Late Bloomers

We had what we call our Majors Fair this past week where every department on campus has a booth (of sorts), and students come around to learn about the various majors.  Out intro. to college class requires their students to come and talk to at least two different areas, just to find out what there is, as far as majors and minors go, on campus.

While I was there, I had a conversation with two of my colleagues about students in our first-year writing class.  One of them had a student who had already declared an English major come up and talk to us, which is what provoked the conversation.  I pointed out that, oddly enough, English majors in my first-year writing classes are usually not the strongest students, a trend that has puzzled me for years.  My other colleague responded that many students are simply late bloomers, that we need to give them time to develop.

She’s right, and her comment reminded me of my own path, as no one would have expected me to end up where I am today.  I came to college after not having worked very hard in high school, and my first two years in college illustrated that lack of preparation and work ethic.  I was a mediocre student, at best, in my freshman classes, often not completing the assigned reading, though I always went to class and turned in assignments, which is the only way I was able to keep my scholarship (also, my second semester was loaded with the easiest teachers, completely by chance, so I actually made the Dean’s list without much effort).

Sophomore year, though, is where everything fell apart.  Oddly enough, the year began with our matriculation service for first-year students.  That service was where the incoming students signed their name in the official roll (for lack of a better term) and became members in our community.  The faculty wore their regalia, and we all took the service rather seriously.  I was sitting next to my roommate, one of the strongest students in our class, as the faculty members walked in.  When he saw them in their regalia, he commented, “I’m going to wear those one day.”  I might have agreed; I’m not really sure.  Regardless, I didn’t have plans nearly as clear as his.

Our Sophomore humanities core was, as one of my professors put it, “designed to weed people out,” and it came quite close to doing so with me.  When we had to turn in our major paper, I was called into a meeting with the writing professor who asked me (honestly), “What is this?”  She let me revise the paper, and I did, moving my grade all the way up to a D.  That fall semester should have caused me to lose my scholarship (which would have led to my having to leave the school and go elsewhere), but the college gave me a semester to pull my grades back up, which I did.

In fact, it was only in that spring semester that I began making any real progress as far as my education was concerned.  That summer, I switched my major to English, and I began enjoying learning and participating in the discipline.  I still struggled due to my lack of any real preparation in English, often earning Bs and Cs on papers, only hitting As (or A-minuses, which I was pleased enough with) in one or two classes.  There were only a couple of moments in my senior year where I actually felt like I was really an English major.

I don’t know what my professors thought when I asked them for letters of recommendation for graduate school, especially given that I was so clueless about the process that I applied to Duke and Emory, with the University of Tennessee as my backup school (needless to say, I didn’t get in any of them).  I assume they thought that the system would work itself out, that I wouldn’t get in to the programs and I would figure out something else to do with my life.  Maybe, though, they saw me as a late bloomer; maybe they believed that I was hitting my stride and that graduate school would be just the right place for me.

If they did believe that, they would have been right.  I ended up in just the right graduate school for me, and I thrived over the next couple of years.  Of course, I also ended up in a doctoral program where I didn’t, but I managed through it, despite never really learning how to write an academic paper on that level.  I wouldn’t learn that until I was actually teaching at the college level.  I truly was a late bloomer.

I have to remind myself of my story on a regular basis, especially when I see students in my first-year writing classes or even in a sophomore-level survey I teach.  I have no idea who will end up going to graduate school or becoming doctors or lawyers or engineers or screenwriters or whatever else they want to do.  I might not believe they have what it takes to get to that level, whether in ability or in work ethic.  I should remember that my roommate (who wanted to wear the regalia) never graduated college and I ended up teaching it, something no one would have predicted, certainly not either one of us.  We never know how our students are going to turn out, so perhaps we should treat them all as if they could achieve whatever dreams they have, pushing them to get there, supporting them along the way.

Not Hearing What Students Have to Say

Last week, I wrote about two lists that a professor had her undergraduates put together, one about what students could do to help learning, the other about what instructors could do.  One interesting result was that students wanted professors to respect them, to get to know their names and something about them.  They wanted what most of us want in this life, some sort of recognition of our humanity.

I’ve found, though a series of recent events, that we’re not very good at actually hearing our students.  That’s partly because we’re busy, juggling committee work and service and research and all of the other demands we have that go beyond the classes we teach, and it’s partly because we think we know so much more than they do that we don’t need to listen to them.  We’re the experts, after all, and we get paid to profess.

In this case, though, I’m not talking about what happens in class, but in how we go about the work of the university, whether in our departments or on a global scale.  I’ll give an example, with a certain amount of vagueness to protect the student.  I was at a book discussion about a month or so ago, and we were talking about Miroslav Volf’s book A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good.  Volf was coming to our campus, so we were having a variety of ways people could interact with his work.

Essentially, he’s arguing that Christians who live in a pluralistic world (i.e. our world) tend to react in one of two ways: 1) silence or 2) coercion.  He’s arguing that there should be a third way, a way in which Christians can enter into the public discussions without coercion.  Near the end of the discussion, I asked what I thought was an innocent question (which always gets me into trouble):  Aren’t Christian colleges by their nature coercive?  It seems one should not ask this question at a Christian college.

