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How to do College

15 December, 2005

How to do College

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I wanted to jump into this conversation between Manorama, Dr. Crazy, et al. last month, but I was busy and I really wanted to finish my first term at new college before I put in my oar. One of the things I’ve noticed this term, one of the things I like best about new college, is the student population. It’s pretty diverse in terms of race, age and background. I have a lot of very young students who dual-enrolled as high-school seniors after having been home-schooled for 10 years or so. I have other dual-enrolled students, working students, single mothers, ex-military, immigrants, refugees, returning students — and even some traditional students. The college is in a ‘burb of regional Big City. Some of my students have never been there, although it’s only 15 miles away and many of them have come from farming communities 60 or 70 miles away to enroll at new college. At least half of them come from the same sort of income background that I do, far fewer from families like mine where expectations were decidedly oriented on college education in preparation for a decent income and job security.*

It struck me when reading the series of posts that for many of us, we really are teaching “us” in some fundamental ways, but not in others. As I’ve learned more and more about my blogging colleagues, I’ve learned that a lot of us come from non-traditional backgrounds. I’ve also seen that we sometimes lose touch with those backgrounds as we move farther into our academic lives. That’s to be expected. It’s a different world and we have changed to fit it. In turn, academe has changed us and our expectations. I don’t mean this in a bad way, but it is true that graduate education, even when it provides us with excellent training as teachers, happens at research institutions. The majority of the students we teach as graduate students are those who were good enough to get in the door. The door is not the same one my students come through. The law mandates that our door remain open to all. But even in those other institutions — Big State, Small Private, Ivy, whatever — we also are not teaching “us.” We professor-types were the ones who were engaged, interested, and focused on doing well. Most of our students are not planning on being academics (generally a good idea, in terms of the job market).

Because our students aren’t “us” we cannot expect them to behave as we did. Because
my students have needs I never had (and some I did), I have to change the way I each in order to do my job, which I see as teaching History at the same level and with the same content and standards as when I teach at a posh private university. My students, most of whom do want to transfer to a U., need to be able to hack it when they get there.

The one thing this term has taught me, more than any other, is that, in order to do my job well, I have to teach something more than History. I have to teach “college.” Hell, that’s not true. I have to teach “school.” I’m more sure of this today that I was yesterday. I got my evaluations. One comment I particularly loved. The student claimed that I was rare because I treated the class as college students and expected them to behave that way. The rest? Pretty typical. Complaints about the work load, praise for my being there and taking as much time as they needed to help them. Just doing my job, ma’am.

So how do we teach college? Well, here’s what I’ve learned this term and am planning for next.

  1. The Syllabus: Not only do I need to go over the syllabus, but I need to explain its purpose. Due dates, grading policy, etc., are all there. We’ll also be going over all of the assessment materials I place on Blackboard — especially those I use for essay assignments.
  2. Reading Assignments: I need to explain the assignments and that students should take notes and re-read after we cover things in class to reinforce what we’ve done. Moreover, I need to explain more about the primary source readings. I have a very punitive policy on prepping readings, but low expectations of what the prep should be. Students are given a series of basic questions that they should try to answer before class — kind of document, date, author, audience, three examples of evidence from the doc. I will occasionally ask people who have not done the prep to leave and come back prepared the next class. It is harsh and intimidating.

    I’ve always explained that not being prepared makes for a bad class and is disrespectful of me and, more importantly, one’s classmates. This year, I’ve realized that I also need to say, “if the class doesn’t do prep work, discussion takes too long, and I cannot spend the time I’d like helping you to tie it all together. I also need to collect these notes and mark them. It’s absurd. This is college. They need it.

