Wednesday, August 24, 2005

From a Student's Point of View?

I read some articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education today about an anthropology professor who spent her sabbatical doing research on today's college students. Her methodology was to enroll in her university as a freshman and live in the dorm for a year. After her research, she wrote a book: My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student, by Rebekah Nathan (not her real name).

What a fascinating project! I haven't read the book yet, but some of the articles I read about it described some of her findings in some detail.

It feels like it hasn't really been that long since I was a college student, and then a graduate student, but the humbling truth is that the year I started college was, well, before my current students were even born! (And I'm not really that old -- honest!) And times have changed.

Even though I've been trying all along to try to understand my students (because good teaching demands that), I feel that I start this new academic year with a new and deeper interest. When I first started teaching, I quickly found that students were not at all like I had thought. So I tried to understand them better in order to reach them more effectively through my teaching, and I had some success. Over time, I found my way to a style of teaching that worked for me and for most of them, and even resulted in scattered spectacular successes. If I wished, I could now rest content with my current style of teaching.

But something stirs me to move to a deeper level. Not only am I concerned about that small percentage I think I fail to reach very well, but I have become dissatisfied with ... what? I detect a slight hint of jadedness creeping into my soul. Formerly infinitely patient, now I find that certain things set me off, though I handle these situations well outwardly, and some people even think I handle them better. From one perspective, it may seem that I used to be too trusting, and several painful experiences of students taking advantage of me about this have given me a healthy skepticism -- that's what some people think. But I am troubled by this shift in my soul.

We have a big ceremony welcoming the new students to campus. At the end of the ceremony, there is a moment when all of the new students and their parents part from each other. This year, I was in a position where I had a clear view of this moment, and I was stunned to see how many parents, especially mothers, were crying. My heart went out to them. College is an exciting time, but it can also be traumatic. The path ahead can be rocky and uncertain.

So I don't want to be jaded. Nor do I want to be naive and gullible. I seek compassionate insight.

But I worry. Do our colleges perhaps do too good a job at preparing students to accept and adapt to our problem-ridden world?

Do we, in our colleges, so overwhelm students with bewildering demands and relentless pressures that they become adept at cutting corners and "playing the game"? Does the harsh critical edge of the academic world make them so skilled at protecting themselves from feeling and changing that they even become unable to embrace true passion, and unable to grow in healthy ways? Do they then carry forth these well-honed habits into their lives after college?

If our college are having this effect, this is not the effect we intend. We hope that we help our students to become well-educated, in the best sense of the term. We hope that they will become responsible, compassionate, engaged citizens, in the best senses of those terms. We hope that they will do more than just "make a living" -- we hope that they become able to create for themselves meaningful and good lives.

How can we reach out effectively to our students, and draw forth their best?


  1. I just adore reading about your inner thoughts on a world so different from my own. I would have loved to be a prof (or lawyer) but lack the tolerance for the daily minutia of it all. Thank you for allowing myself (and other strangers) to live vicariously though you.

    I still attribute a great deal of my winning attributes to a grade 8 teacher. She was intense, difficult and demanding. Those were her best qualities!

    Do not doubt that you have a lasting impact on your students whenever you are living with passion.

    Carry on brave one!
    warm regards

  2. Thank you! I really appreciate your supportive comments! And I find your blog inspiring and encouraging!