Reality Check

BackToSchool

Rodney Dangerfield in “Back to School”  (1986)

I often wonder about my fellow professors who coo online about how great their classes are and how great their students are.  I wonder if what they are saying really represents the reality of their classrooms.  In some cases, their Rate My Professors page tells a very different story. (Though, yes, usually the most ignorant and laziest students are the ones leaving the harshest comments on RMP.  They’re all like “Ehrmygawd, she made us do WORK!”)

I try to avoid publicly disparaging students, though it is so very easy to go online and gripe.  I’m connected to a lot of professors on social media so I see the constant litany of venting about student behavior, and yes, I’ve contributed to it myself from time to time.  I get the appeal of complaining.  It can be cathartic to go online and scream with your friends about some of the blatantly disrespectful bullshit we put up with in classrooms, whether it’s students who email us with demands to recap classes that they missed, or students who show up half an hour late and start talking and texting, or the students who expect to get A’s for work that probably shouldn’t even be accepted in a middle school class, let alone college.

But in the interest of transparency I feel I should add a follow up to my previous posts. Looking at the evaluations from last semester apparently there were people in my classes who absolutely HATED me and hated the work.  I figured that was true of certain individuals, but it was enlightening to see it in writing.

In Contemporary American Fiction there was one student who said they hated the course and only took it because there was nothing else that fit their schedule, as if I am somehow to blame because they are too incompetent to manage their own goddamn educational program.  But whatever…

One of the most amusing comments was that “all the books were about the same topic: Black Authenticity.”   Hmm…now that’s interesting.  I didn’t realize that in the first four weeks of class when we were talking about digital media, print culture, intellectual property, and theories of the novel we were really just talking about black authenticity.  And I suspect  Kathleen Fitzpatrick, David Shields, Don DeLillo and even Teju Cole might be surprised to know that this is what their work is really all about.

You see, this is an example of what David Leonard wrote about in this article for the Chronicle.  Students often bring their own racialized perceptions to the classroom, and a different professor teaching the same books probably wouldn’t have received that comment.  But, when the black dude made you read 3 out of 7 texts by authors of color, somehow that equals “all the books were about the same thing.” Got it.  And I wish I could say such biases were limited to white students, but don’t even get me started about some of the attitude I’ve gotten from black students.

In that class, and others, there were complaints that I didn’t lecture enough.  Yes, you read that right, I did not lecture ENOUGH.  So much for all the snarky hipster pedagogues out there who keep telling us that millennials really want to be all collaborative and shit.  I had already suspected this myself, so it was nice to see the confirmation.  On the one hand, I take that as a sign the course was effective because it means they were not in the comfort zone of sitting passively and watching a professor talk.  I required them to lead the sessions in groups each week and that meant doing the kind of careful, rigorous reading that one must do in order to talk to others competently and at length about books that one has read.

But no, they do not want to take the lead and collaborate and do projects together because that means WORK.  What they really want to do is sit back and watch someone else talk while they fiddle with their phones.  Adjacent to that point were multiple comments from students in different classes demanding that the classes be more “entertaining.”  Now that’s a very telling word coming from people raised on screens and trained in the culture of amusements, isn’t it?  “Amusing Ourselves to Death” is what Neal Postman wrote about some years ago.  I always include some critical media work in every class, so there is some space for intervention there, whether any of that critique actually sinks in.

All of this has made me feel I need to rethink my strategy in the classroom.  You can drive yourself crazy smashing your head up against the brick wall of institutional cynicism in higher education right now.  Profit-driven education means that schools admit unprepared, apathetic, insolent students and demand that professors teach these folks who are clearly uninterested in any kind of serious work.  It also means many of their professors are contingent laborers who don’t have the time or resources to teach them competently even if they wanted to.  But the students keep showing up with tuition checks so we’re required to “serve” them.  Too often, higher education today feels like a parody of college.  All the buildings are there, and there are people walking around, but it might as well be an elaborate movie set with actors, because there is little in the way of serious instruction and education going on.

OK maybe I’m romanticizing my own experiences.  Yes, Morehouse is an unusual place, and I was a diligent student and I associated with other students who were competitive and we challenged each other.  At the same time, there were also people around us going through the motions.  When I went back to campus a few years ago for a professor’s retirement symposium, the most common complaint among my former professors was student apathy.

