Wednesday, April 11, 2007

it was an innocent chat over dinner, I swear!

You have one measly dinner with a prof friend and all hell breaks loose.

Ok, so it wasn't "all hell" and nothing really "broke loose" but our little chat sure did bring out the comment-leavers over at Janet's place...and then traffic came over here and found that I am neither a philosopher nor do I have anything particular to say. This is what happens when you juggle a gajillion things—you have the dinner conversation, the office hours conversation (I think my office-mate was a little shocked yesterday when Janet came down the hall and we discussed things so vehemently with no real prompting to do so), and then...*poof* don't hold up your end of the bargin on the blog.

I should also note that one of my very best students reads my blog, and she is welcome to weigh in on these issues as well, as an 18-year-old freshmen who exhibits far more maturity and responsibility in her school-related outlook than her classmates do. I would not be surprised if she says "it's really not that difficult...I don't know what their problem is...all you have to do is try just a little bit and use your brain occasionally." Or I could be completely wrong. She can answer for herself if she so chooses!


So here are the clarifications I have/final things I have to say:

* This issue isn't new, it's not unique to our school, and we aren't particularly looking to "solve" the problem, although it would be nice to start thinking about how to better frame things if that will help at all. The way I figure it, I have twenty or thirty more years to do this teaching thing (if I'm lucky).

* I really don't care if students miss a reasonable amount of class. In fact, I don't even care if they miss a lot of class, as long as they tell me ahead of time when possible and/or take responsibility for their actions. It's the whole "oh, did I miss something important?" mentality—en masse. When one person says "what did we do?" or "was it important?" you can chalk it up to dumbassery. "Well, like we've done every day this semester, we discussed what was listed on the syllabus to discuss, and yes, clearly I felt it was important otherwise we wouldn't have discussed it." But when five or ten (out of 25) do it all the time, and it happens in other classes of the same type (there are 42 sections of this course this semester; it's one of two university-wide required courses), you start to think it's a Student Problem.

* I'm not sure if the issue is understanding the responsibilities of being a student, or if it's a lack of understanding that actions have consequences, or if it's an inherent lack of trust in the teacher. I wouldn't be surprised if it's a little bit of all three.

For instance, there are bad and/or overworked teachers out there (in all fields) and in high school. Especially in the types of schools our students typically come from, more often than not the students skated through school doing minimal work with little consequence, and their teachers never noticed them. They get to college and expect the same. What they don't expect are teachers who remember their names, care about their success, and hate to see them throw away time and money by being childish/immature/irresponsible either out of fear or confusion or both (or something else). Then, perhaps, the students get to college and they run into a teacher who doesn't stick to the syllabus, changes the requirements, generally treats them like a bother, and so on and so forth. The student gets mixed messages and retreats back into the whole "I don't care, talk to the hand, I'm going to do what I want, damn you all" mentality. Makes sense. I've done it myself.

But what's most troubling is the inability to be flexible—realize that not all teachers are the same, just as we understand that not all students are the same. I don't treat Student A like Student B or Student C, because I took a moment to figure out what works with Student A and not with Student B, etc. Therefore, students, don't assume that because you had a crappy teacher once or spent four years not doing any work that you can do that with all teachers or that it's a good idea.

* A lot of learning how to be a student is about how to work the system, it's true. Your 400-person lecture class doesn't take attendance and you can get by through reading the book and taking the sinfully easy multiple choice test? Do it. But if your class is a 25-person practical skills/discussion/thinking/participating class and 25% of your grade is based on work done in class? Don't skip 15/30 classes and expect to pass—not because you failed to do half the work to get that 25%, but because all the other work on the class hinges on the work done in class.

* Teachers won't infantilize you if you don't give them a reason to! I don't give "reading quizzes" just for the sake of ensuring that people have done the reading. Instead, I do a daily writing/thinking assignment so they can practice what they've learned in the last class or in the reading, which is used to spur on their brains for discussion that day, which is also used to build on the next skill they'll encounter. I tell them at the beginning of the semester that we'll do a lot of the work in class, and why, and so on. The trade off for reading a small amount is that they come to class and do the bulk of the work there. It's meant as a reward, but then half the class doesn't do anything, and we can't have a discussion and I end up lecturing at them (not good). Class goes by a lot quicker and is much more fun if there's discussion and interaction, and that can only happen if students show up prepared for class. When 5 out of 25 do the reading, there's no point.

* It sucks to have to gear a class toward the 70% who are slackers and childish, rather than the 30% who are prepared and want to learn. It ends up punishing the good students, which is unfortunate. The flip side is leaving the 70% to flounder around on their own, and I don't think that's good teachership either.

What ticks me off the most are these things:
* "you didn't tell us [xyz] was due on [abc]" yes, I did. and it's in the syllabus, for which you are responsible.

* "why do I keep getting the same things marked on my papers over and over?" because you didn't ask me to explain them further in office hours or take advantage of the handouts on the topic that I printed out and stapled to your essay or come to my office hours when I wrote "please see me" on your paper, etc.

* "here's my essay" it's three weeks late "yeah." the syllabus says I won't accept them after two weeks. "but I'm different/special/unique" no, you're not

* "I write just fine. I will not get anything out of this class." guess you're happy with those B-minus grades. If you listened to me just once, you'd do a lot better.

* "tell me what I should think" oh HELL no.

* the worst thing, and the thing that started this discussion with Janet, is the number of A-level writers who just don't show up, who turn their essays in late and lose 20-40 points because of it, or toss themselves around during class saying things like "this is hard," or "why do we have to write so much," or "we have to read AGAIN?" Seriously. Could you be a little more irresponsible/childish/openly defiant? Are you in elementary school?

What doesn't bother me includes:

* trying and failing

* failing and recovering

* making reasonable and informed choices

* taking responsibility

So, Janet leaves us with these questions:
1. What are our students' interests and values? How are these connected to what they want to get out of a college education (or, for that matter, to whether they've even thought about what they want to get out of a college education)?
2. In the short term, what's the best way to frame our arguments that class attendance and otherwise engaging with the course material would be beneficial to our students in pursuing their interests?
3. In the long term, what's the best way to help students develop a broader and deeper understanding of their own interests and values, and of the role a college education might play in furthering them?

Recall that our goal here is successful communication, not mind-control. How do we achieve it?
It's true, mind-control would be a hell of a lot easier. Also, purpose-defeating.