Sunday, March 25, 2012

On being, and teaching, the above-average student

Following Tenured Radical's example, Dr. Crazy and others have written several interesting posts about their own formative experiences in college--basically, how they got to where they are now, often after having been academic fuck-ups or just academically indifferent. They're all great posts, with the underlying message that, as professors, we should never write off the disengaged, the sullen, or the screw-ups, because those kids, too, can get it together, sometimes quite suddenly, when something or a series of somethings sets them alight.

That's a message I agree with profoundly, having seen it happen among a number of my own students. However, that wasn't my experience in college. I wasn't an academic fuck-up any more than I was an academic star. I was thrilled to have gotten into a fancy college, and once there I was a good, dutiful student whom I suspect almost none of my professors or TAs remembered once the semester was over. I didn't talk much in class, and though my essays were better than average they continually failed to deliver on whatever promise they might have shown: I would often get warm, encouraging comments on the first essay in a class that had two or three, and very few on the later essays as it became clear that I wasn't interested in or able to push myself further. The problem is this: I had a beautiful prose style and a strong, engagingly eccentric voice, but my literary analysis was hit or miss and I really didn't understand what I was doing, what made an essay an A- instead of a B+, or what I could do differently. (I was frustrated that I was stuck in this B+/A- limbo, but I didn't seek out help and no one spontaneously gave it to me.)

The closest thing I had to the kind of formative experiences that TR and Dr. Crazy describe was the Milton lecture I took in the spring of my sophomore year. I adored the professor and either adored Milton or transferred some of the adoration I felt for my professor onto Milton himself. However, my TA gave me a B- on my first paper, far and away the lowest grade I'd ever received. It scared the shit out of me, and partly because I loved the material and partly because my TA was the first person to actually tell me that I didn't know what the hell I was doing, I killed myself for the rest of the semester. I rewrote the paper for a B+. I got 100% on the midterm, 97% on the final, and spent literally three weeks slaving over my eight-page final paper, on which I also got a very high A.

Then over the summer H.K. and I wrote a ridiculous, irreverent play, "The Fifteen-Minute Milton," and sent copies to our professor (with whom we'd never had any personal interaction) and our TA. Our prof sent us a very sweet note, our TA never replied, and that was that.

It wasn't actually a transformational moment, however, in the sense that it set me on the path to a Ph.D. or even to noticeable academic improvement. I did go on to take four other classes in Renaissance lit and three in Early Modern history, but I never did as well in a literature class again. I liked many of my classes, often quite a lot, but my essays continued to straddle the A-/B+ line and I wrote a truly horrible senior essay (also on Milton).

No one ever told me that I should go to grad school, or praised me for my critical acumen; when I asked the woman who became my senior essay advisor to work with me, she cheerfully agreed--and then added, "Did you know that David [one of the other students from our seminar] asked me to advise his essay, too? He's REALLY SMART."

That was not something anyone said about me in college, and neither did they say it about me in graduate school. My early graduate work was fine. I didn't give evidence of not belonging. But no one ever suggested that my work was exceptional or indicated that they expected great things from me; in fact, I had a complex for a long time about having been admitted just because I had the right "breeding": I feared I'd gotten into the M.A. program because I'd been an INRU undergraduate, and then into the Ph.D. program because I was already taking classes with doctoral students. (That may in fact be true--I have no way of knowing--but it's not something I worry about any longer: lots of us have unfair breaks of one sort or another, but if our work is good, then fuck it.)

But I plugged along, diligently or maybe desperately, not getting a lot of feedback or more than a basic level of support, and my work got better and I grew more confident. But honestly, I haven't ever felt, not since high school, that I was anyone's favorite or anyone's golden child (as long-time readers will recall, I got this job as a very late hire, not having originally been among even the semi-finalists). I've always been a small fish in a big pond--but it's a nice pond, and a pond of my choosing, and I'm happy I get to swim in it.

So if my experience as a student affects my teaching, it's that I wish both to build up my overlooked students and to rattle my more confident ones. I'm allergic to arrogance and complacency, even when it comes from students who are, arguably, smart enough to get away with it. Teaching at a state institution means there's often a wide range of abilities in any given classroom, and students who write pretty well and have pretty good insights tend not to get pushed and do tend to get complacent. They're big fish in a small pond, and as such they're petted and praised and often not encouraged to recognize how far they still have to go.

It's a tough thing to teach--real confidence alongside real humility--but I guess I see my job as not letting anyone think they're good enough, yet, but that they have the potential to be.


Bardiac said...

Flavia, I think your experience is much more like the experience of most students who are good, solid students, but not shining stars. One of the most difficult parts of our jobs, especially in largish schools with largish classes, is to notice those students, at least a little bit, and encourage and push where we can. Thanks for telling your story.

phd me said...

Yep, that pretty much sums up my academic experience (except for the Milton). Thanks for sharing!

I was one of those students who was easily overlooked; I did good work then but it wasn't stellar, exceptional or groundbreaking. Turns out, I'm that kind of academic, too. I could be dismayed, I suppose, but I'm learning to like my part of the pond.

kas said...

