Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Why Take a Class If You Don't Expect to Learn Anything?

I had an uncomfortable conversation with a student today. It's a student in a general education course, a student whose major is way outside of the humanities. The student is only taking the course because it fulfills a graduation requirement, and the student intends to graduate this May, and had been putting off fulfilling this requirement because it is so far out of hir comfort zone. This student self-identifies as one who is not "good at English."

Ze "doesn't like poetry"; ze doesn't like books that aren't "realistic" or that don't reflect hir own experience; ze doesn't like to read things with which ze doesn't "connect."

Now, this is the raison d'etre of general education programs and requirements. To force students out of their comfort zones and into broader ways of conceiving the world, ways that might not be comfortable for them but from which they will, as citizens, benefit. Students outside the humanities benefit from basic instruction in humanistic inquiry, and students from the humanities benefit from courses in the sciences, the social sciences, and math. I really do believe that (now, as much as I put off my science requirements until the very end of my college career). It is important, if one hopes to be a well-rounded person, to be able to stretch intellectually, and to learn that the way that one finds most comfortable for approaching the world is not the One True and Only way.

But so. Back to my uncomfortable conversation. This student is very anxious about the upcoming paper assignment, and just more generally about hir abilities to engage with the literature of the course. Now look. I make students anxious. That is my lot in life. This isn't what made the conversation uncomfortable. What made the conversation uncomfortable was that the student kept reiterating that the assignments in the course were making hir feel "stupid." Ze kept returning to the theme of stupidity, that somehow because ze didn't have total and complete mastery over the material after one quick read that this was evidence that ze is "stupid." Further, ze kept comparing hir understanding of the texts in the course to that of other students, kept harping on the notion that even the texts themselves were somehow designed to make ze feel stupid, or that they were not for stupid people like ze. When ze veered from the "stupid" theme, it was only to talk about how boring and irritating the texts were.

This is not the first time that I've had this conversation with a student, but this conversation is not one that becomes more comfortable the more times I have it. Because here's the thing:

Why on God's green earth would anybody want to take a class in which they got nothing out of attending class? Why would anybody want to pay money to be "taught" something that they already understand? Am I naive in thinking that the whole point of taking a class involves coming away from the class with a greater understanding than you would have if you just encountered the subject or material casually on your own? I mean, seriously: I don't get it. I feel like the entire point of formal education is that you encounter things that you wouldn't encounter on your own or choose to engage with on your own, and you are encouraged to think things that you wouldn't think on your own.

When I am feeling ungenerous, I think this sort of response is about the very real lack of respect that people in the world have for my discipline. I think that such people would never question feeling challenged or in over their heads in a science or math class - those are "real" disciplines don't you know - but anybody who is moderately literate and has a library card is totally as qualified as a reader of literature as any Ph.D. Because that's the thing: this student's antipathy to the course material and to the course itself is about the fact that the student feels affronted by the fact that ze can't just coast through. Ze can't fathom that there are ways of thinking about literature that go beyond "I connect with this character" or "it's a good story." And so yeah, ze may be expressing that as "this stuff treats me like I'm stupid and hurts my feelings," but I think that the underlying thing is a total lack of respect. Ugh.

But when I'm feeling generous.... I seriously don't want people to feel stupid as a result of my courses, and I seriously don't want my courses to make people miserable. And I don't want students to compare themselves unfavorably with other people in a course, just because those other people have insights that they don't have. And I gave that student my most encouraging pep talk, and I insisted to the student that I value hir contributions in class, and I did everything I could to try to explain that I see my role as about guiding ze to success. But when ze took hir leave, I felt like nothing I'd said had penetrated.

Look, I don't need every student who takes a course with me to love it, to care about it, or to feel like hir mind has been blown. I don't need them to like the literature that they encounter, and I don't need them to like me, at the end of the day. But I guess I do need them to respect the point of the course and to be willing to learn what I have to teach them. I need for them to be willing to learn, even if what they're learning hurts their feelings. Hell, I need for them to engage enough for their feelings to be hurt. I need them not to cop out and to think that because they're not just breezing through that it means they're stupid.

This student is not stupid. But this student is totally resistant to seeing anything that doesn't fit in with hir own personal perspective as valuable. And yes, that makes for uncomfortable conversations.

