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When there’s not much there there

July 3, 2011, 11:55 pm

I have been teaching for more than 15 years now, and I maintain my excitement for the classroom because I love seeing students learn and grow. My teaching this summer has been a fantastic experience, with some of the best students I have ever had the privilege to teach. Perhaps this love fest is due to my love of and interest in the topics; perhaps it is because the students really want to take these courses. That said, I have seen some amazing learning in the classes, with students evidencing reflection, critical thinking, and ideas for application of their learning that you hope for in every student.

This excellent experience has made me think about the flip side: when you just don’t see much growth in students. I can take the blame for this lack of development sometimes, thinking that I haven’t challenged the students adequately. Yet, there are also classes where I see growth among the majority of students and then other students, usually only one or two, for whom growth and development is just not happening.

For these students, I sometimes think it is an issue of age, developmental capacity, and/or just basic smarts. The first two, age and developmental stage, don’t bother me so much, because I figure that perhaps later in life the lessons we learn will kick in. Helping students see beyond their own experiences is a challenge, and sometimes we need to have more diverse experiences before it kicks in. All of us have had a class that we recall, sometime later in life, when the lessons we were learning in a distant way finally make sense. Some classes with feminist content were like that for me: before I experienced real discrimination or power dynamics in an intimate relationship, the writings about these issues didn’t really resonate for me. Later, I had a number of “aha!” moments, when I recognized these critiques actually helped me to better understand my own life and the world around me.

But the third category of student is a heartbreaker. Often, these students are nice enough, but, to paraphrase Ms. Stein, there just isn’t any there there. It isn’t that these students lack formal education; many of my best students come from weaker schools. Nor are all of these students young or inexperienced. What I see instead is an inability to think deeply about topics, to consider how theories apply to the world, and to really reflect on complexity. Those students are just plain depressing to me as a teacher, because I know that there is little I can do to help them really grow.

That said, my feelings about these students are probably not shared by these students themselves in any way other than their frustration over receiving lower grades in my courses. (They don’t do well on concept integration and critique.) They usually feel pretty good about their more average grades and their performance in class. I always go back to a great quote from the movie “Bull Durham,” when Annie notes, “The world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self-awareness.” Perhaps being dim and uncomplicated makes life a whole lot easier.

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