I’m currently delivering a fully online version of SSC 1002: Thinking, Reasoning, Relating. It’s a General Education course intended to provide students with opportunities to enhance their critical thinking skills, and it’s brand new to me, so I’m having a lot of fun planning, designing, and delivering the course. My greatest professional joy is to teach, and it’s been really refreshing to break out of my typical English Communications deliveries and teach something new.
I kicked off Week One with some standard elements: course overview, success criteria, learner preferences survey, video introducing myself to my students. Then I took a little risk.
Instead of a traditional icebreaker, I asked my students to complete the Proust Questionnaire, a personality quiz from the 1890s that asks deeply personal questions said to reveal one’s true character. First, I summarized a bit of the history of the Questionnaire and how it’s been used in modern day contexts (Inside the Actor’s Studio, Vanity Fair, The Next Chapter). I explained to my students that in the interest of fairness, I would respond to every question, but they were only required to respond to half of the questions (10 of 20). Students would be unable to see anyone else’s responses, including mine, until they submitted their own.
So what, you ask? Well, the questions are so incredibly intimate that I fully expected several angry emails and outright refusals to respond. Which was sort of the point…
For context, here is the list of questions:
- What is your idea of perfect happiness?
- What is your greatest regret?
- What is one thing about yourself that you dislike?
- What is one thing about other people that you dislike?
- Which living person do you most admire (and why)?
- What is your greatest indulgence?
- What is your current state of mind?
- What do you consider to be the most overrated character trait?
- Under what circumstances do you lie?
- What do you most dislike about your appearance?
- Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
- What or who is the greatest love of your life?
- When and where were you happiest?
- Which talent would you most like to have?
- If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
- What do you consider your greatest achievement?
- What is your most treasured possession?
- What is your motto?
- Who are your favourite artists?
- What is your greatest fear?
The first assignment in the course asked students to reflect on their approach to the Proust Questionnaire. I asked:
- Did you consider refusing to answer the Proust Questionnaire?
- What empowered or silenced you?
- Is it important to you that your teachers demonstrate trust and vulnerability if they expect it in return?
My intention was to help make students aware of the critical thinking strategies they use everyday, and to open up a conversation about the educational system in relation to learner empowerment versus indoctrination. While those conversations definitely happened, something else did too.
We got to know each other. Our loves, regrets, fears. I saw student’s personalities in their responses, as they shared stories that brought me close to tears, and responses that made me laugh out loud. I was touched by the common themes that emerged: our love of our families, including our pets, our overarching fear of judgement. Many students were concerned about how others in the course would perceive them, but overwhelmingly opted for honesty and openness, understanding that with the risk of trust comes the reward of community.
However, some students acknowledged that their initial reaction was one of anger. One learner took a screenshot of the Questionnaire and posted it on Instagram with the caption “This survey is about to know me better than I know myself…yeah, uhm, no!”. Despite their anger, nobody refused to respond. Instead, they responded strategically, navigating my expectations without sacrificing their personal boundaries.
Every student who expressed concerns about the personal nature of the survey acknowledged the importance of my participation. Even though they couldn’t read my responses right away, knowing that I participated in full led them to participate as well. Many told me that if I hadn’t shared, they wouldn’t have either. It was a nice reminder of the importance of reciprocity and leading by example, but the fact that no single student opted out of the Questionnaire left me a bit flummoxed. I still am, and I’m reminded of a quote from bell hooks’ (1992) Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, which I’ll end with:
Education as the practice of freedom affirms healthy self-esteem in students as it promotes their capacity to be aware and live consciously. It teaches them to reflect and act in ways that further self-actualization, rather than conformity to the status quo.