Trying something new here

So I came across an article on FB a few minutes ago – brought to my attention by friend and fellow blogger Josh Eyler – and I felt the need to write up a reply. And because this is the internet, I decided my reply needs to be immediate and without much reflection.

I also decided to try a new format. You can read the article in the above link, or you just read it below, with my comments intruding upon his prose. Or you can just ignore me entirely; I won’t mind.*

Here goes!

“For the first time in many years I am teaching a freshman course, Introduction to Philosophy.”

That’s pretty sad, and I feel bad for you. Not because you have to teach freshmen, but because you don’t do so regularly. Teaching freshmen is a joy. Also, it’s essential. For starters, Intro classes are the places to lay the foundation upon which all later learning will be built. If you want well-prepared students in your upper-division classes, it’s on you to teach the Intro classes. But more importantly, Intro classes are fun. Trust me on this; I teach as many as I am allowed to.** This is where you can introduce new ideas and new ways of thinking. Besides, freshmen are exciting to teach because the whole experience is new to them. I hope you come to learn this, and teach freshmen more often.

“The experience has been mostly good. I had been told that my freshman students would be apathetic, incurious, inattentive, unresponsive and frequently absent, and that they would exude an insufferable sense of entitlement.”

That’s sad. And I hope you stop listening to those people, because they will only make you lose the joy of teaching such students.*** Will you find such students? Sure. Because “students” are not, in fact, one homogenous group. Like any other population you will run into, they are a group of individuals. You will serve them better the more you recognize that.

“I am happy to say that this characterization was not true of most students. Still, some students are often absent, and others, even when present, are distracted or disengaged. Some have had to be cautioned that class is not their social hour and others reminded not to send text messages in class. I have had to tell these students that, unlike high school, they will not be sent to detention if they are found in the hall without a pass, and that they are free to leave if they are not interested.”

I understand this impulse. I, myself, do not have an attendance policy. However, when you invite students to leave, they just may do so. And when they do so, they did so at your invitation. You know those students who were “often absent” mentioned above? They were the ones who accepted your kind invitation, and left. A better tactic might be to invite students to attend. Instead of reminding them that they are free to leave, you could explain to them the reasons why they should stay. They know all of the great things they could be doing instead of sitting in class. Why is your class worth their time? Why is your class worth their attention?

“Actually, I doubt that the differences between high school and university have ever been adequately explained to them, so, on the first class day of next term, I will address my new freshmen as follows:”

I agree entirely with the first part of that sentence. I find that many students are not properly prepared for their freshman year (or at least not prepared in the ways we might wish them to be prepared). However, please avoid “addressing” your freshmen. Speaking at them is not nearly as useful, interesting, or helpful as speaking with them. (No worries; we’ll get into this again below.) Also, I can assure you, the worst thing you can do on the first day of classes, upon meeting students – some of whom will be in a college classroom for the very first time – the least interesting thing you can do is lecture to them.

“Welcome to higher education! If you want to be successful here you need to know a few things about how this place works. One of the main things you need to know is the difference between the instructors you will have here and those you had before. Let me take a few minutes to explain this to you.”

Sigh. If I’m in that class, I’m already bored. You know how they will learn the difference? By experiencing it. But right now, you’re doing a shitty job of demonstrating the split you seem so intent on making.

“First, I am your professor, not your teacher. There is a difference.”

Get over yourself.

“Up to now your instruction has been in the hands of teachers, and a teacher’s job is to make sure that you learn. Teachers are evaluated on the basis of learning outcomes, generally as measured by standardized tests.”

Many of them know this. Do you know they know this? Because 4 (or more) years of high school have shown them this. In fact, they are so much more familiar with high school education than you are. They really don’t need you to explain it to them. And they certainly don’t need you lecturing this to them, so early in their collegiate careers. But they will sit there politely and listen, because that’s what they’ve been trained to do. And right now, they think that your job is to make sure they learn…even if that knowledge base is different. You want to show them that college isn’t high school, then really show them. But lecturing them about rules and distinctions on the first day of class – instead of giving them some sense of the course they are in – will surely do nothing but make them think they’ve just moved on to grade 13.

“If you don’t learn, then your teacher is blamed. However, things are very different for a university professor. It is no part of my job to make you learn.”

