March 6, 2003

Painful clues

I had a discussion with a former student earlier this week with a painful lesson about miscommunication between students and faculty. But it’s an important lesson, and I think I know how to remedy this specific problem.

In the relevant class, where I was teaching a cohort of students in a single program, I received abysmal student ratings in the end-of-semester surveys students completed. I knew I was going to take a hit for the fact that a book supplier failed to come through at the beginning of the term (partly my mistaken faith in the retailer) and that students had some skill gaps as a group. But I also suspected there was some other dynamic I was missing entirely. I received a clue ten weeks into the term when a student told me she was absolutely fearful of my judgment of class discussion. Why? I asked. Well, she explained, I had cut down another student in an on-line discussion thread fairly early. Here is, word-for-word, what I wrote from that thread:

[The student] suggests that my item about a possible contradiction regarding the status of women may be imposing contemporary values on the past. In other words, he’s accusing me of the historian’s sin of presentism. Since this is an issue about my discipline and not the book itself, I’ll respond on that point alone. (I take no offense at the challenge, by the way; it provides one of those interminable teachable moments we’re supposed to be so fond of.) (Then I addressed the substantive issues.)

The other student (who read my response) was certain that I saw her colleague, an absolutely wonderful student in my opinion, as challenging my authority. I said absolutely not—it was a wonderful exchange, in my view. I was puzzled by her reaction, but didn’t think much more about it until I spoke with another student in the class this week, and the same issue came up (though this other student was not as specific).

The thought hit me with a ton of force: These students interpreted challenge as a signal that I thought the student was a challenge to my authority as a teacher. They were fitting my remarks into their understanding of teachers in charge of students. That perception was at odds with what they thought university faculty were like, though it was close to their understanding of authoritarian-styled K-12 teachers. The comments in parentheses may have reinforced their interpretation of my remarks as being displeased with the student.

In reality, I was delighted with the issue that the students raised. So there was obviously a gap. One was how students perceived my humor, and that’s always tricky (and unpredictable). Generally, students don’t misinterpret my occasional uses of humor.

The second issue, though, was the lack of a shared understanding of the class as an intellectual endeavour that everyone contributed to. They certainly understood that we were discussing the politics of education, and they had no qualms with it. But to see the politics of education through a set of intellectual lenses was a different task from shooting the breeze. And they had to see themselves as intellectuals to feel comfortable with a certain amount of give and take. And, for reasons I won’t go into, I know that this cohort did not talk about themselves as a group of teachers who were also intellectuals (or intellectuals who taught a certain subject).

I think that gap in understanding has been the missing piece for several graduate courses I’ve taught at USF. And, now that I know it, I can address it explicitly at the beginning of classes. My classes are intellectual endeavours. I expect students to act as intellectuals, and I know they’re all capable of it. And I will support their intellectual achievements.

And this is broader than my courses. It’s a problem for doctoral programs in the college as a whole. There’s a deep gulf in the faculty between those who think of doctoral programs as research training and those who see it as part of career paths (to do some honest work while earning another step on the salary scale). And there’s also a deep gulf among students who see graduate work as intellectual and those who see it as part of earning a credential. I suspect this failure to reexplain what intellectual work is (for I believe most students will recognize it when explained well) is something that is easily solved, if we all agree as a faculty that students should work hard at intellectual stuff.

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Posted in Teaching on March 6, 2003 1:39 PM |