Sunday, August 24, 2008

This year will be better, or: The difference between my students and me

On Wednesday I begin my first official year on the tenure track at Field College. I'm in a bit of an odd situation in that last year retroactively counts as tenure-track-itude; I was, of course, VAPping here at Field, and have received a year's credit towards tenure as a result. I'm glad: I had one article come out and another one get accepted last year; I presented at a conference; I served on a search committee. (Truth be told, I think that I've already fulfilled the publication requirement for tenure; all I need to do now is go to the occasional conference to demonstrate "continued engagement in my discipline." I hope to do a wee bit more than that in the coming years, however.)

But nonetheless this is my first year as an official tenure-track Assistant Professor--my first year advising, serving on committees, fulfilling other administrative roles. I am, for example, directing the honors program. Which is weird, given my novice status, but one thing about tiny little colleges is that you can climb through the ranks awfully quickly: everyone is over-worked and happy to hand off such duties. I'll probably regret it at some point, but right now I'm excited about this particular position, as it'll give me the chance to work with some of the brightest students at the college.

My point is, though, that heading into this year feels really different from last year. Last year I was kind of a mess, I think. I was in a long-distance relationship which, while wonderful, also caused a lot of stress (the exhausting weekend trips, the uncertainty about ever being together, the feeling that everything hinged on how I did on the market); I had never before taught a course that I had designed; I hadn't the foggiest clue about what composition classes were supposed to be like; and almost everyone I met here seemed a little crazy. The entire college seemed crazy. There were a couple of reasons I felt this way: 1) I had never really been behind the scenes at a school, so I didn't know how they worked (the assessment jargon, e.g., really threw me, as did the obsessive concern with enrollment numbers and recruiting), and 2) I come from a pretty elite background--fancy private SLAC for undergrad; ivy grad school--which I'd never really thought of as elite/elitist, and I sort of assumed that all colleges and universities ran (or should run) the way that mine did. That is, that they should only accept the very best students; academics absolutely come before athletics (I still think this is true, OK); and--most importantly--all students are motivated primarily by the pure desire for Knowledge.

Yep, I've lost (most of) those illusions.

In a workshop last week, one senior art professor said something that I found really compelling. He pointed out that when he first got to Field, he had been accustomed to teaching and interacting with art students who wanted to be artists, and were therefore striving for a high level of achievement within their fields. Here, however, he discovered that most students were interested in service professions--teaching, primarily--and gradually had to adapt his teaching methods and course aims to match those students' interests--and that this had ultimately been very satisfying.

I think that I still feel that my students ought to be motivated to study literature because literature is Art--it's Culture--its study is valuable for its own sake, and because it makes us more developed human beings. I believe that that's true, of course: my inner life is infinitely richer because of my knowledge of literature, being a skilled critical reader helps me to cast a more critical eye over my world; and the wealth of ideas and experiences that it's given me glimpses of has enabled me to think very differently about my own life and how I choose to live it. I would still like to communicate that to my students. But many of them do not come from backgrounds like mine, where you never really worry about getting a job--of course you'll work, everyone works, but jobs are available and you'll get one and it's really matter of pulling yourself up out of the slough of just getting jobs and into the realm of the Meaningful. Most of my students aren't of that mindset. No, most of them aren't terribly poor (this is a private SLAC, after all, even if it's a pretty cheap private SLAC--only half of what mine cost 14 years ago!). But they want solidly middle-class jobs of the kind that a college education can give you: many of them want to be teachers or have some sort of "business" career (I assume that the business students have some concrete ideas of what they want to be; I have no idea what "business" actually means, so the scare quotes there are indicative only of my own ignorance).

I'm still trying to absorb what this difference means, and what exactly I can contribute to this student population. What I want is to galvanize these students--to shake them up, get them out of thinking about The Job and open the larger world up to them; many of them, for example, have hardly even left this state, and seem to have very little sense of alternative ways of living in the world than those to which they're accustomed. I might be able to do this, in a limited way. My best teaching persona--the one that came out in my most successful courses last year--is lively, self-deprecatingly geeky, wildly (almost goofily) enthusiastic and supportive, and even gets some laughs, and in those classes I had comments on my evaluations like, "I learned that literature is awesome!" and "Who knew I would like [subject of this course] so much?" So I retain my idealism, a bit. But I'm trying to get myself interested in learning from my students, too. It would be good for me, I think, to come to appreciate where they're coming from, as well, and to see the value in what they want to do.

It might help shake me out of my de facto elitism, at any rate.


What Now? said...

Such an interesting post, and really giving me flashbacks to my years at St. Martyr's, when I experienced a culture shock much like you're describing here. I wish I'd been as articulate and thoughtful about that difference as you are as early in my time there, although I'll give myself a bit of a break since religion was an additional and overwhelming factor.

Anyway, I never did exactly figure out how to reach effectively this different audience, and I always did better with the few English majors -- who were already bucking the trend by choosing such a "pointless" major -- than in the general ed. classes full of folks who were pretty explicit that they just wanted the four-year degree so that they could get a better job (and they were all pretty sure -- probably accurately -- that their GPA wouldn't make a difference).

I'll look forward to hearing about your continued thoughts and developments in this arena. And best wishes in your first "real" year on the tenure track!

Dr. Crazy said...

This is an interesting post. My path sort of started where your students are - thinking the point of college was just to get a solidly middle-class job. I mean, sure, I liked school, but I never went in thinking I was on some pursuit for Knowledge or Meaning or anything. I think what I learned in college - and what ultimately took me to grad school - was that a "life of the mind" isn't this luxury that only a rare few people get to enjoy, but ultimately it's something that everybody can have space for, even if they end up living in their hometown and not doing anything spectacular or that interesting for work. And that ultimately, having an intellectual and creative life can make even a "normal" life and job more interesting and meaningful.

What this has meant for me as a teacher is that I don't expect that my students are taking my courses with intellectual curiosity as a driving force. No, most are there because it's required. And that's ok with them. I think it's my job to respect that while at the same time tricking them into getting more out of it than just fulfilling the requirement. I don't expect them to be passionate about the material because I'm passionate about it or fascinated by it. Instead, I try to show them ways into the texts that connect to their lives, whether that translates into marketable "skills" or not. And that, ultimately, is kind of a cool thing, I think.

Good luck with your first "real" year on the T-T! And how excellent that you got credit for last year, too!

clio's disciple said...

Teaching in history I have a related kind of problem. For me, history is the most interesting thing in the world, and it can be hard for me to connect to those who just aren't interested. I mean, I understand not wanting to become a historian, but not even finding the past interesting? I have trouble with that mindset.

Fretful Porpentine said...

I think I'm struggling with a lot of the same things -- maybe less culture shock, since both my grad and undergrad schools were public, though pretty selective, and many of the students I had in grad school were coming from the same places yours are now. But yeah, I feel like I don't know what to do with the gen ed lit classes, and I have to fight the temptation to teach to the handful of English majors who actually want to be there and already see the value in what we do.

I think I have an easier time dealing with the clash of expectations and priorities in comp classes, where I'm not as invested in the material as I am when I'm teaching lit, and where I can frame it all as an introduction-to-college course and talk more explicitly about what students want out of their education; what we, as professors, tend to want them to want; and what sorts of messages about the purpose of college exist in the culture at large. Hmm. Maybe I should try to find a way to incorporate that sort of critical reflection into a lit class. Right now, a week and a half into the Brit Lit I survey, I'm beginning to suspect that none of us has the foggiest idea why we're here, and it's frustrating.