Friday, December 24, 2010

What Do We Expect From Freshmen?

I'm not breaking my Christmas vow to focus on engaging with the comments on my blog/writing; this post, in fact, is a long response to my recent University of Venus post, "What is a Course in Higher Ed?" One particularly negative comment focused on how I live in a fairy-land and should never be allowed to teach again. Never mind that the course focused on education and its role in our society, and that the assignment was warmly and enthusiastically received by my students. And while some of my students didn't do as well as I had hoped, when do they ever? 

But that isn't what this blog post is about. No, my fellow University of Venus blogger Mary Churchill dealt quite well with the issue of instructors and professors being openly discouraged from trying (and potentially failing) in the classroom here.

I want to focus on the critique that I expected too much from my Freshmen in the class (never mind that most of my students were, in fact, Sophomores or higher). One of the comments read:
Freshman are not educators; most of them do not even know how to do critical thinking, much less create a course that develops it. Freshmen are supposed to be somewhat self-centered with a limited worldview. Changing that is the purpose of higher ed. While, along the way, imparting skills and knowledge.
True enough, they are not educators, but they have all chosen to attend an institution of higher education, at great cost to themselves and/or their families. But is it also true that they are "supposed to be somewhat self-centered"? This goes back to the central question of my post, what is higher education? Is its purpose to produce well-rounded, critical thinking individuals? And is it the only place where this could and should happen?

In the West, most people still do not attend college, let alone complete a degree (note that I've said college and not community college or technical schools). We are a democracy, and we rely on a population that is capable of making informed decisions when they vote. Why, then, is critical thinking the sole responsibility of colleges and universities? Why has that role been taken away from or fallen away from the high schools? What about the significant numbers of the population who have not gone to college?

We spoke at length about education and its role in our society both with my more advanced 200-level writers, about whom I wrote, and with my developmental writers, who were all Freshmen. All of them agree that their college education, in fact, all of education, is motivated by economics. It was very difficult for them to even contemplate or imagine education serving any other purpose. Why then, I asked, was education historically reserved for the wealthy who didn't need any sort of education in order to perpetuate their (mostly inherited) wealth? Why did the emerging merchant class insist that their children receive a classical education when their trade was, well, trade?

I don't think any of us ever came up with a satisfactory answer. Is this a failure on my part as an instructor? Well, I could have told them or lectured them on their self-centered, capitalist worldview, which would have gone in one ear and out the other. Instead, we read, we wrote, and I let them create. And, really, at the end of 15 weeks, is it too much to ask of a student to apply what we have read, discussed, and learned, regardless of what level they are at, Freshmen or Seniors?

I think in our disgust with the level of K-12 education, our increasing course loads/student numbers, our push to standardize courses, and our general disdain for the motivation of our students (or lack thereof), we have severely underestimated their abilities. They don't want to be challenged; they're not ready to be challenged; I'm too busy to challenge them. But it doesn't have to be that way. Most Freshmen, heck most students, will rise to the challenge, if you are willing to go there with them.

Back when I was naive, I taught a developmental writing course in California, at one of the state schools.  The need for remediation was so strong that they created two levels of developmental writing, one that was one 10-week quarter and another that took place over two 10-week quarters. The only requirement was that the students had to study (read, write, and discuss) a non-fiction book, one that makes an argument. I, in my naiveté, chose Manliness by Harvey Mansfield. The students, I thought, would love it. And they did, eventually.

We spent the final 10 weeks on the book. I told them ahead of time that it would be the most challenging book they'd probably ever read, but if they trusted me, worked hard, we would get through it and they could be confident that they could get through anything college threw at them.  It was the hardest 10 weeks of my life and probably the students' (intellectual) lives. But we did get through it and at the end of the semester, I was more proud of the results they produced than I ever have before or since. Why? One reason is because I never had the opportunity to teach the book again. But another reason is exactly because it was so hard for me as their instructor and thus a deterrent to ever teaching something that challenging to Freshmen or developmental writers ever again. Why should I be surprised at their uninspired writing and ideas when I give them (or am required to give them) uninspired things to read and write about?

My idea to have all of my students, regardless of their level read and write about education and education reform has produced the most satisfying results for me as an instructor since I taught Manliness. And, it was my most challenging teaching experience since then, too. Were all the essays stellar examples of critical thinking and college-level writing? No. But, they all showed evidence of at least an attempt at both critical thinking and college-level writing. It didn't earn them an A, but it did reinforce my belief that much of the time we expect too little from our students, Freshmen or otherwise.

For Part II, I ask, what can we expect from Freshmen?


  1. Hear, hear.

    If we don't challenge them, even the best students will not learn much. And if we choose the challenge well, even those who don't get great marks will have learned things and written something interesting.

    I like your point about relegating things to college or university that we think all students should be able to do. And that we need to accept that our students have economic motivations for coming to university whatever we think of those motivations.

    While you challenge them, you also meet them where they are. That is the real trick, I think.

  2. Stay tuned for my follow up to this, coming in a few days:

    What can we expect from Freshmen?


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