Teaching Millennials: Kate's Philosophy In Progress

I don't usually post about my job since this site is supposed to be about popular culture. However, college is, in its own way, becoming more and more of a marketed commodity, so why not!

I should start by saying that teaching is the most exhilarating thing I have ever done, and I care more about it than just about anything I do.

I will now add that teaching is also one of the most depressing things I have ever done. "It's a circus!" as they say in The Fugitive.

There's a karmic pay-off involved here. I get depressed because, as the saying goes, "I care." When students plagiarize, answer cell phones in class, try to manipulate me, argue that because they pay to go to college, they shouldn't be expected to attend class (this week's particularly depressing occurrence), I feel sad (as well as about 1,000 years old) because, well, yes, I care--however, hokey that sounds (and perhaps no job can depress you until it matters to you).

But what do I care about? This is something I started asking myself about a year ago, and I keep chipping away it. What exactly do I expect from students in the first place? I should state here that I don't know whether students today are worse behaved than in the past, whether colleges are expected to service a larger and less prepared generation than in the past, or whether what I deal with is just the way 20-years-olds are. (I think all three of these "whethers" are probably partially true.)

But here is what I believe about my role as a caring teacher.

It started over a year ago. It's the end of the semester. Four of my classes are winding down, one of which is a preparatory writing class. This class started with 20 students; due to attrition, we are down to approximately 17. Out of the 17, at least 10 come to every class, hand in their projects on time, and take every test. Out of the remaining 7, 4 have met the minimum requirements to pass the course. They have no complaints with me. I have no complaints with them.

The remaining 3 have caused me nothing but heartache. For example, one of these students has not met the minimum requirements to pass the course for (what appear to be) completely legitimate and unforeseen reasons. After conferencing with the student (and, believe it or not, being contacted by the student's parent), I extend mercy so long as the student meets certain criteria. The student does not meet the new criteria, instead writing me long, emotionally charged explanations. I extend mercy (and criteria) a second time with the warning that I will not be able to extend mercy a third time out of fairness to the other students. The student does not meet the second set of criteria. I drop the student from the course amidst much wailing and feelings of victimization.

So the Monday after dropping the student, I'm standing in class, and I think, "I'm so sick of this."

I wasn't just sick of dealing with people who don't take advantage of opportunities. I wasn't just sick of my own waffling and indecisiveness. I was sick of a single student occupying so much of my time, my energy, my caring. I looked at my 10 good students--the ones who came and did the work and handed things in on time--and I was suddenly sick and tired of those students not getting the attention they deserved.

They got as much of my attention in class as anyone else. But they didn't get it outside the classroom. Outside the classroom, I was spending more time fielding complaints and pleas from "well-I-know-I-should-be-there-here-are-all-my-reasons-why-I'm-not" students than worrying about how to connect with, for example, an extremely shy good student. My energy, my love of teaching was being squandered and siphoned off into what often amounted to a waste of time.

Colleges have become more and more competitive with each other over students, meaning that instructors like myself are pressured, more and more, to chase after the students who don't come to class, the ones who don't commit themselves, the ones who need to be cajoled, consoled, rallied, encouraged, and nannied into attending their classes and handing things in. I don't mind answering questions, but I've spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with personal life-crises as well as "here are all my reasons for not doing what I've been asked to do" issues. I've spent more time on students who want to hand things in late and students who want to be excused for being tardy and students who want to be given special privileges than on those students who come to class, hand things in, take the tests, and try to learn.

And I'm tired of it. Humans only have so much energy. I only have so much to spare. I'm tired of uncommitted or quasi-committed students getting my attention. I'm tired of good students being appreciated but peripheralized because teachers are expected to concentrate on getting the remaining students to CARE about their education in the first place. I'm tired of good students losing out not from getting A's and passing (of course they do) but from having the teacher's full attention, the teacher's thoughts out of the classroom as well as in it.

A year ago, I began revising my classroom approach so, more and more, what students get out of the classroom experience is their responsibility. I don't mean students do my work (correcting essays, creating tests, holding meetings, devising lessons plans, fulfilling administrative tasks). But more and more, I clarify my philosophy to my students: what it means for them to be there in the classroom; why I include certain expectations on my syllabus.

This approach may seem rather obvious. And to a degree, it is. Teaching, to a degree, is all about confidence. Teachers have to believe in something--some standard, some preferred quality within their students. The more I teach, the more (not less) I believe that a student decides exactly how educated/committed/focused he or she will be. Nobody can distill desire or action into another human being. Education, believe it or not, cannot be forced onto a person, no matter how well-intentioned the educators.

There's a scene from American Idol (several years back). A young man comes in. He can't sing. Simon tells him he isn't going on to the next level. The young man begins to plead, to explain how much it means to him, how much he cares about being on American Idol, how hard he has worked. Finally, in frustration, Simon snaps, "Oh, well, NOW you can sing."

Wanting a thing, I try to clarify for my students, is not the same as earning the thing.

On the other hand . . .

But then I think, "Is my attitude fair?" Perhaps, encouraging students and teaching them what education means while helping them enter adulthood is the purpose of education. I've heard fellow adjuncts talk about how a single professor's encouragement really helped them at a rough time in their lives. I've had success myself pushing a student (gently but forcefully) to finish despite problems at home and/or illness. "You'll thank me later," I tell students รก la Monk when I push them to hand things in on schedule no matter how tired or sick of school they feel.

And to be honest, a large part of my weariness is not the legitimate excuses but the expectation of entitlement, the belief that simply having the excuse is enough to make me change my standards, the course requirements, not to mention the definitions of "pass" and "on-time." Not to mention the expectation that I will accept the excuse without question. "Everybody lies," as House says to Wilson.