  3. The Library: I am used to spending one day of the term in the library, where one of my colleagues there introduces the students to the databases, the differences between scholarly and non-scholarly sources, etc. It isn’t enough. I need to take them over and show them where the books are. I need to get them to work in small groups to identify how we cite things and how that citation style (Chicago, thanks!) adds to one’s reading of the article or book. This has to come out of class time, because we can’t coordinate work and kid schedules.
  4. Study/Attendance habits: “It’s college! we don’t have to come to class!” Well, no. But you won’t do well in my class if you don’t show up. I have to take the time to remind students to pull out pen and paper and take notes. I have to go through my own notes and add extra connections and reinforcement and circle words I once thought common, e.g., cyclical, or monarch, and make sure I stop and ask, “can anyone explain what I mean by ‘monarch’? Good. Rule or government by one person. Yep, usually a king or …? Queen? What other kinds of rule can
    you think of? Good! You should be writing these things down ….” For those of you who think I’m talking down to my students, I’m not. They don’t know these things. They can’t read the textbook (one of the complaints about our book was that the hard vocabulary words weren’t bolded) or understand my lectures unless I do this. I think I’m going to suggest they set aside a page in their notebooks (which I will not be correcting — this is not high school) to keep all the new terms and their definitions. The up-side to this, by the way, is that, when I give them terms in Latin, Greek, German, and French, the students are less resistant to having
    to learn them.
  5. Writing: This term, I had to spend three or four class sessions per class picking up bruised egos and helping students understand why they got abysmal grades on the midterm. By the way, the midterm carries a relatively low weight, but an F still looks like an F — and students leave. This is bad for them and bad for me. Next term, I will be building some of that time into class. And I’ll be trying to head off the worst of the problem writing, i.e., the inability to take an essay question and turn it into a defensible thesis paragraph. I will be taking class time to teach them how to take a test. I will give them an assignment, round about week three, that has them turn an essay question into an answer and outline for an essay.

    I’m beating my head against the desk as I say this, because I am trying to cover everything from the Ancient Near East to the Black Death. But it has to be done. If they can’t write a sensible essay, they can’t get through my class, let alone get a college degree. And I’ll be pulling out the new and improved grading matrices I use for essays so that we can look at them while going over their efforts. Otherwise, I have a sneaking suspicion that most of the materials I make available don’t get a glance. And I’ll be taking more time with the documents and our discussion, making even more explicit the connection between how a Historian finds
    evidence in documents and how that evidence points to a question and/or answers it.

  6. I anticipate no changes in my grading. I do anticipate requiring students who get marks of 70% or lower to discuss them with me in person or via e-mail.
  7. I anticipate no changes in content, although I may divide some reading assignments between groups. I’ll also be giving a few more questions out further in advance for some of the longer readings. It’s a college-level class. I’m not going to lower the bar. I’m just going to make sure they get to use a springboard and have some padding there to catch them.

Damn. Sounds like a lot of work. More work than it was when I taught at Grad U or Local Private. But here’s the thing. Among these students are some of the brightest people I’ve taught. They have asked really sophisticated questions for college freshmen and sophomores, questions that belie their lack of skills. They are articulate and they want to do well. They work insane hours, and sometimes I have to wake them up. They drag their butts to class after being up all night with sick kids (or sometimes hung over). And sometimes they complain. Well, they complain a lot. Too much reading, too much to learn … don’t I get that their lives are hard?? And, without saying too much of what I think about college funding, etc., I
remind them that they are tax payers and so are their parents, and that being aware of how education is funded is important. I tell them that a college degree is based on standards created when people got to go to college as their only ‘job’ and the standards haven’t changed because they student profile has. I tell them the difference between a U. and a CC is that I’m here to help carry them, if they are willing to work with me. I sometimes tell them about the great market nearby that sells veg at half the price of the supermarkets because they sell the stuff that doesn’t fit into the holes in the nice cardboard apple boxes. And I tell them, yep. It’s hard. But I did it. How? Jaws drop as I tell them about pouring beer for drunken frat boys and carrying five classes while working 40 hours a week at $4 an hour at a movie theatre. This often floors them, because I think they think ‘we’ are different. Maybe because we’ve forgotten that we aren’t teaching us??

