I've heard time and time again that "our undergraduate students" are by and large disinterested, lazy, and looking to coast by on as little effort as possible. Indeed, I've often been quite explicitly warned of this (though, for obvious reasons, I won't go into detail about who has warned me, or where).
My experience with undergraduate students has, however, been quite different (albeit complicated, as I'll begin describing shortly). Having been a teacher for a number of years now -- I was a TA all throughout grad school, regularly taught summer courses in grad school, taught a couple of courses at a community college, and have been full-time faculty at two institutions, one a large research institution and the other an SLAC -- I've had a great deal of experience with undergraduate students from many walks of life. Because my experience with students has, over time, diverged quite a great deal from the "lazy student" narrative, I'd like to share my experiences with you all. Because, in relating these experiences, I will describe some of the teaching strategies I've adopted for engaging students, I want to express before I proceed any further that this post is in no way, shape, or form intended to be self-congratulatory. Although I am proud of some of the advances I believe I've made as a teacher, my aim in writing this post is not to present myself as "an awesome teacher." My aim is to simply relate to you all why I profoundly disagree with the narrative that our students are lazy and disengaged -- and in order to do this I need to tell my story.
My attitude toward teaching has always been somewhat idealistic in the following sense: I've always wanted to do it right (as I understand it), and to accept what comes along with doing it that way. In other words, I've never attempted to "satisfy students." I assign a ton of reading, a ton of work both inside and outside the classroom (short daily reading responses, in-class group exercises, and multiple term-papers), and I grade like a beast (C's, D's, and F's on assignments and term papers are common) -- things I've always been warned will lead to student uprisings and terrible evaluations.
Now, when I first started teaching this way several years ago, they did lead to student uprisings and terrible evaluations. I had a least one student come into my office and accuse me of incompetence, student after student complain about their grades, and my evaluations were well below my university norms. At this point, I faced a choice: I could either change my ways by "going easy" on them -- which I know some people do -- or I could try to find another way. I chose to try to find another way, and the other way I tried, surprisingly (and cheesily) enough, came to me while I was watching The Karate Kid (the original 80's version) with my wife.
I couldn't help but notice while watching the movie how similar the character Daniel was to "our students." Daniel was kind of like most teenagers and young adults are: he kind of did want things to come easy. When he didn't see the point of doing what his teacher, Mr. Miyagi, was having him do -- namely, wax his cars, paint his fence, etc. -- Daniel lashed out, complained and threatened to go home. But Mr. Miyagi ultimately got through to him. How? Just as Daniel was about to quit, Miyagi showed him that the tiresome things he was having him do were teaching him how to do stuff in karate, like block kicks and punches. Now, of course the details here are quite silly. But the overall point stuck with me. Young people want to put in effort and learn, but only when they see the point of what they are doing and see actual, tangible benefits of the often tiresome routines a teacher challenges them with.
That, at any rate, is what I started to believe. Maybe I was foolish to believe it -- I had gotten it from a movie! -- but it seemed to cohere with my own experiences in life; so I ran with it. I made a couple simple changes to how I taught.
First, I let my students rewrite their first term-papers as many times as they wish for a higher grade. The first thought here was that since I'm an incredibly tough grader, and students hate terrible grades, they would be motivated to rewrite their papers. The second thought was that, as long as I gave them good comments, as they rewrote their papers, their work would improve. They would actually start writing grammatical sentences, organized paragraphs, summarize philosophical material correctly, raise cogent objections, and more generally, get into the philosophical game. The final thought -- and I had to take this somewhat as a matter of faith the first couple of semesters I adopted this practices -- was that, as students worked hard to improve their work and actually did so, they would begin to appreciate what it is all about; that is, that they would actually appreciate having to work so damn hard, because the results were tangible.
Second, I started communicating with my students about all this. When I hand back my first term-papers, I show them a couple of clips from The Karate Kid and give them a brief lecture on their paper grades, my comments, and the value of failure. I have this line I like to throw out there. I say, "I am not here to make you happy; I am here to make you better." I tell them that many college students can't read effectively or write a grammatical sentence, and I tell them when they are done with my class they will. But I tell them it will take failure. Just like one cannot learn to shoot a basketball well without shooting, and missing, a ton of times, so too, I tell them, can they not expect to learn how to read, write, speak, and argue effectively without a lot of work. I tell them that I have faith in them, and that I believe that if they work at it -- if they take their paper grades and my comments not as punishment, but as a challenge to do better -- they will see the results for themselves.
I started doing these two things exactly one year ago, that is, two semesters ago. I worried each time that it would all blow up in my face -- that my students would hate me. But they didn't. I was shocked at how hard most of them worked, how much most of them improved, and how much most of them appreciated the hard work and challenge. They were not lazy or disengaged, not most of them anyway. They may not have even known it when they walked in the door (many of my students take my classes just to "get a core requirement out of the way"), but the reality was, somewhere deep down, most of them wanted to be challenged to become better. I take it that few, if any, of them wanted to know the truth: namely, that when most of them walked in the first day, few of them could consistently write a grammatical sentence or a coherent paragraph or summary, let alone develop a halfway decent philosophical argument. But here's what I had faith in: few people want to suck, and most people want to take pride in themselves. And the funny thing is: time and again (the past two semesters at least), this faith has been repayed. My students have worked hard, improved their work markedly, and most of them are explicit in their evaluations about appreciating it.
Again, I hope this post hasn't come across as, "Look at what an awesome teacher I am!". That, sincerely, was/is not its intent. I am just sick of hearing about how terrible, and lazy, our students are, and I don't know any better way to explain my deep disagreement with this view without telling my own personal story. Yes, finding a way to get through to students can be difficult. Have young people ever been any different? They are typically short-sighted and immature, and yet it is precisely now -- when they are in college -- that they can begin to learn to be otherwise. It is, I think, our job as teachers to find a way to get through to them. And it has been my experience -- after a lot of hard work -- that it is possible to do so.