Friday, December 11, 2015

"What, exactly, did you sign up for, professor?"

"I wasn’t angry — not at all. Nor did I think it was their fault. Someone did this to them. And at bottom they were smarter than me about it because it was their world we were talking about and they knew its rules far better than I did. It was a complex moment in which I was trying to catch up with them, but also trying to persuade them to slow down and consider other possibilities. In other words, even then I was trying to teach them!"

That's Ron Srigley, describing his initial response to an epiphany he recently experienced regarding his university students. The whole thing Dear Parents: Everything You Need To Know About Your Son And Daughter's University, But Don't is here, and I highly recommend it as your weekend long-read.

I have a somewhat scattered reaction to it all.

It of course brought me back to my own university days, and one episode in particular. During the height of my interior drama I sat down to an early-term exam, and realized, as I wrestled with one question after the next, that I was bombing. In the space at the end of the exam I wrote a brief blurt to the effect that I found the professorially-imposed constraints of contemporary academia to be subjective and artificial and really, really frustrating, dammit. I can't recall whether I had any second thoughts as I handed it in. No matter -- there'd be plenty of time for those later.

The next week the professor handed back the exams. And, yes, I had indeed flunked it. Also, my professor wrote her own response to my rough rant -- to wit: these professorially-imposed constraints I railed against were something I'd agreed to work within when I applied as a student. Those constraints weren't going to change just because I didn't like them. If I had expectations that weren't being met, I'd have to pursue them elsewhere.

She added, "Book an appointment with me."

As loath as I was to face and possibly compound my embarrassment, I went ahead and booked that appointment. Then we met. She noted the lousy mark, and the blurt, and asked what happened. I acknowledged the bottom line -- I hadn't prepared. She pressed further and inquired about my emotional condition -- frankly, and in terms that didn't indulge it. I returned her candor. We discussed the syllabus, the timeline, and variations on the subject matter which I might potentially find the most engaging. She asked if I was up for it; I said I believed I was. She said I could book another appointment if that proved not to be the case. Otherwise, she and I were going to proceed as agreed-upon -- one assignment at a time.

I calmed down, I sat down, I did the work.

I am, of course, very grateful for this episode, and the adult charity I received as a foundering kid -- a profoundly formative experience, in fact.* But I disclose the episode for another reason.

First of all, reading Srigley has me wondering if the tables haven't turned so far that present-day impetuous-types like my younger self would be denied a similar chance to grow.

Secondly, my professor's initial response -- This is what you signed up for -- was absolutely right. And as weird and as awful as it sounds (to my ears, at any rate), I wonder if it isn't the most truthful response to Prof. Srigley as well. Coddling young "customers" who've enrolled in the Humanities -- maybe that's not what you signed up for in (I'm guessing) the early-80s. But that's where it's at now. If you have something you'd rather offer -- well, perhaps you'll need to pursue that elsewhere.

Only, where?
Someplace where students never leave their beds would be optimal.

*An act of mercy I've tried to reciprocate wherever possible -- Je vous adresse mes plus vifs remerciements, Linda Hutcheon.


Joel Swagman said...

Like you, I have a number of mixed reactions to this article.

To a certain extent, he's asking all the wrong questions perhaps.

I actually did most of the readings I was assigned for college, but that was because I was majoring in courses I was interested in (history and literature) and I was enough of an introvert to enjoy sitting in the library and reading stuff I was interested in, and feel like I was being productive at the same time. And not every 18 year old is wired like that, obviously.

But man, were there ever a lot of forces competing for my attention at the time. Like many introverts do, I was beginning to feel guilty about how much of my life had been spent in solitary activities, and I was trying to push myself to be more extroverted. And I was scared that if I didn't start talking to girls more I would end up alone and lonely the rest of my life. And I was convinced that life would be over once I was 22, and had to get a real job, and this was my last chance ever to have fun. Plus I was living away from my parents for the first time ever, and in the dormitories was surrounded by other 18 year olds who had similar concerns to me. And I had a huge fear of being left out of whatever fun was happening on any particular night...

Up against all that, getting an 18 year old to sit quietly in the library and diligently read Shakespeare or Herodotus is always going to be a tough sell.

Sometimes I regret not applying myself harder, especially when I read an ancient history book, and get really into it, and think to myself "I used to have dreams of being an ancient history scholar back when I was 16. If only I had applied myself more in University..."

But, I have met now multiple people who were on the PHD track in ancient history studies (the classics, as its called in University) and ended up dropping out once they realized it was not so much a career path as it was a very expensive hobby.

So if there's no obvious jobs connected to studying the humanities, it's going to be an even harder sell to get young people to buckle down and study it.

I'm also reminded of something I read a few years ago in a book on Procrastination. We human beings are hard wired to avoid any work that isn't absolutely necessary--it's one of our survival instincts that we picked up in the course of evolution, in order to only expend our energy on what is necessary. Which is why people procrastinate, or avoid any work that doesn't have immediate rewards to it. If you can pass your course without reading the books, and if you know that a thorough knowledge of English literature is not going to be useful to your future, and if you're 18 and on a college campus filled with so many other distractions, I don't wonder why so many of these kids aren't doing all the required reading.

Darrell Reimer said...

Throw in a sea of digital distraction -- as well as digital enhancement (there is a heap o' readin' I would most emphatically NOT have committed to, had I the digital resources we so blithely accept today) -- and the business of "required reading" becomes very much up for grabs.

As for PHD candidacy and the jobs it lands: this is where I suspect you have more in common with Srigley. Your youthful Platonic Ideal of what a History Prof was is probably right in line with his of what a Philosophy Prof ought to be. And he's still fighting with that.