Sunday, July 03, 2011

When there's not much there there

I have been teaching for more than 15 years now, and I maintain my excitement for the classroom because I love seeing students learn and grow. My teaching this summer has been a fantastic experience, with some of the best students I have ever had the privilege to teach. Perhaps this love fest is due to my love of and interest in the topics; perhaps it is because the students really want to take these courses. That said, I have seen some amazing learning in the classes, with students evidencing reflection, critical thinking, and ideas for application of their learning that you hope for in every student.

This excellent experience has made me think about the flip side: when you just don't see much growth in students. I can take the blame for this lack of development sometimes, thinking that I haven't challenged the students adequately. Yet, there are also classes where I see growth among the majority of students and then other students, usually only one or two, for whom growth and development is just not happening.

For these students, I sometimes think it is an issue of age, developmental capacity, and/or just basic smarts. The first two, age and developmental stage, don't bother me so much, because I figure that perhaps later in life the lessons we learn will kick in. Helping students see beyond their own experiences is a challenge, and sometimes we need to have more diverse experiences before it kicks in. All of us have had a class that we recall, sometime later in life, when the lessons we were learning in a distant way finally make sense. Some classes with feminist content were like that for me: before I experienced real discrimination or power dynamics in an intimate relationship, the writings about these issues didn't really resonate for me. Later, I had a number of "aha!" moments, when I recognized these critiques actually helped me to better understand my own life and the world around me.

But the third category of student is a heartbreaker. Often, these students are nice enough, but, to paraphrase Ms. Stein, there just isn't any there there. It isn't that these students lack formal education; many of my best students come from weaker schools. Nor are all of these students young or inexperienced. What I see instead is an inability to think deeply about topics, to consider how theories apply to the world, and to really reflect on complexity. Those students are just plain depressing to me as a teacher, because I know that there is little I can do to help them really grow.

That said, my feelings about these students are probably not shared by these students themselves in any way other than their frustration over receiving lower grades in my courses. (They don't do well on concept integration and critique.) They usually feel pretty good about their more average grades and their performance in class. I always go back to a great quote from the movie "Bull Durham," when Annie notes, "The world is made for people who aren't cursed with self-awareness." Perhaps being dim and uncomplicated makes life a whole lot easier.


Anonymous said...

With all due respect, I read the most recent four entries on this blog and it reads very anti-intellectual. I despise this confessional genre, where the professor identifies an educational problem, speculates on a couple causes based on a few anecdotes, randomly pauses to reflect on the implications, then concludes fatalistically--nothing can be done--and blames the students. It's self-serving (I did everything I could!), intellectually dishonest (mix a couple variables and a couple conclusions and it will sound like a reasoned argument), and intellectually lazy (you can't google ERIC?)

Fretful Porpentine said...

Dude, this is a blog. It's for personal, not scholarly writing, and if my own experiences with InsideHigherEd are anything to go by, the author probably didn't ask them to link to this entry or even know they were going to do it. If the content is not to your taste, maybe you should read something else, or start a blog of your own.

Lesboprof said...

Thanks, Fretful!

Anonymous, I am not sure what you are trying to find here, but these entries aren't a supposed to be a journal article. I write plenty of those, with citations from research in a variety of areas and databases as well as my own research. Instead, this blog is actually a space where I reflect on my own experiences in a way that (hopefully) invites others to reflect on their experiences teaching, doing research, and being in academe.

Now, if you are aggravated that I name some students as limited in their ability to think more deeply, that is a valid critique. Of course, one might suggest that such a critique be explained and supported, rather than just blasting the blog for being confessional and reflective. But, I suppose it is too late for that now. Perhaps in the future, eh?

Michael said...

I'm a student of college student development and I'd suggest that, based on the available research, many students don't have the cognitive development to perform the type of integrative thinking that it sounds like your class requires. I think for many that don't have this capacity, it can be cultivated, but our educational system (higher ed included) doesn't do much to foster it. Particularly by the time they reach college, their education has likely not helped them with this cognitive leap and the 4-6 years they'll be in college isn't much time to foster it (and most classes and instructors don't). Even if you do, it's unlikely you'll see a change within a semester (although if you have multiple semesters with a student, you may).

As for your last sentence, I'd rephrase that to say "people who follow external formulas for success are often happy and lead less complicated lives until those formulas don't work." Unfortunately, those formulas provided by family, the education system, employers, etc., do often work during these years for many students. Some research indicates that privilege inhibits development in college students. If everything is going your way because of race, gender, class, sexuality, etc., you don't need to reflect and re-formulate your life.

I firmly believe we have the opportunity to foster this development - even in singular classes - but it is likely that multiple opportunities must occur in order to impact students. However, your class could be that nth time that student x or y needed!