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.
4 years ago