Being a Student

The origin of the word student is from the Latin student- ‘applying oneself to,’ and from the verb studere, related to studium ‘painstaking application.’ One might then combine these as proving oneself through painstaking application. The word painstaking is a good one to get at what being a student is like, as does application. You are applying yourself as in putting forth an effort but also applying as in making a formal application or request. The applying that is done to get into college does not stop once the application is accepted. The applying in both senses continues throughout the degree or degrees.

There is a great power imbalance in schools and higher education. The teacher/professor has the bulk of the power and the student has very little. This is why people always talk about a student “sucking up” to the professor. Students feel they have to curry favor with the professor to receive the best possible grade. In my opinion, grades have been the death knell of education. They take the focus of learning away from its best components: curiosity, exploration, engagement, discourse and debate, collaboration, etc. and put them on the letter given out at the end of the course. This makes education about competition and competitiveness rather than learning. It is a means to an end rather than an intellectual enterprise with gifts unrelated to competition with other students.

Neither students nor professors should have to grovel. We should meet each other on equal footing. This is why I like my students to call me by my first name rather than “Dr.” or “Prof.” because it creates greater equity between us. It is interesting to me that some students resist this. I loved calling my college professors by their first name. I understand that it can be taken as a sign of respect, but there are better ways to show mutual respect than titles.

Too much of schooling is based on strict rules and regulations. Assignments become busy work to test knowledge rather than promote exploration of a given topic. True, there are many exceptions and perhaps I am being too negative, but I think education could be so much more. We are stuck in the mud and need to make substantial changes to improve our field. Even if you are an individual who is committed to doing just that, it can be very difficult to do so when you are operating within a particular structure with people with more power than you towering over you. It is even harder for a student to challenge pedagogy. They might do so on an anonymous course evaluation but seldom do they come to the professor to do so because they fear that it might adversely affect their grade. Notice how we come back to the grade once again. I can understand wanting to evaluate a student’s performance, but it has taken on entirely too much importance in today’s academy. Every semester I get multiple grade disputes from students who are angry because they perceive that there grade is too low. On the one hand, I think it is good that students are challenging professors. I just wish it was about something more important, like the pedagogy of the class or the reading list, etc. Why are grades SO important, particularly with millennials? That is something I don’t have answers for but hope to better understand in the coming months because it seems to get worse and worse.

For students there are limitations and possibilities, barriers and explorations. Being a student is not all good or all bad. However, we need to do something about power imbalances between students and teachers and about the central importance placed upon grades. There should be less about being a student that is “painstaking” and more that is liberatory, exploratory, creative and joyful. How will we transform the education system to get there?

Teaching

The most important thing I have to say about teaching is that it is hard as hell. Before I started teaching I had no idea how difficult of a craft it really is. So many of my teachers and professors made it look easy. But as a student, you have a very different vantage point of teaching. You teach a few times a week, assign some papers and test and give out grades. What more to it is there? The answer is: a lot!

With that said, I believe that there are some people who are a natural fit with teaching. I am not one of those people. I struggle with it a lot. I never thought it would be this hard. It truly is an art. You can learn the art over time, but again some people come to understand and embody the art much easier than others. It is also a people-person profession.

I am a die-hard introvert. Some people absolutely hate being alone. I absolutely love being alone. It not only doesn’t bother me, I prefer being alone. I never fully realized how extroverted the profession of teaching is until I taught my first class. I thought to myself: this is going to be interesting. The best teaching to me creates an ideal classroom community. I believe in a classroom community in which the teacher’s power is de-centered. I like to sit in a circle. I like to have discussion-based classes. I like to be one member of the learning community who is on an equal footing and who serves more as a facilitator than as a “sage on the stage.”

Over time, I have gotten more comfortable with classroom dynamics. Every class is different and some are more difficult to manage than others. There is a wide constellation of differing personalities that meld together nicely or that can clash repeatedly. I can never quite tell how a class is going to go. I enter the first day with a lot of nervousness. It takes a minimum of 2-3 weeks to see what a class is really going to be like. There are classes I have really loved and classes I have disliked.

I truly believe that the professor/teacher can only go so far. Can we set the tone? Maybe to some degree, but we need responses. The ideal classroom thrives on an engaged response from students. I tell the students quite candidly on the first day that there is nothing quite as bad as a class where students don’t talk. I make it clear right from the beginning that they are required to speak and be thoroughly engaged. Some obey this directive and others do not, but if at least 50-75% of them do, it can turn into a good class.

I don’t think there will ever be a time when teaching does not give me anxiety. I don’t think there will ever be a time when I think teaching is easy. But maybe the nerves and the difficulty actually help to improve the class. I certainly never take the class for granted nor do I have low expectations. In the 15 weeks that we have, I wanted it to actually mean something. I want the class, or at least part of it, to be memorable and useful. And this goes for both students and teachers. As I said when I started this blog entry, teaching is HARD work. But I have to believe it is worth it and that we make some kind of a difference in our students’ lives.