Friday, October 3, 2008


This week there's been a lot of talk around my office, from many sources, about the character of students. Specifically about their general desire to get something for nothing, sabotage as much of the authority structure as they can, and inability to be motivated by anything other than threats.

Such talk is not unusual. It's endemic in academia. Wherever two or three university employees are gathered together, yea, the image of the lazy, malicious, stupid student is there in the midst of them -- the object of complaints and the occasion for nostalgia about the golden age when students loved learning and Wikipedia had not yet been invented.

I know that I'm privileged to work with a class of student far brighter and more motivated than the general campus population. But even among people in my department, there is often an assumption that our students are trying to get away with as much as possible -- that all one can hope for is the occasional gem among the shuffling, plotting masses.

Even though I know it's often just a reflex among academic personnel to talk about students this way, it still gets me down. I'm wearied by the us vs. them assumptions built into it -- that we're in an arms race, with faculty and staff trying to stay one step ahead of students with an endless bag of learning-avoidance tricks; that the best we can hope for is to curtail their range of ignorance and sloth.

It's not that I'm a cockeyed optimist. It's that little of this talk has much relation to the experiences I have with students day in and day out. When I first starting teaching, my idea of a syllabus was to lay out readings and assignments I expected students to do, with penalties for non-compliance. My syllabi were dares: I put up a to-do list and waited to see who would defy it. And sure enough, most of the students wouldn't come through, and I'd blame it on their character.

But the real problem was the roles in which I placed them and myself. I was the agenda-setter; they were the dutiful followers. I thought that inviting them to take part in the design of the class meant putting a sentence in the syllabus asking for their suggestions, or having a blank day every three weeks where I asked for volunteers to lead class. Those aren't structures for student empowerment; they're a vacuum that I was asking them to fill.

Real structures that elicit student engagement and involvement aren't just spaces bereft of the instructor's agenda. They're carefully-constructed partnerships in which the students' contributions are systematically received and valued. An instructor values student contributions with her time. She takes the time to read, respond, and integrate student work into class -- not just a few times a semester, but every single class day. It has to be built into the structure of the class, as regular an occurrence as the class meeting itself. When student work rather than instructor knowledge is integral to the course -- by design, not by default -- most students do the reading, do the work, come prepared, and feel a part of what's going on. It can't be what we ask them to do; it's what we show them by our actions and our class structure that we need, value, and utilize.

Late today, after a very long, bewildering stint in the office watching power plays and cynicism and wary circling around each other, I went to a Soapbox. Soapboxes occur whenever a student has something to say to his peers. We provide a forum for the presentation, advertise it, serve snacks, set up chairs, and make A/V equipment available. Presenting a soapbox and attending a soapbox are both completely voluntary. It's not a requirement -- it's an opportunity. And it's an opportunity that we've shown students that we care about by spending administrative time and energy facilitating and promoting them.

They take place on Friday afternoons at 3 pm. How many students do you think would want to do a presentation at that time if they didn't have to? How many students do you think would attend if they didn't have to?

Answer #1: There are more Soapboxes scheduled this semester than there are Friday afternoons to hold them. A few have spilled over into weekday evenings.

Answer #2: This afternoon 30-40 students filled their residence hall lobby to hear a freshman -- someone who's only been a college student for a month and a half -- give a presentation on the fine art of thrift-store recycling.

Why? Because this is their time. They show up to support each other, to learn, to take the reins of their education. We provide the structure that makes it possible; they provide the content. And they do it not because they have to, but because they want to share what they have of value with each other.

When academics treat students as if they have something of value to share, whaddya know? Turns out they do. If we never expect anything of students but defacement of our own cherished values, well, it's not surprising that that's all we ever get. Just as a monument put up by the guardians of high culture invites graffiti, because onlookers resent being simply passive recipients of the messages of the elite, so a course that doesn't value student contributions in deed as well as in word stimulates mostly avoidance or revolt.


Stephanie said...

I'm with you Donna. Sure, students as a population are human and humans vary in their commitment and motivation. But as a whole, fifteen plus years into this enterprise called teaching writing (and writing itself), I still feel very privileged to do what I do, that is, work with college students. I wouldn't have it any other way. Occasionally I'm asked "what other job I could see myself doing." And the truth is, though there are other jobs I could "see" myself in (magazine editor, children's librarian) the gulf between the fulfillment I would feel in thsoe careers vs. the fulfillment I feel in my chosen career is almost too large to comprehend. Day to day, the fact that I have my dream job--regardless of the fact that I do it in an imperfect world-- is rarely far from my mind.

the secret knitter said...

This is as good a time as any for me to say thanks for your perspective on this issue. Your thoughts have helped me adapt in how I deal with students, and the results have been generally positive.