Sometimes I'm not sure whether the actual advice that I give to students matters so much as the fact that I'm giving them some advice--or, more to the point, that I'm taking the time to take them seriously, listen to them, and encourage them in whatever vague way I can.
Or at least I hope that's the case, since I was confronted this week by a student I'm not sure I can help in any immediate way.
She's a transfer student from a community college, entering as a junior English major, and she's in both my Brit Lit and my Shax classes. And, not to put too fine a point on it, she's been doing abysmally. As in, getting scores of 1 or 2 out of 10 on my (largely fact- and plot-based) quizzes, often producing answers so odd that I wasn't sure whether she was actually doing the reading, even though she seemed extremely conscientious. I always have a handful of students who bomb my classes, of course, but they tend to be 40-year-old single mothers who work full time and miss class rather often, or kids who just clearly aren't doing the work and couldn't care less about the material (and, honestly, even those students usually average quiz scores in the 40-50% range).
So I asked her to come talk to me so that we could work on getting those scores up.
She came to my office and told me that she didn't know what she was doing, didn't understand a word of Shakespeare, and just couldn't figure out why--she'd gotten all "A"s in her English classes at the community college.
I assumed that she just wasn't reading very closely, and I was prepared with my usual advice about going slow, taking notes, working through a single scene at a time--but then she described her study methods, and she's doing all that. Moreover, after she reads the original, she goes to SparkNotes, and then after THAT she rereads the original. . . but even after having read a plot summary in the interim, she claims that she still has no idea what's happening in the play.
She seemed so sweet and so overwhelmed, and I was myself so stumped, that I had nothing really to offer her. I gave her the contact information for the university's "learning center," which provides drop-in tutoring and study skills services, and I recommended that she try renting the movie versions of as many of the plays that we're reading as possible, since seeing the plays would likely help her to get the gist better. But what else could I say, really? Most of my students in that class are performing at a reasonably high level--and given that, and given that we're reading a play a week, it's just not feasible to reorient the class to make sure every single student understands what's happening in every single scene.
I sent her off with some vaguely encouraging words to the effect that it would get easier over time, and thanking her for coming to see me--but I kept thinking about her, so two days later I sent her a follow-up email with more information about the learning center and some encouragement to go there (it's her tuition dollars, after all!); offering to meet with her weekly if she wanted to practice working through just a page or two of text one-on-one; but more importantly, I hope, assuring her that this was difficult material and that I knew she was feeling discouraged, but also promising her that it just took practice and diligence and that it would get easier if she stuck with it.
I hope I'm right about that. But more importantly, I hope that, even if she winds up failing one or both of my classes (both of which are requirements), she's not permanently discouraged. As a transfer student and a commuter, with no friends or established connections at the university, her likelihood of being sucked down by the undertow seems rather high--and if I've made her believe that someone here is interested in her success, maybe she'll be willing to stick it out just a little while longer.