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Monday, January 12, 2015

Little blog blip

I'm in my office, doing a little transitioning from a day of scheduling (oy) to a meeting with a "substitute" cat sitter who was wretchedly irresponsible and needs to be very firmly taken to task. She wasn't one of my students, but the impending confrontation with her feels very like interactions I've had with students in the past--although I don't need to maintain the same level of professional composure. I won't get into the whole saga now, but she's 19 and possibly has a substance abuse problem, on top of a very clear lack of any sense of responsibility: she needs to have one of those very painful lessons in what is expected of a person as a grown-up.

And I'm going to be in the position of asking other colleagues if they have students they would recommend for the occasional cat-sitting gig, as my wonderful, amazing former student who has been my cat sitter for the past few years is moving on to grad school and probably won't be in the area much longer.

However, what I want to process now is more professional than personal. Two things.

1: I had a rather odd epiphany yesterday. I told a friend about a weird experience from last semester's 101 students (in the earlier section, of course). They had never heard the term "ratchet" except in a slang/street meaning that I'd never encountered before--and when they read the word in not one but two articles, both times used in the phrase "ratchet up" (as in to increase), they were utterly confused. It didn't dawn on them that there might be a different meaning to the word: they assumed that there was some arcane connection they were supposed to make between the meaning they knew and the context in which it clearly didn't fit. It's hard to put this in words, but essentially, their assumption was that, since it didn't make sense, the problem was that they were missing some complex underlying meaning of the entire point in the article, not simply that a word might have more than one meaning. And that led me to realize that they apparently assume that they will be confused in any class they take--and that they will be powerless to find their way out of their confusion: only the teacher will be able to show them what they're missing, and it will invariably be something utterly arcane and beyond their grasp.

That in turn led me to remember the argument I had with a student many years ago: he was utterly furious with me that I wouldn't simply hand him an understanding of something he'd read. When I said that he needed to figure it out, he said, "But you're supposed to teach me." I explained that handing him the answer wasn't teaching him, but he clearly was firmly convinced that I was simply shirking my clear responsibility as an instructor. The student attitude seems to be A) for any question, there is one simple and clear answer, B) the teacher has the answer, and C) if students can't immediately see the answer on their own, they have no other recourse but to get the "right" answer from the teacher.

That whole way of thinking has been inculcated in them in all their prior education--and it is completely antithetical to how we as professors see things. They view their own understanding of what education is as absolute and inarguable: questions have answers, which teachers must provide. And I view my understanding of education as equally absolute and inarguable: A) many questions--especially the ones worth asking--don't have simple, clear answers, and may, in fact, lead to further and further questions without ever reaching a specific "answer" at all, B) the only "authority" for whether any answer is "correct" or not is the strength and validity of the support that underlies the answer, and C) the main objective of education is not, as students think, to provide them with answers but rather to teach them how to find their own answers, how to understand the reasons for their answers, and how to continually question their own answers to see if there might be even more room for thought or understanding beyond what is visible at first glance.

I imagine I've known all this for some while, on some deep, intuitive level, but this is the first time it's been so clear to me. I still haven't quite got it into words: I'm looking for the perfect, pithy analogy that will convey the difference between the two ways of viewing education so students have their own epiphany about what is supposed to happen in the learning process. I hope Paul can help: I want to bat this around with him for a while to see if we can figure out a way to get it across to our students. I'm actually very excited to have had the epiphany; now I just have to figure out how to get it into my pedagogy.

The second thing I wanted to mention is much less interesting, briefer, and not anywhere near as positive, but having just spent several hours working on scheduling, I must say that a large number of my colleagues are idiots who seem incapable of filling out a simple form. It didn't feel like we got very far today, but part of today was spent trying to get some kind of sense out of a colleague who is in charge of one of the interdisciplinary programs: we needed to know if any English faculty had been assigned to that program's courses for next fall, and all she wanted to do was complain about her own schedule--and to tell us that the courses that are on the books are wrong and she doesn't know who will be teaching them yet. I didn't strangle her, but it was a close thing.

Now, however, I have to dash off to scold the cat-sitter. I expect I may post again tomorrow, too; somehow it feels wrong to be in the office and not do that.

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