Was will das Student?

Indeed – what does the student want?  Learning, of course.  I’ve been studenting a lot lately, so I know.

As a matter of fact, I studented heavily while professoring at the Integral Program at Saint Mary’s College of California.  You can’t teach Greek there without also knowing Euclidean geometry, for which my meticulous European education as a Classicist hadn’t prepared me.  I also had to teach LABoratory, of all things, and learn about Fibonacci sequences and music.  As starters, I audited Euclid with the freshmen, fumbling on the board like the worst of them and waking up at night in sweaty wonder (I lost a lot of weight that semester).  But I learned a lot and it did me good.  My favorite Euclidean theorem was the one that proves that the only way to relate a circle to another circle is through those similar squares you impose on the diameters of each.  Try as you might to fill in the rest of the circle with ever diminishing rectilinear figures, the circle will always elude you. This post is very much the square of my circular mind’s thought on the subject, so try to analogize. 

When I am the student, I like hands-on work.  Give me the general framework and let me find out the details while I banter with you and my classmates. Let us fumble while we reinvent the wheel.  If you lecture too much, I’ll tune out.  If you cut me off when I ask questions, I’ll tune out.  I have an uncanny nose for canned teaching schticks, and I will despise you for trying to contrive cuteness.  I also stretch and fidget when my mind engages – I may even leave the classroom and run around the hallways for a while.

That’s great, but I am also an instructor.  As such, I find it difficult to say what exactly I do or think I should do.  Teaching is like cooking – you improvise according to what you have, having sometimes to whip up some skirt steak crème brûlée for dessert.  I’ll never forget my first class – the wolves were about my age at the time and the only way to tame them was smart-mouth them off my back, which was contrary to everything I’d learned about teaching.   

Now – what works in one classroom will most likely not work the next time you teach the same course.  Even with the same class, an especially uplifting session may be, and is often, followed by a mediocre one.  And vice versa.  The good news is that students don’t really care – they immortalize the magnificent sessions. 

The real frustration sets in when you have an assh – pardon me, a difficult student.  Oh mama, I don’t really know how to deal with those yet.  I am not talking about the inquisitive type – they are delightful to banter with – but of the ones that poop all their personal issues on you, and blame you, to boot.

It’s much easier to be the student – you don’t have to grade, and you get to write evaluations at the end.  I wrote several evaluations recently, while taking paralegal courses at SFSU.  It’s fun to be on the other side and evaluate others for a change, but it’s a very, very difficult job, and it may cause you pangs of conscience later.  One of my professors there was fire and brimstone early on, a great thought-provoker.  But after the midterm, he faded, and so I slammed him in my evaluation, even though I knew that he’d had some sort of surgery on the day of our midterm…  I am glad that he was as sharp as ever when I saw him the next semester!

Which brings me to the subject of grades.  Instructors’ evaluations of their students come out as grades.  I love going through my students’ work and correcting it, but grading I hate with passion.  I think it is a perverted and partial form of evaluation that I’d rather see ditched.  On the Silver and Black Pride blog, there’s a lot of learning going on, and there are no grades, but everyone knows where s/he is because the discussion reveals it clearly.  What say ye, denizens of the academic world, as well as you, normal people?


15 thoughts on “Was will das Student?

  1. If the proper activity of a child is learning – be it through formal means or at play, then when is the transition from childhood to adulthood? How is it marked off? It seems there really isn’t a transition with regard to ‘proper activity’ but only different subject matter confronting young and old. It seems more likely that the proper activity of an adult, just as a child, is learning. So like breathing, learning is essential to human life.
    A good teacher possesses the knowledge that the student wants but also is acquiring new knowledge about how to effectively convey that knowledge to different students under different circumstances.

    1. Yes, I agree wholeheartedly. Learning is very much like breathing and thinking – try as you might, you can’t switch it off.

      I wonder though what people mean when they reprimand others for ceasing to learn or for failing to do so.

    2. This article agrees with you about learning:

      Consider the often-heard lament, “some students are just not cut out for school.” The statement passes without question or even a hint of protest, yet think about what the statement says when we replace “school” with what school should be all about: “learning.” Some students are just not cut out for learning? Nobody would dare make the statement. Learning is the hallmark of humanity. We are all cut out for learning. It is what makes us human. If our students are “not cut out for school”, perhaps we have made the mold too narrow or inflexible, or more likely, just not meaningful enough to inspire a student to fit in.

      1. A question though – why am I, for instance, drawn to learning about certain subjects rather than others? Say, I love flamenco and dancing, and I love the music, but I’d rather learn the dancing than how to play the music. Actually, that’s not entirely true – I may consider learning the drums in flamenco; but that would be a lower priority than the dancing itself…

  2. Hey, look what I found:


    Rogers (1969) suggests that people want to learn and have a natural inclination to do so throughout their life. Indeed he argues strongly that teacher-centred learning has been grossly over emphasised. He based his student-centred approach on five key hypotheses:
    • We cannot teach another person directly: we can only facilitate learning;
    • People learn significantly only those things that they perceive as being involved in the maintenance or enhancement of the structure of self;
    • Experience which if assimilated would involve a change in the organisation of self tends to be resisted through denial or distortion of symbolisation, and the structure and organisation of self appear to become more rigid under threat;
    • Experience which is perceived as inconsistent with the self can only be assimilated if the current organisation of self is relaxed and expanded to include it; and
    • The educational system which most effectively promotes significant learning is one in which threat to the self, as learner, is reduced to a minimum”.

