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Small Campus Culture — Students

11 April, 2012

I have far too much to do to post, but I have decided to do so anyway, because there are many things on my mind. One is that I came back from Forn Parts with a very nasty respiratory infection, and I still have the wheezy cough — although I believe this is now due to pollen. Anyway, I will post more later (I have to post more to our group blog as well) on that, but I can say that the Balkans are beautiful, and I understand much better the recent history of the Balkans and some of their peoples, although the understanding is not something I get. That is, I can see things through the eyes of the people, but I simply don’t understand that way of seeing things. I blame science fiction and an upbringing that, despite being non-, and sometimes anti-religious, always focused on common humanity over any other sort of affiliation.

That’s another story, though. This is about some things I’ve noticed teaching at a very small campus. SLAC has well under 10,000 students in all programs. Actually, I think we might have under 5,000 students. Since I teach in the College, I teach exclusively undergraduates and I teach some courses that fulfill requirements for some other programmes. We have a small major, perhaps 20 students in a major that should have far more, and does in other SLACs. I’ve been encouraging students to add history as a minor field (College students must have one of each, or double-major), and this is starting to add to our numbers. But basically, except for my survey classes, I teach the same students every semester, often in more than one class. Over a four-year period, there will be a core of three or four that never changes. In some ways this is great — students really get to know each other, and me, and I get to know them. But lately I worry that we get to know each other too well.

This semester I am also teaching a course in another department. It’s a pop culture and gender course, and has been far more difficult than I imagined, but has also been very, very rewarding. There are no history students in the course, although there are students who took my survey course, and two are students who have taken upper-division courses with me. Otherwise, they are from several different majors, and about a third are from an entirely different SLAC division — one that seldom visits my side of campus except when it has to. The seminar is over-enrolled, and is different to anything I’ve ever dealt with. The students are not any brighter than my history students, and they are in many ways not as well-trained academically. But they don’t know each other, and they don’t know me. I think that this, as well as the subject matter, contributes to the fact that they are better prepared for each class. It is the only class I’ve ever taught where the majority of students have been prepared almost every day. It is the only class I have ever taught where, every time I call on a student, the student has something to say, even though it might be that they didn’t really understand the point of the reading. And honestly, the readings have not all been straightforward. There’s been some Critical/Lit Theory (I know — me?), as well as a lot of social science theory and methods, plus some history. But they are prepared to discuss every day. It’s exhausting, but in a good way.

Now, I am also teaching an upper-division history class. I hate how it’s going, in part because I don’t feel that I’ve ever got on top of it. I’ve taught it before, and for some reason, I decided then to teach it from a largely historiographical point of view. It was, I think, a good reason — for this particular period, there are a couple of very good short books available, and our students need practice in working with scholarly materials. They’re fine with textbooks, and my students are comfortable with primary sources, but they have trouble reading scholarly essays, in particular, with a critical eye, rather than at face value. But, on the other hand, the essays are not always straightforward. They are excellent for teaching students what I want them to learn, but only a few of the students really want to learn those things. After all, SLAC does not attract students who are planning on graduate careers, nor should it — we are far too small to give them a really competitive edge. They want content. And, in fact, the course only exists in its current form because the students who want to teach in secondary schools need it.

It’s not a bad class. Students are clearly learning things, and they largely do enough of the work. But I’ve noticed a lot by teaching a different group of students. I think one of the real benefits of teaching at SLAC is that we build close relationships with our students, and we get to know them (or the ones who want us to know them) pretty well. We often meet their parents, when one is doing poorly in a course, we can pick up the phone and check with a colleague and ask if the student is having problems there as well, and we can work with the student who wants help to get her back on track. But we also learn each other’s bad habits along with our strengths. Now, this sometimes is helpful for me — students who know me will sometimes cut me some slack on slow response time for marking. They know that if I fall behind, I will make sure they are not responsible for things I couldn’t reasonably hold them to. But it also means that they know where I will be lenient, and more importantly, they know each other well enough that many of them get complacent. They know who probably hasn’t done all the work, but can still contribute usefully to a discussion. They know who will have done the work. And they know how much they can get away with and still pass, even though it’s often by relying on others to carry them. We’ve got into a rut.

So, I’m doing some things to break us out. I’m changing requirements for my courses so that it’s easier for students outside the major to take them. I’m looking for ways to change the dynamics without adding to my workload. I think it will be better for all of us, because really, their complacency makes me lazy, and their laziness makes me frustrated. It’s a small campus. We forget that familiarity can be good, but that it can also breed contempt. I don’t feel that for my students, and I don’t want them to feel that for me.

Next time… small departments in small towns.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. J Liedl permalink
    11 April, 2012 9:20 pm

    Students not being prepared and relying heavily on others? Yeah, I see that among the senior majors at my regional comprehensive. They know each other well and some of them are bound and determined NOT to work any harder than they are forced to work. *sigh* Learning how to motivate them (and it seems to be a different way almost every week is needed!) is a tiring challenge.

    I’m glad you’re having the wonderful experience with the class outside your major – that can be joyously energizing.

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