I feel downright warm and fuzzy when a student says to me, "I'm not going to be in class Wednesday because I'm going to stay up late to watch the baseball game" as compared to the students who tell me their grandparents died, their pets died, their sisters are getting married, etc. etc. etc. Oh, just pull those heart strings already. I recently had a student who, when I refused to say he'd met certain requirements when he didn't, told me (in order): I'm a nice person. I tried hard. This is really important to me. I only didn't do X amount of work. I live far from campus. I had to take care of an ill parent. I need this. I paid for this class. You're ruining my life. Abuse.

When I was in college, I went to class. I never asked for an extension. In four years, I called one professor once when I was throwing up all over the place. Yep, I was one of those students.

I also solved my own problems, hunted up my own answers, figured out my own grades, and thought for myself. It never occurred to me that I would go to a professor for any reason, not even to clarify an assignment (I should have; it just never occurred to me). Granted, I was living 2,000 miles away from home. But my behavior in college was not substantially different from my behavior as a senior in High School. Everything I accomplished academically was due to me reading the assignments, checking the syllabus, figuring out the answers on my own, and following through.

My students puzzle me. I try desperately to remember myself as a 20-years-old (beyond the obsessive independence which led me to move into my own apartment at age 22). "I wasn't in class last week," my students tell me, looking limp and innocent. "You had a syllabus," I say, trying not to sound like Simon. "The assignment was on the syllabus."

"I couldn't do the assignment. I don't know how to write a comparison/contrast essay," they say.

"You've got the freaking Web," I don't say. "I figured out assignments from asking other students and reading my freaking textbooks. You couldn't spend two minutes
Googling 'how to write a comparison/contrast essay?'"

I don't say it. They plagiarize enough from the Web (which makes them remarkably easy to catch). Still, where's the problem-solving? Where's the energy to figure out an assignment on one's own?

Which is when I think, Perhaps I'm right to refuse them too much pity, to refuse--no matter what the excuse--to say, "Oh, well, NOW you can sing."



a calvinist preacher said...

I've told my own children, as they now head off to college, that college is not primarily about getting an education. If all you want is an education, there's a library down the street - and it's a lot cheaper. College is about certification. You are paying for a certificate that says you've done certain work. We hope that, in the process of doing that work, you will also learn something, but that's a by-product and it's entirely up to you.

Leading - and what you're doing as a teacher is leading - means requiring that they do the work so you can honestly certify your portion of that degree they're trying to get. This is relatively easy and straight-forward.

But leading also means trying to get them to see the reason for the requirements, to encourage those led to invest themselves in the mission, to want the objective themselves - to decide to learn in the process of getting the work done. This is the hard part.

You have five basic types, then.

1. They get it, and they work at it.

2. They get it, but can't be bothered to work at it.

3. They don't get it, but in the process of doing the work, they do.

4. They don't and won't get it, but at least they'll work.

5. They don't and won't get it, and won't do the work, either.

The group one folks, you wonder why they need you. The tragic, heart-breaking students are those in the 2nd group. Maybe Simon's approach will wake them up. Group three are the ones who make a teacher's day. Group 4 one always hopes will become Group 3. Group 5, well, those are the ones you suggest might more profitably use their time doing something else.

Kate Woodbury said...

I like your groups! Very accurate!!

Looking at teaching as leadership, even role-modeling, is a great perspective. I've taken to mentioning the accreditation process for colleges/universities in my first-class-of-the-semester lecture, not so much because I think the students care (it's a rather complex, bureaucratic process) but because I want to emphasize the need to attend an accredited institution. If grades are given without merit and unfairly, the college loses its accreditation and everybody's degrees at that institution become useless. It really is a case where the needs of the many come before (and strengthen) the needs of the few.

And I've found that many students (say Groups 1, 3, and 4) appreciate a straightforward, single standard. Unfortunately, said students don't always tell me they appreciate a fair, single standard until long after the fact. I have to keep the possibility of their appreciation in mind as an abstract concept (as well as the concept of justice, however tempered by mercy).

Having said all that, I do think higher education could be seriously improved in terms of its roles and expectations. I think my students should be more prepared than they are (prepared to go directly into research, which I love, rather than still focusing on how to write paragraphs), and I think certification, in many cases, should be exchanged for apprenticeships (since most people learn on the job anyway). Still, like you say, college does prove to a future employer that the student can actually commit and stick to something.

a calvinist preacher said...

Students should be more prepared. Unfortunately, much of what is necessary to prepare them is forbidden to our high school teachers and administrators - particularly those in public schools. That means these kids have to wait until they're at college, Basic Training, or dealing with their first landlord or boss away from home to learn that Mommy can't fix everything and one needs to take responsibility for one's self. By the way, regardless of whether they learn English, if they learn that lesson you have largely succeeded.

Eugene said...

You should begin the year by having your students watch The Paper Chase (1973), and then say, "Okay, if you ever think I'm being mean, well, we can always do this the Kingsfield way. It's up to you."

Mike Cherniske said...

The Thing that boggles my mind is the lack of progress some students make in their thinking when they transition from high school to college. Many of the problems you mentioned from your college students I saw everyday when I was teaching high school. But they in High School, you know to adjust for maturity level. I also took my work seriously and got through pretty quickly, but I also had teachers who went out of their way to encourage me and work with me during the times I did struggle. Perhaps this difference is that I tried hard to earn their time and respect, and didn't expect it as a matter of principle.

That was perhaps the hardest High School thought process to overcome, when the student felt he honestly had everything coming to him and shouldn't be expected to go out of his way. It's even more outrageous when it's a college student.