*Single-parent, civil-service family with three kids. Here’s where I mention that I’m the only person in my generation with an advanced degree. One sister has a BS, the other graduated high school, went to work for the government, and now makes about $80k a year and will be able to retire with a nice pension in 10 years. Cousins also did not go to college …

And by the way, I just wrote almost 2000 words in a sitting. Please remind me of this when I start whingeing about not being able to write the book review I have to finish early next week and the paper I need to get hopping on!

14 Comments leave one →
  1. 15 December, 2005 4:28 pm

    Good food for thought. This is something I also have to remind my “teacher candidates” (they are in the teacher ed program and although I like some of the d labels, this helps distinguish college students from the middle and high school students they will be teaching when we are talking about standards, portfolios, etc – it also helps get them at least a bit into a professional mindset) that they have to keep in mind what their students know and don’t know. And, most importantly, not to blame another teacher before them for what the students don’t know – after all, doesn’t that mean I can blame the teacher candidates when their students show up on my doorstep without an encyclopedic knowledge of American history? I also agree that half of life is showing up and attending class regularly and consistently turning in assignments does have something to do with eventual academic success. Our colleagues that don’t think it’s necessary forget that not everyone is as smart as they are and some of our students are just too immature to realize some of these things. Think about it – those who came out of a 6- to 7-hour day bell schedule plus after-school activities and/or a job. Then, they show up on our campus with often just a 12-hour load (no one tells them it takes 15- to 18-hour semesters to actually graduate in four years) and discover there are not just one, but two bars across the street along with a new coffee bar. What, no bell schedule? I can stay out til 3am on a Tuesday and decide not to roll out of bed for my 8am class or even my noon class, and nothing bad happens . . . . or at least not immediately???? wahoo!!!John Stossel just did a report on 20/20 about how the teenage brain is different – esp. with the risks they are willing to take which closely correlates with their lack of association between cause and effect. Jumping off the roof and surviving it more than once can make any kid feel that they are at least temporarily invincible. We’re also seeing at least our traditional age students show up on our doorsteps who have come out of an environment where someone else rarely held them accountable and always fixed things for them. So, we have to work even harder to get them ready for the real world of both our classroom and beyond. Another angle on this is to explore Sam Wineburg’s work on historical cognition and how those skills develop in students. We sometimes assume that they have the cognitive ability to think beyond their development PLUS that they have all the underlying historical analysis skills throughout their education. So, we do indeed need to realize our students are different than us. It’s also one of the aspects that makes teaching fun!

  2. 15 December, 2005 7:42 pm

    I really admire your list, and the fact that you’re willing to make it. I feel like, often, we professors (and professors-to-be) realize the students aren’t like us but then expect them to change so they are. After all, we know how school works, we’re successful, we can play the game – if you’re like us, you’ll make it through without all this trouble! Yeah, it’s a lot of work to meet our students where they are, as your list attests, but the benefits are worth the extra time and effort.

  3. 15 December, 2005 9:09 pm

    This is excellent cogitational food. Thanks. I’ve had the thought that we instructors often don’t teach “us”–when I taught composition the first time, I was all too aware that I’d never taken comp (thanks, AP) and didn’t know firsthand how such a class might run from start to finish–but your list of ways to watch, reweigh, and close gaps is extremely helpful.Sorry for the hasty horrid sentence. I’m at work. Before I scurry away, though–I wonder a little whether the increased percentage of students from minimally privileged backgrounds has something to do with the increased willingness of degree-bearing instructors to put up with adverse conditions in order (hopefully) to secure a stable professorial position. (I wonder that as someone uncertain that she–I–will put in quite enough effort, from mundane pragmatism rather than assumed privilege; my father has no college degree, just for starters.)

  4. 15 December, 2005 9:12 pm

    …Er, once the students in question grow up and some of them decide to seek advanced degrees, that is. Too much haste.

