I’ve been largely away from the internet for the last 48 hours, fighting the latest wave of bacterial crud to sweep through the university hospital. Between having two kids in daycare and working here, I basically live my life in a gigantic petri dish. When I came back to Twitter this morning, I found a lot of my tweeple cracking wise and using the hashtag #overlyhonestsyllabi.
I can appreciate the frustrations of college teaching. Not every student is fully invested in mastering the material. Not every faculty member is fully investing in teaching the material. But, as with memes that start in the academic Twitterverse, it doesn’t take long before we all come off like a bunch of ivory tower-dwelling cockmonkeys. Por ejemplo:
My favorite was…
And, as usual, our pants are down and our privilege is showing.
This last semester I taught a basic science general education class that is tangentially related to my area of research. I knew when I agreed to do it that it was populated mostly with at risk students. The section was small, only 15 students. I asked them about themselves the first day of class. All of them were the first in their family to go to college. Most of them were from an underrepresented group. Many of them were non-traditional students and many had families. All of them worked outside of school and needed their income for more than beer money.
This was, without a doubt, the hardest teaching that I have ever done. I realized on the first day that it didn’t matter that I had stayed up late meticulously preparing a syllabus and assignments. These students didn’t understand how to use the syllabus as a tool. My 5 pages of material was intimidating as fuck to them. They struggled with their writing. They didn’t have good note taking skills or understand how to use the reading and lecture materials to complement each other. It wasn’t that these kids weren’t smart. It’s that no one had given them the tools they’d need to navigate the system and succeed in the context of the ivory tower. In the context of our community’s expectations for them.
Some days it really did feel like guerilla warfare. Explaining things for the fourth time that, if I were back teaching in the med school. I could expect my students to know. Or to be confident enough in the system to figure it out. Part of what made it feel like warfare at the beginning was the structure of the course. I taught one night a week from 5:30-10 pm. At 5:30 pm on the first night, the students were enthusiastic. By 8 pm, the room took on a distinct Lord of the Flies vibe. I realized quickly that a lot of these students had just come from work, or they were headed to work after, and they were hungry. The next week I brought snacks and put them out at ~8 pm. The tone for the rest of the night was completely different than it had been the previous week. It was such a simple intervention, but it made a world of difference in their ability to keep focused on the material.
I was lucky in that I knew from the beginning that this group needed more than scientific material. They needed help with their academic skills and we were able to spend a lot of time developing those. I can’t say that every student passed, and I can’t say that we fixed everything, but we made a lot of progress. A lot of progress. But, I’ll say again that I was lucky in knowing that these students were struggling. How often do these students end up mixed into our lectures and fail because we don’t recognize until it’s too late? How often are these the kids we say we hope don’t become doctors…
I understand the venting behind #overlyhonestsyllabi but, besides coming across douchey as hell, it also puts the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the student to succeed instead of making us ask why our students are struggling. I worry about the exclusionary tone of it, especially as I consider the plight of the underrepresented student in STEM. We tell them to come and play the game, we ignore the need to teach them the rules, and then we mock them when they fail instead of introspecting enough to realize that it’s actually we that are failing them.
One of the tweets that rubbed me rawest was this one:
I know that many of us feel hassled by having to teach. By the demands of our students and the demands of their parents, but I was recently reminded how much hope these parents place in their children and what it means to be trusted with their education. I received a short note this week from a parent that said simply, “Thank you from [student's] mom. I am so grateful for your generosity.” Knowing how this student had struggled at times, and how successful he’d gone on to be, this note was everything. Absolutely everything.
It’s easy to write a student off at the first sign of faltering – to tell them that this is a sign they’ll never be a doctor. Or a lawyer. Or, whatever else they aspire to. It’s harder to ask why they’re failing and what we can do to change that…