“Message” Misses the Point

Recently a Huff Po article, Message to My Freshman Students, has been stirring up discussion on my Facebook feed. The author, Keith Parsons, PhD., is a philosophy professor who expresses frustration with the expectations his first-year students bring to college.  While his overall tone is condescending and somewhat abrasive, he owns those qualities, essentially telling his students to toughen up and take responsibility for their own learning.

I’m divided in my reaction to this open letter. On one hand, the tone is off-putting. I know how difficult it can be to learn when a philosophy of “students are responsible for their own learning” is interpreted as a license for terrible teaching. Even when such classrooms might claim to be student-centered with teachers/instructors refraining from lecturing or offering much of any conceptual framing, students may not actually learn much when they haven’t the foggiest about what do do with the content of the course. Luckily for me, I’ve suffered very little from boring lectures, but I’ve survived enough dense conference presentations to grasp how very painful they must be, especially when accompanied by dismissive attitude. And Parsons seems to be justifying that kind of approach.

On the other hand, as a graduate instructor and now as an assistant professor, I also have been exasperated at some students’ expectations that college will spoon-feed them–not just broccoli and peas, but pureed broccoli and peas. And if they spit them out, their professors should sweeten them with sugar and thin them out with enough water so that the course work can be bottle-fed too.

But when students’ educational experiences have been dominated by testing-taking, we shouldn’t be so surprised by these expectations. What I find far more troubling is when a similar message comes through teaching and learning materials that tell professors to take lessons from computer games to “game-ify” their courses or to offer points as motivation for every little desired behavior. Although I have learned much from these kinds of books such as Teaching Naked and Make it Stick, I’m troubled when these suggestions are accompanied by the implicit promise that if only teachers were to use the proffered strategy of the month, students would magically transform into the white unicorns we’ve been waiting for.

My hunch is that students’ lack of engagement may be less about course content and teaching style and more about being 19 and doubtful that investing effort will ultimately serve them well. It’s more about managing jobs, extra-curricular activities, illnesses (mental and physical), family responsibilities, and school all at the same time. It’s more about being caught between the rock of “you-must-go-to-college-or-you’ll-be-doomed-for-life” and the hard place of “there’s-no-guarantee-you’ll-get-a-job-that-justifies-your-student-loans-in-the-end-anyway.”

So maybe the question of where responsibility for student learning lies–with the hard-nosed professor or with the infantile student–is beside the point. Maybe lack of student engagement has as much to do with an environment of lackluster opportunity for students and too many underpaid, overworked professors. Maybe it’s about an environment where funding for education is slashed year after year and where trade deals ship opportunity overseas while those of us who should know better fight over crumbs.

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