This post, along with TR's and Dr.C's, has been very therapeutic for me in that I feel less personally mediocre, so thank you all for sharing. I think I have long excelled in the classroom on the basis that I work hard to bring forth the hidden talents/skills/confidence of the seemingly lackluster students who remind me of myself at their stage of life, but I am particularly unsure what to do about those overly confident and arrogant (and often truly brilliant) students, so I'd love to know what you and others do when they appear in your classrooms?

Case in point from my last semester: I taught a first-year seminar that was basically a writing intensive intro to gender and sexuality studies course, capped at 15. It was intended to teach students college level writing and thinking skills more than disciplinary content, but my topics were focused on matters of sex, gender, and power for adolescents and young adults so they were pretty engaged in the relevant content. 14/15 LOVED the course--many thought it changed their lives--but one thought the subject matter was "arcane" and the assignments "unchallenging," according to hir eval. Throughout the course this student kept trying to modify my assignments, making them more theoretical than I was calling for, bring, for instance, Derrida or Foucault into a discussion that was supposed to be about content I had actually assigned. I think I was so impressed with hir familiarity with some pretty heavy theory at such a young age that I chose not to discourage this student by giving hir grades that effectively scolded hir for not following directions, and in this regard I wonder if perhaps I failed said student. At some point during the sem. said student began to bring hir knitting to class, but as I had no "no knitting in class" policy on my syllabus and student continued to participate in class discussions, I let it go (but will henceforth have a new policy on my syllabi). I now see that this was a clear indication from student that s/he was above it all. I realize this is a bit off topic but I would love to hear your thoughts and those of your loyal commenters, even if down the road in another post. Thanks!

Veralinda said...

kas: when I have a student like that, I also try to be encouraging but far more (re)directive. About the work, I'd say there is no reason not to let the student engage at the level they are ready to, e.g. by offering to assign more advanced reading, discuss theorists in office hours, giving them research to do, etc. Why make a student conform to the assignment when the goal of the assignment is to allow them learn, not to oblige them to follow directions? Some flexibility on our part is required. On the other hand, a student who is more prepared or advanced *doesn't* get a free pass to bask in their own arrogance and be done with it. That can create a hostile and intimidating learning space for the other students, plus the advanced student is also too busy being hostile and superior to actually learn what s/he can still actually learn. My strategy is to intervene privately. If you bring them into your office early in the term to discuss all this (or, at least, when the knitting came out and you knew you were losing this person), you can get them on your side--not only by offering more challenging work/offers to engage, but also by turning them into a positive force in the classroom. This student sounds like s/he had a lot to learn about civic discourse, about class entitlement, etc. So trying to encourage hir better nature--"help me in getting the less prepared kids to recognize these connections--can get a kid like this to use their powers for good.

Flavia said...

This post and its comments have got me thinking about the differences between big-pondism and big-fishism. Personally, I've always hated the idea of being in a small pond, and the few times that I felt I have been (in high school, for example), I disliked how restless and sometimes arrogant the experience made me feel. I only barely considered going to a liberal arts college--I applied to a couple--and immediately ruled out the ones I'd gotten into once the acceptances came in.

I actually think I would have been happier & more self-confident if I'd gone to a smaller college, and partly as a consequence it's important to me to give my own students more individualized attention that I feel I got. However, for me it's always been preferable to be challenged, even if that meant feeling gloomy and mediocre and sometimes frustrated, than to run the risk of becoming arrogant and/or bored (not that I'm saying that would have happened at a liberal arts college! but as an 18-year-old I feared it would). I was always suspicious that I was getting praised for stuff I didn't earn or didn't deserve. . . and the best way not to be overestimated is to swim with much bigger fishes in an enormous pond.

That's not for everyone, but it had its benefits for me--and I do think my best students sometimes suffer from not having enough competition.

Flavia said...

Oh, and kas: Veralinda said it much better than I could! Generally, the arrogant students I encounter seem to be testing me: to see whether I'm catering to the lowest common denominator in the classroom or can handle a direct challenge.

As long as they're not derailing the class or showing contempt for their slower peers, I'm happy to engage with them at their level. Basically, if what they're interested in talking about is interesting to ME, and seems like it's at least potentially useful to the class, I let them run, just asking that they explain or frame terms or ideas for their classmates that I'm not sure they're familiar with (or I give a bit of framing or context myself). But I'll also freely tell them if the thing they want to talk about is peripheral or not useful to our discussion, or if it's better saved for a different day, or for office hours, or whatever--and like V., I definitely follow up to make sure they don't feel shut down or disrespected.

kas said...

Flavia and Veralinda: thanks to both of you for your thoughtful advice and comments.

I had not considered big fishism v. big pondism. I really like that analogy as a means for assessing the importance of context in education. As someone who went to mediocre big state schools for undergrad and grad educations but who has been teaching at elite SLACs for several years, my comparisons have strongly favored the latter, the type of place I dreamed of going but did not have the means to attend.

I should say that the student I referenced has at least one academic parent and clearly isn't as awed by college professors as many first years. Usually one doesn't feel as much on trial or pressured to prove oneself among first years. At least, that has been my experience.