By Elise Chenier
There are few moments in life as self-defining as being awarded a PhD. I got mine in 2001 from Queen’s University, one of Canada’s “top” schools. The ceremony required me to kneel before the Chancellor who tapped me once on each shoulder with his mortarboard. It did its magic. When I stood up and crossed that stage, I felt I occupied more space—literally. For the next ten years or so (okay, fifteen) I would occasionally get agitated when people did not give way when I passed them. Such is the hubris of academe.
One of the most disappointing manifestations of such hubris is the lamentation about “students today,” a weed that re-seeds every fall when university professors decry the atrocious behaviour of the hordes of ignorant, lazy, impolite students they are burdened with the task of teaching.
Lynn Crosbie’s contribution to this genre in a 2015 issue of Macleans, which recently made the rounds again in celebration of September, is just one example. Written in the epistolary form, she exhorts her students to sit neither in the front nor the back of the classroom, to refrain from bringing “ham bones and pungent noodles” to lecture, and to “give a thought to arriving prepared, with the syllabus read, and the correct texts in hand.” Just in case students still don’t get just where they stand in relationship to the instructor, we are told:
During the student work, I sit in the back row, draw, mutter, and look irritated: How wonderfully frightened you all look from my place, at the head of a group of strangers I am pushing, slowly and cautiously, toward a unified, politicized and knowledgeable student body.
Her unconventional and erratic teaching style is defended on the grounds that she offers students “their first sweet taste of moving out of mom and dad’s orbit, and they are feeling all of the joy that being very young, poor and free entails.”
I get that the piece exaggerates to be provocative and strives to be funny, but I don’t find it to be either. Like every other “students suck” piece out there, it is mean, insulting, and arrogant, and it misrepresents the vast majority of professors and instructors I have encountered in my professional life.
I have spent most of my career in the History Department at Simon Fraser University. Students are largely from lower to middle-income families and attended a public school in the surrounding region. Many hold down one or more part-time jobs, and often are responsible for the care of family members, and sometimes have children of their own.
Early in my career, I taught at three of Canada’s most elite universities: Queen’s University, McGill University, and Crosbie’s University of Toronto. There I interacted with a great number of students with private school education that allowed them to develop a remarkable breadth of knowledge and good study habits. Despite these differences, I would describe the majority of students I’ve taught as earnest, hard-working, respectful, and conscientious. Not all of them, of course, but by far the vast majority. Like, very vast.
During the past decade, I have become particularly attuned to how learning requires us to voluntarily enter a state of vulnerability. We must be willing to risk venturing beyond our certainties; to be confused, disoriented, and uncomfortable; to suffer the humiliation of offering a potentially wrong answer in front of our peers and instructors.
The more we make vulnerability possible, the more likely deep and transformative learning will happen. We can do this by reducing the risks (be aware of how little it takes for a person to feel the shame of another’s judgment; avoid the temptation to admonish) and increasing the supports (encourage rather than judge; query and listen rather than assess; be honest about when we have struggled and perhaps failed, and when we don’t know the answers). This is not a new requirement for a “snowflake” generation. It is simply good teaching.
I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of such a practice. When I was in grade ten, I reached the limit of my math abilities. No matter how many times I repeated the steps in a given algebraic formula, I rarely came up with the right answer. I was going to fail, and there was nothing that could be done about it. Near the end of the semester, our teacher had to take sick leave and was replaced by a tenacious student teacher who did something radical. She sat down beside me and watched me work out the formula. “Oh,” she said, “I see what’s happening. You are subtracting at this step when you need to be adding.” (Actually I don’t remember what the mistake was, I just made that up for the sake of the narrative. But my point is:) And just like that, I was “doing” algebra. Wow.
Sure, we get irritated sometimes. For example, exasperation comes quickly when, after putting a great many hours into building a thoughtful syllabus, selecting accessible articles and books to read, and presenting what we hope is an engaging lecture, some poor soul stares at us blankly when asked a seemingly simple question. We’re annoyed because we did so much work to get the class to that point, and they – yes ALL of them! – apparently cannot be bothered to uphold their end of the bargain.
But the truth is, you don’t know why they are staring at you blankly. Maybe they don’t give a damn (disappointing for sure, but it is their right nonetheless, and hey, doesn’t “their first sweet taste of moving out of mom and dad’s orbit” make possible just such a rebellion?); maybe they got evicted and spent all week trying to find a new place to live; maybe they are stewing in the toxic fear that they just aren’t good enough and never will be. Maybe you scare the hell out of them. Who knows? I certainly don’t. But only when our irritation and disappointment gives way to compassion, and to curiosity about them, is real learning possible. Holding up our disappointment like a trophy – look at me! a shining example of intellectual superiority! when contrasted against my judgment of you as utterly incompetent! – makes all academics look like a bunch of judgmental, elitist jerks.
“Where do you even start when a student has never even heard of the French Revolution?” a colleague (from another institution) recently lamented (I daren’t say I had never heard of it until I got to university). You start where your students are. You start by letting go of your idea of who you are and cultivating a curiosity about who they are. You start by making yourself smaller, and them bigger.