Wednesday, March 19, 2008

On Ledges and Students

This week, an assignment of mine (well, not just the assignment, but the course itself, really) caused a student to have a panic attack. For real.

Now, I'm no novice to the freak-outs of students. I do a lot of talking off the ledge duties in my role as professor. There are a variety of reasons why I have this... effect on students - probably at least 1 out of every 10.

  • In the way of the Tina Fey teacher character in Mean Girls, I'm a "pusher." What is most rewarding to me in teaching is not so much seeing students attain goals that they know that they can attain but rather seeing them attain things that they'd never imagined that they could.
  • I teach material, based on personal inclination and interest, that fucks people up. Hell, it fucked me up. That's why I was drawn to it. The things that I'm a specialist in, and the things that interest me intellectually, tend to be things that normal people find really intimidating and hard. So it's not all me, or my demeanor, or even the fact that I have a tendency to want to push my students: it's also that the material itself can induce panic.
  • You know that fucked up material that I teach? I expect people to actually work through it and to engage with it. It's not enough for me that they read it: I expect them to present on it, to write on it, to deal with it. Even if it hurts to do so.
  • Many students enter my courses never having been faced with such a professor, with such material, or with such assignments. I'm not necessarily invested in getting them to "enjoy" what I teach them so much as I'm interested in getting them to appreciate its significance, even as they may hate the material and as they may hate what they have to do with it. This is not a common experience for students at my university, to have a professor who values that sort of thing over getting them excited about it. (I'll say, I think that the excitement happens as a result of what I do, a deeper excitement than they'd otherwise experience because they actually own it. But my aim isn't so much to make them like it as to get it.)
All of these things mean that students freak out. Freshmen through seniors, experienced students, non-traditional students, newbies - they all freak out. And sure, some classes elicit more freaking out than others. Some assignments elicit more freaking out than others. But the freaking out? It's part of each and every one of my semesters.

Reasons students freak out:
  • They know how to react but not how to respond critically. Best metaphor I gave to a student, in an attempt to talk her off the ledge: "You know how some little kids are happy to just spin around in circles and fall down, that this is total entertainment for them? But then there are other kids who are really into doing something like building the Empire State Building out of Legos? The people who decided what good writing about literature is were Empire State Building people. So it's not that it's not fun or enjoyable to spin around in circles, but in order to participate in the conversations that you want to have, you've got to learn to build that Empire State Building out of Legos.
  • They're afraid of being confused. To this, I tend to talk about my own feelings of confusion and fear as a student. I tend to talk a lot about my own initial responses to the texts that we're reading (most of which were ambivalent at best). And I talk about my own insecurity a lot, and I explain to them that the only reason I'm not insecure now is because of having had guidance at important points and because of having more experience than them at the point that I'm at now. In other words, it's not about smarts or about getting it. It's about moving through the tough stuff with somebody who will take care of you as you go. That's the whole point of paying to take a class in order to learn this stuff.
  • And this goes along with the above. They're afraid of fucking up and of not getting it and of something that's ultimately scary - being challenged out of their comfort zones and of being challenged to think in new ways. A metaphor I used recently to address this: "Ok, when you ride on a roller coaster, you're scared, but it's also fun. You know it's safe; you know that somebody will turn off the roller coaster if it threatens to get out of control. And when you're on the roller coaster, you're scared, but you enjoy the ride. It's awesome. I'm the person who's running the roller coaster. I'll make sure that it won't run off the rails and that there won't be some tragedy. Your job is just to go along for the ride. All you have to do is accept the experience of this stuff, do your best, and feel it. I'll help you if you get into trouble. I'll stop the roller coaster if it gets dangerous. You just have to trust it will be ok, and that I'll make it ok, and that at the end of it you'll feel exhilarated."
So in some ways I build the ledge. I build it with my assignments, I build it with the material that I force them to read. And they end up on the ledge because those things make them insecure, afraid, and just generally freaked out. And so then it's my job to talk them off the ledge that I've built.

And the only way that I know how to do that is to emphasize the fact that they're not alone (I've felt this, others in the class feel this), that all that matters most to me is that they do their best, and that ultimately this experience is one that will stretch them and push them into a new way of thinking and that this is ultimately the point of education.

Because I believe this is the point of education, I keep building the ledges, and keep being committed to talking students off of the ledges that I build. And sure, it's exhausting work. It's hard work. But for me, that's the point of the whole enterprise. And do all students respond well? No, they don't. Some students resist even after my pep talks. But the ones who make it through the pep talks? The ones who make it through to the other side? They see the world in a whole new way. Not just the texts, not just the material of the course or the topic of the course - the whole world.

And that is freaking cool.


Brigindo said...

Yes, that is very freaking are you.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

i agree that it is cool... and I think that this new generation needs this kind of work more than previous generations... The stuff you said about being scared to be wrong is a direct result of the self-esteem 'training' they had in k-12 -- read "Generation Me" for a good look at the research on the students born after 1970....

Susan said...

What a wonderful post about teaching. I'd quibble with your roller coaster analogy, though, because while it's scary, when you get off the world is the same. I bet if they really go on your roller coaster, your students' world is NOT the same...