Monday, February 7, 2005

In the fishbowl

It's so seldom that I find myself in agreement with Stanley Fish about academic politics. I certainly admire some of his work, but I'm uncomfortable with his eager cultivation of the curmudgeonly voice-of-reason role. But as new junior faculty, I'm painfully aware of my vulnerability to student evaluations, and ashamed at how desperately worried I am about whether my students are enjoying my classes. In this, I realize, I'm a total sellout. The very premise of my job—one I have yet to have challenged by any actual experience—is that I know more than my students about some very specific subjects and skills, and that I have dedicated untold years of my adult life to mastering those skills. By definition, then, I'm teaching because I know more about what they have signed up to learn. Therefore, it's contradictory to spend so much of my time worrying about whether, in the moment, they enjoy or even see the relevance of what I'm teaching.

I'm an enlightened, student-empowering pedagogue. I take seriously the notion that I have to meet my students where they are, to draw their interest, to clarify the relevance of the skills and subject matter. Common sense and a cursory observation of today's nineteen year olds prove that I can't assume that many of them are the book-obsessed language junkies I was at their age (oh, there are always a few, for which I am unspeakably grateful). I connect the subject matter to current events, am not afraid to poke fun at the excesses of academia, constantly invoke the practical (i.e., remunerative) value of what they are learning. I work harder than they do to create topics that they can "relate" to. (The tyranny of "relating to" is something for another entry).

But I'm deeply uncomfortable with my cowardice. I'm afraid to challenge their blank assurance that reading and writing carefully "don't matter" in today's tech-governed world ("au contraire", I want to say to them; "if all your connection with other human beings is going to occur via a screen, you'd better be master of your syntax--it's all that stands between you and ruin"). Too often I back away from a challenging pedagogical moment, because I'm afraid that their discomfort will lead not to learning but to evaluative savagery.

One of my regular courses is an historical survey of a not-too-popular era. Invariably, I have a sprinkling of students who, having been coddled and cosseted in other courses, refuse to believe that there could be a set of interpretive perspectives that they should master in addition to identifying what they find "relatable" (a fool's errand, in many of these works). These students routinely comment that I didn't respect their opinions enough in class ("enough," presumably, would have meant upending historical accuracy and careful reading in order to allow them to connect the work to their own stunted experiences). I'm exaggerating here. Most of my students—especially those who put any conscious thought into their own work—find me amazingly flexible, responsive, and willing to entertain their dubious contributions as long as they are learning something.

Recently, many of my fellow academics have found themselves scourged on sites like this one. Our college has recently implemented its own informal student-produced network of evaluations, too (separate from any formal evaluations or promotion decisions). What bothers me is not the availability of what was already common lore among students, but the imbalance. As professors, we aren't allowed to comment only on the students that are super smart, really hot, or irretrievable, but in practice, that's what these sites promote. Almost exclusively, the sites are venting grounds for angry, bitter, and, apparently, illiterate students, or they are a place to post anonymous flattery for attractive faculty.

I'd like to start an informal "rate my students" website, where instructors could post information for each other, all in the interest, of course, of better preparing ourselves to work with the "right" students:

Johnny is *hot*--I once gave him an A just for wearing those awesome Levi's! LOL :)

Nancy is lazy and her papers are boring. Plus, I don't think she read any of her assignments all quarter! :(

James tries hard, but the poor kid is dumb as a post...I finally gave him a C for showing up and staying awake. ;)


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