It sounds old-fashioned, I know, but learning really does require discipline.  The way to really get results out of students is to demand a certain level of discipline from them, and I’m seeing that this is impossible in many cases.  There is a baseline of effort necessary from a student in order to teach them anything.  You can be the greatest music teacher in the world, but if you have a student who refuses to practice scales at home, then there is nothing you can teach that student in the one or two hours you are together each week.  A great coach cannot train an athlete who only shows up to practice and won’t work out on her own.  A mathematician cannot teach math to someone who won’t work on problems sets by themselves.  And so forth…

Part of our job as teachers is to coax that effort out of them, and I do that by having certain expectations of participation, and making those expectations clear from the very beginning.  Ultimately the goal is to get them to take over their own learning process and learn how to teach themselves. But that is very difficult in a situation where apathy is the accepted norm.  I’d love to run a classroom where if a student hasn’t shown up two or three classes into the term, then that student gets dropped.  But no, no. We have to let them in the class because they paid, and so now you get someone who missed all of the things I went over in the first two classes, hasn’t bothered to read the syllabus, and now I’m forced to waste time and energy and interrupt the flow of my class by repeating myself and going over the most basic shit that we already covered.  And rarely do these stragglers turn out to be eccentric future Rhodes Scholars.

We get students who are so apathetic that they won’t even buy a book (not even an inexpensive one) and won’t read anything, and turn in papers that completely ignored everything we went over in the class.  And please don’t give me that open-source crap, because I post free texts on Blackboard all the time and they don’t read that either.  Despite spending days going over research methodology I still got “works cited” pages that were nothing but numbered list of weblinks.  Twice last semester during research paper draft workshops – TWICE – I had students ask if they could leave since they hadn’t bothered to do the work.  (My answer: Of course you can leave whenever you want to, This is college!  There are consequences to every decision, but you’re never required to be here if you don’t want to be.)

I mean, what do you do with that kind of apathy?   I just don’t know.  I’m mystified by it, and I don’t understand it.  Why would a person keep showing up to do something they are so uninterested in doing?  Why does that person not have the guts to leave, go out and do whatever it is they believe is more important?  These are spiritual questions really, and I’m neither a priest nor an imam, so I can’t help with that.

On the other hand, I do understand.  Such students are the ideal customers for a profit-driven college system.  They’re sleepwalkers.  Rudderless.  Directionless.  They’ll show up with tuition money year after year, drag their educations out five, six, seven years, keep buying books and school paraphernalia, and food from the food court, and will get very little out of the experience.  Unfortunately, they occasionally do show up in classrooms, and we are expected to find ways to teach them even when they act like requiring the tiniest bit of effort from them is a human rights violation.

Yes, there are some who are worth the effort.  I have had some excellent students over the years, and there were some amazing students who did great work last term and and who I could see have potential to do great things in whatever fields they choose.  Those are the students I try my best to show up for and give a good class because they deserve to have a professor who can challenge them and make them better.  And occasionally if other classmates of theirs want to show up and make an effort along with them I am always willing to help anyone who at least tries to do the work.  Plenty of students have passed my classes over the years who probably shouldn’t have, but that was because they at least tried to do the work, and I’m not interested in screwing people over when I know they are making a real effort.  Because in making that effort, at least there is some learning taking place.  It may not be the ideal outcome I want, but the very practice of writing and reading will at least help them to develop these skills.

So I just wanted to add a dose of reality here if I’m going to be writing about pedagogy on this blog.  I usually try to avoid negativity and I am always conscious of protecting student privacy.  Mostly, I post my educational material here because, well, I’m a teacher. I want to share the knowledge from these courses with others who might be interested in the subject matter, and who might get ideas for teaching their own classes.  I know I’ve learned a great deal from what other professors post about their classes, and in many cases I’ve directly incorporated lessons, strategies and course policies I’ve found from other professors online.

So I felt like I needed to clarify, and yes, to vent a little bit, but from here on out I’ll try to keep things positive.  But believe me, when you read anything about classes on this blog, even when I do not say so explicitly, you can rest assured it was not written through the lenses of rose-colored glasses.

13 thoughts on “Reality Check

  1. Lavelle,

    I was just contacted by the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Apparently, they’re planning some sort of Afrocentrism film series this spring, and they’ve asked me to present my Sun Ra film there on April 10th. I hope to be able to attend.

    By the way, I relate to what you’re saying below. We all have troubling stories about dealing with students. Please keep doing what you’re doing and be confident that it is good and valuable work. Not to be cynical about it, but you know the old “pearls before swine” line. Without getting into all the different issues you raise, those with the ability to appreciate what you’re doing will, and those who don’t won’t.

    My best,

    Bob

    • That’s great news! Yes, I’ll be on the lookout for the event. I’d love to go to that.

      And it’s funny, that “pearls before swine” verse was on my mind, but I couldn’t find a way to put it in there without it sounding disrespectful. But yes, I hear you loud and clear on that. Sometimes we have to make strategic decisions about who gets the best of our energy. I’m trying to figure out ways to be “selfish” about my time, and still fulfill my duties.

  2. This is a great post, Lavelle. Every semester, I promise myself I’m going to institute a policy of only calling on students by name instead of opening questions to the whole class. This, I tell myself, will put the fear of the gods into them. You’ve got me thinking I should really do it this spring. And let Rate-My-Professor be damned!