Now, as a teacher, I hope that this student will look back on this class in a year or five years or ten years as something that was useful. As something that was a valuable experience. BUT. Do I think this student sees this experience as one that is valuable right now? No. I think that this student thinks that I'm a bitch who chose awful books, books that are not worth the paper that they're printed on and that are designed to make people feel dumb. I think that this student thinks that I'm a bitch who is just plain mean for insisting that students in the course all - without exception - use the methods of my discipline for analyzing literature and writing about it. I think that this student basically thinks I'm a bitch.

And yeah, I don't love that, but it's part of the gig, I suppose. I don't take it personally. Except for that I sort of do. I sort of feel like this student should imagine the possibility that my decisions about and design of this course aren't just arbitrary ones intended to cause the maximum amount of pain. I feel like this student should give me just a tiny little sliver of credit for knowing how to do my motherfucking job.


canuck_grad said...

Oh! I can totally help you understand this. You have a growth mindset. This student has a fixed mindset. There is a long line of research on this issue in psychology, spearheaded by Carol Dweck - with really consistent findings and impressive effect sizes.

Read this chapter:

And check out these videos:

Carol Dweck also has a book out called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success - excellent read and geared toward the public as opposed to psychologists/researchers. Would be an excellent book to recommend to students who express the fixed mindset!

Anonymous said...

I so hear you, sister. I get the same reaction to the stuff I teach.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

The second week of the semester, a young man came up to me to tell me he was freaked out by the class. He is also in a major as far from my field as is humanly possible on a college campus -- not even in the same College, but in a School. He didn't have any background, he didn't get what we were talking about, and he was clearly outside his comfort zone. He was ready to drop, but needed the class to graduate. But he was ready to trust me that he could do it, and that he would really be ok if he just paid attention and did the work. It's such a difference when students are willing to look past the panic. He's doing really well in the class, as it happens, and we talked today about the first week. Those are the ones you have to hold onto.

life_of_a_fool said...

see, I feel like this: "But this student is totally resistant to seeing anything that doesn't fit in with hir own personal perspective as valuable" describes a lot of my students. Who are are major. Even graduate students.

Now I need to go read the book canuck_grad suggests.

Crescentius Matherus said...

Let me guess... engineering?

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I get this as well -- your student isn't stupid, they are trying to be willfully ignorant. The problem isn't intellect, it's attitude. To be honest, I'd rather have less intellect than a poor attitude sitting in my classroom.

Desiree said...

Such an awesome reference canuck_grad! Teachers and students need this growth mindset info for sure.

Good point about respect/credit Dr. Crazy. Respect is a big issue for teachers, students, and life in general. In addition to affecting success, growth mindset may lead to respect for the efforts of self and others.

Ann said...

Thanks for this, Dr. Crazy. I sympathize! I've riffed on your post over at my place--and I even put in a word of sympathy for the student too, if you can believe it! (Frankly, I can't.)

negativecapability said...

But all these descriptions of nature are boring...I'm more interested with things that have stories and characters, no offense...blah blah blah...yeah. How about admitting you're not interested because you haven't put in the effort necessary to actually understand what this stuff is about? I had this conversation twice yesterday.

Anonymous said...

As I read your description of the conversation, I had an almost physical recall of that moment when I am talking with a student and I suddenly think:

"Oh! I see. You're not *asking* me for help. You're *explaining* to me why you refuse to buy into the expectations of the course."

It's disappointing, and yes, you put very clearly why it's also insulting.

Anonymous said...

Long time reader, first time responder.

I just had a rather similar conversation with a student prior to reading this post. I'm teaching a survey of British literature and I'm well aware that a good chunk of the students are taking it to fulfill their university literature requirement. So, how does one make them care about Wordsworth and romanticism? I figured a spirited riff on the French Revolution, democracy and terror, and the process by which historical conflict migrates into poetic form would do it. ANd it did, unless you are student A.

Student A is frightened of words and, apparently, of learning. "A" basically sat here and told me that college should be about attending class, memorizing information, learning formulas, and, thus, getting A's. Degree, job, hedge fund, and midlife crisis necessarily follow.

