Like most English professors, I began teaching composition courses as soon as I became a graduate student. That meant that, even as I was a student in creative-writing workshops filled with classmates whose passion was writing, I was teaching writing to undergraduates forced to take the course whether they liked it or not. And mostly, they didn't like it.
The juxtaposition of motivation levels, unfortunately, sometimes fueled a surge of annoyance with my students that I had to struggle to keep out of the classroom. That brings me to a student I'll call "Lloyd." When reading his early papers in my summer course, it was hard to resist invoking the same vocabulary I was hearing in graduate-level workshops. His writing was "passive" and "lazy," lacking "focus" and "concentration." Grading with an edge of caffeine-driven irritability, I fell into the graduate-seminar rut of equating weak writing and grammatical errors with moral flaws.
Then came the day that our class did a community-service project at a Habitat for Humanity building site. Having done my share of such projects over the years, I had expected to blend in with the larger group of builders in a way that would obscure the limits of my construction skills. In other words, like Lloyd in the back row of my class, I was hoping to hide.
Instead, the foreman surprised me in the worst possible way. Calling our class into the backyard, he announced, "I want you to build the family a tool shed."
In other words, a free-standing structure. From scratch.
We were to do this with no blueprint—not that I could've read one—just a crude diagram the guy jotted in pencil as he talked, using all the formality of someone drawing up a backyard football play in the dirt.
Perhaps it was the length of my pause, or the blankness of my stare, but Lloyd shouldered his way into the conversation. He posed the foreman a question I'd never have thought to ask. In a single minute, Lloyd became the only person the foreman looked in the eye.
As the site leader walked away, Lloyd must've noticed my raised eyebrows, for he shrugged and smiled. "My father's a subcontractor," he said. "So can anyone find a carpenter's square?"
"What's a carpenter's square?" a student asked—saving me the trouble.
I was more than happy to let Lloyd do the teaching for the rest of that long, hot day. When I wasn't hoisting 2-by-4's at his command, I was herding some of the more passive students. In the process, I couldn't help notice that while Lloyd was working with both vigor and confidence, the usual star writers of the classroom were hanging back.
After that day, Lloyd's writing seemed to improve, as well as his participation. I attributed that to the confidence he gained from his raised stature among the students, as well as the chance to construct sentences about construction, the kind of building that actually puts roofs, and not just metaphors, above people's heads.
This kind of feel-good story is a staple for champions of experiential learning in its various forms, such as internships, community-service learning (my specialty), and alternative spring breaks. To scholars and teachers weary from long days and nights of lecture preparation and paper grading—solitary tasks that take us away from more direct connection—experiences such as my class's day with Habitat for Humanity can sound like a vacation. What a release to work alongside students rather than tower over them. What a joy to see students as whole people, rather than just seeing the part of them that doesn't know the difference between a thesis and a tweet.
If only it were that simple.
The truth is: When you design a course in a way that requires you to engage other sides of students, you're not always going to like what you find. If I was already struggling to stop myself from treating poor writing as a moral flaw, how, then, do I handle students' failure to honor their service commitments—something that really does seem like a moral flaw?
In my journalism courses, I require students to do service work on their own, from a list of agencies I provide—meaning I'm not there to personally push them to perform. Based on reviews from their site supervisors, the vast majority honor their commitments in an exemplary way. But a few students don't, and when they blow off this obligation to others, I feel infinitely more outraged than when, say, they fail to read a book. My frustration mounts despite the fact that the reasons that students fail to do the community-service work usually have more to do with life skills than moral development, much like the students who don't do the reading. A service requirement can expose their weaknesses in taking initiative, making social contacts, and organizing a week-to-week schedule. That is by design: Since I'm preparing students to be communications professionals, I want them to shed passivity for more active responsibility, set aside any shyness they feel in the process, and be prepared to write about people out in the world who aren't paid to accommodate students.
Just the same, I can't help hoping when I teach these courses that students will deepen and widen their moral vision and sense of community. And that hope can set you up for a crisis of faith now and then, when you encounter students who are particularly resistant to doing the service work, as I did once again in a recent course. But this time around, as I struggled to deal with those students, a new temptation appeared. "You know," I thought to myself, "if I just dropped the service requirement, then I wouldn't have to face all this exasperation and disappointment."
I'm conflict-averse anyway, so dropping the requirement would allow me to avoid at least a few confrontations, right? In class we could just talk in the abstract about the idea of being a journalist or a citizen, rather than doing anything about it in real time. Sure, I might feel some guilt, but I could fall back on the notion that "students today"—in that familiar phrase of the worn-out veteran teacher—simply aren't up to the challenge.
Put plainly, I could simply give up on my students. Isn't that what happens to so many teachers over the years anyway, as shifts in the culture erode the granite of our convictions?
You might guess that ending this essay on a note of such unmitigated despair and nihilistic disillusionment, as aesthetically daring as it might be, is not where this is going. I didn't drop the service requirement. So what, beyond my own convictions, stopped me from taking that easier path?
Well, the answer was two more Lloyd-like moments. First, I was at a lunch meeting—sponsored, coincidentally, by Habitat for Humanity—about the issue of civic engagement at local colleges when a representative of Lutheran Social Services approached me. One of the students who had taken a particularly long time selecting a placement had eventually elected to work with that group. The Lutheran administrator began effusively singing the student's praises, and I realized that this student hadn't been resistant—just sharp enough to search for an organization that was an ideal fit.
After the meeting, our hosts offered us a tour of Habitat for Humanity's ReStore, a nonprofit that resells donated home furnishings, fixtures, and the like (the proceeds are used to build more homes). In the store, I heard someone holler "Hey Professor!" I turned to find one of my most resistant students, one who had waited until the final month of the semester to even get started on her service requirement. In marked contrast to the scowl she had given me weeks earlier as she had complained about the "extra work," she now smiled broadly as she pointed out her handiwork.
For her service project, she'd chosen to help out at ReStore. She talked about how much she loved working on the displays—and how relevant that was to her as an aspiring realtor. If she had any problem as a volunteer, it was that, much like students who volunteer to walk dogs at an animal shelter, this student became so deeply invested in the items she arranged that she felt sad when one of them actually sold.
Returning to my office, I reminded myself that all that good news didn't guarantee an A-level paper from either student. But, as it turned out, their service experiences got them closer to the mark than they might have achieved writing about traditional texts.
The question for future semesters is no longer whether to engage the whole person with experiential learning, but how to construct the building blocks better. Maybe I should track down Lloyd.