Man! College kids are UP-TIGHT!
Classes started this week, and I met both sections of my composition courses early in the week. My Monday class, which is a half-in-class, half-online course, is going to be challenging, I think, but more on them later. My Tuesday/Thursday kids are the ones I’ll be talking about here.
They filed in on Tuesday morning with that wary look that students coming to their first class get. Cassie describes the first day of classes very well when she said that
Normally the first day of a class is best described as the “Square-Off and Spar” class. The students walk into the first class expecting two things, a thorough explanation of the syllabus (including, but not limited to, “How do I get an A?”, “What happens if I don’t show up?” and “How much is everything worth?”). They also expect to NOT have to write down a SINGLE note or lesson pertaining to that class. Our demands our simple and if not met, professors can expect lots of blank stares and awkward silences.
Let’s just say that none of my classes disappointed me.
One of the things about how we (tend to) educate our masses is that, more often than not, those behind the big desk are not really interested in what those on the other side really have to say. We teachers are given a curriculum and a set of standards that the students have to be able to demonstrate at the end of the term (the usually far-too-short term), and we don’t have the time or inclination to muck about much with creativity, exploration or…well…fun.
Students, being…well…human, are very quick to recognize their own oppression at the hands of the “educational system,” and to figure out ways to navigate the rules of the game to get the maximum result for the minimum effort. I know this because I’ve done it, and been aware of it when I’ve done it. I know when professors only want to hear themselves parroted back through me. I know when an instructor – please, for the love of God – just wants to make it through the syllabus or the text or whatever – let’s not get sidetracked, shall we? Distraction impedes our progress. I know how to work the system, and I know my kids do, too.
I spent the first week of classes crusading against that kind of institutional thinking – that kind of mass-production, cookie-cutter ennui – that is the legacy of so many years of students just telling teachers what they think they want to hear.
I think my students were a little disoriented after our first meeting. I didn’t behave at all the way I think they were expecting me to behave. I didn’t just rattle off the roster: I asked the students to write about who they are while I wrote about who *I* am, and I met them as they shared bits of their writing with the class. I mean, sure, we went over the syllabus and we talked about my expectations of them, but I also talked about what they can expect from me – what I am prepared and willing to do to help them figure out a little bit of this writing stuff. I told them stories about my (many) experiences in writing classes and with different kinds of professors and assured them that I would not ask them to do any inauthentic writing.
I’m not sure a damned one of them believed me until yesterday.
I’m very much a “if it’s not fun, why do it?” kind of woman. I understand that there are a lot of things that we, as a society, have deemed ‘necessary’ that decidedly do NOT fall under the heading of ‘fun,’ but I’m not sure that I want to be out there perpetuating that. I explained to my students that yes, we were going to have to navigate our way through the book and yes, we were going to have to write a research paper – the department standards say we have to, so we will. That doesn’t mean, though, that we can’t make our way through the book and leave it at that; nor does it mean that we can’t write our research papers on the failure of New Coke, the history of ski lifts, or the life and times of Sam Kinnison.
I asked the students to do some writing for me, and a few of them actually wrote TO me. A couple of them talked about how much better they feel about being in the class because they get the feeling that they can really be themselves with me because I am myself with them – that I’m going to let them explore what matters to THEM when they write because I can’t bear having to pretend to be someone else when *I* write. That’s exactly my intention, and I hope that giving them the freedom to be who they are will encourage them to find their voices and to see that they, too, can write well.