I Get By With a Little Help

Around this time of year, I hear a number of professors begin complaining about their students and their excuses as major projects coming due.  I have to admit that I sometimes share in these complaints, as it seems as if students have not planned well and have procrastinated, which leads to their not having assignments finished on time.  Some professors pride themselves on being “tough,” but what they mean by that is inflexible.  They stick to their rules, no matter if the rules make sense in a situation or not.  They also refer to themselves as “fair,” as they argue that they apply the rules equally.  My least favorite is when they talk about “teaching the students a lesson” (it seems that phrase is an obsession of mine, as I’ve written about it here and here already).

I used to talk about how hard I worked to get where I am today, and, more importantly, about how I never asked a professor for a deadline extension, turned in an assignment late, nor pulled an all-nighter, all of which is true.  As is rather obvious, my comments were intended to convey to students that I, who worked 35-45 hours a week, managed my workload perfectly well, so they should be able to do the same (by the way, we don’t really know what’s going on in our students’ lives, as I wrote about last year).

However, when I think about my college career, I can point to three rather important events where faculty or staff helped me in a significant way, one of which probably made a difference in the course of my life.  Without these two people, my path would certainly have been more difficult.

The first two happened in or around the same semester: the fall of my sophomore year.  I’ve long since decided that the second or third semester of students’ careers are the most challenging, not because of the workload, necessarily, but because of an adjustment in attitude.  Most students come to college with some sort of healthy fear that it will be more challenging than what they experienced in high school.  Thus, they are much more dedicated to their classes in their first semester or year.  Once they get to the second semester or year, though, they believe they’ve got college figured out, and they often stumble.  I’ve seen it happen to many students, and it certainly happened to me.

I had an easy second semester, even landing on the Dean’s list for the only time in my college career.  My first semester of my sophomore year, though, ended with my having earned a 2.5, bringing my total GPA down to a 2.975.  One of the problems was a Humanities class I had that semester.  The professor was challenging, but, more importantly, the writing part of that class (which was separate, but connected–too long of an explanation to go into here, so just roll with it) hammered me.

I turned in a research paper on W.E.B. DuBois only to get a note telling me to come to the writing professor’s office.  At that time, the MLA was moving from the old footnote style to the in-text citation we still use.  Our professors were kind enough to allow us to use either system.  I chose the footnotes, not because I knew it better, but because I thought it would make my paper appear longer (this should tell you that the paper wasn’t going well).  When I went to her office, she handed me the paper and asked, “Kevin, what is this?”  I responded, as many students before and after me have, “I don’t know.”  She let me revise the paper, and I did, bringing my grade up to a D.

Also at the end of that semester, my car insurance was up for renewal, and I needed the Good Student Discount to make it much cheaper.  The problem was that I needed a 3.0 in order to receive that discount.  I went to see the Registrar, and I explained my situation, even pointing out that my overall GPA was 2.975.  She pointed out in return that that wasn’t a 3.0, and, more importantly, they went by the most recent semester.  And then she signed the form, saying simply, “I’m sure you’ll pull it back up next semester” (for the record, I still didn’t hit a 3.0 the next semester, but I did get a 2.95, so I was at least on the way back up).

The most important moment comes from a scholarship that enabled me to attend college at all.  I don’t know who made this decision, so I really have no idea who to thank, but this decision is the one that might have changed my life.  I took the ACT three times and the SAT once in order to get this scholarship.  I was one point away (on the ACT) from moving from a 10% off tuition scholarship to one that would give me 25% off.  I finally got there, and I’m not sure I would have been able to even attend if I wouldn’t have gotten it.  I was required to carry a 2.9 every semester, and I clearly had just missed that.  I wasn’t the most attentive student, if that’s not obvious yet, so I didn’t think about the effects of losing that scholarship.  I do know that I received a letter notifying me that I had not kept that GPA, but that the college would give me one semester to pull it back up.

I obviously did, and I was able to finish the rest of my time there with every semester my junior and senior years hitting above the 3.0 mark (even coming .01 away from the Dean’s list in the spring of my junior year).  More importantly, I encountered the professor who changed my major and my life the second semester of my sophomore year.  Without that scholarship, I would have had to switch schools, and I never would have taken his class.  I don’t know what would have happened, of course, but I do know what did happen, and I’m grateful someone somewhere gave me grace.

Last, along the same lines, I received a scholarship at the end of my sophomore year for Bible majors.  It was $1000, and I received the news while sitting in what we called honors chapel.  Over the summer, though, I changed my major from Bible to English (after that class that spring semester).  I hadn’t even thought about what that would do to the scholarship.  When I came back to campus that fall, the professor in charge of scholarships (also the writing professor, I should note) told me that I had lost the $1000 scholarship because of my change of major, but she found an $800 scholarship for general majors.  She didn’t have to do that for me, but she did.

That scholarship wouldn’t have changed my life, certainly, but it saved my parents $1600, and they certainly could use that money.  It was people like her making decisions like this one that helped me through college.  I chose to attend a private college instead of the state university that would have been free (or almost free), and that decision changed who I am in so many ways.  I couldn’t have done so without the help I received along the way.

It’s a hard decision we professors have to make when students come to us (or even when they don’t) as to whether to give some sort of grace or not.  There have been times I haven’t done so for a wide variety of reasons.  I hope, though, that when I make those decisions, I can at least honestly admit where I came from and who helped me along the way.

Questions I’m Asked I Don’t Know Answers To

Now that I’ve been teaching for more than a decade, I get asked questions about pedagogy or the profession on a fairly regular basis.  For most of these questions, I’ve either developed an answer over the years or I can at least talk reasonably intelligently about them (I think).  However, there are a few that I get asked on a regular basis, by either professors or students, that I just can’t answer.  I thought I’d throw a few of those out this week, along with my thoughts on them.  If you have some good answers, let me know.

How do you generate/create class discussion?

I get asked about this by both professors and students who are planning to become teachers.  My classes center around discussion, and it often goes well.  Of course, being who I am, I’m never (well, maybe seldom) satisfied with the amount of discussion in my classes.  I always want more.  Whenever it does goes really well, though (and that’s happened more often in the past couple of semesters), I’m as surprised as anyone.  I honestly cannot think of anything I have done differently on those days.

My honest answer when people ask me this question is, “I don’t know.  I just ask questions, and they seem to talk.”

I can say that one thing that should exist for good class discussion is a trust between students and the professor (trust between the students also helps considerably, but I’m not sure professors have much control over that).  If students think I’m asking them questions to try to trick them or I’m just waiting to show them as stupid or I already know exactly what they should say, they are much less likely to talk.  If, however, I ask questions that will help promote/provoke discussion (even if I know where I’d like us to go), and they believe I honestly want to hear what they have to say, then they’re more likely to talk.

How do we get students to make better claims/arguments in their papers?

Perhaps I asked myself this question over the past couple of weeks, as I was meeting with students about their papers, then grading those papers.  It’s clear, then, that I don’t have any answer to this question.

The only thing I can say is that we need to have students work on their writing at every level in the major.  Too often, we assume that English majors just learn to write by taking English classes, even if we’re not intentionally teaching them how to write better.  Then, when students can’t write as well as we would like when they graduate, we blame the students (the same is true for all majors where there are skills that need to progress, of course).

Instead, we should give students repeated chances to write as they move up in their career in the major.  We should give them model papers and talk about what makes that paper so good (or papers that aren’t strong and talk about why).  Essentially, we should talk about writing with them, so they have chances to improve.  The papers I graded did end up better than when I first saw them, and I’ll see many of those students again before they graduate, so I’ll see if they learned anything along the way.

Why do professors who clearly don’t like students become professors/remain in the profession?

I get some variation of this almost every semester from students who encounter professors who clearly don’t want to deal with them (there’s another version of this question below).  I can’t imagine why someone would want to be a professor if he or she didn’t like students.  It’s probably not for the money, as most people could make more in the private sector.  It’s probably not for any kind of fame or glory, though it is easier to become known in a small corner of the academic world than in the private sector.

I only have two thoughts as to why/how this happens.  First, at some point, that person did like students, but something has happened over the years to change that.  Perhaps he has become burned out, as teaching is definitely a stressful job.  Perhaps she has had a number of negative experiences with students and wants to simply avoid caring about them now.  We don’t know people’s histories and the effects they can have.  Often, people can’t think of anything else they could do, given their skill set, so they remain in the profession, hoping for an early retirement.

The other reason is more cynical, but I’ve heard it too many times not to believe it of some people.  I have heard a number of professors say that they went into the field or stay in it because of the schedule.  When I was in graduate school, a friend of mine (who never finished, by the way) said that he wanted to be a professor, so he could skip out early or go in late whenever he wanted.  When I was first hired as a high school teacher, a colleague (who was quite a good teacher, by the way), asked, “What are the three best things about being a high school teacher?  June, July, and August.”

I enjoy my summers as much as anyone, but that’s not anywhere near the top of my list on why I became a professor.  I give up enough nights and weekends with grading and preparation (not to mention the events that take place on campus during that time) to trade out for my summers.  In fact, I worked as a high school librarian for a couple of years, and I had much more time then, even though I had a month less time off in the summer.

Why don’t professors want to help students?

I hear this question from students (and some professors) on a regular basis.  In fact, I saw it just this past week on a forum on The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s website (look at the second question).  This one just puzzles me, though it’s related to the question above.

I’ll give my most generous thoughts first.  Some professors believe that students need to learn how to function on their own, so they don’t do things that they say as holding students’ hands.  They argue that students won’t get that kind of help in the real world, so they shouldn’t get it in college.  It’s tough love, I suppose.

