Saturday, January 20, 2007

Great Expectations

On Tuesday, I begin teaching again for the first time in seven months. I haven't heard from the professor and I don't have a copy of the syllabus. This will making advance planning difficult. I suppose I've never been one for a lot of advance planning, anyway. I will not let this influence my expectations of the semester. Or I will, but I'll valiantly pretend this is not a sign of things to come. My eyes will remain shut and I will chant, "this WILL go well" over and over until I'm drowning in blue books and being stalked by angry students.

I'm actually looking forward to getting back to the classroom. An examination of the class rosters reveals one of my favorite students to be among the eighty undergrads under my supervision this semester. When he was in a class of mine a year ago, he so exceeded my expectations that it made me rethink what is reasonable to expect from my students. His presence in this class will be a reminder to me of the expectations I take into every classroom. I find that, way too often, teachers have expectations that are disgracefully low for their students. Their focus on success neglects to ask at what, exactly, the students will succeed. For instance, it's true that some students will be unable to win a fight with a particularly difficult text. Does that mean you should stick with a simple textbook? Does that mean you shouldn't assign the text?

Sometimes, I'm sure it does. Being aware of how much will be hit and how much will be miss with a particular reading assignment is crucial to maintaining a classroom atmosphere in which everyone is both challenged and rewarded for their work. But I was an undergrad at a small, liberal arts university where the expectations were exceedingly high, and I've seen first hand what high expectations can do for you. They keep things difficult and occasionally frustrating, but they also keep things new, challenging, and with the potential for each individual to have a unique experience with the texts and assignments. In my freshman-level English class, we started with Foucault. In my history survey class, we started with Joan Scott. Each of these texts were assigned to me again in graduate school. They weren't easy then and they aren't easy now. But I fell in love with academia then. I fell in love with the idea of disciplines instead of subjects and investigations instead of recitations. I fell in love with the idea that everything, from biology to religious studies, was subject to perspectives, agendas, and some fairly contentious debates. I fell in love with college, then. I want my students to have that same opportunity.

But this is not the same institution of higher learning as that. I feel that students are often done a disservice by the low expectations that deny their capacity to rise to a challenge as well as their capacity to fall in love with intellectually rigorous approaches to topics that may seem, on the surface, to be simple. I want my students to tangle with a particularly difficult text and come up with something—anything—in their hands. It's ok for them to measure their success in relative terms. They might not understand an article in its entirety, just like I did not understand Foucault at first reading, but they may have pushed themselves to a new level, grasped new questions about the discipline, developed a new understanding of part of the material at hand. Last year, I lectured a course in which I repeatedly assigned students very difficult articles. They didn't always get every point. Often, we had to really work for them to get any point out of it at all. But it was tremendous fun to work with them towards an understanding of why I had assigned the article and what it might mean to each of them. It might have been ill-advised to start with such high expectations, but you know what? They did it. They rose to the challenge every time because I expected it of them.

I think part of the reason that instructors so often reject the pursuit of those successes is because it creates an enormous amount of work to measure them. (And let's face it, we all have too much work to do.) It requires a different approach to class time, in which large groups must somehow grapple with difficult texts together. It requires bringing many of the strategies of the seminar room into a lecture hall, which seems strange to a lot of teachers. But I find the other option—in which low expectations take students on a long, dry march through history—utterly depressing. I want the individuals who come to my class to have the opportunity, each of them, to fall in love with the history that is my partner in every classroom endeavor. I hate putting them both—the history and my students—at a disadvantage from the very beginning.

So, now, if I only had that syllabus...


Blogger wwwmama said...

Very well said! I agree that high expectations can and often do lead to higher performance and level of overall success in students.

This is making me rethink some of my own undergrad classes, too. I am a perfectionist and worked hard in school yet sometimes felt overwhelmed by what was expected of me. Sometimes the pressure was too much, and I internalized a sense of failure because I couldn't step outside myself to see that others were struggling with difficult material too. I felt too stupid, sometimes, to keep up with 'smarter' peers.

I know this was an individual problem stemming from insecurity, but I wonder how we as teachers can set high expectations AND also nudge students towards an awareness of how they are taught and how they can choose to be more involved in the process of their learning. I try to get my students to talk about why we're doing something, like when I give them a challenging article, and also don't take for granted that they know they can come and ask for help when they need it. (It honestly didn't occur to me in college that I could go and ask my teachers for extra help. I know it sounds crazy, especially given the frequency with which students seek me out after class, but there you have it.)

4:13 PM  
Blogger Acre said...

You're so right that it's essential to manage high expectations so that they don't become the kind of pressure that leads students to just shut down.

I'm often very honest with my students, telling them that it's hard even for me and offering some strategies for getting at it. I will tell them that I expect them to read it, but it's ok if they just don't get it all. Sometimes I tell them, before they read, that their goal for a particularly hard article is to come out of it knowing just one thing from the article that seemed important to them. And I've been known to devote an entire lecture to the discussion of a single article.

It does no good to have high expectations if you don't intend to follow them up, I don't think. You can't throw a difficult article on the syllabus as supplementary reading and never mention it again. But I love it when you put all the "one things" together and it turns out that, as a group, they understood the bulk of the article and now you have a foundation to move on to bigger, better, and harder things.

7:24 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home