Last summer, I reached the point of eligibility for early retirement. I thought about taking the leap but did not. I decided to keep teaching, asking myself, how hard could it be to teach for another few years?
Harder than I imagined, as it turned out.
For most of my career teaching composition in community colleges, my students have tended to be adults, older and more mature than the typical high school graduate. Increasingly, however, my students are young, immature, and not particularly well attuned to the expectations of college teachers. A recent incident with one such student taught me something about the value of saying “no” to students.
This student has been homeschooled by her mother for a good part of her education. The student also shared in one of her essays that she has a disability—I suspect a learning/processing disability—but she has requested no accommodations, nor has she visited the campus's disability services office to discuss the possibility of such accommodations.
Instead, this student hands in assignments that miss the mark, and when she gets them back, she offers to resubmit them after she has “corrected” whatever needs to be “corrected.” In conversations with her, I get the sense that she thinks missing the connection between a text she has read and an essay she has written in response to it can be “corrected” by simply inserting a period here or deleting a comma there. I don't blame the student (or her mother, for that matter) for thinking that an assignment can simply be redone and resubmitted for a new grade that wipes out any evidence of the previously existing grade; it is an unfortunate expectation that a number of students seem to be bringing with them into the higher education arena.
I don't know if this is an unintended consequence of what students with individualized education programs (IEPs) experience in the K–12 environment, or if it is simply a consequence of the video games this generation has grown up on. I still recall the first time I saw my son, now 22, “kill” himself (in the form of his avatar) by jumping off a cliff to his death. I audibly gasped, which prompted my son to reassure me: “It's okay, Ma. It's how you get a do-over.” At that point, his avatar was resurrected, and the game restarted, apparently without penalty.
The student and I have had several email conversations during the semester. I have even managed to get her to come to my office for a couple of hour-long intensive sessions. But every time I think I have seen a breakthrough in understanding occur, the next assignment comes in showing little or no forward movement. I have yet to see her demonstrate that she has the ability to apply what we discuss in relation to one essay to her planning or drafting of the next essay.
The student and I recently discussed the next assignment: an early draft of an essay that students have been preparing to write for the last two weeks. For that assignment, students find articles on a topic of their choice, read and summarize them, identify the main issues, and analyze the differences between the positions articulated in the articles. It's a synthesis essay, the most challenging assignment of the semester. The student and I met for 45 minutes, during which we discussed this assignment and what she needed to focus on in the first draft.
Learning at the College Level:
The circumstances surrounding this student may be somewhat unique, but I find myself encountering more and more students who, like this young woman, face a profound challenge when it comes to learning at the college level. This student is eager to redo any assignment she gets back: to “correct,” as she puts it, her “mistakes.” But when it comes to taking the lessons she is exposed to in one assignment and applying them to her own ideas about the next assignment, she is at a loss. She has not yet experienced what it feels like to take risks—real risks
—in the classroom. She has not yet had the chance to learn how to accept the consequences of her failures, let alone entertain the possibility that failure has a real value, that it can lead to real learning! She has been taught for years, but she has not yet had the chance to experience what it means to “learn” something on her own.
Yesterday, the student emailed me to ask if we could meet, yet again, before the draft of her essay is due tomorrow. I did not answer right away. I could feel in my bones that this was a message I had no practice sending. It took a couple of hours before I was able to draft and send the following message:
Given the amount of time we spent emailing each other last week . . . and the 45-minute conference we had yesterday . . . and the amount of time we have spent on this assignment in class (with the idea that you would then take the time to try to “apply” what we were talking about in class to your own ideas), I think you need to move forward with your draft of Essay 3 and let me see what you can do on your own.
Certainly if you have specific questions, I encourage you to ask them via email. If your questions, however, are along the lines of “Is this what you want?” or “Could you look this over and let me know what you think?” I would ask that you consider that that's the point of my asking you to submit a draft. If you are ready to submit that draft sooner rather than later, I would encourage you to do that.
Sound like a plan?
The student's response was both prompt and pleasant: “Yes. Thank you again.”
Beth Franz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate professor at North Central State College, Ohio.