Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Going undercover

The Chronicle of Higher Ed has an interesting article this week about a professor who lived for a year as a student at her own university, in an attempt to find out more about what makes them tick. The professor, Rebekah Nathan (a pseudonym), lived on-campus, participated in extracurriculars, and took a full load of courses. Her interest in the project was spurred by her own and her colleagues increasing bewilderment at certain student behaviors: why don't they read the assignments? Why don't they take notes? If they're having trouble, why don't they ask for help? To Nathan's credit, she suspected that there might be more to it than met the eye, so she designed her sabbatical year to help her find out. Nathan's findings aren't especially surprising: students are mostly overcommitted, often working part-time and trying to build a strong resume with selected club and volunteer committments in addition to taking classes. Students tend to care more about career advancement than academic or scholarly growth. But Nathan also recognized that her students' attitudes didn't come out of nowhere: students today - particularly at a "non-elite" university like Nathan's - are a lot busier and more overwhelmed than students even 15-20 years ago. Bachelor's degrees are no longer the purview of the elite; they've become essential for obtaining a liveable wage, and that's of necessity the focus for many students. As a faculty brat and erstwhile faculty member, I find this in some ways lamentable, but that doesn't change the reality of the situation. What's nice about Nathan's research is that it had a direct impact on her teaching methods:

After weathering life as a student, Ms. Nathan decided to make some changes as a professor. Since returning to the classroom, she has assigned less reading. It was a practical decision: She knows firsthand that students will not read assignments that are not tied closely to classroom discussions of major themes -- especially when they have four other classes to worry about.

Having learned that students avoid speaking up in classes because they do not want to disturb the norm of "equality" among their peers, Ms. Nathan now asks questions that might elicit responses from the entire group.

While living in the dorm, the professor saw how much students had to scramble to catch up after missing even a few days of classes. So she decided to do more to help students who fall behind for legitimate reasons. Now Ms. Nathan sends e-mail messages to those who flounder, offering them help instead of just threatening to lower their grades. So far, she says, many students have been receptive to her outreach.

"If you give them an opportunity to come forward, and work with them, it can make the difference between them failing or not," says Ms. Nathan.

I'm sure some of Nathan's choices (like fewer reading assignments) will have her colleagues cringing. And I know when I've taught I've struggled with how much and what kind of work to assign - how do you make the class rigorous without being draconian? But I think the real point here is that Nathan came to appreciate her students as whole persons, and their problems as (mostly) legitimate. When I was teaching (at a small, private college) I often found myself functioning as a sort of translator between students and faculty, defending and explaining the one to the other. (This was probably due in part to being the youngest faculty member in my department, and in part to having grown up in an academic environment.) But while it never surprised me that the students wouldn't understand the faculty (how could they?), it constantly amazed me that the faculty wasn't better at remembering what it was like to be a student. Perhaps Nathan's research can make that understanding come a little easier. And that, as Martha says, is a good thing.