The Vision Quest Composition Pedagogy

The vision quest is the primary model of composition that undergraduate students use.

A vision quest, roughly defined is a ceremony involving sleep deprivation, possible chemical enhancement of the body, and an appeal to the universe to reveal a good word, a path, a mission or purpose to the participant. This is a ritual primarily done by men in Native American societies, now co-opted by spiritualist movements and the like meant to reveal some deeper truth about things. Not sure if the students like the first or second iteration of the vision quest better.

Here’s how it goes: The student lets anxiety build up until 1 or 2 days before the paper is due. They work on working on it by sleep depriving themselves, ingesting alcohol or coffee, altering their diet in weird ways, and socially isolating themselves either in the library or in their room. They wait for inspiration to strike from beyond, and in a furious matter of hours, they type out the vision they have received. They hand it in, and they hope for the best.

The vision quest pedagogy reveals some assumptions students have about education and composition. First, education is a test of the quality of your ontic being. That is, the paper is designed to see if you are a good person inside. The paper is an expression of the fiber of your being, erupting from a moment where you are no longer body and mind, but a unified whole, and this expresses who you are. What is being graded is being.

Secondly, good words do not come from other good words. This is the struggle of citation, research, quotation and all that. Students believe that the good words come from on high, from the beyond, from somewhere other than the prime material plane, as we call it in Dungeons & Dragons. Reading a lot of other peoples’ thoughts and incorporating them into a paper in conversation seems wildly inappropriate. Whenever I suggest broad external reading on a topic, I get quizzical stares from the students, and a lot of push back. It’s not that they question the value, they question the possibility of value from reading a number of external sources on something they are going to write or speak about. Professors might read this as inability, stupidity, or those gosh darn millennials again ruining things. But under the vision quest model, the read is quite insidious. The students might interpret any request from a professor to go read other things and incorporate them as an attack on their ability to produce quality content. Instead of laziness, the students feel they are barely up to the task of the vision quest, and when the professor confirms this by saying, “go incorporate other sources into your work,” they feel upset. They feel the professor believes they are inherently unable to engage in the vision quest to reveal their good qualities.

Finally, the vision quest reveals an understanding that education is little more than a hazing ritual, a requirement to enter proper society. If you can magically hit the nail on the head, you get the grade, and you are allowed to proceed to the next class or level (read: escape room). Students do not see their course work connected in a meaningful way, nor do they see the courses connected to the regular activities of daily life. Reading commentary on global events and incorporating it into a conversation on another topic seems like a very good practice to encourage students to do, however, the students will see it as a call to express their internal qualities, not their ability to assemble and present information and opinion to others. The thing that is being evaluated is their commitment to the rituals that express their internal value.

How do we handle this situation as teachers?

The vision quest can be interrupted by possibly not grading the final paper, or making it a small percentage of the total assignment, which would be a number of steps itself. Replacing the vision quest with your own quest model might do the trick.

Another thing I have been thinking about is the replacement of the typical audiences with other audiences. There are ways to assign students to speak “as if” they were speaking or writing to this other audience. But today technology makes this much easier. A YouTube speech or a essay might do the trick on getting exposure to that broader audience out there in the world. This does run the risk of the students getting some pretty harsh comments from audiences, however, this too will dispel the notion that their soul is being evaluated or judged by the professor, the one who is supposed to know things. The disparity between the troll comment on YouTube and the work, attitude, and reaction of peers to the speech will create some dissonance that could reveal to the student the difference between speaking one’s identity to others and being a human being.

The final, and most difficult way to handle the vision quest pedagogy is convincing faculty that they are not solely responsible for students’ quality of life outside of the classroom. Professors who are well meaning will often conflate discipline with education, thinking they are doing a favor for the students by participating in their liberation by teaching them writing and speaking methods that will be applicable throughout their “career,” whatever that might mean. Instead, using writing and speaking as a way to demonstrate and give a taste to students as to what intellectuals do starts to disrupt the internal-quality assumptions made by the vision quest paradigm. Instead, students start to see intelligence, intellectualism, and being smart as a practice that consists of a number of regular actions performed in and with society. This should be the express goal of the university, which is currently addicted to career preparation rhetoric in a world where careers are no longer extant. Transformation from the bottom up, in the core classes, give students a taste for education in higher level courses and postgraduate work where they will demand exposure and time for practices rather than the vision quest assignment, meant to reveal their quality and nature in one anxiety-coated gesture, hammered out on a screen in the middle of the night.