Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Rant: stop kicking my students around

my usual post-course tristesse was derailed by two distressing media stories: from msnbc, the claim that university students are less prepared than they used to be, and from the globe and mail, margaret wente's alarmism about how much university costs. put this together with heather mallick's recent column, "time to shrink the university,"and you have the makings of -- well, sit back and get comfy, 'cause i feel a rant coming on.

let's start with the first one: students have inferior writing and numeric skills, say ontario professors. moreover, they're immature, they rely too heavily on the internet, and they believe they are entitled to good grades with minimal effort.

this latest hand-wringing variation on the "kids today" lament has about as much originality as a britney spears cover. (britney spears, if you didn't catch the reference, is a pop star.) such facile idiocy is unbecoming in people with advanced degrees -- "colleagues," i'm ashamed to admit -- though one also has to wonder how the questions were put to them.

take the complaint about writing. bullshit! the students i teach are prolific texters. while this means they don't necessarily know the ins and outs of the formal essay, they certainly understand that different mediums carry their own conventions. they tend to be brilliant with repartee and they understand the value of brevity. true, they don't read a newspaper, but in cruising multiple news sources online, they have learned how to synthesize different perspectives on a single topic. this, i presume, is part of their "over-reliance" on the internet (a series of tubes, right?) -- as opposed to what, i wonder: the olden days when students would go to the library to identify a poetic allusion? right.

i'm going to leave aside here the dig at high school teachers, post-secondary's favorite whipping post, though i will say for the record that the high school teachers i know work very hard, often (and especially in post-klein alberta) in conditions not of their choosing.

defending high school teachers is not my mission here, but i won't hear my students insulted this way. do they know everything? of course not. the students i taught this year -- incidentally, in english 123, 224, 380, sociology 492 and english 567: in other words, at every undergraduate and graduate level -- struggle to analyze literary texts, and they find it hard to sustain an evidence-based argument at the length of 1500 words.

and yet, i've just graded a stack of the most remarkable essays.

how did we get here from there? by dint of what we in the biz call "teaching" and "learning." and yes, margaret wente, it's expensive! it involves things like thinking, hard, sometimes for years, before i walk into a class. it means standing in front of a room trying to think of a new way to explain something i feel i've said a hundred times already, but clearly not effectively enough yet, because they don't understand. sometimes, after class, it means going back to my office, or down the hall to my colleagues, or to the dreaded internet to figure out how other people have done what i'm trying to do. it means knowing more than my students, and keeping up in the field: "research," we call that.

on my students' part, learning involves the agony of staring at a blank computer screen trying to think of something to write -- then writing it poorly -- and then figuring out how to improve it. it means making use of time on the bus to do your reading. it means taking a chance every time you open your mouth in a discussion, in a room full of strangers.

or it involves a student and me sitting down at a desk together to solve the problem of how to limit a huge topic -- say, interracial relationships between chinese men and white women in 1920s edmonton, to name just one of the fascinating topics my students came up with -- so that it can fit into 8 pages. it means schlepping to the archives, getting ethics clearance, reading beyond the course material, all of which my students did this term. of course it means piles and piles of marking (on my part) and a whole lot of suckin' it up (on theirs) in the necessary awfulness of grading. do you know that a student who got -- who earned -- an F on her major paper last semester came back to take another class with me this term? either she's completely unclear on the concept of grade-grubbing entitlement, or her interest is actually (say it ain't so!) in learning. you know what else? she's pulling a solid B this term.

these are my students. yeah, they're online all the time. yeah, they're more comfortable talking about what makes a text "relatable" than they are with what makes it work. does the word "relatable" make my skin crawl? you bet it does. would i rather wear my eyelids inside out than say, yet again, "liking or not liking a novel is a great place to begin literary analysis, but it's not the end result"? yes, oh, god, yes.

but then i sit down to a stack of papers and read what it's like when someone gets it -- finds his voice, takes a stand, solves a theoretical problem or just frames it enticingly -- and all of that falls away in the shadow of what really matters. we read, we think, we teach, we learn. we evince frailty and courage, and evoke compassion and care. we excite each other, even though we also sometimes disappoint each other. we demonstrate our human capacity for change and growth and creativity. we assert that the world can be different, better.

tell me again how this is too costly?

heather mallick, who normally has the breadth of vision to look beyond her own backyard, says, "when I look at higher education, it seems that everyone — from professors to teaching assistants to students — is unhappy with his or her lot."

not me. and, if i've done my job right, not my students.


mari said...

You were, and apparently still are, a great teacher. You know why? You can take a (once) kid like me, let her talk it out and not feel stupid long enough to make her understand she's onto something. I know it's hard work to work through the process with people like me, and teaching us that our own experiences can count for something in academia. Thanks for making the effort.

Heather Zwicker said...

-- or that academia can count for something in your experiences! that's kind of amazing, when you stop to think about it.

you're too kind, mari. though obviously still a perceptive smarty-pants. ;-)

TomLyne said...

That was uplifting. Thanks. sorry I missed you for coffee the other week, time flashed by in the snap of a finger. Maybe if I had had a professor like you I could have erred more on the side of growing up.

jen alabiso said...

I have said before, but it bears saying again - i am inspired by your generosity. honestly, heather, no one, NO ONE, gives like you - and this, this "rant" -is exactly that. Generous. To your students, who you love, appreciate, value and honor every day. Generous to your colleagues, and that's hard won, I know. Generous to the institution you call "work" which, complicated and imperfect tho it is, affords us many opportunities to learn, grow, stretch our minds. You are brilliant and every body that lands a seat in your classes - lucky lucky.
visiting your blog is SO lovely. thanks.

Todd Babiak said...

I LOVE your students. But I have to hold the column until Saturday. They want me to write about the budget.

Karen said...

Dr. Zwicker, this piece really fills me with hope. I am currently witnessing my younger sister's experiences with junior high and I am often saddened and discouraged. My concerns can be attributed to the system, justifiably frustrated teachers and countless other factors that are out of my control. I am hopeful for a possible future with instructors like you. Ones that can work with her strengths and interests instead of condemning the cultural aspects and technologies that she was born into.


MoM said...

Heather, my love, you are brillant.

VicoLetter said...

Rock on Miz Z...makes me think of the awesome young (er) ones in The Magazine Project and what a slog it was for some of them simply to be on time each day let alone dedicate themselves to reading, writing, researching and learning their way around computers, cameras etc. Seems we're all too quick to dump, justify, whitewash but not as keen to address underlying factors and complications about the big picture (I guess here I'm thinking more of graffiti 'Clean Up Edmonton' etc).
Anyway, we need more ranting...more dialogue. Maybe you should start up Zwikipedia!
xo Vico

鐵板豆腐Fay said...