A curiosity in the classroom

Or why I should have asked my students about their interests, questions and observations WAY earlier in the semester

Backstory: I asked my freshmen at Northeastern to read “Questions are the new comments” by Jennifer Brandel. We talked about how the metrics we use (like measuring which stories get the most views and shares) affect and sometimes skew news judgment, about civic media, and about new models for journalism.

I’m lucky: I have students who bring bright comments and questions to their (yawn) 8 a.m. class every time we meet. But today was unusual, even by that standard: They were excited and provoked. They wanted to talk, for sure, but they really wanted to put Jenn’s ideas to work on their own behalf.

We had five minutes at the end of class, which I normally hold for questions about upcoming assignments and material. Today we used it to come up with just a few things they wonder about their school:

What is the budget at Northeastern? How is tuition allocated? Can you explain where each dollar goes?
The holiday lights on campus are very nice. How much do they cost? Do tuition dollars pay for that?
How can students affect where their tuition dollars are spent? Can we vote?
How do you decide what’s served in the cafeterias? Can students get a say?
How do you decide which departments get more money than others? (Does the theater department have a smaller budget than engineering? Why?)
Where are we allowed to hang signs on campus? How long can they stay up? Who is in charge of that?
Why are we required to take classes outside of our major? Would the university ever consider changing that? How would that work?
What’s the point of the 1000/intro to Northeastern class? Is there a way to roll it into another, more useful class? Which parts do students find most useful? Which should be discarded?
How are undeclared students treated differently at Northeastern? Is it better to declare a major early?
How are administrative salaries calculated? And why? And who decides? Can that be transparent?
What’s the surrounding community’s attitude toward Northeastern students? How are students getting involved in the larger community?
What influences Northeastern’s reputation in Boston? (What IS Northeastern’s reputation in Boston?)
How is the Northeastern administration approaching dialogue with the wider community with regard to gentrification? Who is helping them?
Can the freshman housing format be reformed? How did Northeastern decide that LLCs were the best sorting method? Are there better methods?
What are the REAL effects of having a tenure system at Northeastern?

Plot twist: This post isn’t about teaching my students one possible future for journalism and how much they liked it. It’s about what I learned.

We have three class meetings before the end of the term and — look, guys, I’m kicking myself. They were provoked and I heard from kids who have barely made a peep all term. It’s easy to say that I believe in invoking curiosity. It’s apparently harder to remember to do it.

I know the power of questions; they’re my primary form of conversation. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t bring the Hearken/Curious City model into the classroom long before now.

So why haven’t I asked them about their questions about this class? About journalism? Why do I hold questions for the end, after I’ve already framed what I think is important?

You’d better believe that this is going into my pedagogical toolkit. You might want to add it to yours, too.