One of my favorite things to teach in my literature surveys is Confucius’ Analects. The text never ceases to amaze me because of just how relevant it still is. Despite being somewhat archaic in style and diction by today’s standards, Confucius really hit on some ideas that most of us would do well to meditate on.
In particular, I’m taken by one simple adage in which he describes a particularly engaged student: “When he is told one thing, he understands ten.”
When I read that, I just stopped. I read it again. And again.
“When he is told one thing, he understands ten.”
Wow. Just wow.
Rarely has just a single sentence so accurately encompassed my outlook on my profession. Despite my being against old school elitism, I take a fairly traditionalist look at the classroom.
I want to be as close to my students as possible, but not at the expense of their education. I want to be there for my students and help them along in any way I can, but I’m not going to hold their hands.
A student at the college level, especially in online universities, must take an active role in his or her own education, and any professor who coddles by oversimplifying concepts and spelling every last detail out is doing everyone in the classroom a disservice by eliminating the need for discovering ideas on their own. If students only get the one thing they are told, they are essentially wasting time. They are not actively engaged in their own education.
But Isn’t Explaining Your Job?
Yes, it is. But only from a particular perspective. My job is to teach. To make sure that those who take my class learn. My job is not, however, to treat these college students like children or to facilitate their laziness.
One of the major flaws in the public education system–at least in my opinion–is the complete lack of autonomy provided to students. It’s one thing to teach to the test, and its something completely else to make sure that each student’s experience parallels every one of his or her peers’.
I teach my classes with a single mindset: that the students are going to work outside of class. That the students who struggle will come to me–or a tutor–and clarify anything they might not have grasped from lecture or discussion.
It is not my job to make sure that each and every student walks out of the classroom every day with no need to open their textbook or think about anything they just heard. In fact, I want just the opposite.
My job is to make sure that students are exposed to ideas. My job is to make sure that students are given opportunities to learn and see the broader strokes that make up life and academics. My job is not to take my three weekly contact hours and go over concepts that any students who can open up a grammar handbook can look up for themselves.
That’s not teaching.
Anything more detailed than what is covered in class is in the student’s purview to look up. Professors are not there to eliminate the need for student engagement; we’re there to clarify what students bring with them from their preparation.
I’m not saying that I don’t go into excruciating detail on some projects, but I pick and choose. I see a professor’s job as being the one who gives the ideas, who brings the student to the new horizons, but that the student must then become an active participant and put forth the effort to glean all the meaning from the more general introductions and ideas I present.
There’s a difference in going over the basics of, for example, MLA format during one class period and spending a week doing in-class exercises and assigning homework for practice. In my comp II classes, I give a single day’s lecture on MLA format and citations because that’s the manuscript format in which I require my students to write. I do not, however, go into detail about each potential type of source or the too-numerous ways students might have to alter them.
The reason why is twofold. The first reason being that the students generally don’t care. MLA is a dry subject, and it’s hard to keep their attention. The high points are about all they can stand. Secondly is that not every student in that class needs to know how to cite every single kind of source out there. So I hit the high points; i cover what information goes into a parenthetical within, what constitutes an in-text citation, and what the Works Cited page should look like and where to find the information within the primary source.
Outside of that, though, I’d like to think that my students can open the handbook and find the information themselves. Teaching a man to fish and all that.
Not Everyone Feels that Way
However, my mindset is not the only mindset. And I’m not entirely certain it’s the majority’s mindset. In many ways, undergraduate courses are becoming a second high school. With the dearth of developmental classes being offered at colleges and universities these days, it can no longer be assumed that anyone going into post-secondary work is academically prepared.
Because of this lack of preparation, there is a school of thought that says we must prepare them. And I agree. To an extent. We must prepare them by offering developmental courses through which students who need to catch up can. We do those students no good by lowering the standards of the collegiate courses they enter later on. Basically, once they’re out of developmental classes, the gloves come off.
However, many of the students are used to the hand-holding that comes with high school, and they aren’t prepared for the workload nor the pace at which college happens. The students aren’t prepared for teachers to not hound them about turning in assignments, or professors simply listing an assignment on the syllabus and assuming students have read it and know about it.
There are many people who think that college teachers need to be more hands-on, more invested in individual students in the classroom. And while that doesn’t sound like a bad thing on paper, I would like to argue that if I were to chase down every student in all of my classes who is at risk of turning in papers late (or not at all), I’d never have time to get anything else done.
If I had to portion out my time in class to instruction so that I was certain every student understood every concept and never had to open their books outside of class, then I’d still be on the first week’s reading and not have the first assignment graded.
And still those who think that college needs to be more like high school remain; they think that the students need more individual attention. And again, I agree in theory. I do think students need individual attention, and any student who comes to me after class or drops by my office gets it. I spend the vast majority of my office hours talking with students and going over this or over that.
But that’s with the students who care enough to seek out the help they need. My job is to give that help, and I gladly give it. However, I do require that it be a two-way exchange. They have to want that help, want to improve and learn.
The classroom is for instruction, for introducing them to new ideas, for discussion about whatever is pertinent to that day’s readings. The classroom is not for playing catch-up with students who thought that six pack was far more important than Don Quixote, and the classroom is certainly not the only means though which a student learns.
Students must take an active role in their own education. When I started college, I was told that I would be studying 3 hours outside of class for every 1 I spent in a desk. I laughed at them, but looking now, I see how much I lost by not doing just that. Or by doing half that. A quarter that. I could have gained so much more just by trying, caring, planning.
I’ll bend over backwards for a student who comes to me seeking help. I’ll stay after school, work longer hours, and do whatever it takes to make sure that any student who wants to learn, learns. I’ll make sure that anyone who asks for clarification understands. But I’ll only do it if they care enough to ask.
As a professor, I give them the foundation. I give them the base on which they can build their education. What kind of education they build, however, is up to them. I cannot shape it, and I cannot direct it. I can say one thing, and an average student will understand it. An above average student will understand it and remember it. An exceptional student will understand it, and then come to my office and start a conversation by saying, “I get what you were saying in class, but what do you think about…”