Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Teacher as Husband: Part I

A fellow teacher and I got into a bit of a row today concerning the way that students act in large-group lecture settings. I was disturbed by a lack of comportment that I saw in a number of students (but, it must be stated, by no means all). A few select students were talking...loudly...and across the room others were sleeping. I brought up to my co-worker that this bothers me. She responded (I'm paraphrasing here to the best of my understanding) that I press the students too much on behavior issues. She said that at their age level they shouldn't be expected to listen for an hour to a lecturer. I disagree with all of this.

We are a culture of sound-bytes and 3:50 radio songs. Our collective cultural attention span is "measured in nanoseconds" (from the movie Baseketball). This is one place that I believe the college must stand against the overarching culture. Education is not Matrix-style plug-in and fill your head sort of stuff. It requires, as I've said before, discipline. At 18-22, when in previous stages of our culture the young would have been married, started their trades, and be raising children, we look for no such thing. Instead, we don't expect them "to listen for an hour to a lecturer" at least respectfully, if not attentively. Indeed, we don't expect our students to do much more than (have their parents) sign our paychecks and our administrators' paychecks. It makes selling snake-oil seem an honorable profession.

However, there is a larger dilemma here. Supposedly, the young come to our classrooms as "adults" or, that insipid phrase, "young adults". My fellow teacher believes that treating them like adults is a must. Granted and agreed with. The way we treat them like adults is the issue. Do we let them do whatever they want to, talk to them if we must, but really let them develop at their own pace (and complain when things don't turn out for the best)? Or, do we expect and require a measure of self-discipline and sacrifice in their lives that betokens what real, outside of the sheltered academic world, adult life is like? I vote for the latter (thanks Jason), even if it means I have to be a hard-nose sometimes.

What, then, is my responsibility in all of this? I realize, at the start, that I am asking for something that I did not ask of myself back at the start of college. So how can I ask it now of others who may not have thought about these things either? I think I have a start to this in an interesting metaphor: the teacher as husband (or husbandman).

A husband cares for and tends to his charges, whether they be a wife and family or plants/animals. I will, for the sake of clarity, stay with the plant metaphor. A good husbandman cares for the plants by creating a shaloming environment for them: he facilitates a place suitable for proper, healthy, and abundant growth. This requires many things, as any plant-lover will tell you. More to the point of the incident above, though, some plants require stakes tied to them so they can grow strong (hopefully eventually strong enough to support themselves), some require pruning--even extensively between seasons, and some require to be weeded out. The last two, for what are obvious reasons to me, are the hardest. Pruning is hard work that oftentimes seems to damage the plant more than help it...and sometimes this is the case. Other times, though, that extensive pruning can produce beautiful and productive plants that do well what they were created to do. It is a risk that every teacher takes and each time with each student is a gamble. The difficult part for the Christian professor, though, is that you are pruning someone for whom Christ died, at least potentially. That is a humbling thought and one filled with a good sort of terror. This, I think, is part of the reason that colleges have so much trouble with teachers who are committed only to research or some aspect other than teaching (not to say that the other aspects, research especially, are not important, but if you are hired as a teacher, then that should prioritize things for you). Pruning, unfortunately, can sometimes kill a plant too. I had a student in the last couple of years who was bright and did good work. I graded him as his work demanded, but still encouraged him concerning his talents and his improvement over the course of the course. However, at the end, he dropped out of school. He said he couldn't "cut it". On my own end, I thought that to be nonsense: he was a fine student with a bright future. Whatever all the factors that went into his decision, I can't help but think that the class he had with me was one of them. The forest lost a good tree that day, but I am happy to say that he is contented with where he is at now.

The last on the list of husbandly duties that I've brought up today is by far the one that requires most care. Pruning is a delicate art, to be sure, but its consequences can be wonderful. Weeding, however, always is initially destructive. At least, that is, to the plant being weeded. How do we judge which plants to weed though? We don't want to make the wrong choice, because this student may be one for whom Christ died. Academic weeding, that is, weeding students out based on ability to handle the work, is one way of doing it. However, this also is fraught with perils. What about remedial work? Do we reject that right out? What about learning disabilities or family/life issues? What about burnout of otherwise good students? What about growth in maturity and competence? If, however, no weeding is to take place, the structure of the university will have to change. It would either have to cater to the lowest common denominator or become a place where learning could take place without the pressure (economic or social) to do it in four/five years.

A husband's work is hard and full of dangers to both the husband and the husbanded. May God grant us grace to do the work and be worked upon.


Jason said...

Good post, Russ. I agree with you; I was one of those students that sometimes dozed, and in hindsight I wished I had professors wake me or make a fool of me.

Also, I think in one of your paragraphs you say you side with the former on something--I think you meant the latter.

John Baldauff said...

Hey Russ,
I noticed the "help wanted" sign outside your house/shop and just wanted to send you my resume as a professional coffee barista for the past two months. During that time I have learned much about myself as a brewer and as a person. Anyways I just wanted to congratulations on not having an Ipod. That, in itself is a feat.

Brandon Zangus said...

good stuff Russ

Janet said...

Then again as a student I believe that some of my classes are genuinely a waste of my time. Maybe some students are deciding the wrong ones are a waste of their time? They are deciding the wrong classes to really get something out of and learn for real (instead of memorizing and vomiting information back onto an exam)

Of course, none of the professors would agree with me that their class was wasting my time, but if I have other things that I could do through out that class (read a good book (even read for another class), draw a portrait, or design a website) that would be more beneficial in my journey.... who's right?

Now, I know sleep is one that can be argued back and forth. The kid needs the attendance points, but needs to rest up because of all the work(?) their doing...

As for being loud and disruptive... I’ve been accused of this (even recently) and I agree that it is just rude. Sometimes I’m really bad about holding my social life above my class time.

~greg said...

I'm going to recommend something radical. I think you have to ask student early on what they are doing in the class, if they really don't want to be there they should leave. Once they know this is an option they start to approach class in a new way. I think that attendance for class should not be taken, ever. If you can write a paper on your experience of learning throughout the semester, or a research paper on the subject, without attending the classes, go for it. I doubt that is going to be the case, and the student would have to be ok with the D. The trouble with learning is that it is best when it is an act that is both reflective and taken for granted (presupposed) by the learner. I think the main issue is that students don't see learning as a way of life, but rather something that happens for an hour at a time.

Janet said...

Greg's comment reminded me of the end of Spanglish (and through out this conversation it has remained on the back of my mind) - how she had to ask her daughter such a question to determine her thoughts about her own life. yeah...