Then you must suck as a teacher. Or professor. Whichever job title you prefer. But even giving you the benefit here, maybe your problem is the language you use. No, you don’t “make” them learn. You “help” them learn. You “assist” their learning. But the very fact that you are up at the board means that, yes, it is your job. (And more importantly, think about the poor students in your audience. Those you haven’t lost already, may very well be giving up on you now. Instead of telling them what isn’t your job, tell them what is. Speaking of which…)

“At university, learning is your job — and yours alone. My job is to lead you to the fountain of knowledge. Whether you drink deeply or only gargle is entirely up to you.”

Once again, get over yourself. Or at least see your university’s English department for help with your use of metaphor. Yes, learning is their job. But that was also true in high school. They have to do the work. You know what the difference is between a successful instructor and an unsuccessful instructor? Successful ones know that it is, in fact, their job to “[fill in your verb of choice] them learn.”

“Your teachers were held responsible if you failed, and expected to show that they had tried hard to avoid that dreaded result. I am not held responsible for your failures. On the contrary, I get paid the same whether you get an “F” or an “A.””

Yes, that will make them sympathetic to your cause. Because nothing works on students quite like reminding them that college is, at its core, a financial transaction. And one they, apparently, are not part of. At this point in your lecture, you sound less like an intellectual and more like an apathetic teen working at a mall kiosk; “sorry, sir, but it’s not my job to make sure these doo-dads work. I get paid the same, whether you’re happy with your purchase or not.” If you are not invested in the job you are doing, why should they be invested in the job they are doing?

“My dean will not call me in and ask how many conferences I had with your parents about your progress.”

No, but he might want to talk to you if your students repeatedly complain about you. I see that you have tenure, so maybe you don’t need to worry about such things anymore. If you’re looking for more points to lecture your students about, how about the difference between tenured and not, or between tenure track and non-tenure track faculty? You could explain to them that, as a tenured professor, their complaints don’t really mean much to your job security. But their complaints could mean the difference between employment an unemployment to your untenured colleague, or the adjuncts employed at your university.

“Indeed, since you are now an adult, providing such information to your parents would be an illegal breach of privacy. Neither will I have to document how often I offered you tutoring or extra credit assignments. I have no obligation whatsoever to make sure that you pass or make any particular grade at all.”

This all sounds so welcoming, all the various things you don’t have to do, won’t do, can’t do. At some point, you do plan on telling what you will be doing, right? Because right now, they have no idea. Although some of the more industrious students might be looking at the campus map, trying to locate that fountain of knowledge you are not yet leading them to.

“Secondly, universities are ancient and tend to do things the old-fashioned way.”

You mean like lecture at a roomful of students about things they don’t really need to know?

“In high school your education was basically a test-preparation service. Your teachers were not allowed to teach, but were required to focus on preparing you for those all-important standardized tests. Though it galls ideologues, we university professors still enjoy a large degree of academic freedom.”

And right now, you are using yours to bore them to tears and drive them away from the joys of higher learning.

“That means that the content and format of your courses is still mostly under your professor’s control, and the format will probably include a good bit of lecture, some discussion and little or no test preparation.”

Haha. “A good bit.” That’s funny. But what’s less funny is the idea that they will receive “little or no test preparation.” That kind of work is best handled by those who do see student learning as their job.

“Lecture has come under attack recently. “Flipped learning” is the current buzz term among higher-education reformers. We old-fashioned chalk-and-talk professors are told that we need to stop being the “sage on the stage,” but should become the “guide on the side,” helping students develop their problem-solving skills. Lecture, we are told, is an ineffective strategy for reaching today’s young people, whose attention span is measured in nanoseconds. We should not foolishly expect them to listen to us, but instead cater to their conditioned craving for constant stimulation.”

And thank the heavens you are there to lecture them about this! But more importantly, keep in mind that you are giving them a brief window into a discussion in higher education they likely have not been following. Is this really what they need to know? Is this the best way to prepare them? If you don’t like the buzzwords, then don’t use them. If you want them to pay attention to lecturing, then give them something worth paying attention to. Because I’m positive that, at this point, not one them has any idea what Introduction to Philosophy entails, other than being treated like ignorant children who need to be lectured at.

