Saturday, April 14, 2007

Complaining about students.

Tonight at dinner the scientists I was surrounded by---all good, intelligent, nice people, so I don't mean anything by describing them as scientists other than the fact of them being scientists---were complaining about their students. They can't write and they can't think very well either. And it sucks. And there's no way these kids could have gotten into university back when, etc. I can't speak for all university and school systems, of course, but I am not prepared to be as harsh as them on students. Yes, it's true that many students are lazy and presumptuous and annoying. But I think most of them are genuinely interested in learning and doing well.

I think it's important not to exaggerate the argument I'm going to make. But here it is. If students are coming to university unprepared, then of course we all should agitate to make high school education link up better with university standards and expectations. This is a long-term project; in the meantime there are students who are floundering. While it's fine to whine, we need to acknowledge our students' unpreparedness and make a commitment to teach them what we think they need to know. It's up to us. We are on the front-lines. (By "us" I mean university instructors as a group, including professors and TAs.)

One of the scientists tonight claimed that somewhere along the way---somewhere in his many years of undergraduate and graduate education---he learned to think critically. I believe him, of course. When pushed, though, he could only say that he "picked it up." It's unfair of me to pick on him, because the conversation was just another one of those Massey affairs that doesn't require that advance thought be put into arguments, but I'm going to anyway. It's not good enough to expect students to just "pick up" critical thinking, writing, and analytical skills. They very well might, but all instructors (teachers) must ponder how to go about actually teaching these skills and attitudes. One can't just be brilliant at the front of an auditorium of 18-year-olds and expect some of it to seep into students' minds. Yes, sometimes it will. But we need to think harder about pedagogy.

Many professors and TAs already do this, of course. I can only hope that more and more of us will do so in the future. Students aren't any stupider than they were in years past. They might have a less wide-ranging vocabulary; they certainly don't read as many full-length books. But they do read and watch and listen to a much broader array of things than I think students did in the past. And they have more extra-curricular responsibilities and distractions. Can't we just accept this---when we have to, not resignedly---and adjust our teaching and our expectations to match? It's hard, but it's crucial. These kids will be the leaders and the toilers of tomorrow. There's no point giving them Cs and alienating them from the intellectual-university culture. That's just stupid.

End of rant. It's nearly 3am so forgive me for logical inconsistencies, please! But do call me on them.


Anonymous said...

Hi JP,

I agree 100%. It always bothers me when TAs start on that rant about how bad their students are, etc. And we must admit - it happens within our own department. They are so cynical, it's scary.

I don't think I could have gotten where I am without the help of all my TAs and professors when I was an undergrad. I would certainly not have "picked up" half as much. If I can do that for my students, I'll be happy.

Of course, I did have the arrogant TA who was very proud of the fact that he never gave As and that most people got Cs on his papers. I thought at the time and I still think today that it just means he was a bad teacher!

Anyways, I've been asked to organize the Teaching History Workshops next year. I hope I can count on you ;)

Anonymous said...


I'm coming back full of energy! Yep, I'll be doing the grad conference too, as well as the GHS Review this summer! Speaking of which, I guess I should send an email about possible contributions? Want to work with me on that again? Or will you be out of the country?