Driving Students Crazy Students Driving

June 19, 2015

In Paragraph City, a week after the semester ends, the streets are paved in flux and possibility furls from the street lamps. Every professor has at least one student in mind who should have passed the class or should have gotten a higher grade but blundered in some clumsy way, a way that might be blocked with a bit of course re-design. So we all engage in some subtle adjustment to the carburetors of our courses, trying to figure out ways to save students from themselves.

Mostly it’s hopeless, like trying to end suicide by a) prohibiting it and b) taking away the means.  Suicide ends when people love life. College is not that much like suicide (in spite of the parallels my students find), but for the most part, failure ends when students want to learn more than they want other things. Nonetheless, I recently walked down to Paragraph City’s MicroAdjustment Labs to walk past the bays where courses are hooked up to diagnostic computers, engines revving and needles swinging into red zones while professors in white lab coats hunch over their learning objectives, head and shoulders deep under the open hoods of their vehicles.

Col. Klondike has been rebuilding his attendance policy every summer for twenty years, convinced that if only students would come to class, he could teach them anything. “It’s the key lectures,” he mutters to the crescent wrench in his hand. “If Gabrowski had just been there when I explained cretaceous poriphiny he wouldn’t have incinerated on his final exam. So I’ll require they come to that lecture, and I’ll record it, and make them watch that if they don’t come, or else they can’t take the final!”

Prof KuklaFran&Ollie failed students this semester who were there in class during demonstrations, but apparently paid no attention and remembered nothing about them. “I could be more compelling,” she says, tapping the throttle and noting the lack of responsiveness. “Three jokes, every class. Anthropology jokes aren’t that hard to find. Three jokes, a diagram or chart, and a small group activity, every class. Take that, Gabrowski, just try to get bored now.  If only I taught chemistry, I could add an explosion.”

Doc Comfort has been convinced for a few years now that students don’t comprehend how much he cares about their success. “I need a more compassionate avatar, maybe. Crying after mid-terms didn’t work, and after Gabrowski complained to HR I had to stop hugging, but maybe that photo of my puppy…” He adjusts slightly the tension on a serpentine belt. “Students have my home phone and I follow all their Twitter feeds. Maybe the slogan will help.” On the hood I see it in red script, “Nothing But ‘A’s – all other grades hurt so bad. Because Doc Comfort Cares!”

And I walk on down passed garage bays where some are color coding policies in their syllabi or creating learning contracts that explain how if students will attend every class and do 60% of the assigned reading, the instructor agrees to be scintillating during office hours. Others are having students teach the class by making instructional videos or building the exam questions or selecting the chapters for study at the start of the semester.

It’s a dedicated team of drivers here at Paragraph City, and I learn a lot from them as I refine the suspension of my own little chariot. I think of how many changes have occurred over the years, and while I would never go back to that 70s era model I first drove, I’m not sure my students are any more successful, or the ride is any more joyous, than it was back then.


The Model is the Message

April 15, 2009

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. 


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