  5. 15 December, 2005 9:16 pm

    ADM, thanks for this. I think I’ve reached the point where I’ve made a lot of the same realizations about my students that you have about yours (I’m at a U., but still, “teaching college” is often necessary). But I haven’t implemented all the methods of “teaching college” that you have, and I need to. You gave me a lot of good ideas! Thanks!And on a related note, I once heard the guy in the office next to mine say to one of his good students something along the lines of “Students today are shockiing…I would have *never*….” — I can’t remember what the shocking thing was or what he wouldn’t have ever done. But I *do* remember wanting to smack him for a) assuming that what he would or wouldn’t have done meant that all other students in his cohort were just like him and therefore students today were demonstrably worse and b) bitching about it to a student! Yikes!Anyway, thanks for a great post.

  6. 15 December, 2005 9:17 pm

    ADM, I’ll simply say that I admire both your passion for teaching and the realistic approach you take. That’s a rare and admirable combination. You’ve got my bastardy respect.

  7. 15 December, 2005 11:53 pm

    Argggggh, I think I left this out, ADM! It’s an awesome post and I meant to put it in, but I was going cross-eyed from linking everything, so I think I missed it. Definitely send it on to Ancarett for the next one, because it’s a great post. Sorry!!

  8. 16 December, 2005 1:38 am

    I’ve already got this one in my bookmarks and not even just for the next Teaching Carnival: ADM, this is an excellent example of mindful teaching. Reviewing my own recent Western Civ class I realize I’m going to have to schedule in more time preparing them for the first assignment as well as working on revision techniques to improve the second.It’s not what I’d like to do, jettisoning another interesting lecture/discussion session here and there, but it’s better to make sure we respond to their needs rather than just adhere to a mindless schedule.

  9. 16 December, 2005 2:07 am

    you see, I hear lots of the “I would have never” fill in the blank. from professors and fellow graduate students. maybe it’s a particular disease that especially afflicts my institution, but that is what I’m responding to when I post (as I’ve posted many times) about the phenomenon of not comprehending that our students are not who we were. Not only are they not who we are, they don’t want to be who we are and they are not anything like we were at that age.I take it back–some of them are. The one’s people with the “i would have never” disease reward with easy A’s are.

  10. 16 December, 2005 3:48 am

    Wow, everybody, Thanks! You know, I just really hope that I can make these thoughts come across in my job applications and interviews. You all make me feel worthy of academic employment. Speaking of which, I get to blog about mentoring in the next day or so.

  11. 16 December, 2005 5:30 am

    I just printed it out; I’ll have time to read this weekend, and will want to see it in my folder when prepping for next semester.I, too, am really impressed with my students and I think that part of the difficulting in finishing grading is that this marks the end of the semester. I won’t be seeing these particular folks so much again.

  12. 16 December, 2005 2:37 pm

    Excellent post. I especially love this line: “It’s a college-level class. I’m not going to lower the bar. I’m just going to make sure they get to use a springboard and have some padding there to catch them.”I have been teaching some version of first-year comp every semester for … um … eight, nine? years now, and much of what you’ve got on my list is what I’m doing all the time. I have much of this same ambivalence you point toward about whether I’m lowering standards or short-shrifting the “real content” of the class by spending so much time on fundamental college skills. But they really do need it. And I’ve taught at an Ivy, a really good state U, a four-year community college, and an engineering U, and all of the students have needed at least some of this fundamental instruction, even at the Ivy.

  13. 20 December, 2005 12:33 am

    As one who’s often said “I would have never…” it usually defines for me a generational difference. And I was a non-traditional student who now teaches veeerrryy traditional students at a residential college. Well of course I would have never! I was different from my students. I do think I’m going to adopt some of these approaches for next semester, especially after getting an email from a distressed freshman who wants to do “extra credit” AFTER the semester is over because their gpa is too low for the sports team they’re on. They came to my college “for [sport]”, not getting the memo I guess about those pesky academics. More things to put in the syllabus, more things to mention in class. I love reading your blog and all the other teaching blogs. Best of luck on one of the full time jobs!

  14. 20 December, 2005 3:27 am

    Thanks so much, and welcome!

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