Tuesday, May 14, 2013

4 Points for Teachers to Consider, or: Shut the Hell Up

It’s the time of the semester I love most: the end.  This is the time when I get to wrap things up and feel a sense of completion, and when I get to plan for the next set of classes, think of what to do better, what mistakes to address, what improvements to make.  This is also the time when my colleagues decide to vent, which is a nicer way of saying bitch. 

A few essays, articles, blog posts, and Facebook rants have made their way across the Hungry Inferno radar this week, the gist always the same: students suck.  They’re lazy and they lie.  They ask inappropriate questions and have a sense of entitlement.  They show up late and miss class and then ask for extensions, all things I would never do.  Fucking assholes…

All true, but so what?  What do you hope to achieve with these rants?  Sympathy?  Fuck you; your job is hard, but you knew that going in. 

To combat this tide of bitching, I’ve composed some things that teachers, especially those who teach freshman composition, ought to keep in mind:

1.  If you remember that most people are assholes, you won’t be surprised when they act like assholes. 

I don’t always recommend pessimism but it’s a good way to not be surprised by people’s assholish behavior.  And, like most people, students can be assholes.  But they’re kids.  You’re an adult, therefore your asshole behavior is worse than theirs.  And writing a list of things that you would never have asked a professor when you were a student is the act of an asshole, asshole. 

2.  You were different than they are.

Most teachers remember what they were like as students and are amazed that the kids they instruct don’t act similarly.  I hear/read this all the time: when I was a student I was early to every class and I did all my work on time.  Of course.  You liked school.  Or you understood its importance.  How do I know this?  Because you're a teacher.  Most people who hate school don’t go into teaching.  But you did, so chances are you come from an environment that values education.  Maybe your parents exposed you to ideas and books at an early age.  Maybe they encouraged you.  Maybe they even supported you while you were a student.  And so you met the challenges and asked the right questions and developed relationships with your professors and you sought help when you needed it and did the extra credit when it was offered.  But if you work where I work you ought to know that this is not the reality of our students.  They have grown up in very different environments.  They are used to passing a class because they showed up.  You can barely imagine the lives they have led, the things they have experienced, and the problems they have faced.  By ignoring this, or worse, making a joke about the students and their poor skills, you become an elitist jerk, fulfilling a stereotype about  college professors.  Nice work.

Also, question the material you use in the classroom.  Personally, I think all English classes ought to use poetry, literature in translation, and avant-garde fiction, but clearly that’s not allowed in ENG 101.  And I never expect my students to give a shit about the things that interest me.  So maybe you grew up reading books.  Maybe you loved Salinger or Kerouac or Jane Austin when you were their age, but there’s a very good chance that your students couldn’t give a rat’s ass.  Maybe your love of Salinger or Kerouac or Jane Austin led you to go from high school to college to grad school.  Then you started teaching after a long time in academia.  Maybe you don’t understand what life outside academia is like.  Maybe you worked during school making cappuccinos or clerking in a video store.  But that’s not the experience of most of your students.  Keep in mind that Paulo Freire’s banking concept of education cuts both ways.  Thus, it might be to your and your students’ benefit to consider material that will engage and challenge, rather than alienate. 

Which leads me to my next point…

3.  Times have changed.

If you grew up when I grew up and studied when I studied, you may notice that things have changed.  There’s this thing called the Internet.  There are these gadgets called Smart Phones.  We can debate the merits of these gizmos later, but one cannot deny that these iThings have created a new problem, or, if you prefer, they exacerbated a pre-existing problem.  In short: all these devices have cultivated a culture that values speed and convenience.  One of the downfalls of this is that young adults, already an easily distracted lot, are often unfocused.  Email and Blackboard don’t help, as these technological tools further the idea that instructors are always only a few keystrokes away.  Office hours are, essentially, stretched beyond the times posted on your door.  So if a student expects you to answer an email at nine PM, you can’t fault them completely.  They are online constantly.  They are tweeting and texting as if doing so were a physical necessity.  They are in constant contact with their family and friends.  And they think this is normal.  Of course when we were students we had none of these options.  We knew that a meeting with a teacher had to be set up in advance and held during a specific timeframe.  And while students today need to understand that you are not required to reply to their requests immediately, you shouldn’t be surprised when these kids, raised on social networks and YouTube videos, assume you’ll always be online.  It’s a bitch, but what isn’t? 

Another symptom of our instant access culture is that these before mentioned unfocused brats are (guess what) unfocused.  This presents a challenge, one that all teachers have had to address, but now it’s worse than ever.  Well, at least worse than it was when you were their age.  This doesn’t excuse their lack of focus but at least try to address the problem, not the symptom.  How to address the problem?  Engage, engage engage.  Consider ways to make your lectures a little more tech savvy and interactive.  PowerPoint slideshows, the occasional video, and group work go a long way.  You’ll likely still have a few bored students texting, but bitching about it on Facebook won’t help.

4.  What’s behind your decision to teach?

I get it.   You’re frustrated that no literary agent will look at your manuscript, which would allow you to snag a book deal, which would allow you to teach MFA students how to write turgid, dull MFA novels.  But until that happens, you’re stuck teaching freshman comp.  I know how you feel because no literary agent will look at my manuscript.  But while I know very well that I am a goddamn genius, I don’t expect anyone else to know this.  And I know that, until my genius is properly introduced to the world, I have to remember that these classes I teach, which are not always the classes I might want to teach, are populated with students who deserve a teacher without a fucking ego.  Remember also that these students are not writers.  They may tweet and text ‘round the clock, but they don’t give a shit about comma splices and thesis statements.  They should and they need to if they are going to pass your class and most classes ahead of them, but they need motivation from an invested instructor who doesn’t talk shit about them behind their backs.  One day you’ll get to teach MFA students how to write like Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith, but until then remember who they are, not who you wish they would be.
I am not a perfect teacher.  Not by a long shot.  But I know this, so I let go of my ego.  I also know that my life outside of my job should not interfere with my time in the classroom. 

Okay, rant over.  Go back to your summer vacation.