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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Hasty Generalizations on Day 1

Today was my first day of teaching at my new school, and normally this would be the post where I would indulge in some hasty generalizations about:
  • the nature of the students here versus at my old job;
  • the remarkable decline in a) writing abilities; b) attention spans; c) common courtesty; d) intellectual curiosity since I was an undergraduate;
  • the incredible amount of time and energy the students will demand of me;
  • the intelligence, or lack thereof, of my students.
But, amazingly enough, I've decided not to do any of the above, not because I don't believe students differ across time, geography, and institutions, but simply because ... well, I don't know why really. It can't be merely that I recognize I don't have a large enough data set to make these generalizations; or that, since teachers have always been complaining about the decreasing abilities of their students, there must be a logical incongruity in there somewhere; because those things never really stopped me in the past. I guess it's just my mood today. Maybe I got all my whining out of my system posting about conference fees.

That said, it will be interesting getting to know a different group of undergraduate majors and to see, over the course of the semester, whether and how they differ from what Steely Dan called "my old school" (no, I never taught at Bard). I'd be surprised if they didn't. Not because one group is necessarily smarter than the other--I'm expecting a broad range at my new school just as at my old, though I wouldn't be surprised if the median level differed. But more because I've come to believe that schools can differ pretty dramatically in "student culture," and that student culture has a stronger shaping effect on individual students than just about any other force in the institution--certainly more than professors. (The professoriate, after all, is far more homogeneous around the country than the student body.)

What I mean by student culture is the prevailing attitudes towards education, intellectualism, scholarship ... but also (more specifically for us Renaissance professors), such elements as how the majors approach older literature. Basically, I'm talking about the habitus of students, in Bourdieu's sense. These habitus can differ dramatically from school to school, I think, and can have a far greater impact on the classroom than factors that tend to be given more weight, at least in the public imagination, like "intelligence," or preparedness, or average SAT/ACT scores. How these habitus get formed is, as any Bourdieuian could tell you, a highly complex question, and one to which I currently have no answer, though one would want to start by rounding up the usual suspects, I guess--socioeconomic background, curriculum, Greek life, geography, etc.--but none of them seems quite satisfactory to me. There's a certain dynamic that develops in the classroom, as I'm sure many of you out there have noticed: if you have even two or three highly motivated, articulate students who are willing to speak up in class and to do so in a way that challenges, thoughtfully, what's being discussed and leaves room for others to respond, suddenly the entire class gets on board. The same kind of "tipping point" can occur across the entire student body, I think.

  • At 9/07/2006 12:04:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Well, speaking of hasty generalizations, I offer this. Another of my pet peeves is when professors make claims about declines in student intelligence, aptitude, performance, writing, attention spans. Pet peeve, in fact, is too weak for the level of annoyance that arises in me when I hear such claims.

    I suspect these types of statements are the result of a combination of factors:
    a) confusing the level of outward student engagement against the professor's memory of his or her level of engagement as an undergraduate, while not also remembering the comparative levels of engagement exhibited by the rest of the professor's undergraduate peers;
    b) the belief that students should be as excited by the material before them as the professor is, and if they're not, then concluding that they're not as smart, wise, respectful as he or she once was;
    c) overestimating the quality of one's own undergraduate work against that of one's students, while also not having had any idea of the comparative level of most of the papers that were written when the professor was a student.

    To put things more bluntly, I was excited by a lot of my English classes as an undergraduate, but not all of them. And I know lots of my fellow students way back then were bored and not interested in the material. In other words, I don't see any real difference between the levels of excitement exhibited by students then and students now, and I'm not solipsistic enough to believe my response to the material was at all typical (after all, how many of the students in undergraduate English classes go on to be English professors?).

    I also realize that my level of enthusiasm for Renaissance drama now is near the tail end of the normal curve; I'm the outlier, not my students, and I therefore feel like it's my job to try to get them excited by it. And if they're not, that's fine (I took a ton of classes because I had to as an undergraduate, and that's fine).

    Lastly, I think I'm a better writer now than I was as a graduate student (please hold down the snickers), an undergraduate, and as a high schooler. I've improved because I've written lots and lots of English papers. I don't think I was a particularly brilliant undergraduate writer but I also know I was better than most of my peers (only because of the grades I received). Similarly, the fact that I've become a better writer of English papers does not mean I'd be brilliant in all classes, even those with a heavy writing load (I know, for example, that I'd feel off my game in certain disciplines very closely related to our own). So I really have no idea of how well undergraduates were writing back when I was in college, but if I was better than others back then, I can't believe that there has been a decline in student writing ability. There were good, mediocore, and bad writers when I was in college, just as there are now.

    So there. I wasn't a model student in all my classes; I remember what it's like to be bored; I think most of my undergraduate papers were pretty bad. In other words, I was an undergraduate student very similar to those that certain professors now complain about, which is why I get peevy when I hear those complaints now. [/rant]


  • At 9/07/2006 12:25:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Just in case the fine points of my irony got lost in the blogofascistic fever swamp, I agree with you on this Simplicius. Although, as I said, I'm afraid it doesn't always stop me from engaging in it after a tough day or two of teaching.

    I'd add a couple other reasons for this constant refrain:

    1) the nostalgic haze of pastness that affects people in all aspects of life, not merely education--ie, everything used to be better. The remnants of that very Renaissance idea of the decline from the golden age, and the demise of the mid-20th century belief in progress.

    2) it's not merely taking one's own (memory of one's) undergraduate intellectual engagement, writing ability, etc, I think; it's also that, for most of us I suspect, our peer group in college tended to be people with a similarly unusually high level of ability and engagement. So that many professors extrapolate from the sort of peer experiences they had in college, and the sort of ideas they discussed with their friends, etc. But since we've all gone on to become English professors, I think our friends would tend towards the higher end of interest in academics.

    Also, if you've never re-read a paper you wrote in college, it's a terrifying exercise. Something you only want to do once as a tonic.


  • At 9/07/2006 01:05:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Oh, yes, I've done it. And I promptly stopped doing it; it hurt too much.

    And don't worry, I realized you were consciously eschewing and subtly mocking those nostalgic comparative tendencies. What I wrote was meant to be in addition to, not in disagreement with, your post.


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