Friday, November 6, 2009

what do you think? why do you think what you think?

The semester has been overwhelming, so I don’t know where to begin with reflecting upon teaching my first two classes. Some reflections have to do with my own personal strengths and weaknesses as a teacher. Others have to do with the classroom environment and the quality of students. I guess it is easiest to talk about ‘others’ first – so I’ll begin with what I’ve noticed about students.

Many students are pushing against their own social class. They have been raised as working class Americans, and for them, college is a next step up. Sometimes, I hear other instructors claim that students "don't belong" in a college setting. But in my view, there is no more concrete way to observe the abstract "American dream" than to interact with these very students in a typical public university system, to witness students unconsciously scratching against the only world they know. I just wish that these young Americans would push themselves to actually become conscious of their predicament.

On a personal level, I like each and every one of my students. I even like the students who for some reason or another make me crazy (they skip class, they are obstinate for the sake of being obstinate, they are not as engaged as I would like them to be, etc.). There are students who remind me of myself at a younger age; there are student who I admire for how different they are compared to who I was at their age; there are students who are genuinely funny, sincere in ways that only eighteen, nineteen and twenty year-olds can be; there are a few students who are trying desperately to push against the ideologies they have been raised with, and I admire their budding awareness and questioning. Each person holds his/her own charm, and I guess I am easily charmed.

Because I like the students, I am also easily frustrated when they blow off my class, when they don’t keep appointments, when they roll their eyes at comments I make, statements I repeat. One student skipped a class, and my feelings were hurt. C. reminded me of all the classes I skipped as a freshman and sophomore. “Your feelings can’t be hurt; you did the same thing.” Point taken.

More generally, and more importantly, I feel stunned by the fact that, when they are asked to think creatively and analytically, so many of them are handicapped. They freeze up. They read essay prompts, and they are quick to state that the prompts are not clear or don’t make sense. In reality, the prompts do not spell out every last item that belongs in the paper. The prompts are not an instruction manual or a recipe. The prompts sometimes ask them to deal with large issues, and to define the very narrow approach they will take to address that larger issue. Earlier prompts simply asked them to draw relationships between texts and real-life experiences: How is the situation you read about in someway similar to an experience you have had? In what ways does it differ? They freeze. The prompts seem unclear because they’ve never been asked to problem solve in this manner.

I don’t think most of them understand that writing an argument- first defining their own argument, and then building the argument on evidence is a critical type of problem-solving, an actual skill that they will need to possess in order to process political rhetoric, policies and laws, in order to judge whether policies and laws are too far removed from ‘real-world’ experiences. Many of the essays read as a string of opinions that sound dogmatic and conditioned, and when they are asked to provide evidence, it is nearly impossible. When they are asked to keep their evidence relevant to a specific point, this is also a challenge. When they are asked to explain why a point is significant in some larger context, many cannot even think of where to begin or how to do so. They want to say, for example, immigrants learning and adopting the English language over their first language has more gains than losses, because a person gains more. But what gains? What losses? They freeze.

I often suspect that their prior education has done little to prepare them to think critically, to problem-solve, to question the face-value of news stories, of films, of music, of literature – of any and every text with which we are all confronted on a daily basis. Instead, it is as if they have been conditioned to look for precise, unchanging formulas, as if the world operates on constancy. When I observe the lack of curiosity about the world, or rather (because the curiosity is there; it peeks through bashfully) the years of conditioning that have made it seem unworthy to hold and explore curiosity, I feel, not sad, but scared. Who has stripped you of your sense of wonder? Who has told you to hold firm to beliefs and laws and systems without also exploring other beliefs and laws and systems? I want to ask. Where is your sense of wonder? Unleash your wonder.

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