Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Crying students (and their professors)

I had a student melt into tears in my office at 8am this morning, just before class. This has been a regular occurrence this year - oh, the student tears I've seen. About missed periods, hospitalized mothers, and forgotten exams. And, several times, my gentle accusations of unintended plagiarism. This one was crying because she is overwhelmed and doesn't understand my's too conceptual and she says she's not used to thinking this way. It seemed to me that the problem is probably more that she is taking three, intensive spring session classes at once, including stats (?!), and not that she "can't do" this one. She repeated her refrain about her brain's unsuitedness to conceptual work, and when I said, "you know, it could be me", she looked at me as if I was crazy and said, "no...everyone else is getting it..."

"We don't know that," I said. Flying in the face of advice from colleagues that I should never apologize or admit weakness to students. But it's true. We don't. What I do know is that I have 20 students in a class with no prerequisites, including about 6 smart students from my major. To the rest, it could be, and probably is, a different language. And how are my language-teaching skills? I'm not so sure...I'm better at working with the "converted", working with students who already grasp the basics. I don't think I'm particularly successful at breaking things down, especially when I'm concerned about wasting the time of the converted - to manage this problem, I sometimes have the converted help me explain a theory...that gives them a role, but it might also inflate their sense of self-importance. I do worry about the students who certainly have the aptitude for theory, but who might not be getting the push they need from me...

So Crying Student and I, we went to class, and the students wrote an in-class essay for the first half, and then I lectured for an hour. And it was my turn to (almost) cry, which I got to disguise because I am getting over being sick and have a froggy, cracking, and dwindling voice. I was lecturing on commodity fetishism - an article I adore that has an emotional resonance that is rare for theory. What a difference, I thought. Crying Student was in tears because she didn't get the theory; I was on the verge because I did. This only underscored my worrries about the differences between us.

I try and remember that last week a colleague overheard a student in this class telling another about how great the class is...and how "the prof, like, actually makes it interesting..." Something is getting through to her, obviously. But still, I worry about teaching clarity. We talk a lot about clarity in writing, don't we, and fight over the (in)accessibility of theoretical language. It seems to me that a lot of our worries could be assuaged by learning how to translate that language for our students...after all, the problem isn't intrinsic to the content, it's a question of intelligibility (yeah, yeah, I know one could argue they're the same thing). Rearticulating theoretical work is as important in this context as is its accessibility as scholarship. And yet, how? As a TA, I once went to a workshop on how to bring difficult concepts to life using creative teaching strategies. It was all about drawing pictures and role-playing. This is SO not my style - it felt like kindergarten, and I am loath to feed into students' belief that they are not adults . There must be other ways.

This feels urgent to me given my dilemma in my previous post, whereby the few students who feel an affinity with theory run amok with it, effectively beating their peers into submission. I want to be able to give those silent peers the language and the confidence to turn that into a dialogue.

I remember that I'm a new professor, though, and how I've realized that this will take years. Years and years to polish this craft. Sigh.

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