Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What Can We Expect From Freshmen?

I asked, in a recent post, what do we expect from Freshmen? I was responding, in part, to the criticism, that I had expected too much of my students in their final assignment. And then, today, I came across (or rediscovered) the following essay by Alfie Kohn, explaining "How to Create Nonreaders." In it, he radically proposes that we empower students and allow them to shape the curriculum in their language arts/reading and writing classes at the K-12 level. 

Now, imagine if we did that in our Freshmen Writing or Introduction to Literature classes. Based on the comments on my blog post about allowing students to propose a fictional course, I don't think that it would go over very well. 

Here is the paradox that Kohn points out and that can be extrapolated even further into higher education: 
The sad irony is that as children grow older and become more capable of making decisions, they’re given less opportunity to do so in schools.  In some respects, teenagers actually have less to say about their learning – and about the particulars of how they’ll spend their time in school each day -- than do kindergarteners.  Thus, the average American high school is excellent preparation for adult life. . . assuming that one lives in a totalitarian society.
We expect even less of students in college classes. Part of it is the institutional tradition: students come to higher education (and pay a lot of money) in order to benefit from our (the professor's) expertise. If they wanted to direct their own learning, they are free to do so, for free. You get what you pay for, and they are paying for my wisdom, experience, and knowledge. But why does it have to be that way? As Kohn points out, the instructor is not removed from the equation; they are important guides in the process of shaping the educational experience. Why does our experience have to be shared with students in a top-down approach?

When I ask the question, however, what can we expect from freshmen, I don't just mean what could we reasonable expect a freshman to do in a class. I don't think that it would be entirely unreasonable to immediately ask a freshman to take control and ownership of their education in order to prepare them for not only the next four years, but their professional lives beyond their degree. No, I am also asking what are we allowed to ask of our freshmen.

Kohn talks about how it's important that students are given "voice and choice." Why? Two reasons:
The first is that deeper learning and enthusiasm require us to let students generate possibilities rather than just choosing items from our menu; construction is more important than selection.  The second is that what we really need to offer is “autonomy support,” an idea that’s psychological, not just pedagogical.  It’s derived from a branch of psychology called self-determination theory, founded by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, among others.  To support students’ autonomy is to meet their need to be in control of their own lives, to offer opportunities to decide along with the necessary guidance and encouragement, to “minimiz[e] the salience of evaluative pressure and any sense of coercion in the classroom” and “maximiz[e] students’ perceptions of having a voice and choice.”[10]
 How can we allow students to generate possibilities when the instructors themselves aren't allowed to generate possibilities, allowed our own autonomy? Instead, we are limited to a selection of pre-approved texts, mandated assignments, and set learning outcomes? My fellow University of Venus colleague Afshan Jafar has written quite eloquently on the McDonaldization of higher education and why it is taking place, but I am interested here in examining the effects on the teaching and course development process. For Mary Churchill, the assembly-line teaching mentality caused her to choose administration over academia. For me, it means that I can't at least try to empower and challenge my freshmen writers.

This next semester, I am teaching Freshman Writing at my institution for the first time. I've taught the course elsewhere, but of course, I have to re-learn a new textbook, fit in all of the mandated assignments, and this semester, the added pressure of being one of the courses whose papers will be evaluated for accreditation and evaluation purposes. Could I, would I, come to class on the first day with the long pre-formatted syllabus with all of the requirements, course goals, learning outcomes, and assignments already in place and pre-selected textbook, and say to the class, here are our guidelines, now we make the class together? I do have the flexibility to assign specific readings, come up with homework/in-class exercises, and a small number of major assignments, as well as the specific schedule for the semester. Could I, would I, hand over the small amount of choice and freedom I do have as an instructor to my students?

I worry about my job. I worry about the perception of me as an instructor. I worry about my students learning. I worry (in my most optimistic moments) that I will upset the expectations of other professors who later have my students, students who now expect a degree of autonomy that they will not receive in other classes. I worry about our accreditation; I have now been at two schools that have completely overhauled their Freshman Writing because of the demands of the same accreditation board. Of course, the accreditation board didn't demand specifically that Freshman Writing change, but they did demand that there be put in place a program that would impact all students. Freshman Writing it is.

I have about three weeks to decide. I'm not going to lie; I'll probably take the "easy" and safe way out, developing my syllabus myself, mostly dictating the readings and assignments, according to the limitations that have already been placed on me. But like I did in my 200-level class this past semester, I'll push the envelope; blogs, self-directed reading and research, and at least one assignment that upsets everyone's assumptions, students' and professors', as to what a freshman can do. It might not be much, but it's a start. It is, literally, the least and most I can do.


  1. A couple of things come to mind about my own situation regarding this post.

    First, we have a First Year Seminar program at my institution that has learning outcomes centered on communication skills and becoming an authentic learner. Beyond that the content is wide open across the school. This year I taught a course called "Hamline Mythbusters" where students worked in teams to bust myths just like the show. It was interesting to watch the students grow through the semester. Early on, when someone had a problem with their set-up, they'd ask me to fix it. I'd say "Menards (local hardware store) is just a mile away" and they'd say "um, when could we go there?" and I'd say "how about now (class time) since you can't get anything done." Later in the semester I'd get texts from students like "can't come to class today because we're going to Menards." It was fun to watch them take ownership of their projects and possibly their learning.

    The second thing that comes to mind is the physics curriculum in my department. We make departmental textbook decisions for the first three courses in our sequence, clearly describing which chapters need to be covered, but after that the instructor can pick the book. There's still a ton of freedom in how it's taught, though, ranging from the emphasis and the order of content to how the class is run (I teach it as a flipped classroom, for example).

    For me the freedom you express worry about in this post is the best part of my job. I've never taught a class the same way twice and I love that. I also love that my department allows the flexibility to pursue new pedagogies and new ideas while maintaining a rigorous list of learning outcomes and content targets.

    Thanks for another great post. Thought-provoking as usual.

  2. Where you are teaching sounds like a dream. If I could do a first-year seminar like that, I would be in teaching heaven. As I am off the tenure-track, I have very little say in things like textbook adoption. Personally, I would vote to do away with the textbook for classes like Freshman Writing and let the professors have at it as they see fit, saving the students money in the process.

    The freedom you have would be the best part of my job, if I had it.

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. Lee - great post - as always! I keep coming back to Cathy Davidson's use of peer review and the contract method of developing a course with her students. I also like the fact that she is a senior faculty member at a prestigious institution (Duke)-- I think it helps more vulnerable faculty when they have a senior person they can refer to when explaining their innovative methods to their chair and other professors in their department.

    Bravo! For the record - I think students don't read because the readings are chosen for them - they have no connection to the course or the readings.


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