Sunday, September 24, 2006

Does my advice matter?

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.


Anonymous said...

If she really is doing all that she says (and you advised), it is entirely possible that she has a learning disability. I've had students who were outstanding people -- enthusiastic, interested, polite, prepared -- and had a great transcript, but couldn't read a sentence from the textbook. Literally. They were victims of "social promotion," because everyone liked them and they were working. No one wanted to "punish" them academically, so they went on. When they read and pointed to the text they were reading, invariably they skipped words, inverted words, or omitted words. This makes it hard to understand what you are reading. In every case, those who were tested (which may cost a TON of money)were found to have a learning disability. And let me tell you, conversations where you tell a formerly straight-A student that there could be some type of processing problem and those where they come back to you with confirmation of that diagnosis are really difficult. Good luck to you and your student.

Anonymous said...

I had the same reaction as anonymous. But really, aren't such students heartbreaking? I've had a few like that along the way - and sometimes there really isn't much you can do to help them, when everyone else seems to get what's going on and this one student is on another planet. It sounds to me like you've done a great deal to help already - here's hoping it will make a difference.

negativecapability said...

I had a peer like this in my Milton class as an undergraduate. Tried so hard and just could process it. I hadn't thought about it before, but I agree with anonymous. When you're sweet and hardworking, it's easy to get through school to a certain point without really processing what's going on, which can end up being detrimental to the student if a serious learning disability goes unrecognized and un-dealt with. It sounds like you're doing everything *you* can, in your capacity as professor, to help, including directing her towards resources that might be more capable of helping.

negativecapability said...

heh..."just couldn't" - that really changes the meaning, doesn't it?

Flavia said...

The possibility that she might have an undiagnosed learning disability had never occurred to me--but I think that Anonymous & NK may be right, assuming that my student really is doing everything that she says she is. I have to admit that I had a hard time believing that it was *possible* for her to be having as much trouble as she said she was.

I'll keep an eye on her work over the next couple of weeks, and perhaps suggest testing if she's still struggling and/or if I see anything else that seems unusual. Thanks so much for the suggestion.

Bardiac said...

First, I think it's great that you took the time and offered to help more. GO Flavia!

I think Anon and NK may indeed be onto something. I can sometimes get a sense of the difficulty if I ask a student to read a passage out loud. YOu can often hear where students are having basic difficulties, and then help them find resources to deal with learning disabilities, or work with a reading tutor.

I really like your suggestion of film versions. Does your campus have the old BBC series? I found them incredibly helpful when I took my first Shakespeare class. I also found tapes of the place uesful, especially for just getting a feel for the way things go. My local public library has both tapes and CDs of the plays, so maybe they're also available in your community?