Post-semester Impressions and Questions

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

It’s that time again for a semester review.

I come out of this semester with certain typical impressions of my courses and the people in them. I also come out with lots of questions.

Firstly, every semester is interesting and different. There are some things that are always the same. I always meet interesting people, and they’re always different. The students in my courses always impress me with their individual stories, struggles, and successes. In this vein, I’m particularly proud of certain students who met minimum requirements after struggles and, on the other end of the spectrum, people who kept to a habit of excellence, the kind of excellence that would be judged so at any college in the country. Some of my students, who are very good, maintained a certain inconsistency in their work that I hope they will try to overcome: it comes with discipline and concentration on the matter at hand (yes, I think weddings should be put off till after the work is done). Sometimes this can be difficult at a college where people are often seeking to get the gen eds out of the way and don’t feel challenged by a specialty.

Secondly, the question of bad habits is more interesting than good habits when it comes to thinking about necessary adjustments for the future. In many cases this semester I was left scratching my head at behaviors that seem more inherent to childhood than to college contexts. Most noticeable was the problem of attendance and the cliche email request: “Did I miss anything important?” I had students who missed a month’s worth of classroom sessions, where, yes, much of importance happened. Unfortunately, once something is missed it’s almost impossible to gain back. In addition, bad attendance records mar in-class work, as I depend upon a frisky crowd to get the juices going. A college classroom is a place where people are supposed to gather to engage the world; this engagement is the most important part of college, in my view. The other paradigm is the Einstein one, where an absent student might indeed pass a course by submitting a portfolio of writing that does meet the requirements. But in this model, Einstein was engaging the world intensely. I often found this semester that because of in-attendance, I simply could not conduct several class sessions because content was unavailable or students had not prepared.

Another issue has to do with the myth of hard work. Some people in my courses still think that simply working through the problem is enough. The question here has to do with “how much is learned through the work.” One thing that people learn in college is their threshold for difficulty and that time and work are subjective. Some people might need several months to grasp a concept or to demonstrate their understanding of relationship between argument and paragraph, while others will be able to develop their concepts only to worry about the strength of their understanding and the depth of their knowledge.

College is difficult. But it’s not difficult just because. Here’s an example. Most humans are storytellers and storymakers. Much of our relations throughout the day demonstrate the depth of storytelling as a means of framing our presence to others. “What did you do today?” and “Why do you want that?” are basic schema. But, this doesn’t mean that people grasp storytelling elements objectively with any ease. Some people may feel that articulating an argument is easy. But, I would argue that this is the equivalent of saying: “Sure, just point and shoot and you’ll have a fabulous photograph.” No, to do something well takes much time and effort. And if everyone is an excellent photographer, as a friend of mine once said, then every photographer is average.

I try to stress to my students that degrees of learning come with degrees of responsibility and awareness of ethics. We can see this today in the Mississippi basin region where learning has been applied and continues to impact everyone. Blowing the levee requires a great deal of knowledge. Not everyone needs to have that specific knowledge, though, but those who do have a tremendous responsibility. Is the control of water sound, ethical, and wise? That’s being debated. In literature, we would call this a theme. We must know what a theme is, find them, and then understand them not just in literature but in the work of engineering corps.

Humans have derived massive systems and technologies. Are they hard? They are complex, and understanding this complexity requires lots of work. So, yes, college should be hard. I have a story that illustrates my view on the question authority:

When the doctor needs expert advice on what to grill, he asks Joe the Butcher. But who does Joe the Butcher ask for advice when he cuts his thumb off with the meat slicer? They are, in my mind, dependent on each other.

As an ability-based thinker, I consider how my examinations, paper assignments, and classroom pedagogy shape what people think about in their efforts to learn. I’ve learned a lot about this in my efforts at the guitar. I’ve been practicing the instrument for a few weeks over a year and am still mystified by the mechanics, the structure of music, and the shape of my body. It’s been lots of hard work but I still can’t really play the guitar and song that I started playing many months ago still give me headaches. I ask several questions: shouldn’t I be better by know? Shouldn’t I be able to press a simple C note easier with my 1st finger? These are complex questions. I don’t have good answers. I keep practicing because I want to learn to play the guitar not because someone else wants me to. But I do know that I will never be as adept as many of my students and friends who play. That’s not the point. One thing I know is that this doesn’t make me less of a human being (though I may feel that way).

This is a significant lesson that has nothing to with grades. It goes to the notion of determinism and the system of ethics we work with in institutions that are “deterministic” in nature. Consider A, who is a student in new media. Let’s also consider B, also a student in new media. B, after several weeks, drops the course because this or that concept is difficult to grasp. Maybe he’s new to the media arts. Why doesn’t really matter. In culture, B would be judged as “dumb” versus A, who turns in her stuff and it works just fine. Why “dumb?” Let’s change the context and go back to 5th grade, where I remember a certain student, B, having to do the 5th grade again, requiring an entire year of retake (did he need the whole year again; yes, according to the cause/effect rules). As kids, we thought B was “dumb.” We might not have known that B was building a timemachine in his backyard and thus had no time to learn spelling. Maybe B had to take care of a sick parent. We, of course, only saw B through the institutional (our view of childhood was partly shaped by school) lens. Every time a student leaps to their death because of bad grades or whatever reason, they are working in an established system not outside of it. I’ve learned over the years that rebels exist just as much as believers do inside existing systems. What defines, for example, an atheist?

Culturally and socially, we struggle with human character and ability and have a habit of judgement that is unnecessary to creative solutions to problems. Some students may be disinclined to the kinds of things college covers in its complex spectra. Some students may require more or less time to learn. But our system is fixed and inflexible where it does not need to be so. In our search for ordered passage up the ladder to “jobs” and “careers,” we’ve perhaps not thought hard enough about how other kinds of creativity can be fostered. We will be reading more on the graduation bubble.

I wish my students luck, especially those who are struggling with the requirements. Now I have to think about certain adjustments. The thinking continues.

2 responses to “Post-semester Impressions and Questions”

  1. J Radke says:

    Superb post.

    Especially this…

    “A college classroom is a place where people are supposed to gather to engage the world; this engagement is the most important part of college, in my view.”

    …and this:

    “…to do something well takes much time and effort. And if everyone is an excellent photographer, as a friend of mine once said, then every photographer is average.”

    Re: this (and its context in the paragraph)…

    “What defines, for example, an atheist?”

    The thieves on the crosses on Good Friday come to mind on this point.

    Also the Lutheran reformation.

    Even moreso, CS Lewis’s autobio Surprised By Joy.

  2. enjoyed this, steve. will have to write my own end of term reflections soon (our term ends now)…you inspired me to think about some things.