Friday, November 10, 2006

Picking Your Brains

I have an unusually high number of Educational Opportunity and Study Abroad students under my teeny little wings this semester.* For the most part, things have been going fairly well. Their papers are getting better each time, anyway, so my comments must help somewhat. More people are contributing to discussion. In other words, life in the classroom is fairly good.

However, some of the kids are missing work or missing entirely too much class. I've spoken to them -- as a group -- about it, and a few people have handed in late work and/or started coming more regularly to class. But many have not changed their habits/made up the work.

Here's what Ive done so far:
- encouraged the students to come see me at office hours in class and in comments on their papers.
- written directions to my office on the board multiple times.
- changed the attendance sheets to put little stars next to the names of people I'd like to speak with, and added a giant note that a star means it's your turn to conference with me.
- offered email conferences, and have written my email address on the board numerous times.

All to no effect. And they absolutely know that I want them to succeed, and will do whatever I can to help them succeed, but I will not give them a passing grade if they haven't done all the work. Now, if I thought these kids were just lazy and uninterested in their education, I wouldn't care either. I don't get that impression, though. Frankly, I think that being proactive about their education is a skill they haven't learned. Middle-class and upper-class kids always come to speak to me about their work. All the time. Can't shake 'em. But the kids who are here from elsewhere, or are first generation college students, will not come to speak with me. This will absolutely negatively affect their marks if it continues. I can't set a standard, and then tell them they've met it when they haven't. That wouldn't be fair. But, I also know that the stakes are much higher for them than for their peers. They are taking loans, or here on scholarships, and bad grades could make them lose their funding.

Other folks have this answer: "They're adults now, they have to take responsibility for themselves. Let it go." But, I have yet to meet an 18 year-old adult. And these other folks with authority/experience are all middle/upper-class people from Anglophone countries. They were never taught helplessness in the face of authority. Many of my kids were taught just that. "Be silent. Accept the teacher's ruling without complaint or questioning. Know your place."

So, how do I get these kids to understand that the teacher is not some weird other life-form? That it's absolutely necessary for them to work with me to make a plan for their success? That it's not disrespectful to ask questions, and education is not something that happens to you without your consent?

*In some ways, this makes a nice change from having too many over-entitled little snots who can't believe a mere know-nothing grad student would have the unmitigated gall to give them a grade below an A, ever.


Anonymous said...

I believe George Eliot was a woman.
Why don't you tell your passive students exactly what you wrote?

Bardiac said...

These are great questions.

Is this a comp class, by chance? If so, how about focusing an essay (and supportive readings) around some college stuff? I'd suggest something by Richard Light, from his book *Making the Most of College*, Jack Meilland's essay on the differences between high school and college, and maybe some focused work through whatever college skills center you've got available (I hope there's something)?

Learning how to "do" college is massive, and especially for first generation students, often really difficult.

ps. I may have spelled Meilland's name wrong, it may be Meiland. I'd be happy to look up the reference or send you a copy for fair use.

Good luck. You're doing important work, really.

Acre said...

I had a class full of very similar (in attitude and background) students last semester, and it was both incredibly refreshing and incredibly frustrating. I think you're spot on in your analysis of why they won't see you, and the tough part is working within that understanding to come up with ways to help them meet their responsibilities as students, but not excuse them from those responsibilities.

Just off of the top of my head: Have you tried e-mailing the students in trouble directly? (I don't know how many there are, but the direct appeal might help.) Do you have a film upcoming in class where you could pull the ones you need to speak with into the hall? Could you add a "When was the last time you spoke with me in office hours?" question to the next quiz? (I don't offer extra credit, but if there is room for that in your class, perhaps offering an opportunity for points for seeing you in office hours?)

One thing to keep in mind, especially if you're mostly relying on appeals to the class as a group, is that most of these students feel invisible. Even my best students have told me that they don't feel like professors know who they are or notice their abilities or difficulties from any other student. So it may be that they think you don't know who they are to know whether or not you've seen them in class. Coming up with a way to make sure they know that, as individuals, you are waiting to hear from them, might be your best bet. (The starred attendance sheet is a good idea, but since you haven't put the question "When are you coming to office hours? " to them personally, they might still find it easy to just ignore the question. Could you pass out an appointment sheet and tell everyone you expect them to sign up for a time unless they've seen you in the last X amount of time?)

Sadly, any of these things require you do a lot of extra work that you would have every right to say is not part of your job. College students should be responsible for this. You've just got to figure out how much you're willing to do for them. Good on you for trying at all.

HeoCwaeth said...

Anonymous, George Eliot was a woman?! Oh, man. Pseudonymous writers are evil, aren't they? Hiding their gender like that.

Bardiac, thanks! I found his essay online, and I think I can use it for educational purposes. One of our professors has a hard copy, too, I think.

Acre, I have now individually emailed the students who are most at risk, with mixed results. I was reluctant to do that at first, because who wants to get that email? But, it seems that some appreciated it.

I've spoken with our lead TA, and a few others, and we think that something was a bit off in the EOP/Study Abroad orientation this year. So, we're all getting involved in talking about college skills in class now.