoid has now come into focus with fascinating clarity. How have I been missing these details all these years? What more can I learn?


In her essay, “The Language of Discretion,” Amy Tan captures this exhilarating experience concisely: “Once I added ‘mauve” to my vocabulary I began to see it everywhere.”


This is a good time to reflect on both the fear and fascination of learning, since our writing students are also shuttling between fear (“Every assignment still feels like a risk!”) and a bit of growing confidence (“Hey! I can understand at least parts of this difficult reading … and I have something to say about it, too!”).


In my last post, I wrote about inviting students to self-reflect on their reading and writing process in journals. (Their insights are often hilarious, and they are slowly doodling some magnificent covers. I’ll share more in a future post.)


Now, I want to reflect on how challenging these academic “habits of mind” are, as we guide our students to practice them, however tentatively, in our writing classrooms. My co-author, Stuart Greene, and I, open From Inquiry to Academic Writing with the “habits of mind” of academic writers, starting with:


  • Inquiry — through observation, asking questions, and examining alternatives
  • Seeking and valuing complexity — through reflection, examining issues from multiple points of view, and asking issue-based questions.


Let’s remind ourselves how rare these activities are in our culture. They may have been rare, too, in some of the classrooms in which our students either thrived or failed. After all, in an age of information-overload, people often prize (and are praised for) simplistic summaries that enable them to make a confident-sounding pronouncement, and move on to the next topic. In contrast, the “habits of mind” we ask our students to develop involve seeking more questions than answers, and opening up complex possibilities that include and value their experiences. These habits call for what José Antonio Bowen calls “slow thinking.” Our task is to model for our students the pleasures of what sounds like frustrating work. (Why lean in to peer at that spider? Because a web of meaning becomes visible when we do.)


Here’s an accessible Practice Sequence of activities you could use, or adapt, to demonstrate the value of these habits of mind:


  • Inquiry — through observation, asking questions, and examining alternatives: Find out through  searching what the most popular majors are on your campus. Is there anything that surprises or puzzles you? Write down any questions you have, including: Why are things the way they are? What alternative explanations can you provide to account for differences in the popularity of the subjects students major in?


  • Seeking and valuing complexity — through reflection, examining issues from multiple points of view, and asking issue-based questions: Imagine other perspectives on the data you found on the most popular majors on your campus. How might other students, or parents, explain your findings? What explanation might faculty members offer, both those who teach in those majors and those who do not? (You could seed this conversation with any number of recent sources on the workplace value of the humanities.)


Exercises like these can help students “see” aspects of their own campus and community for the first time, and set them to wondering: Why? The answers are multi-faceted, will raise additional questions, and will reveal the way their own experiences and decisions are woven into this new knowledge. And … they’re off and running, if not toward delight, at least toward interest in what had been invisible.


What adult learning experiences have shaped your own teaching? What webs of meaning fascinate your students right now?

Photo credit: Anne Brown

About the Author
April Lidinsky (PhD, Literatures in English, Rutgers) is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Indiana University South Bend. She has published and delivered numerous conference papers on writing pedagogy, women's autobiography, and creative nonfiction, and has contributed to several textbooks on writing. She has served as acting director of the University Writing Program at Notre Dame and has won several awards for her teaching and research including the 2015 Indiana University South Bend Distinguished Teaching Award, the 2017 Indiana University South Bend Eldon F. Lundquist Award for excellence in teaching and scholarly achievement, and the All-Indiana University 2017 Frederic Bachman Lieber Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence.