Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Me and Thee and Thee and Me

Okay, okay, so students suck. At least, that is the banter on the web. Azpazia has on her site probably the craziest student phone message I have heard in some time. The discussion has led to a thorough trashing of student laziness, inability to study appropriately, poor preparation, etc. She writes about how most faculty cannot relate to students because:
After all, the majority of us are total nerds who decided to stay in school forever. We either already knew what sort of work was required of us, or some of us are just plain gifted.

I don't know if I am gifted or not, but I can tell you that I can empathize with my lazy, flawed students in a way that many of my colleagues don't. I am on the same page as Melanie Mock, who wrote a recent column in the Chronicle. She argues that we need to remember who we were, back when we were lazy, flawed students.

School was easy for me until 8th grade Algebra kicked my ass. The problem, I came to realize, was not that I could not "get" math. Actually, I pick up mathematical concepts quickly. My problem was that I had never really done homework before...not the kind of homework that took time, energy, and focus. And this was a new challenge. I eventually pulled that one out, but I learned a valuable lesson.

I learned another lesson early in college, after I failed courses I hated and excelled in courses I liked. My transcript looked like a lovely field full of F-pocked landmines: A, F, A, F, A, F. After a while, I realized that if I wanted to do well, I had to apply myself even when I hated the class, the teacher, or the subject. I later learned that if I wanted to do even better, I should go to classes regularly. If I showed up AND did the homework, the results were incredible! It only took me my 5 years of undergrad to get that.

Later, I also learned how NOT to get de-registered every semester, how to actually visit someone during office hours (and how much the instructors liked it!), and how to work with other students in class to divide up readings and study together. Unfortunately, these later lessons came in grad school. So, how can I be pissed that my students, most of them between 18-22, don't know these things yet?

I did not face some of the stupid decisions, barriers, or challenges my students face. I was not a party girl, I didn't date much, and I did not join a sorority or become a "little sister " (I never did get the point of that particular brand of self-negating, 2nd-rate groupthink--at least sorority sisters have their own independent club). But I did have to battle depression, homesickness, and eventually coming out in a college setting. And my academic career was further complicated by inherited familial habits of lateness, passive-aggressive tendencies, and the worst memory one can possibly imagine. I remember how all of these things made it harder to study, to feel confident, and to succeed in and outside of the classroom.

So, when I advise students or talk to them in and outside of class, I try to help them along with some of these lessons. I tell them my own stories of failure and success and share some of the mechanisms and practices that I have found helpful. I am usually not mad or frustrated with students; I get it. I was them.

In one of my earliest classes as an instructor, my students constantly complained about how they would not do well on the quizzes, "even though they read the book." I would tell the students, after the first few weeks, to bring their books to class. I would then ask them to open to a page they had read and hold it up. We would then, together, look at the highlighting. If the page glowed, I said, they didn't understand the purpose of highlighting as a reading/studying technique. And we took about 15 minutes to share, as a class, what worked for us as students--how to get the most out of reading, what techniques were helpful in improving recall, etc. It was amazing what a difference that made. I truly believe that they do the best they can, but that our students need to learn how to study in a way that works for them.

I told a group last week that I don't want to hear one more faculty member in my field complain that, since we are not in the English department, they should not be responsible for "teaching students to write." I see helping students to write better as everyone's responsibility. What if each of us took or created teachable moments with students to address the life skills, academic skills, and other important lessons that we know because we learned them the hard way? And what if we spent our time reinforcing the life lessons when students learn them, instead of obsessing about why students have to learn them in our classes?

It doesn't mean we can't be hard-asses...It just means we feel a little less angry and more hopeful about it, as we look at those mirror-images of our own failings and hope that they are taking away some learning along with the consequences of their actions.


Anonymous said...

it's kind of strange to live in the house with a blogger. i know that "it" exists and am free to read, but "it," is also this whole other world where my 'main squeeze' now resides.

so, i didn't know there was a new entry. as a way to avoid work, i checked lesboprof to find that my sweetie must have stayed up late.

as i read, her words told what i see from here. i watch her practice patience and respect for students when i am telling her to tell them to kiss her ass. that's not to say that she does not have boundaries. and deadlines. and consequences. but it does mean that she tries to give the benefit of the doubt to the student--she expects that they are capable and even desiring to actually learn and be moved by the educational experience. she tells them so.

they often live in to and up to her flexibly high standards. and when they don't, she flunks them with the upmost respect and welcomes them back when they cycle back around.

i love this about lesboprof. she's trying to walk the walk. it's refreshing to get to see her grow into the lesbian feminist womanist academic that she said she wanted to be "when she grew up."

i don't know about the grown up part; who among us is all that grown up? i do know that i've had a front seat to her career and it's been fun to watch thus far. and i am hopeful for the next adventure, when and wherever that may take us.

...and it beats that dissertation thing hands down!

the gf

What Now? said...

I think the best thing I ever did for my teaching career is fall flat on my face my freshman year of college. I failed a class that term, which was the beginning of a couple of years of getting Cs in most classes and As in the few that I really liked -- the same pattern you had. And then over winter break of my junior year, reeling from yet another bad set of semester grades, I spent two weeks figuring out all the ways in which I was screwing up and how to solve them. And then I went back to school, implemented all of the new patterns I'd devised, and got a 3.7 or above in every semester after that.

Most of my students don't turn around their academic lives quite that quickly, but they do always perk up when I tell them that I understand, that I too faced many of the challenges they're facing. And that it's absolutely possible to fail a college class and still become a professor!

Most of the folks I knew in grad school liked to make a point of how brilliant they themselves had been as undergraduates, and so I used to keep quiet about my own (literal) failings until I realized that they were actually an asset in my relationship with my students.

Tenured Radical said...

Great post -- great response. I just handed back a batch of papers, which I gave to each student after s/he left hte midterm. As soon as I got back to my office, there was an email waiting from a student who had gotten a C, and in hte comment I had written something about maybe she hadn't doen the reading well enough.

Well, she said she had done all he reading, and had worked HARD on the paper, and was DEVASTATED, and ...well, you know. And on the one hand I thought, What a boner i pulled, and at my age. And on the other hand, I think of all the papers I have marked up meticulously, and realized when the kid came in for office hours that I spent more time marking the paper than s/he spent writing it. So leaving open that possibility had seemed -- humane somehow.

But no, as it turns out. Fortunately, I do think it is my job to teach writing, and I'm good at it, so I am prepared for office hours right after break.....


Chaser said...

I think sometimes people just need to vent, too, and they aren't really as angry as they sound when they are letting themselves go on RateMyStudents or on blogs.