Harkness in a difficult time, The Reader’s Journal

Ok, this may be an actual Harkness cop out, but I’m doing it. The Reader’s Journal (my instruction to them):

This class comes at an amazing time in your life, and an incredible moment of history. You have an incredible luxury in sitting with classic and new texts, considering the world of economic ideas and modern-day problems, and in the company of enthusiastic classmates. About once a week, you will write a short entry about how your thinking is developing as you do the readings and participate in class. The journal is a place for you to play with ideas, try on ideology, and ask yourself questions. You will not need to share it with other students. It isn’t important to me what you think, but I will read the entries and try to push and engage you on your thinking. I will try to help you find the best possible evidence and arguments for whatever it is you are inclined to support. I will try to help you figure out why you are attracted to or repelled from an idea. And I will encourage you to contradict yourself, let the mess of complexity confound you, and, if you are so moved, evolve in your thinking. I have never assigned the reader’s journal before, but in this term of distance learning, historic circumstances, and a presidential election, I want to give you this opportunity to record you’re your thinking. This record may help you as you write it, and it may be of interest to you a decade or two down the road when you reread it.

Here’s a bit more on my rationale for the Reader’s Journal. In my Capitalism and its Critics senior history class, in these times of 2020 and distance learning, I am worried that they are nervous to say the wrong thing especially as they confront some new ideas about capitalism, equity, and our systems – over Zoom no less. I have noticed that they are not really jumping out to say “what they think” in class. I suspected this would happen. The stakes seem higher to them than I think was true when I started teaching this class 20 years ago. They probably are higher. So, I have them writing these reader’s journals as the space for them to put their own ideas down and engage with me as a thought partner. Our class discussions can be deciphering the text (especially since we are reading hard stuff and class time zips by these days with remote learning) and then their writing can be “what they think.” At least for now. And then hopefully they’ll start to figure out how to put some of these ideas on the table. I can also imagine that I get their permission to select from their journals a few excerpts and share them with the group anonymously so that they can see the constellation of ideas held by their classmates, but have them in written form and linger with them slowly, rather than just react. Again, maybe a cop out. But I am trying to get them into a good place with this before the election happens and before we hit the most contentious material in the class.

The way we actually do this is that I have a collaboration set up between myself and each student on Canvas (but it is actually a GoogleDoc). So I can go in through Canvas and see their responses to readings and prompts and offer my response right in the text. I’ll write an update when I have a better sense from them about what role this played in their learning and our whole class discussions. I’m curious about it myself!

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