This phrase, “relaxed precision,” represents a conundrum, as I consider the classroom environments and the messages they send. In response to this February’s course survey, many students reported liking group work; they especially enjoy the open feeling in our discussions. Not only do they enjoy the free atmosphere that encourages honest exchanges, which represents one sense of the word “open,” but they also seem to thrive in the open-ended nature of our discussions. In describing the environment as open, they frequently use the term “relaxed.” This quality seems a close cousin of freedom and honesty. I think this family has other cousins, too, but these stick out in my memory.
Sometimes I have the impression that a relaxed environment hampers or hobbles the need to be precise. I often find myself asking follow-up questions, in order to clarify what someone has said. When small groups discuss an assigned topic, or try to solve an interpretive problem in Hamlet, for example, I overhear classmates asking clarifying questions of each other. Even so, I sometimes wonder about the dark side of the “relaxed” environment.
In the course survey, some students expressed, either directly or indirectly, a preference for “solving problems.” Mathematical and scientific problems come most immediately to mind. Some of these problems tend to be discrete and concrete, whereas some of the issues discussed in our open English environment appear to be open-ended. Instead of addressing questions like “Who was the last non-European Pope?” or “What is the Higgs Boson?” we tend to address queries like “Who will be the first female Pope?” or “Who is Hamlet’s beast?”
I wrestle with the conundrum of “relaxed precision” because I believe English class, while occurring in a “relaxed atmosphere,” can address specific problems. For example, in Hamlet, does Gertrude know that her second husband murdered her first? Does the text answer this question definitively? How do you know, or not know? Or for another example, less tied to a particular piece of literature and more connected to the challenges of written expression–which, by the way, I do not see as reserved solely for English classes–how many different meanings exist for the vague verb, “get”? What happens, when you split that word into smaller semantic particles with the power of your analytical accelerator mind?
The reading of literature does, I believe, involve specific problems worth solving. I value honest exchanges, and if a relaxed atmosphere encourages such conversations, I am glad to know that. At the same time, I wonder about the relative costs and benefits of such an environment, while also ruminating over the relationships among “relaxed,” “comfortable,” “vigorous,” “rigorous,” “engaging” and “enlightening.”