Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Teaching Lessons

I am teaching at two dramatically different universities this semester.  We'll call them University A and University B.

University A is ranked as one of the top undergraduate programs in the country.  Its tuition is more than many people's annual salary.  Its students are smart, motivated, and privileged.  This semester, I have been fortunate to have a great group of students.  Sure, they are a bit neurotic about grades, but no one has shown up in my office in tears over a C+ or belligerent over a B.  The biggest complaint about students at this school is that they come with such a huge sense of entitlement.  Many of them feel that they are too smart for any kind of "required" classes and they don't need a freshmen level writing class.

Many of them honestly don't need a freshmen level writing class.

There is still a range of students--students from big cities and those from rural communities; students who live comfortably ordinary middle-class lives and those who summer in Europe; those who get scholarships and big loans to come to University A and those whose parents pay tuition in cash; those who went to public school and those who went to elite private boarding schools in the Northeast (yes, evidently those things still exist).

This is not to say that I have never been frustrated and annoyed with University A students.  I have had some doozies in the past--students who won't shut up, students who say awkward things, students who don't hand in work, students who sleep through class because they were up all night studying.

This semester, I got so lucky.  My students this semester are all incredibly bright, funny, and hardworking.  They come into class with their Macbooks, carefully taking notes and asking for clarifications.  They are enrolled in other classes like Calculus III and have majors like "PNP" which is essentially a triple major in Philosophy, Neuroscience, and Psychology.  They are friendly and eager to please.  They are by no means perfect (I did have one whip out a cell phone and openly text during class--but it only happened once!) but they show up having read the assigned work, having done the homework, and prepared to participate in a class discussion about it.  There's a joke that you can go into a 50 minute class with four discussion questions and the students will fill up all the time because they all have something to say and they will thoughtfully respond to each others' questions and comments and they will ask new questions.

They are good students.  They have had lots of practice being good students.  They have been consistently rewarded for being good students.  They are easy and fun to teach.  They are privileged.

At University B, it is the exact opposite experience.  Teaching there is frustrating.  I often feel like I am teaching high school because there is a level of classroom management involved that I have never had to deal with before.  Students come to class without their textbook.  Over and over again.  No matter how many times I insist they need to bring their books to class.  Students text on their cell phones.  No matter how many times I mention it, or if I call them out on it.  Students hand in essays that don't meet the basic requirements of the assignment, that are rife with grammatical errors and punctuation problems, that don't follow MLA format.

I have gotten so frustrated that I dread going to class at University B.  I hate trying to fill each 75 minute class with a dog and pony show that will keep the students actively engaged.  I have to ask basic comprehension questions about reading assignments and then guide them ever so carefully toward analysis because they would never offer an analytical comment on their own.  I repeat myself over and over again and still don't get through to them.  They whisper when I'm talking, they half-ass peer review workshops, they make me feel like I am not making any difference whatsoever.

Today, though, I realized that "they" is actually a pretty small fraction of class (maybe 1/4) and that I am letting them infect the class experience as a whole.  I am taking personally some issues that are not personal.  Several students didn't get the homework assignment done for today.  But many of these students don't have computers at home!  (This blows my mind.)  One girl explained to me after class that she read the essay after her kids were in bed so she didn't have time to finish answering all of the questions and she's trying to quit one of her two jobs and she'd like to quit both of them, but then how would they pay the bills?  So she'll e-mail me the homework today, if I'll still accept it.

A perfect example of the contrast:

Yesterday at University A, I had a conversation with a student who addressed me very respectfully but was obviously comfortable talking to adults and felt completely at ease while we chatted.  He explained that he'd like to focus his project this semester on an Edward Albee play and he described the play to me and said he'd done some acting in high school and had memorized one of the monologues.  Then he told me that he'd ask his acting coach to send him the full script.

Of course he has an acting coach.

Of course he knows who Edward Albee is.

Today at University B, I asked students to write persuasive letters to a friend trying to change their mind about something.  They had to find a shared bridge or common ground to use as a persuasive appeal in their letter.  When I asked who wanted to share, one woman raised her hand.  She is probably in her mid-thirties, an attractive African-American woman whom I know also has kids and no computer at home (but who is not the same student mentioned above).  She is quiet and very soft spoken (so soft spoken I often have to ask her to repeat herself when she speaks in class).  She matter-of-factly shared with the class that she was writing her letter to a childhood friend who is an exotic dancer, trying to convince her to change her career path.  Her friend has a high school degree, while my student had to work to get her GED.  Now my student is in college, and wants to convince her friend that she can do something more with her life.  Their common ground is that they went to the same church growing up and "we both know better."

I was totally unprepared for that perspective, and it made me realize that whether or not I am doing a good job of teaching these students something, I still have a lot to learn.  I remind myself everyday before I go to that class that each of these students is fighting a battle that I know nothing about, but hearing about their life experiences--and how different they are from those of the students at University A--is humbling. 

They are still frustrating--especially the little punks on athletic scholarships who can't stop texting during class--but I have to focus on the students who are really there to learn.

Maybe by the end of the semester, I'll teach them how to use commas properly and they'll teach me how to be a more patient and generous instructor.


  1. What an excellent post! Lots to think about here, but it's striking just how different life experience can be before the age of eighteen and how those experiences affect the rest of our lives. Everything we hear about "problems with public education" is grossly oversimplified, for sure.

  2. Well done, as always. Brooke L. took some classes in St. Louis at an unnamed university (though not University A...could be B, for all I know). She took some education classes and the folks in class with her, studying to be teachers, not only texted in class, but also answered their phones in class and began conversations on the phones...in class. It's just beyond me. In what possible situation is that okay? Unbelievable.

    As I eventually head toward a teaching position sometime, I'm definitely planning on looking somewhere between University A and B. Honestly, I just don't want to deal with either extreme. I'm just not patient enough to deal with the University B mentality, but I also want to help lift the less privileged (as you put it) higher than they'd (hopefully) otherwise get.

    Regardless, good luck!