A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.

Archives: Pedagogical Ambivalence, part 2

Yesterday*, I briefly outlined my issues with personal organization and motivation that prevent me from doing that good a job as a teacher, and today I’m going to further outline a problem that contributes to those organizational problems.  At any given point in a semester where I am teaching classes, I feel constantly plagued by the huge number of students I teach who seem to qualify as functionally illiterate, my inability to help them, and the seeming inevitability of them hating the class and moving forward without any improved writing skills (the blame for which they would lay at my feet, which is understandable when you take their perspective into account).

I imagine this is a fairly standard reaction to teaching for the first time, and most of my fellow TAs seem to come to some sort of understanding re: things they can change and things they cannot.  We all tell jokes about how frustrating teaching can be, how little our students seem to know, how difficult it is to get people who are legally adults, who are in college, who presumably have an interest in keeping their GPA up, how utterly impossible it seems to be to get the tiniest bit of work out of them.  We reassure each other that this is normal, we share strategies that seem to work to jolt kids out of their complacency, and we start to feel out our own instinctive approaches to teaching, largely by feeling out how we differ from one another.

I was recently having a conversation like this with a friend of mine when we were engaging in some afternoon drinking.  I have the reputation of a hard-ass teacher among my colleagues, and this reputation is somewhat deserved (I make a point of starting my first class of each semester by telling my students that “effort is a synonym for failure,” emphasizing that I will be focusing on how they did rather than how hard they try), and this particular colleague was laying into me for it.  “Most of these kids fit into two categories,” she said, “First, you have kids from California because they weren’t good enough students to get into the California system.  They have no interest in college, they’re here entirely because of family pressure, because they aren’t allowed not to go to college.  Second, you have kids who are the first people in their family to go to college, and most of them have had terrible high school educations; they probably shouldn’t be in college.  Many of them are ESL, so that’s another thing they have to struggle with.  Those two groups are the majority of kids in my class, and I don’t think my job involves kicking them out and letting the school take their first year’s tuition money; I see it as getting them to the point where they can stay in.”

She’s not wrong.  The system under which the University of Arizona operates often seems to be the moral equivalent of running a Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes.  The university’s standards for admission are ridiculously low, requiring much less competence than even the easiest undergraduate major requires for its core classes.  It is a system designed to grab a bunch of quick cash from students for the first two years before they have to declare a major, and then send them packing when they can’t cut it in any department (or let the departments lower their own standards to keep the students from leaving).  It’s unethical, it subtly encourages departments to erode their own admission standards and discourages the university from offering financial aid to new students, it’s bad for the image of the university because it lowers retention rates, and it’s bad for the principles of  a university because it stops the administration from upholding minimum standards of scholarship, foisting them off on the grad students, who teach most of the entry-level classes and are only too willing to accommodate the downward shift in standards because we’re more focused on our degrees than our teaching, and students take up more time when they get bad grades.

You could argue that a more inclusive university is better for a variety of reasons- I won’t get into them here, really there are seven or eight arguments you could probably start from that last paragraph, but I’m not interested in them right now.  I want to start with that truth we ended on, because really, it’s not the full truth.  Yeah, I try to avoid failing people if I can help it, partly because it means I get a smoother class.  My first semester, a student had his mom call the university after I gave him a failing grade on his paper, convinced that I was being too hard on him, and also alleging that I was teaching “lesbian propaganda” in the classroom, but that’s really a story that deserves its own post.  The hard part wasn’t dealing with the student and his crazy mother.  The hard part was when the student asked to talk to me after class, and then to listen to him explain that he didn’t really understand why he got his grade, and how he had tried really hard, and to hear his voice crack and realize he was close to crying… to realize that maybe the non-analysis in front of me, which was functionally indistinguishable from a badly-written book report, was perhaps the best writing this guy was capable of, and it was up to me, a first year grad student, to tell him this… it is NOT fun to flunk a student.

And to be honest, it’s that experience, and that type of reaction (which I have received from multiple students at this point, though fortunately not many) that cause me to make my hardass declarations and expect a lot of my students.  Humans are naturally empathetic creatures, and creating such a negative reaction in another human, at least for me, takes a huge psychic toll.  Often when I’m grading a paper replete with basic mistakes, it will take me upwards of two hours to get through it because I get so angry- not because the student is making these mistakes, but because these mistakes are going to force me to fail the paper, and then I’m going to feel guilty about failing the student all week.  I haven’t mastered the art of letting go, and every time I go through a paper where the student is either lazy or overwhelmed, I beat my head against a wall trying to figure out what lessons I can draw from this morass of basic errors and missing-the-point-edness.  It’s enough to make me pull out the old C-minus, that great symbol of psychic compromise.

But I can’t do that.  I know that I only want to pull out the C-minus because I don’t want to feel bad about my student feeling bad, so I steel myself to the D or E (we use Es instead of Fs, which is much more logical if you think about it).  The student isn’t demonstrating the level of competence required, the student probably pulled this paper out of the student’s ass in the last two hours before it was due, the student’s bad feelings ought to be directed at the student’s efforts rather than the teacher’s standards, and it’s not like I’m doing the student any favors by passing them along through a system that’s going to hammer them later.  For all the sympathetic details my friend sees in these students, if they’re carried through the university to their college degrees by a wave of sympathetic instructors, no one benefits- not them, not the people conned into employing them, not the university who accepts and coddles and graduates them.  The buck has to stop somewhere.  Might as well be here.

So I grade, and the student feels bad, and I feel bad.  It’s usually a significant percentage of the class that gets these grades, too- not a majority or even a plurality, but enough so that the class after students receive their grades is permeated by a sort of icy silence.  You grow used to that silence when you grade like me.  It’s the sound of your teacher evaluations dropping by two full points.  I could go on for another paragraph about the problems inherent in making the qualitative gatekeepers of your university be subject to evaluations by students who may or may not be sufficiently competent at writing and critical thinking to even be in the university, but hopefully I’ve made my point.

As I continue teaching, the grading process never gets easier.  I exist in the odd state of being incredibly invested in my students’ outcomes while being completely unwilling to cheat on my own judgment in regard to those outcomes, so my entire existence during the school year is a long slog of emotional masochism, desperately wanting my students to succeed, but lacking either the teaching skill or flexible standards necessary to achieve it.  I don’t know if I that means I show promise as a teacher, or if that means I’ll be dead in five years if I continue.

*yes, it was Wednesday, so I already missed my perfect month.  Shows you how long my resolve holds.  I’ll post two tomorrow and try to pick the streak back up.

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This entry was posted on 6 July 2013 by in The Glowing Screen and tagged , , , , , , .
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