I charitably took this slight arrogance as a cover for some kind of insecurity. It occurred to me that I just sat and listened to a 19 or 20 year old structure his theory of education in the language of utility, function, and efficiency. To him, critical reading, complex thinking, and open ended questions simply had no value; it could not be demonstrated in the way that the value and relevance of a formula could be. So, here we have not just the traditional division between the humanities and the sciences (or business), but a starkly different conception of knowledge and value. It is one thing to teach an engineering student who struggles to work through Joyce; it is quite another to teach one who fails to detect any value in such a struggle.

Dr. Crazy said...

hipsterprofessor - welcome and thanks for commenting!

As I think I actually wrote over in the comments at Historiann's, my student that I described in this post is actually a non-trad and is older than me (I think) and definitely older than most of the other students enrolled in the course. I think that this is affecting the dynamic for sure, and that and it also means that my ability to reach this student is shaped by those circumstances, as well as by the student's basic personality (which I think is just generally contrary).

But I noticed that you used Joyce as your example. If Joyce is somebody you actually work on, you should probably send me an email. We will have things to discuss :)

Doctor Pion said...

The idea about "growth" is a good one. The products of NCLB and high-stakes testing that enter our CC simply don't see education as growth, but we can try to open their eyes to that possibility.

I have to disagree with Inside the Philosophy Factory. This student is no more trying to be willfully ignorant of literature than Dr. Crazy was trying to be willfully ignorant of science. The student is taking classes in a major that fits with the student's aptitudes and skills and doesn't like leaving that comfort zone.

I worry about students who pick a major in a subject that does not connect to them just because it might have a good starting salary. (Example: Chemical engineering has a really high starting salary. This is not a good reason to seek to become a chemical engineer. The reason the salary is so high is because people who are good at calculus, physics, chemistry, AND organic chemistry are really rare.) That might explain what Anastasia worries about. But most students pick a field of study because they like working hard on it because they "get it" after putting in that effort.

So it never surprises me that students taking my gen-ed science class are often paranoid about it, particularly if they are in their last semester at our CC. I deal with this issue all of the time. So does a colleague who teaches art. She tells me that her drawing courses (which are purely elective) are still feared by the students who take them, maybe even more than they fear math.

Your student probably feels stupid because other subjects come easy. Not so easy that they don't need to go to class, but just the opposite. Everything new in class finds a nice spot on a shelf already prepared by previous learning. It might be the exact opposite for your subject.

You might try something that works for math anxiety. Ask the student about ze's literature learning history. Did ze always dislike studying literature? Connect to that. There could have been a middle school lit teacher that did things like stories I have heard about middle school math classes, where the kids were encouraged to pick on the kid who didn't get something. Evil stuff. Like opening a book up for discussion and then saying that someone's specific ideas are worthless and letting the entire class laugh at them every time they say something. That has been done in math classes. It could happen elsewhere.

Ann said...

Hipsterprofessor, I hope that Charles Dickens' Hard Times is on your reading list. Your student "A" might be interested in Mr. Gradgrind, and his insistence that education should be about FACTS, and the FACTS only!

Anonymous said...

Ann, indeed it is, at least a few excerpts. Between that and "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," we might be able to restage part of our office meeting in class.

PhysioProf said...

I sort of feel like this student should imagine the possibility that my decisions about and design of this course aren't just arbitrary ones intended to cause the maximum amount of pain. I feel like this student should give me just a tiny little sliver of credit for knowing how to do my motherfucking job.

No wai! Poor widdle snowfwake totes knows better than you!

Laurie said...

I have also totally come across this a lot in teaching science to non-majors. So while it may be partially connected to the lack of respect English gets in society, I don't think that can explain all of it.

I have had several students who come to me the first day and say they are not good at science. I try to discuss how I don't really believe it is possible to be not good at science, as what we are doing in the class is no different than in their other classes -- learning some facts and practicing critical thinking around those facts. Some students have a light bulb go off here and we discuss study strategies, etc. and they are able to excel in the course. Others reject this idea, cling to the idea that they are bad at science, and do not do well.

Just wanted to say that I don't think your experience is specific to your discipline, but something across many gen ed classes where students are out of their comfort zone.