My Students Are Better Than Me

We have a tendency (and I mean every professor I know when I saw we) to sit around and complain about students, talking, especially, about the ways they don’t measure up to how we were when we were students.  We’ve obviously romanticized our past selves, but, even when we’re more honest about how we were, we still believe our students just can’t measure up.  Perhaps because I wasn’t that great of a student, I spend more time thinking about the ways students are better than I was, not only as a student, but as a citizen and general person.

They’re smarter.  More and more of my students come to college already having taken AP or dual enrollment classes, already having read so much more than I had when I went to college.  I hear people bemoan the high school curriculum, but it’s more a shift from a traditional canon of high school readings to a wider variety; they don’t read less than we once did, but differently.  These are students who are doing advanced math and engineering and writing and art that I and my peers just couldn’t imagine.  That doesn’t stop once they get to college, as we have students present original work at national conferences (and that work is good: I once saw one of our alumni present a paper he wrote in his Master’s program, and it was on a subject I wrote on in my doctoral program; I told him, honestly, that his work was better than mine, and he was at a lower level).

They’re more involved.  We often bemoan their lack of political knowledge, trying to catch them out by asking them who the Speaker of the House is, showing how much smarter than we are/were when they don’t know (for the record, I would never have known the Speaker of the House’s name when I was in college; it’s Paul Ryan right now, if you’ve forgotten, as I honestly had when writing this post).  However, these students, probably through the advent of social media, know so much more about what is going on in the world than I ever did at their age.  They talk about wars and unrest across the world, and they work to try to end the -isms that oppress people here in our country.

Not only are they political engaged in a way my peers and I weren’t, they also are more involved in their communities.  I hear my students talk about their weekends where they were delivering food to the elderly or working with a program like Big Pal Little Pal or finding new needs and trying to meet them.  Granted, I work at a faith-based university, so that inclination would be higher here, but I also attended a similar college, and I spent my weekends (when I wasn’t working) sleeping late, hanging out with friends, and doing whatever work for school I needed to do for the coming week.

They’re more globally conscious.  Again, a change in technology might be responsible for part of this improvement, as they simply know much more about what’s going on around the world, but they’re also more curious about peoples different than they are.  They’re more willing to take risks and travel to places where they know no one.  They want to meet people different than they are and learn as much as they can about others and the places those people come from.  They know their view of the world is limited, and they want to change that through direct experience, not just reading or watching shows/movies.

Our students have their faults, as well, and I can certainly complain about students spending too much time on their phones or other devices, watching Netflix when they should be reading or talking to each other, but I also know that they are so much better than I was at so many aspects of life.  We need to acknowledge those parts of their lives, too, not just the ones that annoy us.

Getting By On Flash Cards, or Why I Stopped Giving Exams

I met with a student over the summer, as she was having trouble making the grade she needed on her Praxis exam.  She had taken it several times already and missed by just a few points each time.  When we were talking about the test, she started talking about all of the preparation she had been doing.  Another professor had loaned her an anthology for a class she didn’t take, and she had gone through the table of contents and biographical/background information and made flash cards.  She had looked at a sample test and made flash cards of any terms/ideas she wasn’t familiar with.  She had even ordered some pre-made flash cards from ETS to see if that would help.

She was clearly working hard, but there’s a trend running through her preparation.  After she laid out all of her preparation (which also included a very well-organized notebook that laid out the different sections of the test), she said, “I’ve always gotten through school with flash cards, and they’re not working now.”  I realized then that we had failed her. Continue reading

My Real Student Learning Outcomes

Pretty much anyone involved with higher education knows about Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs).  If you teach in the public middle or high school system, you know about state standards.  In both cases, these are essentially descriptions of what students will either know or be able to do once they have finished a particular class.  They can range from something related to content knowledge (Students will be able to recite Pi to 83 places) to a particular skill (Students will be able to add two pages of meaningless writing to a ten page paper without anyone being able to tell).

