Tag Archives: liberal arts

Learn for me; it’s what I pay you for

…or, content aside, I try to teach “how not to fail at life,” concurrently.

It’s too early for this, far too early. But, I just can’t help it. Reading through many academic blogs, both current posts and past, one of my soap-box themes comes up often: student entitlement. We know I’m no stranger to this rant (See my previous post on effrontery).

I understand that there is a larger question of our society, its values (or sometimes lack thereof where education is concerned), consumerism, throw away society — the list of ‘woes’ and ills could go on forever.

When I greet my bright-faced, nervous, wide-eyed first year college students every fall, I’m astounded by how much of an assumption there is about what exactly my job is (and it’s really not their fault).

The common presumptions are: 1) I “work” for them.  2) My job is to make their life easier.  3) I have nothing else to do with my time other than waiting at my keyboard like a telephone operator to answer their last minute questions. 4) My purpose in life is to accommodate all of the hiccups in their week.

They arrive with a paucity of study skills, problem solving skills, and information gathering skills.  Now, I am not talking about the high-level critical thinking and research skills we expect out of a junior or senior. I’m talking about “I don’t know what this is” syndrome and the missing ability to take the next step — which gets misinterpreted as “ask him, he’ll know the answer.”

I am not so misanthropic that I cannot understand the developmental stage they’re all going through. Some advanced skills are very new to them. That’s cool. It’s one of the actual reasons I’m in the class room.

What rankles me is the refusal to do the basic skills work that is required. Students would always ask me for a study guide for each chapter of (in these instances) language classes. Now, I understand that a language can be a big amorphous beast to a novice learner. (As an aside, language textbooks are generally organized [with notable exceptions] into things like ‘vocabulary,’ ‘structures/grammar,’ ‘culture). Pithy as I thought I was at the beginning of my teaching career, I would answer:  “Why, Johnny, you already have a study guide! It’s that 250 page hard thing on your desk. It has a tell-all section called the ‘table of contents’ and a magical, top-secret decoder section called an ‘index.”

This did not go over well, clearly.

To my chagrin and great personal embarrassment, I came to understand that they hadn’t the first clue how to use a textbook (let alone an academic book or monograph).  This is when I adjusted my first day lesson to both cover some basic first class content and basic life skills.   We begin with a ‘how to use the textbook, similar features found across the genre’ talk — it’s very total physical response and task-based learning (for all the pedagogy wonks).   This is accompanied by a list of if-then scenarios. There’s even a document on blackboard and a hand out  (None of which they take notes on or consult, as evinced by the series of emails I continuously get all semester long).

This birthed the next phenomenon I still often encounter: “give me the answer,” often paired with: “I didn’t know what that was, so I just stopped reading.”  So, I introduced a short talk on the God of Google: finding out things quickly to aid your learning process.  I explain to them that when they run into a name, a word, a reference, a concept, anything that they do not know, we are blessed to live and learn in the 21st century. The interwebs hold basically all of human knowledge up to this point. I patiently philosophize that as college students, part of their task is to seek out things they don’t know so they can contextualize. This is almost always met with 1) eye-rolling, 2) incredulous blinking 3) much whining.

(I feel the need for another aside here: At this point, I sound like a colossal asshole. I promise, my students actually adore my classes because I respect them as people and make whatever I’m teaching as involved, energetic and engaging as possible. These are just the ‘oh my GOD, you’re killing me!’ thoughts I stifle in their presence)

What really gets my goat is when I realize that I am being paid (on paper) to teach a specific subject to my students, to prepare them for the next level of the subject, to teach them how this subject can and does fit into the larger picture of their overall studies but what I am expected to do is raise them all to the same level of ground-level functionality while teaching them content. Curricular juggling ensues.

When I really feel downtrodden is when I take a moment to explain something briefly and how it is relevant to other areas of their lives. One student, just this past summer said to me (and the entire class): “Jeez, if you were teaching a class on that, I’d be so bored I wouldn’t know what to do. I’d probably just sleep.”

I smiled tersely.

Where is this heading? You’ve all guessed it.  The romantic notion of liberal arts that we all still cling to but which is nowhere to be found. (Thank you romanticism, you’ve ruined us all).

I’ve given impassioned talks about the joy of learning and how it is actually useful in a way that is not always quantifiable. That all of these subjects you learn at a university that seem ‘useless’ are engaged in forming your mind, honing your thinking and problem solving skills, exposing you to the way it was done in the past (and all the innovations, landmarks, and errors therein) to produce a human being who can reason, who can step into a situation and say “I can solve this problem.”   Very large and dramatic eye-rolling, snorting and hoots of “That’s dumb” heralded their opinions.

Like, understanding the world is boring and hard, yo.

Again, I’m not a rube. You can’t put that on your résumé in today’s job market. Liberal arts has taken one for the team — we now must demonstrate clearly the practical, marketable application of everything we teach, or suffer losing our jobs (see CUNY’s Pathways initiative).

Sometimes though, I claim a pyrrhic victory. When they write to me about something that is logistical, I gleefully respond: “You’re industrious. I’m sure you’ll figure it out with some reflection.”

In the end, I make a compromise between sticking to my guns and bending to their will.  When they bleat pathetically for a study guide, I force them to make it (interjecting here or there when they falter).  I remind them to look in the index for something or I tell them ‘how to find it.’

I won’t stop giving my speech about why we do study the liberal arts. It’s my personal conceit. I will continue to hold out hope that some of them will believe it, that some of them will discover why the liberal arts are important through their own growing process.  I dare to hope that even some of them will repeat it to others.

The next Roland Barthes should grace us with a “Death of the Arts” essay.  For now, I consider our current culture to be a war on humanity’s past.  I can’t make my classroom a battle field; I cannot ethically propagandize my own belief.  But, I can take five minutes a semester to tell them why what they are forced to study is important to their lives.