Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The things my students teach me

Here we are, at the end of November . . . already! . . . the semester just about over, and I can't decide if . . .

. . . this semester has just zipped on by . . . whoooooooosh! . . . or drudged-drudged-drudged-drudged along, slower than hell . . . waiting for the weather to turn chilly, then rainy, then cold and then . . . perhaps to white clouds and snow, and the winter break that comes once I clear the blue books, papers, make-up assignments, "lost" assignments mysteriously found and deemed in need of credit, letters of recommendation are cleared off my desk and extraneous university junk mail ("Come by Public Safety and find out how we can make your on-campus parking experience even better!") off my desk.

Like I always do at the end of a semester, I ask myself a few questions: Could I have taught my classes better? (Yes) Should I have had them read more? (Yes) Less? (No). Perhaps I should have assigned an additional writing assignment (Definitely not)! Student writing gets worse and worse every year and becomes more and more painful to read. I decided some years ago that I am not a writing teacher, just like a writing teacher is not a political scientist trained to teach undergraduates about the Constitution and what it means. I wonder how often an English professor or writing instructor has a student come up to her and ask,"Professor Davis, can you explain to me again the difference between Section 5 power under the 14th amendment to enforce the equal protection clause and the equitable power provision of Article III?" You know as well as I do that no English student ever asks that question of a professor. But our students want me to teach them how to write. All I can teach them is what I know, and, while I know how to write, I don't know how to teach people how to write. I'll learn that I should tell people specifically what they should write about, and then how to write what I've told them they should write about. I stopped giving writing assignments in certain courses for this very reason -- I just didn't want to argue with people less than half my age who have none of my expertise why I should do their work for them.

Some students don't agree with this policy, and think I should take a more painstaking approach to correcting their writing or, at minimum, providing them with "tips" on how to improve their ability to choose a topic, construct an outline, write an essay and then read it over to make sure it makes sense. My philosophy towards teaching undergraduates includes a heavy dose of self-reliance and taking steps towards developing the confidence to think independently. My approach to teaching about American constitutional development can sometimes be quite unconventional. My goal is never to "get through" a given number of cases or reach a certain point in the syllabus or teach such inane concepts as "judicial activism and judicial restraint," or teach such extraordinarily complex matters like sexual autonomy as if they were simple questions involving "sexual orientation" and "societal preferences" within some "long-standing -- albeit theologically non-existent -- Judeo-Christian tradition." I try to teach students some degree of humility along the way. By telling them I can only teach them what I know, I am trying to get them to understand and respect the division of labor and realize that, if their professors admit that they don't know everything, maybe they can, too.

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I also learned this semester, more than in any recent semester I can remember, that some students still just love to pass notes back and forth to each other during class, almost as if the pressure of their senior year has forced them to think wistfully for the days of 6th or 7th grade, when you passed a note to your desk neighbor to pass to your friend to pass to the friend of the girl you wanted to go steady with, in hopes that she would, upon giving it the once-over, pass it along to the girl that you couldn't stop thinking about, but would nonetheless break up with not five days after you had referred to her as your "girlfriend" to the guys you hung out with during lunch.

Since I don't allow laptops in class, students have to distract themselves -- and me -- the old-fashioned way. Psssst! Psssst! Psssst! Are they making fun of me? Sure. It could also be a classmate who has just admitted that, Griswold v. Connecticut notwithstanding, perhaps the Constitution, because it doesn't mention making-out, kissing, holding hands, does permit a state, if not Congress, to outlaw any form of "affection" or "intimate expression" that might lead to non-procreational sex. "Can you believe she said that?" the note might say. "What do you think Ivers really thinks about that?" "I can't tell." "Is he letting her just say this stuff to see if she can back it up?" "I can't tell." "Do you think he agrees with her?" "No way." "I don't know . . . he comes up with some awfully weird shit." "Yeah, do you remember that time if asked what's-her-name if a cab driver should be charged with accessory to murder for knowingly driving a woman to a clinic that performed abortions after the state had made them illegal?" "Oh, my God, yes, yes! That girl was like, 'she shouldn't have gotten pregnant' and I'm like, whatever." "Have you read the book we're talking about?" "No, have you?"


Old school note-passing is just low-tech IM'ing, but it is still very annoying. I've always wondered what the students' reaction would be if I started passing notes to one of their classmates or spent the session texting away on my cellphone when one of them asked me a question.

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And no, I still don't permit students to use laptops in class. You don't need them to take notes, and the idea that a constant click-click-click! . . . tap-tap-tap! on a keyboard is conducive to class discussion and interaction is nuts. Put a keyboard in front a student during a 75 minute class lecture and discussion and you invite distraction. Solitaire? Why not? Check my email? Absolutely! Ooooh, another trip to eBay?!?!? Can't pass that up? IM'ing my friend on the other side of the classroom? How cool! Every so often I stop and look in a classroom where students have their laptops open. I have never, ever seen a page open to anything other than email, People Magazine online, a game . . . nothing, in other words, having to do with the class. Just the other day, I saw one particularly dexterous student texting away with his right hand (careful, though, to keep his phone below the desktop) while emailing with his left while a classmate looked at him with slack-jawed awe. But most of my colleagues are afraid to tell their students they can't have laptops in class for the same reason that so many are afraid to give them bad grades or tell them they can't roast a rotisserie chicken or give each other back massages during class -- they don't want to compromise their teaching evaluations, the be-all, end-all measure of how "effective" we are as instructors.