I don’t need to go into detail here beyond the fact that, when I was trying to clarify my point, I quoted a student email I had received the week before that (I thought) fairly clearly illustrated that this student felt coerced.  What bothered me was not that the other faculty disagreed with me, but that they didn’t hear what the student was saying.  They said that they wouldn’t take the student’s comment to mean what I was saying it meant.  Essentially, they didn’t hear what the student was saying at all, as they were too invested in defending who we are.

I have a more positive example.  A few years ago, I suggested to the department that we start an optional Senior Thesis.  We were doing the preparatory work to start it up, and I added a couple of students to the group talking about how we should structure it.  One question we had was whether it should be a one-hour course or a three-hour course.  I was leaning toward the one-hour option, as it would enable students to fit it in their schedules more easily.  A student pointed out, though, that such an approach would encourage students to think of the class as only requiring a few hours of work a week, which would easily lead to their overcommitting.  The class needed to be three hours to make it clear how much work would be involved.  We went with her suggestion, and it has helped that class be successful, while the one-hour approach seems now that it couldn’t have been anything other than a disaster.

We need to hear students when they talk to us, whether in class or out of class.  We have to hear what’s behind what they’re saying when they talk about assignments or their lives, certainly, but, most importantly, we need to respect them enough to hear what they say about our classes and our universities.  Their experiences are so different from ours, but they are the ones that matter most.  If we want to teach them, we first have to hear them.

Helping Students Learn

We talk a good deal about how we can better help students learn material or learn how to think or learn whatever it is we think is important (if you’re curious, you can see what I really try to teach here).  We spend our time going to conferences to learn about how students learn or we read articles that give us new teaching techniques (or how to apply techniques we already know in new ways) or we read books about how to better structure our classes.  You get the point.

Now, I’m not disparaging those approaches.  I do spend my time doing those things, and I write about teaching here, often mentioning ideas I’ve gleaned from those resources, so I’m clearly invested in them as ways to improve our teaching.  However, there might be another area that we often overlook when we’re trying to become better teachers.

This past week, over at the Lingua Franca blog (it’s a blog largely about language, but, as you’ll see, if you’re not familiar with it, not solely about language; their thoughts about language are worth your time, as well, by the way) at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Anne Curzan shared some quite helpful information.  She and her graduate student asked her undergraduate students to help put together two lists, one gives ten things students can do to promote good learning, the other ten things instructors can do.  The two lists are quite interesting.

First, the student list shows students who want to take responsibility for their learning; they want the opportunity to be involved in creating that learning.  It emphasizes coming to class prepared, participating, asking questions, interacting with others (not just the professor), and getting help when they need it.  For all of the talk about student entitlement, for most students, I’ve found these ideas to be true.  Students might not always know how to do these things, and they might not have the opportunity in a 100-person lecture class where they’re talked at for an hour, but I mostly find them willing to try to act according to this list, when given the chance.

Next, the professor list focuses almost exclusively on classroom environment and relationships with students; teaching techniques don’t get much of a mention (though they’re implied in numbers 8 and 9, which talk about discussion, implying that students would like to have them).  Instead, they talk about respect and getting to know students and showing that we’re human, too.  They want us to treat them like human beings and see us as the same.  As with the student list, I’ve found these ideas to be true, as well.  As I’ve spent more time in teaching and become less concerned with trying to impress students with my knowledge and more interested in hearing what they have to say, my classes tend to be much better.  Students are more engaged, which makes our class time more enjoyable for all of us.

I’m going to continue trying to find ways to improve my classes through reading articles and hearing what other professors have done, and I’ll revamp syllabi and assignments and daily activities, all in an effort to improve my classes.  More than anything, though, I’m going to try to interact with my students, to learn more about them, to get to know them as people who want to learn.  I’m looking forward to hearing what they have to say.


Survey Results

Faculty Focus (the blog run by The Teaching Professor) does an annual survey of faculty asking what our biggest day-to-day challenges are.  I was rather surprised to see the results, as I would have guessed that grading would have topped the list or that more institutional concerns would have dominated (you can see that institutional budget cuts did make the top three).  Instead, some version of student preparation made up three of the top four responses.

The first challenge was students who come to class unprepared.  This response surprised me the most, mainly because, by this point in my career, it seldom happens.  Not that it doesn’t happen in every course in almost every class meeting, but there are few unprepared students in each individual course.  I’ve built in enough ways for that not to happen that they can’t do very well in my courses if they come unprepared.

For example, in my first-year writing class, they have to do a short quiz at the beginning of class (some professors do an online quiz, which saves class time).  It’s not a challenging quiz for students who have read, and I assign readings, which are largely impossible to find online.  I also have them answer one or two questions I’ll use to guide class discussion, taking them up as soon as they walk in the door.  Both of those count for quiz/daily work grades, so missing both of them regularly will start to have a serious impact on their grade, even if they’re doing fairly well on the essays they’re writing.

