"Why won't they just LISTEN to me?!"

There’s an interesting article on The Chronicle web site, “Too Many Dissonant Notes,” by Alexander “his real name (I think)” Gelfand. Actually, I thought there were two interesting articles in this issue, but I’ll get to the second one in a bit.

This article follows the time-honored CHE pattern of these essays with an opening that “puts us in the scene:” Gelfand is in the process of throwing a couple female freshman out of class during a mid-term. Thus the tale of the troubled students begins.

But is it just the students? Hmmm….

Gelfand then talks about his own teaching experience, and here he perhaps reveals more about himself than he realizes:

“My previous teaching experience, and my own education, at a string of private high schools, elite liberal-arts colleges, and major research universities had shaped my assumptions about the respective responsibilities of professors and students.

“I was there to dispense information, to inculcate habits of critical thinking, and to serve as an all-knowing guide to the course material. My students were there to listen and absorb my generous gift of knowledge with an air of respectful gratitude. Or so I thought.”

Ah, okay…. I’m not quite sure what’s worse here, that Gelfand’s vision of higher education is defined entirely by his membership of the elite, or the fact that his concept of pedagogy is the problematic role of “sage on the stage.” Or, as I remember from an old bumper sticker, “Get in, sit down, shut up, hang on.”

In any event, Gelfand teaches now at what he describes as an “urban university” in Queens, NY. He spends a lot of time praising the diversity of the student body, which comes across to me a bit like the phrase “I’m not a racist, but…” Then he describes his students, who seem to me to be like a lot of the students at many different universities in this country, including EMU:

“Many students come from low-income households and work long hours to pay their tuition, commuting from home to class to work and back again. And many are the first in their families to attend a college or university.

“The culture gap across which we gaze at one another is particularly large when it comes to first-year students who have not yet been acculturated to a university setting, but it remains evident with more mature students, as well.”

Despite all this, Gelfand says he assumed (and here, I’m not sure if he is recognizing the problem of his assumption or not) that his students would simply buckle-down and work. And, for the most part, that’s what happened. But these two freshmen really seemed to get him:

“On a good day, they buried their heads in the wireless laptop computers the university had provided them, making their presence known only by the telltale sounds of instant messaging and e-mail notification. On a bad day, they laughed and chatted throughout my lectures and musical examples, distracting their classmates — not to mention their professor.

“I initially responded with an occasional “Ladies, please,” accompanied by a meaningful glance, hoping they’d eventually come around on their own — inspired, as it were, by the example of their fellow students, and by the sterling example I myself was setting as a scholar and teacher.”

Of course, these students aren’t completely innocent and probably should have been thrown out of that midterm. Actually, they probably should have been thrown out of class a whole lot earlier, and, in a way, Gelfand seems to have learned his lesson. But he seems bitter about it:

“Imposing iron discipline from the start, rather than getting tough late in the game, might have helped. But like many academics, I’m not particularly good at playing the heavy.

“Better yet, I might have taken the time to make explicit the implicit contract that most professors feel they have with their students, and clearly defining the consequences (grade penalties, dismissal, whatever) of breaking our shared compact. It’s a tactic I formerly used when teaching elementary school, but had dismissed as overkill at the college level.”

Actually, I think there a lot of other lessons here:

  • The behavior of these students during the midterm is not acceptable, but it isn’t surprising given Gelfand’s approach to “teaching.” I mean, if all Gelfand was doing was standing there and lecturing on and on, I probably would have spent my time during Gelfand’s class checking my email and surfing the web on my laptop, too.
  • Like Gelfand, professors tend to base their approach to teaching on some sort of rosy remembrance of what it was like to be a student. The problem is that most folks who have the dedication to become college professors were not typical undergraduate students. Gelfand (and many others, including me) might benefit by checking out an article in the “for pay” version of this issue of CHE which reviews five relatively new books on teaching and pedagogy in higher education. In the nutshell, this advice comes in a variety of shapes and forms from folks who have learned their lessons. Undoubtedly, many of these authors have had experiences like what Gelfand describes here. The difference is they decided to do something to change their approach to teaching.
  • The idea that students need to have clearly defined rules about what is and isn’t expected to them is not limited to the world of elementary school, and it isn’t just students who need to have these rules. I mean, faculty can’t get too grumpy about students not knowing what’s expected of them when they complain about the vague standards of tenure and promotion.
  • In my own experiences as a teacher and a happy academic, I have learned two things over the years, lessons I’d like to pass on to Professor Gelfand (if he’s interested).

    First, you have to start the semester by “imposing iron discipline from the start.” You can “lighten up” after the term gets going, but you can’t “tighten up” if you start the semester with loosey-goosey rules.

    Second, you can’t assume that first year students know anything about how college works. Gelfand wants to blame these students’ poor behavior on their lack of preparation for higher education, but I’ve had plenty of students with the “right” backgrounds (e.g., upper middle-class, college educated parents, good high schools, etc.) who were just clueless about the “rules” of college. I’ve had first year students completely baffled that this handout they received the first day (“what-cha-call-it, the, ah, silly-bus?”) was important enough to be read and keep for the whole semester. I’ve had first year students who were completely shocked when I rejected their “dog at my homework/my printer doesn’t work” excuse for not turning in an assignment. I’ve even had first year students stare at me with dropped-jaws when I answer their question about “extra credit” that there is no extra credit.

    Mind you, I don’t that makes these students dumb. They just don’t know any better.

Anyway, I understand Gelfand’s venting about his students– all teachers do that from time to time. I just hope he and his ilk realize that it isn’t just students at “urban universities” who behave like this, and I hope he realizes that there’s a pretty good chance that the “problem” here isn’t just the students.

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