    • Thanks Michael. Yeah, I’m always thinking about different strategies to improve the level of engagement, but sometimes we have to accept when the situation is FUBAR and there is not a thing you can do for some people who don’t want to help themselves.

  3. Lavelle, after 40 years of teaching I offer this practical advice: Begin the semester in each course by making it clear that serious work is going to be done, that your job is to manage that work, not to build character or entertain. Point out that they have already (or someone has already) paid for this course so if they want to piss the money away, that’s up to them but they will not be allowed to waste other folks’ time or money. Tell them that they may use their devices quietly and that they may get up and leave class and come back as they like but they may not chat among themselves; if they need to talk privately, they may get up and go outside and come back when they are finished. Tell them that you much prefer them to leave and come back than interrupt the hour with talk. Finally, tell them that you assume they did not sign up for the course to fail it and so they should keep that in mind because they are on their own henceforth. Works for me.

    • Here’s the thing Chris. What if they don’t listen to any of that? And what happens when you get people who saunter in two days later and never heard that speech and you have to repeat it all again? Oh, and when you take pains to put all of this in lucid organized writing on the syllabus, they never bother to read that either?

      I mean I really get what you are saying. And I do some of the very things you mention here, and try to strike the fear of God into them in the first days. But I’m increasingly finding myself up against an existential problem when I keep getting people who seem to be barely sentient, who don’t bother to listen to anything I say or read anything I write, and it has me wondering what the hell is the point of this for any of us.

      Just yesterday I had to get pissy because some people kept using phones and pads when I asked them not to, and when I’d already covered those policies in class. I told them they can take another course if they absolutely have to use them. (And in fact, on certain days they ARE allowed to use them in my class for instructional reasons). I ended it by telling them not to come back on Monday unless they’re willing to abide by the course policies from here on out, We’ll see what happens…

      But I will definitely take to heart what you say and keeping working to make those expectations as clear as I can make them. Maybe things will get better.

      (By the way, MOST students do seem to get it and are co-operative. But there’s that annoying few who I wish would just leave because they’re wasting everyone’s time.)

      • You’re taking all that too personally, it seems. Don’t get seduced into the fiction that you can save them all. You are there to talk about lit and they have paid to hear it. You have to certify that they have been there and engaged at measurable levels. End of story. Those who want more will get more as they respond and you respond. Those who do not, won’t. Those who don’t understand that they are at risk will fail. It’s ok.

        • I hear you. I mean I do care on a human level, and try to reach everyone as best I can. But in the end all I gotta do is fulfill my contractual obligations. That, and to stay black and die.

          • Hold on! I DON’T mean just fulfill your contractual obligations. Not at all. The point is that your responsibility is to your discipline, to the task of knowledge creation and transmission and NOT to making better citizens or more employable citizens or happier (far from it) citizens. You and I didn’t go through x number of years just to get a job. We have deeply ingrained skills held by less than 2% of the national population. The classroom, the archives, the loneliness of our rooms–that’s where we use those skills. It’s not just meeting contractual obligations; it’s what we do. What it AIN’T is worrying that these boys and girls (the men and women aren’t the issue) aren’t paying attention. That’s on them and it’s their loss, not yours. Don’t feel sorry for yourself; feel sorry for them. But leave them be.

  4. By the way, I don’t care about the devices. Before there were devices, people read the newspaper in class or opened their math texts. At least devices are discreet. You are not responsible for how they use their time in the room, beyond the managerial level i have suggested. If they want to blow off the money and time, so…? This isn’t high school; no law says they have to be there; it’s their choice. however informed or not. I come to class to talk about lit. The room is full. Some listen, some learn, some do not. My responsibility is to present the condition of lit study in that area as best I can; it is not my job to make them listen or change their bad habits.

  5. Hey Lavelle. Great piece. I find myself wondering, too: what are they doing here, the ones who so clearly would rather be staring at a ceiling? But then, I think, what choice do they really have? They are convinced — they may be right, but in any case they believe — that getting a degree is the only way to get a job which will allow them not to live in poverty. For many of my students, at least, college is like an extension of high school; they may not be legally forced to do it, but the alternatives are not attractive. Maybe it’s not student apathy that has turned us into high school teachers; maybe it’s that working class lives are becoming more and more unlivable. Under these circumstances of economic coercion I’m somewhat surprised and impressed when, occasionally, those students who are basically there against their will actually engage and learn something anyway.

    • All good points Corey. You’re right, that piece is missing from my analysis, and I shouldn’t make this student apathy that I’m describing here all about a moral failing. I was trying to get at that when I talked about institutional cynicism, but you articulated it better here. Given the rising costs of higher education for students, which yes, compels them to go through the motions in college because they have to do “something” to get a better job and pay off the debt so many of them are incurring, and the devaluation of academic labor on our side of things with more cuts, bigger classes and adjunctification, its amazing that anyone ever learns anything in these places. Thanks for the comments. I was hoping that putting these ideas down might help to refine my thinking on these issues.

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