Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Teacher or Preacher? On Basic Writing, Gen Ed Courses

I have a particularly bright student in my developmental writing course this semester. While I know why he is in my class (ACT scores not high enough), I'm not entirely sure how that happened. It would seem that he fell through the cracks. He is everything that you dream about in a student, especially when you are teaching developmental writing: he attends class, he takes the work seriously, does his homework, and participates in class discussions. But I know that he resents the hell out of my class, especially when I have to come down hard on the other students who don't show up, don't do the work, and don't take it seriously. One day I made sure that he knew that I knew that the speech was not meant for him. He shrugged, said he understood, but it got his back up when I started to preach. I hate church, he said, and I don't want to hear a sermon at school.

This conversation took place almost a month ago. It's troubled me ever since. I want my classroom be an open place for an exchange of ideas, but, at the same time, there are certain lesson, sermons so to speak, that the students need to hear, often repeatedly, if they hope to be successful in college. While taking the time to do the work and taking that work seriously doesn't guarantee success in college, it certainly increases the odds. I know there are students who can do little to nothing during college and still do well (I was one of them), but I also know that my developmental students can't afford to allow school to be the last thing on their list of priorities if they want to graduate and not have wasted their money. 

I speak from a position of experience. I have taught developmental and other lower-level general education courses for more than ten years now (seriously, when did that happen?). I've seen the students who struggle and ultimately succeed versus those who don't even bother trying. I also know that one of the ways we learn is through repetition, so I repeat the core mantra every chance I get. But what does that say about my teaching style or my attitude towards my students. On one hand, I want to treat them like adults, but on the other hand, I seem to scold them like children. Minister to them like a flock of unthinking sheep. But if we teach in an influence-based society, is it any wonder some of us adopt a strategy that mirrors some of the most successful personalities, like the preacher?

Teaching might not be a vocation, but there are some very real similarities between what I am expected, required, or choose to do in front of the classroom and what a good preacher does. But is this a good thing? Religion is often seen as a means of indoctrination, and it pains me to say that in some ways, I am trying to indoctrinate my students on how to be successful in college and beyond. I've written before how for many of us in academia, institutions of higher learning are the new church, and our religion is based on the tenants of hard work and critical thinking. Some sections of society think that if everyone had a little more God, this world would be a better place. Nationally, however, the common refrain is that this world would be better place if were all just had a little more higher education. 

In my classes, it boils down to getting my students to think critically about why they are in college, and then convincing them to use that as motivation to do the unpleasant tasks that are required of them. I know I am supposed to make my classes relevant and engaging, which I try very hard to do, but when faced with a classroom full of students who tell me that they hate writing and reading, well, no matter how exciting and entertaining I make the assignments, they will still have to write and read, in my class and beyond. So, yes, I guess I am a bit of a preacher, trying to convert the masses. But, it is only one of the many personas I use when I teach. 

At least he didn't say I reminded him of a missionary. That's a whole other can of worms. 


  1. I'm having my own struggles right now. I hate to see students fail, but at what point do you throw in the good preacher towel and just say "you're going to scholarly hell" (getting an F)? It's also really hard to walk that fine balance between talking with and talking at students, especially when there's a mix of abilities in the classroom.

    I think that's part of the FYW territory, though. They're freshman, and they're learning. We can't expect them to be fully assimilated into college yet. FYW is partially about learning to be a college student and learning more about yourself as a writer.

    I can really appreciate this post, and I bet others are glad like I am that they aren't alone in feeling the pressure of teaching FYW.


    I think you'll find Miller's argument both a challenge to some of your ideas and also a validation of others or a sigh of relief. He is down to earth, not a hard read. Enjoy!

  2. Ugh. I just lost yet another comment to Blogger, but the gist of what I said was:
    a) Really good post.
    b) Relationships have to precede truth for modern students/people.
    c) You got me thinking!

  3. I teach a good number of developmental courses and deal with students who have no concept of what might be expected of them in college. Part of it does seem to stem from lax expectation in high school where teachers often pass students just to keep from dealing with the problems that come with failing a student.

    But these students who lack motivation often do not think in terms of one to four year time spans, which is something they need to do to get through a college education. Too much of their thinking is taken up with this week and little thought is given to this month, let alone this year.

    In my developmental reading courses, I work with them on setting and planning goals, which can help to a degree, but the reality is that there are no easy fixes for this mentality.


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