    This is from an article on something called heutology. Hadn’t heard the term until today, but the article makes sense. And the above excerpt is right on point, when it comes to me.

  3. Provocative questions…but I’m sorry to say that I think some people just don’t want to learn, period. And it may be that this is the result of poor upbringing etc. but that doesn’t matter inasmuch as you intellectual curiosity something you can’t force on an unwilling student.

    I agree with you that fumbling and stumbling are an important part of learning, though.
    Being a student is humbling, no matter what your age, which is why I think teachers should always be learning something, to remind themselves of how hard it can be when you’re not the expert. It definitely makes you a better teacher!

    Grading is inherently subjective, and therefore unfair, but I still think it’s necessary to grade product, such as papers. Not that I’d object to more experiential, non-graded classes while the kids figure out what’s what.

    1. Hmm (about “some people don’t want to learn”). Maybe they don’t want to learn what we offer, and sometimes maybe it’s because of the way we offer it. But it’s not that they are not learning anything while refusing to learn one particular thing. Letting them vent for 15 minutes once a week (if they feel like it) works well – but it works only with small classes.

      1. No, I mean people who don’t want to learn at all. I think they exist. (Despite loving Plato, I am a ruthless Romanist at heart, btw.) But this is one of the reasons that teaching probably wasn’t my vocation.

        So, for example, in high school I hated math with a passion and refused to learn it; but like most hatred that was a form of passion, and that didn’t mean I wasn’t intellectually curious. People without intellectual curiosity are just apathetic, half-dead souls.

        1. You’re so right about the passion thing. Not sure about the half-dead souls. I was one of the utterly apathetic math students in high school, until this teacher came along – she was the most boring-looking teacher in the universe, but in just two months I became a math genius. No idea what she did and how, but she sure jolted me out of obtusity.

          So it may be that it all comes down to personalities – some students click with yours, some don’t. No?

  4. I think it sometimes comes down to personalities, but not always. I really will have to insist that a few people – adults as well as adolescents — are unteachable, as in, inherently uncurious about their surroundings. This may not be a permanent state, and we can hope it isn’t, but I think it’s important to acknowledge the limits of what a teacher can and can’t do in the realm of intellectual motivation.

    If we start from the assumption that all students are intellectually willing/able, it becomes a personal failing on the teacher’s part when some students don’t learn. And sure, it can be the case that another teacher might do better with the kid; but it also might be that this kid is just not interested, whether it’s in your topic or in all topics. In that case, it’s not a teacher’s job to exhaust every option for this individual student, trying to force him/her to be interested.

    I also worry that buying into the “every human wants to learn” line puts even more blame/pressure on overworked teachers. I don’t think there should be any assumption that teachers are going to martyr themselves (a la so many movies) to “save” every disinterested student. Practically speaking, you have to go with what works for the majority of the class. You do your best and put it out there, but it is ultimately the students’ choice to learn or not.

    1. Ah, the pressures of institutionalized teaching and the pleasures of the private one:) One of my spectacular institutionalized failures is taking private instruction right now, and you can’t imagine the difference. I think one-on-one ratio is the best, although Socrates seemed to fail with Euthyphro… Or maybe he didn’t.

      I think your disenchantment with teaching may have at least something to do with the institutionalized format. Or maybe not.

      One of my most intense negative experiences came right after my diss. So there I am, a director of the summer workshop at Berkeley. I know my Greek cold but most of my duties are HR. I am there at 7 and leave at 7-8 at night. Babysitter becomes my second name. Students vent left and right – the workshops are an intense experience. I am the obvious target. I keep my cool, but one day things get really bad, and I snap into one of my cold vicious modes. When I said the other day that students remember the glorious sessions, I lied. That time, they remembered the one where I lost it. The evaluations were not entirely negative, but one student called me a monster and said I should never be allowed to teach. It hurt like hell – difficult to explain, but I’d given them my all that summer. In retrospect, it was a very good experience, but it took me two years to recover. I felt like Job!

  5. Agree that one-on-one is best, but I’m also a pragmatist. So, when the word “teaching” comes up, I think it’s going to mean institutionalized group settings most of the time. Which is why I’m so adamant about fighting the “teacher-martyr” narrative that has infected people’s imaginations. The idea that total self-sacrifice and devotion make for good teachers — that’s what disenchanted me. I think that, unless they’re going to pay you six figures or more, self-defense is the first order of business. Granted, I’m a total introvert and I get waaaay cranky when people (i.e. bloodsucking legions of students) steal my mental energy without express permission.

    On a lighter note, I was watching School of Rock yesterday and thinking that it wasn’t a bad pedagogical model.

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