What does it tell you when a colleague comes up to you and asks, "How do you get your students not to use their laptops in class or play with their cellphones when you're trying to teach?" The answer is simple: tell them they can't use their laptops or play with their cellphones during class. "But won't they get mad?" comes the response. Maybe, but who cares? The classroom is our office, and I seriously doubt that any student with a job would contest a boss's decision to prohibit cell phone use during an office meeting or one-on-one session with them. Fonzie from "Happy Days" had the bathroom at Arnold's for his office. The classroom where I am assigned to teach for 75 minutes twice a week, is my office. I don't agree with my colleagues who believe that placing limits on the power of our students to control how we teach them is somehow adverse to their "rights," much less their interests.

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I have also learned, once again, that, for many students, my request to keep current with their twice-weekly assignments due in class or to turn their exams and papers in on the date their due is considered an option over which they have considerable discretion. Assignments are due when they are due. I have never turned a student down for an extension who is dealing with an illness or some personal problem. In fact, I am more likely to offer an extension to a student IF I know the student is on the level with me. But someone who comes to me with a casual "look, I'm just busy" after-the-deadline decision to turn in an assignment isn't going to get my sympathy. Part of what we're trying to do as college professors is to teach students some semblance of responsibility. Allowing them to determine the boundaries and rules of their course requirements isn't going to do that.

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Is it unreasonable to expect a student who has an opinion on the Supreme Court and the work it does to know who the sitting justices are who decide the cases and write the opinions? I don't think so. Sometimes, when writing fiction or sketching out a docu-drama, it's all right to alter some facts to fit the story line. But if you're going to have something to say, good or bad, about what the justices do, shouldn't you at least know who they are?

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I had a student, only half in jest, suggest to me I was "biased" for pointing out in class that not a single major abortion decision by the Supreme Court from Roe v. Wade (1973) forward has been made by a majority of justices appointed by Democratic presidents. Roe was a 7-2 decision whose majority consisted of five justices appointed by Republican presidents and two appointed by Democratic presidents. Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), the 5-4 decision often cited as the one that "saved" Roe, saw five Republican-appointed justices "preserve" the "core holding" of Roe. Three Republican-appointed justices and one Democratic-appointed justice comprised the minority opposed to Roe.

Since 1975, no more than two Democratic-appointed justices have served on the Court at any one time. I barely made it out of Algebra II (without trig!) in high school, but even I know enough to know that two can never make a majority out of five. Anytime I point out that Republicans have controlled the Supreme Court for the last 40 some-odd years, I am inevitably met with an eye-rolling, hands-in-the-air, body-repositioning response by someone, as if I have just revealed that President Kerwin has a secret taping system in his office (he doesn't) or that weapons of mass destruction don't really exist underneath our university's athletic fields (they did and still might). To me, one of the great conservative political victories of the last generation has been to persuade the American public that the Court is getting its marching orders from liberal law professors and the ACLU. Nothing could be further than the truth. Students should be interested to learn that a popular perception isn't true. Instead, they sometimes get mad. And this applies to liberals as well as conservatives. I have had students look perplexed, perhaps even offended when I suggest that an effort to achieve intellectual "diversity" by emphasizing race, religion, gender or ethnicity in the admissions or employment decision-making process might encourage us to embrace stereotypes of persons historically lacking power. If an admissions committee decides to admit an African-American or Jewish student because they want that person's "point of view" represented, aren't we assigning an identity to someone based on their race, religion and/or ethnicity? Shouldn't the goal of affirmative action be to make our major institutions more representative of our nation's demographic, and then let ideas take people where they may? Maybe, maybe not. But I am always surprised at the reactions of some students when you suggest there is another way of looking at things other than through the limited lens of conventional wisdom.

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Quirks, follies, eccentricities and sometimes just plain weird behavior aside, college students are a great source of inspiration to the professors who teach them, or at least they are to me. I am continually amazed by the intelligence, sophistication and maturity of students who are still in the fledgling stages of their adult lives. In some ways, we ask far too much from 18-22 year-olds -- to declare a major as if the rest of their life depended on it; to rack up internships like stuffed animals on a hunting cottage wall; to stuff their resumes full of experiences of little or no value because they believe doing so will help get them where they want to go. My job, in addition to teaching them what I know, is also to remind my students to turn things in on time, to pay attention (or pretend to) to things you don't necessarily find all that interesting, to own up to your mistakes, to learn certain adult norms of personal behavior and to figure out a responsible way to correct a problem that doesn't involve just avoiding it. In other words, my job is to push them and their job is to make me explain why they should listen to me, which means that we each are doing what we are supposed to do. There is no better job than the one I have, and that is why, unless I am offered the touring drum chair for Steely Dan or the general manager's position with the Atlanta Braves, I could never imagine doing anything else.


FishyFred said...

When I was in Professor Charles Cox's College Writing Seminar class, I was not a good writer. But something he did grading my final paper made me much better.

He basically made fun of me.

The tone of his comments were flippant, in jest, like he was laughing at how bad I was ("You sure love those cliches!") and it pissed me off so much that I made sure to stop making the mistakes he pointed out.

You say you don't like criticizing students on their writing, but you might find it a little more palatable if you have a little fun at the expense of their writing, and if they can swallow their pride (hoping against hope, I know), they will improve.

Gregg Ivers said...

Professor Cox teaches college writing. I teach about law and politics. My point (and maybe I don't write well enough to make it clear!) is that writing teachers are better positioned to teach about writing than political scientists, whose "expertise" lies elsewhere.

KMac said...

I think you're biased against math students. Now the truth comes out - Algebra II. It's all clear now.