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Calms and Storms

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This is what I think of as a calm week in the middle of the term. 

I used to design courses with an ever-increasing stress level–more work every week, harder assignments every week, tote that barge, lift that bale.

It made sense to me, at least theoretically.  First you do a little, then you do a little more, and if you keep it up, you’re suddenly in a place you never expected yourself to be.

I finally figured out that real life didn’t work that way. Or, at least, it didn’t work that way for “remedial” and “developmental” students, who tend to feel that they’re drowning. 

And a lot of them are drowning.  I’m still wandering around wondering what I’m supposed to do about that, and I don’t really know.  If there’s one thing that drives me crazy about this particular process, it’s the professional-speak with which many of my fellow teachers approach it, full of theory and jargon.  The professional-speak hides from them–as well as from anybody in administration or the state government who wants to look in on the program–the fact that there are substrata of our students for whom it is not working. 

What I did, finally, in order to give everybody a chance to catch his breath before we hit the research project–or the attempt at the research project–was to move a week that used to be early in the course to about now. 

That week is the observation and description paper, which is about the easiest thing we do.  It requires nothing much in the way of cultural context.  The assignment itself isn’t long.  I can bring show and tell that makes people laugh.

This term, it also turned out to be the week when the library ladies wanted to come into the class to do their presentation. 

We schedule two presentations every term for classes like mine, because one of the hardest things we have to do is to convince them that they will in fact have to go to the library, that looking up things online will not be acceptable as college research–at least, not if they stick to those exclusively–and that they will, in fact, eventually have to deal with books.

Most of my kids seem to thing of books as alien artifacts.  They know books exists, but they’ve never had anything to do with them except to carry them around from class to class in high school.   While they were there, their teachers assigned readings, which they didn’t do.  Their teachers then spent class time reading out of the book and recapitulating what was in it. 

In college, therefore, they see very little reason to actually buy their textbooks, and they get highly indignant when they find out their teachers expect them to know things without having been told all about them in class.   Teachers should teach, they insist.  And by that, they mean teachers should read out of the book so that they don’t have to.

But the library ladies wanted to come in this week, and I didn’t see any reason why not, so they did.  And this time, for the first time, I sat in the class while the presentation was going on. 

And I was, quite frankly, stunned.

I’m used to the fact that the teachers around me are basically doing work on a junior high level while describing it in terms that make it sound like a seminar at Oxford, but this was truly and thoroughly incredible.

For one thing, the teaching style was out of fifth grade, if that.   “Misinformation is what we call it when somebody tells us something that is wrong, but they don’t know it’s wrong,” the woman said.  “What do you think disinformation means?”

Then there were the homework handouts, that consisted of little blocks of declarative sentences with one or two blanks the students were supposed to fill it.   An article is more credible if it’s ______, one of them said.  The answer was “peer reviewed.”

The whole thing was astonishing.  I found myself waxing indignant myself, on their behalf.  If anybody had ever come into any of my college classrooms and treated me like that, I would have been furious beyond belief.

But the real kicker was this:  they weren’t furious.  In fact, the longer I watched, the more I realized that this was what they wanted.  It’s what they think “school” should be like.  Encouraging little voice.  Simple little questions.  Everything chopped up and boiled down to a level that would be an insult to a bright ten year old. 

Everything, in fact, that I had fled to college to escape.

And I don’t know what to make of it.  On one level, the presentation was a roaring success.  They all felt they’d learned something, and possibly they had. 

But I’m not too sure how we get there from here.  Now that they know about professional journals and peer-reiviewed articles, how are they going to be able to use them?  What’s going to happen when they pick up a copy of the American Journal of Social Psychology and even the abstract isn’t divided up into easy to swallow little bits, when they have to read page after page of little tiny type on the relationship between expressive behavior and social norms?

I am not, now, talking about introducing them to the Canon, or the Great Conversation, either.  People who need to fill in the blanks this way to learn something are not at a level of competence capable of doing actual college work.  They’re barely at a level of competence capable of doing high school work.

And I do understand that the point is to get them there.  But is this how we get them there?  Can we get them there like this?  At some point, don’t we have to bite the bullet and give it to them straight?

I don’t know.  The throw them in the deep end school of learning to swim isn’t something I’m usually in favor of.

But this is…I don’t know what.

Tomorrow or Thursday, maybe, a bit about readers and vocabulary, techniques and referents, plus controversial subjects.

Written by janeh

November 9th, 2010 at 7:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Calms and Storms'

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  1. I’m back! (For those who hadn’t heard, the website apparently decided it didn’t like me and wouldn’t let me in).

    I had a student once who complained because I didn’t give ‘good notes’ – that is, I didn’t dictate or write on the board a series of questions and answers, from which I would pick the test questions. Of course, she was only in Grade 9. I’m so glad I’m not trying to be a teacher any more.

    I got the impression that a lot of your students aren’t going to be expected to read academic journals, although of course one would hope that the ability to do so would be the result of a college education. I was going to say that a lot of them are probably going into non-academic programs like nursing, but then I remembered that the RN programs here are all associated with BN programs now, and I’d always assumed that they expected a certain level of academic skill that the Licensed Practical Nurses and the Personal Care Attendants programs didn’t. In fact, some nurses say they’re doing all admin and paperwork now, with the other categories of workers do the hands-on care, and some nurses work as kind of research assistants with extra skills. I don’t know if US nursing programs are also now demanding a higher level of academic (as opposed to nursing or medical) skills. If so, your students are in trouble.

    Cheryl

    9 Nov 10 at 8:02 am

  2. OK, the good news is that the kids can probably make it, given time. Remember they’ve been sorted to a degree. Most of their peers never got this far.

    The bad news is that you don’t get to skip steps. If they function on a junior high level, then the only way to get them to college level is one step at a time. Maybe the steps can be speeded up. Maybe not. But skipping steps isn’t “biting the bullet and giving it to them straight” any more than it would be if you took them out of introductory Spanish and dropped them in fourth year.

    I’d expect research papers of about the type you’d expect in Freshman year of high school–mostly secondary sources and relatively free of jargon. We all started with that. They’re just starting late.

    And remember Micky Marcus.

    You don’t remember him? A West Pointer who went to Palestine after World War II to help the proto-Israelis create an army. He kept telling David Ben Gurion how long it was going to take, and Ben Gurion kept telling him that for political reasons, it had to be done faster. Finally Marcus said:

    “David, how long does it take to make a baby?”
    “Nine months.”
    “What happens when you demand one in five?”
    THEN Ben Gurion started planning around what was possible.

    You can walk around the world, one step at a time. But you can’t take students to a place they’ve never been without walking them through each step, any more than you can skip parts of the pregnancy.

    And never take them by surprise. I don’t mean the assignments: I’m sure you give them full notice. I mean the nature of the work. “THIS is where I’m trying to take you, and THESE are the steps you’ll go through to get there.”

    And what I’ve just described is not a semester’s work, and probably isn’t a one-year program. But you can only take them as far as your time with them permits.

    Good luck

    robert_piepenbrink

    9 Nov 10 at 5:03 pm

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