Sunday, December 7, 2008

Fear for my students

I've been trying to suss out why I've been so depressed lately about teaching and about my students. (As an aside, this also explains the light blogging lately.) Like most large state universities, we have a very diverse student body in terms of preparation and ability, but the thing most of them have in common is that they've been singularly ill-served by their education up till now. One frequently encounters students who are perfectly able, but to some greater or lesser degree underprepared for college.

I'm not the kind of professor who wants to spend a lot of time grousing about teaching remedial skills, although I can't deny that it's disappointing to know that some of our students may never get to experience what I think of as the best of college education - the transformative engagement with difficult intellectual, personal, moral and ethical questions - because they're still working on things they could perfectly well have learned in high school (and in some cases, junior high). I realize that I had a particularly elite education starting in high school, but some of the problems I encounter in my writing-intensive courses center around skills I learned in my entirely ordinary rural public junior high school. IN THE SIXTH GRADE. So this is not (entirely) about the differences between an elite and a general education, except to the extent that it continues to drive home to me just how privileged the holders of elite educations are. (One of the results of my current job situation is that I can no longer read my college and grad school alumni magazines, because they send me into screaming fits of jealousy over the resources available to students there. It is unbearable to think about what I could do for my students given the same kind of resources, which I never will be.)

I believe that it is my responsibility to teach the undergraduates I have, not the imaginary students I think I ought to get. In fact it's not something I have any control over (my graduate students are a different story, and there choosing them is in fact part of my responsibility toward them); I have to begin where they are now, not where I think they ought to be, in order to be of any use to them whatever.

I teach a lot of writing-intensive courses, because my discipline is itself writing-intensive, and because, unusually for my field, I have been trained in the teaching of writing. It's the thing I have to offer, so I offer it. These courses are incredibly labor-intensive, given the need to give personalized feedback on all student writing assignments (four papers plus weekly reading responses), and the work itself may be part of what's getting me down.

There's also the effect, universal among teachers, of the fact that every batch of students has to learn the same thing for themselves. After a number of years you can end up with the feeling of "Haven't they learned it yet??" Of course, it's not the same students who've been flogging away at (for example) the problem of modernity in contemporary Chinese art year after year; it's a different bunch every year, so you have to be able to get yourself over that feeling pretty quickly. But honestly, I don't think that it's either the workload or the repetitive nature of the job that is wearing me down.

I think what's really bothering me is a sense of how little understanding some of these students have of what they read, and how little control they have over the meaning of what they say or write. I do everything I can to help them with this: my entire writing curriculum is based on techniques for giving them more control over language. It matters a little bit that they come out of my courses knowing something about the art history of China, but it matters a lot that they learn, somewhere along the way, to say what they really mean. Similarly, the fact that they miss so much of the meaning of what they read is terrifying, not because it's really important that they master the debates on Shang bronze decoration (these are in fact important debates, but only in a relatively limited context), but because it is clear that they are potentially at the mercy of people who have a better command of the language than they do (including, terrifyingly enough, myself).

As citizens, they are already responsible for understanding complex moral, political, legal, financial, religious, and other sorts of questions. How will they defend themselves from manipulation through rhetoric, an increasingly common political tool, when they seem totally unable to perceive rhetorical gestures? How will they be able to make decisions when they seem unable to evaluate the quality of the sources of information they encounter? How will they decide what to believe and what to disbelieve? It's not that I think education is the only possible key to a good life; for most of human history most people did perfectly well without it, as a good chunk of humanity still does. But whoever said that knowledge is power was right in so very many ways, and this is doubly or triply true in an information-heavy society like our own, with thousands of pages of documents, contracts, insurance forms, regulations, tax returns, ballots, mortgages and so on governing so many facets of our lives. At root, I am really afraid of leaving my students powerless in the face of this rush of information; or, perhaps more accurately, I am afraid of the limitations of my ability to empower them.


Ronald van Loon said...

I am on dangerous ground here. The problem you are having deals with perception and emotion, and a passion, also compassion that transcends the boundaries of what you are minimally obliged to do as a teacher. As such, I am hardly qualified to belittle or comment on those feelings in the first place, so I'll try to voice some of the things that come to mind.

I am not quite sure what you mean with an elite education. I have always loved your command of the English language, something I can admire but never will be able to attain, as a non-native speaker. Sure, I can hold my own in conversation, but your eloquence in being able to describe in precise detail is something I can only aspire to, but I know my limitations.

For some, maybe most of your students the English language (which I am assuming you refer to here, correct me if I am wrong) is a tool that they have not been wielding since childhood, and have not been stimulated enough to hone it through the years. I deliberately say stimulated here, rather than educated. Education only hands you the tools, proper stimulation invites you to use them and good teachers are able to do both.

You aspire to be a good teacher and go beyond the actual material. You also have a personal drive to better the world to prepare your students for some of the pitfalls out there. Your worry is that you have insufficient means to do so.

However, you also have to factor in human nature. While it may be clear to you what patterns emerge watching daily life, political factors etc., this may not be applicable to everyone. Some people are simply unable to grasp the concepts or see what to you is obvious. Others do see it, but choose to ignore it, thinking it to be beyond their limits to do anything.

You vent your frustration at others who have better resources, while I think it's not just resources, but also the proper stimulation to see that acquiring skills can actually be fun.

Far too many teachers burn out quickly, a lot of them leave the field pretty much for the reasons you also give here. Others hang in there because it is a job. Yet others recognize their limitations, personal or environmental, still give it their all.

The trick is to stay in the latter category, and to come to terms that even the slightest improvement for your students can mean literally the world to them. A big part is to recognize that while you can see that there is so much more they could achieve, for them everything you can do for them is more than they had before.

Ok, you have to throw in a minimal standard below which you consider the quality of life too poor to enjoy. But as always, it is a matter of perspective. If you can't see the mountaintop, but you can reach your personal hilltop, won't that be good enough?

Here endeth the lesson ;-)


Ronald (am I number seven?)

mindy said...

... and President Faust just announced that Harvard is now going to have an MFA program.