How My Students Are This Semester

Friday, January 8, 2016 | 0 Comment(s)

How are your students this semester?

I get this question multiple times at the beginning of each semester that I've taught at the college level. And while I firmly understand that the intent of the question is to gain more insight into my teaching experience and show interest in my life in general, it's a question that has constantly irked me.

The question presupposed the idea that there are good classes and bad classes. Good students and bad students. And I can tell you that this mentality has rubbed off on the student body. In many student meetings I've had UMass students talk about their education as if is somehow less than the educational experience at nearby colleges like Amherst, Hampshire, Smith, and Mt. Holyoke. There is this invisible glass ceilings that UMass students feel their education is below in a geographic area chocked full of management-level educational institutions.

I try to tell these students that the professors at UMass aren't teaching at 75% effort because they are at UMass and not down the street at Amherst. I realize that in a forest as large as UMass, students have to more actively engage their college experience to get the most out of it, but such a large university also offers more opportunities to engage in upper level research projects. There are downsides to large state schools, but there are upsides as well. I attempt to focus my students towards the positive.

Which brings us back to the good vs. bad student dilemma. In my experience, the most common trait unifying all of my students is their desire for personalized attention. Even during my first lectures for my 300 student class, I could sense that anticipation of another "useless" lecture. I have heard that often students alternate going to class on either Tuesdays or Thursdays and then share notes, treating class time as a necessary evil. I can't help but think this is a learned behavior. I can't help but think that some of this learned helplessness originated in previous uninspired performances.

But is it a professors responsibility to inspire? I realize that we can't all be straight out of Stand and Deliver, so to clarify -- to inspire is to not just present material, but to present it in a manner that makes it both understandable and interesting.

I don't care if it's bio-chemistry, ancient history, or statistics, the distance between "just teaching the material" and "bringing the material to life" changes the paths of the students in the classroom. Education is a two way street, and while it isn't my responsibility to make sure a students comes to class, I take some responsibility for her/his experience once she/he sits down.

And let's face it, often large schools aren't emphasizing teaching. If a famous scientist is making millions for the university in grant money, you would be right in assuming that said scientist could probably propose Silly Putty Projectiles as a course offering and still be held in high regard by the administration. Is it any surprise that most students make accurate judgements concerning their future enjoyment of a course within the first TEN MINUTES of the first lecture?! On an institutional level, success as a professor is rarely measured by the number of students you inspire.

It should be no surprise then, that often students enter a classroom with low expectations. Just like online dating, once you've been on enough horrible tinder dates, you start to get gun-shy. Keeping expectations low moderates potential disappointment. But that doesn't make them bad students. Hell, I've had students cheat on my tests and I still wouldn't consider them bad students. Did they make a shitty decision? Absolutely. But if they learned from the consequences of their actions now, while they're young, then maybe they took away more from the experience than they lost. Maybe the fear-inducing wake up call helped prevent more serious negative consequences in their future? Personally, I doubt they will forget the lesson I imparted on them that day. Maybe I just hope they did. But I think it is that hope that pushes me to be a better teacher.

The bare bones point here is that most college students are young. Between seventeen and twenty-two. I would prefer to think that at such a young age, students haven't yet become what they are going to be. They aren't yet good or bad, they are undecided. Isn't that the majesty of college? Isn't one of the fundamental pieces of the college experience learning about what kind of adult you want to be? If we label these kids as soon as they walk into the classroom, we are taking away their chance to define themselves. We are pigeonholing birds just as they're learning to fly.

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