It’s not difficult to make fun of SLOs, as they’re often terribly specific and, despite the assertions to the contrary, almost impossible to truly measure.  Even when we can measure them, we don’t check in with students a year after the class to see if they can still recall the content knowledge they supposedly learned.  And I’ve read enough papers from students I taught in a first-year writing class to see that, two years later, they’ve completely forgotten to use an actual thesis sentence, despite their having done so for every paper for my class (note that our SLOs don’t measure students’ ability to transfer knowledge/skills to different situations).

Thus, when I’m honest with myself and my students, I admit that I really only have two goals for my students, maybe three, depending on the class I’m teaching. Continue reading

Students as Commodities

We received a number of pieces of good news at a meeting this past week, one of which was about enrollment for the fall.  At a time when schools like ours (very tuition-driven) are struggling to recruit students, our numbers continue to increase at a small, sustainable level.  The downside of that increase is that the numbers of faculty members haven’t kept up, so some of our classes can get rather large.

We’ve made jokes about this issue over the past few weeks, talking about job security and how the lack of classroom spaces large enough to hold those classes is a good problem to have.  Beyond the pedagogical challenges we would normally think of, there’s another, greater problem that comes from the high numbers of students, especially as many of them are first-year students.

Let me tell a story from around a decade ago.  I was teaching a literature survey class that many students take during their sophomore year.  At the time, it was focused exclusively on non-majors, though we now require our English majors to take it, as well.  Earlier in the semester, I was joking with the students about what goes through my mind when students come to drop my class.  They’re often trying to be nice when they do so, and they start explaining why they need to drop the class, insisting that the problem is neither me nor the class.

I told them that I usually cut students off, as I there’s no need for them to apologize to me, in any way.  I said (and say) that I know students have lives we know nothing about and that I’m sure they have a very good reason for dropping it.  I never encourage them to stay in a course, as they have to live with the workload, if they do.  I then said, off-handedly, explaining my thought process:  “It’s one less paper for me to grade.”

Within the next week or so, a student from that class came by to see me, and she needed to drop the class.  As I was signing the paper and handing it back to her, I was saying what I normally say about how I understand they have life issues I don’t know about.  She just chuckled and said, “Yeah, it’s one less paper for you to grade, right?”  My guess is that she meant this comment as a joke, as she didn’t sound like she was attacking me, but she still clearly was showing me how that comment sounded.

When we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we often think of students in this way.  Though we hate for students not to turn in assignments, we often feel relieved when our two composition classes totaling 55 students only has 45 students who turned in their essays for us to grade.  We know 10 of those students will fail the class (or a few will turn them in late), and we might even feel guilty about our relief, but we still feel it.

At our church, we’ve been reading a book by Walter Brueggemann called Sabbath as Resistance: Saying NO to the CULTURE OF NOW.  One of the ideas he raises is that our society, with its focus on productivity, has the tendency to turn people into commodities.  Our teaching and grading loads (at least at colleges and universities like mine) often lead us to do the same to students; professors at research universities can do the same, allowing their research to drive their thought process.  We can stop seeing students as individuals and only see them as papers or exams to grade or even interruptions to whatever it is we’re working on in our office.

What’s ironic about this approach is that we professors are often the most vocal critics of administrators who make the university more corporate.  They talk about market share and overheard and retention as if they were the CEO of a company, not the leaders of an institution of higher education.  We professors, though, unthinking commodify students, turning them into a product we put out instead of seeing them as real people with honest struggles and successes.  We view them as papers to grade.

It’s difficult to see past that workload, especially in November and April.  In order to fully teach them, though, we need to see our students as more than exams and papers.  We need to try to remember what it was like when we were eighteen and nineteen years old, away from home for the first time, in wonder and awe at this thing called college, but as scared of our success as of our failures.  I’ve never made that comment again, and I hope I never get to the point where I do so again.

I’m Batman

I was listening to Fresh Air this past week, and Terry Gross was interviewing Julie Klausner, a comedian who writes and directs that show Difficult People.  I’ve never heard of the show or Klausner, but it was an interesting interview.  One question Gross asked was about when Klausner thinks it’s okay to make a joke, about how Klausner makes that decision.  Here’s Klausner’s response:

It’s tough, because I want to be a good guy. … I want to be loved by absolutely everyone, even though it’s shocking to me that I’m loved by anyone — that’s something I discuss at length with my therapist. But the truth of it is that I want to be the person that knows when it’s OK to make fun of someone because they’re more powerful than you, and that’s where I thought I was coming from, and I learned that that is not necessarily how people see it. I have no problem with the insult or the attack. I don’t want to be a bully. I want to be a vigilante, I guess.