“Hogwash. You need to learn to listen. The kind of listening you need to learn is not passive absorption, like watching TV; it is critical listening. Critical listening means that are not just hearing but thinking about what you are hearing. Critical listening questions and evaluates what is being said and seeks key concepts and unifying themes.”

And what are the “key concepts and unifying themes” of this particular lecture? Most of them have already likely tuned out. But those are who listening – actively listening – might have picked up the following: teaching them is not your job, but talking down to them is.

“Your high school curriculum would have served you better had it focused more on developing your listening skills rather than drilling you on test-taking.”

And you decide to drill them on their shortcomings as a way to change this?

“Finally, when you go to a university, you are in a sense going to another country, one with a different culture and different values. I have come to realize that the biggest gap between you and me is a cultural difference. I have absorbed deeply the norms and values of an ancient academic culture and they are now a part of me. You, on the other hand, come to my classes fresh from a culture with different values, one that finds academic ways strange and hard to understand.”

I like this analogy, so let’s play it out to the end. When two people from different cultures meet, how should they proceed? Ideally, they would recognize that each comes from a different culture – with different values and backgrounds – and spend as much time listening to and learning from one another as in talking and sharing their cultural knowledge. When people from different cultures meet, one should not decide that it’s his job to lecture his new companion about his own culture. This sounds sickeningly close to the academic version of telling immigrants that if they can’t learn how to be Americans, they need to go home.

“Take the issue of documentation. For an academic, there is something sacred about a citation. The proper citation of a source is a small tribute to the hard work, diligence, intelligence and integrity of someone dedicated enough to make a contribution to knowledge.”

This is actually pretty good. Granted, I would tell them this as they work on their first paper, but it’s not a bad idea to introduce them to why faculty require the work they do. I regularly explain to my students why they do the work they do, and why it matters in the grand scheme of their education.

“For you, citations and bibliographies are pointless hoops to jump through and you often treat these requirements carelessly.”

And now you just lost whatever good will you had, by telling them what they think. Remember your analogy regarding people from different cultures meeting? This is the rough equivalent of meeting someone from another country, and telling him what he thinks about the world based on a generalization about his culture. Also, don’t assume your students don’t care. If on the first day of class you have already told them that they are careless, why should they care? You’ve already judged them, and this without any evidence. This is not just a poor way to treat students; it’s a poor way to treat people.

“Further, our differences on the issue of giving or taking proper credit accounts for the fact that you so seldom take plagiarism as seriously as I do.”

See above. I’m sure they are all sorts of grateful for you telling them what they think and how they feel. I can see them now, writing in their notebooks, “We see citations as pointless hoops, and seldom take plagiarism seriously.”

“If you want to know the biggest difference between you and your professor, it is probably this: You see university as a place where you get a credential.”

Please stop. Just, stop. Please stop assuming you know what they think, what they want, what they feel. Remember above when you noted what you were told about freshmen, and how happy you were that your colleagues were wrong? Don’t look now, but you’re doing the exact same thing. Only instead of pointing your ignorant generalizations at a colleague, you are pointing them at the reading audience of Huffpost Education.

“For your professor, a university is not primarily about credentialing. Your professor still harbors the traditional view that universities are about education. If your aim is to get a credential, then for you courses will be obstacles in your path. For your professor, a course is an opportunity for you to make your world richer and yourself stronger.”

And…at what point do you start doing that?

Please, for the sake of your students, throw this lecture away, and don’t vomit it up for your students on the first day of class. Please. Instead, consider using the first day to give them a glimpse of what your course can offer. Why should they take Introduction to Philosophy? What kinds of questions will they be asked, and why do they matter? What parts of the vast storehouse of knowledge will you be helping them to understand, and what methods will you be using?

And if you want them to question the world, show them how to do that. Instead of lecturing at them, ask them questions. Allow them to ask questions in return. Instead of telling them about university life, show it to them, knowing that you have all semester to do so. Instead of inviting them to leave, invite them to stay. And instead of telling them who they are an what they believe, ask them about themselves, and learn about what matters to them.

Otherwise, after the first day of class, those students who return will not be prepared for anything more than another day of passively sitting around, waiting for you to tell them what’s important.

*My semester just ended yesterday, so I’m feeling a bit loopy. Don’t mind me.

**No lie. If it were up to me, I would teach 3 every semester (along with the upper-division course I teach every semester to fill out our offerings). Intro to Literature is the most fun course I teach.