Along those lines, some professors judge their success by how difficult their classes are, which often means how low their grades are.  I’ve been trying to think of an analogy for this approach, and I just can’t come up with one I really like, but I’ll try.  This approach sounds like a coach who defines success as a season where her team doesn’t win a single game.  It sounds like an executive whose company loses every contract it goes after.  These situations make no sense, so I don’t understand why a professor defines success as having a class where few students do excellent work (i.e. make As).

Granted, there will always be students who can’t perform at that level.  But my job is to try to help students get to that level.  My job is to encourage students to attain that level, to provide them the opportunities to improve to that level.  The ideal class would be one where every student does earn an A because he or she is doing excellent work.  I have had classes where a large portion of the class made an A.  Those were great classes.  All (or almost all) of the students were doing everything I asked of them–completing all (or almost all) of the reading, writing draft after draft of their papers, contributing to class discussion–and I could see real improvement over the course of the semester.

If students want to improve, and many of them do, I should be there to help them do so.  The forum question comes from a place I don’t understand, as I would look at any student’s paper before they turn it in if it would help him or her write a better paper in the long run.  Again, not doing so sounds like a coach who turns down a basketball player who wants to stay after practice to work on his shot.  We would think that coach should be fired.

Perhaps underlying all these questions is one my wife and I often talk about.  We hear teachers or professors talk about not doing something because it’s hard or doing something because it is easy.  Teaching is hard, when it’s done well.  Most professions are, actually.  I don’t know where it comes from, but we have this idea that work isn’t supposed to be difficult, even when we love it.  We all need to balance our lives and make sure we are not burning out, but we also need to step up and do the work required to be excellent professors.  If we want our students to be excellent, then we need to work towards that goal, as well.

Different Kinds of Student Success

In the past week or so, we’ve gotten several pieces of good news about current and very recent students, all of which relate to graduate school.  We have celebrated this news, of course, congratulating the students via email, in person, and, more importantly, in front of other students (don’t worry; it’s not like we’ve been bringing them in front of the class or anything, but we sometimes received the news from the student in front of her friends).  This is as it should be, as we should congratulate those students and celebrate with them.

However, I’ve also talked to some other recent graduates in the past month or so, and they are all doing interesting things, as well, but most of them do not relate to graduate school.  We typically don’t celebrate those students, or at least not in the same way.  We don’t make lists of what they do to hand out to prospective students or bring them up at department meetings.  I can’t imagine a meeting where we say, for example, “I talked to Jane–you all remember her, right–last week, and she just got a great job at an insurance agency.  That was great to hear.  She’s going to do so well in that line of work.”  And I certainly can’t imagine someone saying, “I heard from Joe the other day, and he’s moving up the management chain at Target.  I’ve never seen him happier.  We should all be so proud of him.”

Those of us who teach in the Humanities tend to have this type of tunnel vision when it comes to what we consider student success.  Essentially, they need to follow our path (if they don’t go into teaching) in order to be successful.  If they take a non-academic path, we tend to view them as settling for something instead of using the gifts and talents we see in them, as if there is only one outlet for those talents.

What’s interesting to me is that, if we think about it, most people we went to college, probably even graduate school, did not choose the path we did. Out of all the English majors I knew when I was an undergraduate, only two went on to pursue graduate school in English.  Out of my Master’s program, only one person besides me ultimately earned the doctorate and is now teaching college (he was one of the two from my undergraduate, by the way).  I don’t know where people from my doctoral program ended up, unfortunately, but I don’t remember any of them talking about getting a teaching job.  In fact, the ones I knew the best never finished, deciding to do other things (most professors wouldn’t consider them successful, of course).

I had friends who went on to become lawyers, to write for a newspaper, to go into administration in Higher Education, to own a pottery shop, to focus on raising children, to switch fields completely, and on and on.  As far as I know, they all seem quite content with their lives.  Whenever I have asked them if they miss English or wish they would have taken the route I did, they assure me that that is not the case.  Just because that was my path doesn’t mean it’s everyone’s path.

What worries me is that we don’t clearly convey this message to students.  Instead, if they show any significant talent, we push them toward graduate school, as if they cannot use that talent in a wide variety of ways.  Because we only know the one path (most of us were good in school and went fairly directly into our careers), we only encourage them on the one path.  I’ve done some research on our alumni (the first article was published by The CEA Forum and isn’t online, but you can find it at my Academia page, while the second is at Teaching College Literature), and I’ve found that few of them go to graduate school.  Those students should be celebrated, as well.

There are many different paths to success or contentment or happiness or whatever we want to call it that can come from a major in the Humanities.  In addition to teaching my students to think in the way that our discipline does, I want my students to enjoy reading and writing so much that they will keep doing it all of their days, no matter where life takes them after they graduate.  That’s a kind of success I can get behind, no matter what jobs they’re pursuing.