Saturday, May 14, 2011

Challenging Students Pays Off?

I recently watched Declining By Degrees, which is a documentary about the problems in academia today.  In fact, it generated a whole load of questions which I will be asking in blogs in the future.  It was a very thought-provoking look into many subjects and I highly recommend it - whether or not you come to the same conclusions as the documentary makers.  I didn't agree with every single statement made, but it highlighted a great deal of things that I find challenging in higher education today.

One such problem is that of challenging students.  I faced this early on this year when I first started TA'ing an Intro to American Government class for a world-renowned Americanist in the department.  I don't "do" American politics, so it was frustrating in that I really did not enjoy the subject as I would have public policy or comparative political institutions, but the prof was great.  And he expected A LOT out of Freshman.  At times, I even wondered if he expected TOO much.

You see, he taught the only essay section in the department.  While there were 5 TA's (three, I believe were 1/2 time), I was stuck with 90 students to grade for.  This mean I would grade 90 full blue books five times in the semester - with the final giving me only 4 days to grade a doubled-in-length exam.  I didn't sleep for two days.  But that aside, I got frustrated dealing with students who were clearly unprepared for what an essay exam required.  Every student in the state must take an American Politics or American History class, you see.  So, whether they like it or not, it is a requirement to graduate.

So, all sorts of students were in the class.  In the first exam, one of my students had a mental breakdown that brought on psychosis.  I am not making fun, but she went psychotic, tried to push the professor down (who is about 6'4'') and then the cops were called.  I was interrogated by a journalist on my way across campus with an undoubtely large stack of blue books.  I wondered if maybe the students were not capable.  However, slowly, students got better.  I tried to be very available to my students and saw them improve, which was rewarding.  I saw my opinion on the capability of the students change.

One professor in this documentary said that students get "better" when you challenge them.  If you don't, the will not apply themselves.  After a year of TA'ing and with two classes under my belt - one an intro and one an upper-division course - I feel that this is true.  At the start of the semester in my upper-division course, I was pulling my hair out.  Students did not know how to quote.  They could not capitalize.  The same students who were apparently "A students", many who had been accepted into good law schools or were in the top journalism program in the country as a double major had no idea how to make an argument or what one even looked like.

Out of about 85 students, I gave out a few A's, based on the criteria set by the prof.  He backed me up on the grades.  I wrote extensive comments and held office hours.  I had one girl have a panic attack in my office.  Another student pounded her hand on my desk and threatened me over her grade.  Another one said she doubted whether I was really capable of doing my job.  I once again began to doubt whether we were expecting too much.  This was the first time this young prof had taught this class and the first round of essays I had graded, so I had no clue.

But, as the semester crept on, the essays got progressively better.  One student even came back to my office to thank me - the one who doubted my capability.  She thanked me for being so constructively critical of her essay because she now realized she was capable of more and did not know it until she was pushed to really make an argument.

The problem that I face at this large state school (LSS) is that it has 90 students in classes that would easily be seminars at smaller schools.  Whereas I should have time to work with students one-on-one over an assignment and review all of their drafts, there is just no time.  I have to grade 3 essays and 2 essay exams a semester.  I don't have time.  I try to help them as best I can, but even then, they don't come to office hours. If I could give them that help in class, it would probably be more effective, but neither I or the professor have the time or resources to really challenge them.

Sure, a few students like the girl above will be challenged and will learn, but a great number will either drop the class (as about 20 did) or will barely skate by.  I believe challenging them should be a prerequisite and am glad this department encourages it.  However, I think that with challenges come responsibilities of the professors and TA's to help them more.  Maybe not in this class, but in general education classes.  Students in an upper-division course should not have trouble arguing.  Intensive writing courses do help with this and are not required at LSS, but they are often not taken until Jr or Sr year.  It would be best if a very intensive comp class was required to challenge students early.  I took one my freshman year and while the GA was a nutcase, I learned a lot about writing and argument.  However, even that wasn't required!  I could have taken a basic gen ed class to fulfill my requirement.

So, I agree, students aren't challenged enough.  However, they do need some baseline knowledge to fully benefit from such endeavors.  I'm just still not sure what that requires, I guess.  Any ideas?


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