***Again, I know this from experience. In my very first week on the job, one of my “senior” colleagues came to my office and offered her apologies that the students I will have at Potsdam are not nearly as good as the students I had at UConn. She told me to be prepared for their lack of interest, terrible writing skills, and inability to follow simple instructions. Since that day, I have not heard a single useful thing about pedagogy come out of her mouth.



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8 responses to “Trying something new here

  1. Joaquin

    He lost me at “Hogwash!” Seriously, anyone who uses that phrase unironically while “addressing” new students deserves exactly the amount of apathy and tuning-out that will inevitably ensue. I’m not saying you have to pepper your speech with pop culture references from the last fifteen minutes, but, Jesus, guy…try not to sound like Thurston Howell III so much.

    Also, how in the hell does somebody at a school like UH-Clear Lake get a gig where they don’t teach first-year students regularly? That would never happen in our department!

    Oh wait…

    • I really do feel sad for the people who don’t regularly teach Intro courses.

      • Brittany

        I’m unlikely to teach first years for a while, but that’s just because of our departmental course structure. That said, I do teach sophomores all the time, which should count as teaching intro when you’re teaching them something they know nothing about yet (research methods).

      • Brittany,

        I’m curious. Could you explain the course structure, and why you won’t teach freshmen for a while? I’m really am curious about how departments/program structure their curricula.

        And yes, teaching research methods to sophomores does count as something, as it’s still an “introductory” class.

  2. Mike

    Some departments have an easier time hiring part-time lecturers to teach freshman and sophomore courses than they do upper division courses. So, it is often the case that tenured/tenure-track faculty are more often assigned to teach upper division courses while lecturers teach the lower division courses. This may or may not be ideal, but it is not uncommon for some faculty to go years without teaching lower division courses simply in order to be able to staff a full program.

    And while I think that the philosophy prof may have been a little over the top, I am squarely on his side where responsibility for learning is concerned. The university has an obligation to expose students to ideas and experiences, and show them how to become critical thinkers and lifelong learners, but students have to engage themselves actively in those endeavors not just as a matter of course, but because that is exactly what higher education is about. Sure, some skills will be learned and some knowledge exchanged, but being learned is more than that, and it can’t be accomplished without students engaging in critical listening and thinking.

    • Yes, of course students need to engage themselves. That’s not the issue. But teaching is so much more than merely “expos[ing]” students to ideas. The nearly wholesale failure of MOOCs is largely because “expos[ing]” students to ideas isn’t pedagogically effective. Further, the professor is the person from whom the “skills will be learned” and the “knowledge exchanged.” (And keep in mind that your use of “exchanged” is spot on; learning is more than merely dragging students to the fountain of knowledge and hoping they drink deeply.

      And I would be remiss if I didn’t also note that the “hiring of part-time lecturers” is a serious problem that higher education needs to address. And in that vein, it’s a shame that many programs leave the teaching of Introductory courses to contingent faculty. If those courses are where the learned professoriate introduce students to the important work of critical thinking, why is that work put in the hands of the least-supported and least-compensated faculty?

    • Joaquin

      So how does his harangue of them “show them how to become critical thinkers and lifelong learners” any more than a baseball coach who simply yells “I can’t hit the ball for you!” at his/her players?

      As Jim says below, the problem isn’t with what one (very charitably) can interpret as his intent to make them responsible for their own learning, it’s his complete passing of the buck in regard to how and why that responsibility becomes manifest. Constant lecturing does not create engagement, it creates passivity and a complete disengagement with the idea that processing — not simply taking in — new information and incorporating it into one’s existing understanding of the world is learning.

      Someone who tells me from day one that they don’t give a damn about doing anything other than talking at me is not asking me to engage with what they say any more than someone force-feeding me is asking me to savor the flavor of what they’re putting into my esophagus.

      Looking through his CV, he seems pretty deeply devoted as a scholar to the idea of proving to other people — especially those with religious belief — why they’re wrong. If that is, as it seems to be, correlate to how he perceives his role among introductory-level students then maybe I don’t want a pompous ass like that in range of them after all.

  3. Pingback: Did you think we’d be fine? / Still got scars on my back from your knife. | creativityinthecollegeclassroom

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