Why Are We Studying This?


Once as an English major in college, I raised my hand and asked my teacher, “Why are we studying this?” It was not immediately apparent to me how scansion—identifying patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables in lines of poetry—was useful or meaningful (or, frankly, even interesting). But since the class was being taught by a teacher who always stressed the deeper meanings and significance of things, I was curious what purpose I was missing.

As teachers, if students start questioning why we’re studying something, we might easily take that as a sign they’re resisting the lesson. Indeed, sometimes they may be. But, either way, when students ask why, they give us the opportunity to try to persuade them about the purpose of the lesson, the course, and, indeed, the discipline itself. It’s probably more of a problem that, most of the time, students never ask why, which could be a sign they have started assuming the answer will be trivial (“It’s for the test”) or vaguely moral (“It’s good for you”) or have simply stopped wondering at all.

My friend Matt Huett once told me we have to keep asking students, “Why are we here?” That has stuck with me. I feel drawn regularly to the deeper questions of purpose in teaching and learning. I believe questions of purpose always should be alive in our minds and in our classrooms.

In my own discipline, in a delightful essay titled “The Acid Test for Teaching Literature” (1956), the inestimable Louise Rosenblatt relentlessly posits that the primary criterion by which we measure any aspect of the teaching of literature—from what texts we select to the how we ask students to read—must be its significance for students’ lives. Whatever furthers the significance of literature in students’ lives passes muster; whatever detracts does not. Knowing scansion or the parts of metaphor or whatnot has little or no value in and of itself. If we can teach such things in ways that helps students experience figurative language or the music of poetry more deeply, great. Otherwise, next lesson.

You may be nodding along with me as I nod along with Rosenblatt. Human significance does sound like a good criteria for the teaching of literature. Similarly, Patrick Sullivan helped me see how certain habits of mind (curiosity, creativity, etc.) can be pitched as purposes of writing classes. This too makes sense. All courses in the humanities ought to enrich our humanity, no? I think so. But I am going to take the next step:

All teaching in all disciplines should be weighed by its significance for students’ lives.

Of course, various aspects of various disciplines may be significant in different ways. Some material may be crucially significant but in a very indirect way. Whether or how this or that lesson may be significant could often be a point of debate. I am not saying that the relevance to students’ lives must be immediate or obvious. But if that relevance, that significance, does not somehow exist, then students might be right to suspect we’re wasting their time.

We ought to prepare to make a case to our students about why we’re studying what we’re studying. Our students may or may not buy it. But they should get to hear us out and then make up their own minds. Even when we don’t convince them, it will probably be worth it be because there’s a big difference between studying something because the professor think’s it accomplishes such-and-such purpose versus studying something for no ostensible reason at all.

So let’s stress the question: “Why are we studying this?” Let’s get to it before our students. Let’s raise it again and again. Let’s put the question to our students and ask them to contemplate their own answers. Let’s engage the question in a variety of ways and times.

We can be prepared to answer students’ impromptu questions about why. We can write a statement of purpose to present in the syllabus or on the first day of class (something that frames the why of the course in deeper and grander terms than “Course Learning Objectives” usually do). We can ask students to write about the question of why in midterm and final reflections on the course. We can ask students to purposefully adopt their own deeper purposes while undertaking certain work. (I do this last one in an assignment teaching first-year students to read a challenging book. I ask them to consider: Do you just want a grade? Or do you want to develop your mind?)

It seems to me that working serious consideration of why—of purpose—into our courses will likely have multiple benefits.

Understanding the larger purpose will motivate students. If you know why you’re doing something, you’ll be more likely to care about doing it.

Understanding the larger purpose will provide a conceptual structure upon which students may hang the many otherwise disparate parts of a course. If you see the big picture, you can better place the smaller parts in relation to each other.

Understanding the larger purpose will results in (and is required for) students understanding content more fully, accurately, and deeply. If you know everything about a screwdriver—it’s materials and weight and potential torque—but don’t know that its purpose is to help people build things, you don’t know much about a screwdriver.

Understanding the larger purpose can help ward off problems students may run into or raise when dealing with controversial material. If you see that considering contrary views is part of critical thinking, you may be less upset to hear your views on race or gender challenged. (I’ve learned this especially from Matthew Kay and AnaLouise Keating, who I’ve interviewed on this blog about their books.)

My own research and writing in the teaching of literature has led me to believe that the question of purpose may often be overlooked in the teaching literature (in part because we have not listened well enough to Rosenblatt). At least, I’ve made arguments that this is so and that we ought to change it in two recent essays I’m quite fond of: “Conclusion to Literature,” an in essay in Teaching English in the Two-Year College about the Introduction to Literature course, and “Whether Wit or Wisdom,” an essay in Profession about the Pulitzer-winning play Wit. (In fact, sharing these two essays is the secret purpose of this post.)

Anecdotally, the situation in many other disciplines may be even more exacerbated. Do math students often have conversations about the deeper purposes of math? I see no reason they shouldn’t.



It was reading Mary Oliver’s Rules for the Dance years later that the purpose of studying scansion finally “clicked” for me.


2 responses to “Why Are We Studying This?

  1. Thank you for this post, Paul. It is a very timely reminder for me. I often assume the Honors students know WHY they are writing a thesis. But your post has encouraged me to check in with them today. Why are we writing about our methodology? And why is it important. It is often in the middle of a project, when the road is difficult, that we forget why we are doing it or why we decided to start on this road in the first place.

    • Thanks, Amy! I really like your idea of checking in with your students. Why, indeed, are we writing about our methodology? Nice!

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