There are days in Paragraph City when the student skull weather is a dense fog bank complicated by lachrymose clouds as the barometer dips deep into opacity. This is when it seems that the only thing we teach is what we demonstrate. Students don’t do the reading, forget the conversations (except for the things they said themselves), lose the things they write, but remember what they see in their teachers. That’s when I model.
(Lest you are thinking of runways and Gisele, an excursion: This is modeling. When I talk with a class about writing, I try to take the students into my head as I pull at a topic, find an entrance point, gather a couple buckets of ideas, splash them on the floor and start to sort, find words that communicate, and so on. When we look at a poem I talk about taking a sidelong glance at it, my usual dance steps, why a window in the poem would open for me here, what associations I’d make with the images, and again, so on. I admit, there’s a “look-at-me-be-like-me-think-like-me” quality to it that troubles me, and yet it’s a cornerstone for the way I have learned.
Like all strategies, modeling doesn’t work for everyone, or to put a more positive spin on it, modeling works really well for some students. So then I go on and try something different, looking for an approach that harmonizes with other students’ minds: small groups, independent research, free writing, conversation, games. I don’t have a big bag of tricks, and not enough cool gizmos, but then the semesters are short.)
Here’s the trouble (which is to say the interesting part): we don’t really know that the point we think the modeling sends out is the point the students pick up. I’m using semaphore flags and students are reading nautical flag code; I’m saying “I feel around to find the central emotion in the poem” and they’re hearing, “Be dorky-girly-moany-groany and wear baggy pants.” Or something like that.
Yet it’s not like we can’t model. That’s like trying to avoid making a first impression. Even our students most talented in being mentally and physically absent see in us a model of something. I’m wondering if we can really tell what that something is.
This particular question has been gnawing at my leg for a couple of semesters now, ever since an exchange with an adjunct (let’s call her Professor Collie to maintain the dog-bone image). About a dozen of us who teach the first year seminar were talking about approaches to the course. Someone mentioned almost all faculty complain that students who most need to be in classes are the one who cut them most often. I think of these as my Ginsu students, but that’s one of many things I try not to say at such meetings.
“This is the sort of thing we should address in the seminar, right?” my friend Jack Russell, who is running the meeting, says. “So how?”
Jack has a way of killing a roiling conversation with a pertinent question, and that’s what happens now. Then Collie pipes up.
“Well I base 50% of my course grade on attendance, so my students know from Day One how important coming to class is.”
Is that what this policy communicates? Doesn’t it rather tell the student that college is way easier than high school ever was, that thinking or writing or studying is unnecessary, that being near knowledge is the same as knowing things? Yet there it is, my dear old modeling strategy put to use, writ large into a syllabus. A domino row of questions click down:
So how would you model the importance of class attendance?
In fact, how do you teach anything which seems so basically obvious?
Is this really college subject matter? Imagine the final exam question. “Should students come to class? ____ Yes _____No”
Is that 50% attendance grade of such a different ilk as a requirement for students to read a textbook? We send students near knowledge and later test to see if any has adhered to them.
At the bottom of this matter, I’ve decided there’s a professorial force in me that functions like gravity – irrational and unexplainable but inescapable – which says this just isn’t something you do if you respect your students. You don’t tell them with your actions that you think they are so incapable, so hopelessly worthless, that they should earn college credit for simply being alive and breathing in the proper locale.
Yet that’s the crux of the matter with modeling, for it turns out that this is exactly what I think a 50% attendance grade communicates. Collie would surely say something like, “A grade immediately and clearly tells a student what you think is important. I am telling my students how important it is to me that they be in every class.”
Dog-gone if perhaps she’s right, but it just doesn’t smell that way to me.