I do something similar in my sophomore-level survey, though I’ve given the students more flexibility there, but also demand more thought from them.  Rather than a basic, factual quiz that I once gave, I now ask them only one question, asking them to apply an idea from the reading to something outside of the reading.  Thus, even if they’ve tried to read an online survey of the assigned reading, they tend to struggle with the quiz (one example had them look at Magritte’s Treachery of Images and read a couple of brief paragraphs about it before class; the quiz asked them to talk about how that painting compared to Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author).

I also do online posts in upper-division classes, where students have to respond to a prompt or critical article a few hours before that day’s class meeting.  These not only encourage students to do the reading ahead of time, they give me a quick snapshot of what students already understand and what they’re struggling with.  I then use them to guide discussion in class, which gives me a way to call on students without cold calling on them.

Now, I know that, in a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to think about this issue, as students would be so motivated to learn, they would read or view or write whatever we suggested to them (note that student motivation hits number four).  I could defend students a bit here by talking about how busy they are (sometimes because we ask them to do so much for their letters of recommendation or sometimes because they work a lot or have families or something along those lines) or remind professors that just because they were that type of student (though, honestly, most of us weren’t; we just like to think we were), but I’m not going to take the time to do so.  We live in a world where many students don’t have intrinsic motivation for whatever reason, so we have to find ways to give them extrinsic motivation with the hope that the intrinsic ultimately comes.

I’m generally frustrated by professors’ refusal to see the reality of the world we live in (the academic world here).  If students aren’t doing the reading or the homework, then devise a grading system that makes them do the work or do quite poorly in class.  It has always seemed that simple to me.  I know there are professors who claim that doing so will lead to poor evaluations, but the research shows that students want to be challenged, they just want those challenges to be fair and for there to be support when they struggle.

This frustration goes beyond the individual assignments, though.  I hear professors complain that students don’t take this class or that class that they believe is vital for a student’s education.  Those professors should work to adjust the curriculum to require that class, then.  They complain that students haven’t read a particular book, but then they don’t assign that book.

Essentially, we have a good deal of control over what students do or don’t do.  In the end, we can’t make them do anything, but we can make their choices have consequences in a variety of ways.  If we’re going to say we want something to happen, then we have to make it happen.  We don’t live in an ideal world, but we can make this one better.

What’s the Hurry?

Since I teach in Tennessee, I’ve heard a good deal about Tennessee Promise, the program that provides (with more restrictions than people know) free community college for students in Tennessee.  Many people have praised the program, and several have invoked it as a model for any federal program that might come out of the next president’s administration.  In our area, I’ve also seen a greater push for students’ taking dual enrollment classes rather than AP courses.  I even heard one of my colleagues talking about their child, who will enter college almost at the junior level.

While I can understand some of the benefits of such approaches, there are a couple of serious problems with them that we can’t ignore.

First, let me say that I understand the financial benefits for students and their parents.  I was lucky enough to have parents pay my way through college (after I put together a combination of scholarships, work study, and work to lower that cost rather significantly), so I left without any student loan debt.  However, by the end of my graduate school career, I ended up with more than $50,000 in loans, and I didn’t pay those off until my forties.  Thus, I can see why students and their parents would want the time students are in college (and are paying for college) to be much shorter.

However, that time is important for students to mature, not just emotionally, but also intellectually.  Rather than simply checking off boxes to complete requirements and graduate, students need to dwell in subjects for more than a year or two, to let the ideas really become part of them.  I’ve seen too many students rush through their course work, especially in the major, only to graduate with a respectable GPA and little real understanding of how the discipline works.  Conversely, I’ve watched students mature from their first year in college until their final, only truly understanding major concepts once they are finishing their senior year.

The current trend in conversations about higher education right now is to talk about competency, that students should be able to show that they can do something.  Thus, if students can write a competent paper, they move on from a beginning composition class.  I’ll skip over the fact that such an idea wouldn’t and couldn’t ever apply to the fine arts, where there’s no way to talk about competency.  Instead, I’ll make the argument that that idea also doesn’t really work in any of our classes.  We don’t want students to write competently; we want them to write excellently.  In order to do so, they need more than basic skills on how to lay out a thesis or structure their essay (as important as those are); they need to be able to think at a level that provides them something to say.

When people ask me about students’ writing, I tell them that, by and large, they don’t have major grammatical issues.  That’s true almost every semester.  My students can write mostly grammaticaly correct sentences.  Many of them can write a basic thesis statement with three points, then hammer those three points home, then restate their thesis and conclude.  They could use such an approach to give a business talk or preach a sermon or any other type of public talk, and they could do so as well as most people in the world.

What they can’t do is think at a level that goes beyond what they could do in high school.  They write in broad generalities, and they ignore evidence that contradicts their point of view instead of grappling with it.  While their writing might be competent for someone starting out in a field, their thinking isn’t.  They need time in college to develop that depth of thought, which can’t be measured by certificates and competencies.

I’m obviously arguing from a liberal arts point of view, but the more I hear about the world, the more I believe we need graduates who can do more than simply be competent.  We need people who can do more than write competent papers and put forth competent business plans and be competent nurses.  We need people who can think in creative ways, drawing on what people have created and thought over the past several thousand years to come up with something new.  And that can’t be rushed through in a couple of years.