I like that ending about being a vigilante, not a bully.  I was thinking about that with teaching as I’ve been in opening meetings as we start a new school year.  It’s especially on my mind as we talk about how we treat LGBTQ students and create safe spaces for a variety of students who don’t fit the norm where I teach.  I heard people are caring and compassionate and want to give everyone the room to find out who they are.  I also heard people who want to use what they see to be the truth to beat other people down, to be bullies, essentially.

I’ve argued rather consistently that the point of literature and teaching literature is subversion.  Literature calls into questions the dominant narratives of its time and our time, and I not only don’t resist those questions, I seek them out and encourage students to do the same.  Essentially, as a teacher, I want to be a vigilante.  I want to speak for those characters and authors and students who aren’t able, for a wide variety of reasons, to speak up for themselves.  I want to speak against the bullies.

One of my colleagues was talking about a professor he had (I think; it might have been a co-worker or a department chair, but I think it was a professor) who said, “You’re not doing your job is twenty percent of your class doesn’t think you’re a son of a bitch.”  I understand the sentiment, in that we should challenge our students, but I don’t agree with the idea that students should perceive me as a son of a bitch.  I can be challenging and supportive at the same, and I should be.  A son of a bitch makes me think of being a bully, someone who exercises his or her power simply because he or she can.

Professors should want their students to succeed, should be on their side, helping them to improve.  We should be vigilantes, going after the power and privilege that keeps students from succeeding.  When students don’t do the work or don’t have the ability to perform at the level we should expect and demand, they should not pass our classes.  That’s justice, though, as it’s simply our allowing students to receive the consequences of their actions or the realities of the world.

Bullies don’t seek justice; they seek to abuse those beneath them, to make them suffer for no good reason, not for a just reason.  They attack the powerless, not those who can defend themselves.  Every year, I take students to the Sigma Tau Delta (English honor society) convention, where students present their critical and creative works.  One year, a student had written a paper on Don DeLillo’s White Noise, using Jacques Derrida’s theories about language.  The professor moderating the session started grilling the student on his understanding of Derrida.  After a few minutes, he must have realized what he was doing and said, “I wrote on my dissertation on Derrida.  I shouldn’t expect you to have that same level of understanding.”  He was on the verge of being a bully before he realized what he was doing.  He didn’t expect the student to rise to the level of an excellent student, at first; he expected the student to be on his level, a level the student had no chance of reading at that point in his academic career.  Thankfully, he caught himself and resolved the situation in a respectful manner.

Those of us who are professors are in positions of power; we have to admit that.  The question, then, becomes whether or not we’ll use that power for good or ill.  We can be bullies and cause our students to fear us and everything we hold dear, or we can be vigilantes, fighting for our students and their learning, teaching them to push back against the power and privilege that pushes them down.  I know which one I’m choosing.

Tackling Tough Topics

The director of our Center for Teaching Excellence recently wrote a blog post about creating safe spaces.  While she definitely didn’t raise such a concern, it’s easy for me to see how someone could take her post and then decide it’s simply easier to shy away from subjects that could lead to conflict.  There’s also the ever-popular complaint that we shouldn’t have to be “politically correct” (which, for the record, has to be one of the dumbest phrases, linguistically-speaking, ever created).

Thus, the trick is how to talk about challenging issues honestly while creating safe spaces.  Here are a few ideas/approaches that work well for me (there’s also an essay on embracing tension in the August/September issue of The Teaching Professor that’s worth reading).

First, just talking about such issues helps tremendously.  When I talk to students who fall into at least one minority category, their main complaint is that they feel invisible, that no one is talking about issues that matter to them.  Whenever controversial subjects have come up in my classes or on our campus, most students respond simply by saying “I’m just glad we’re talking about this.”  As long as we avoid the issues or avoid talking about them in the complexity we deserve, we continue to propagate this invisibility our students feel. Continue reading