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William C. Altreuter
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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

I have a standing offer with my undergraduates: if they submit a draft of their final papers a week early I will review and make suggestions. This offer is without prejudice-- I will not grade the drafts, and the draft will not color their subsequent grade. It sounds like it would be a lot of extra work for me, but it really isn't-- I have never had a student take me up on it. Never, ever. I just had a student submit a paper, and since it was early I marked it up and renewed my offer. The reply came today: "If it is better than my midterm then I will take my grade on this."

There are, I think, several things going on here. Certainly there is a  fair amount of being busy with other classes. I also think there is some plain laziness. "I'm done with this, now I'm moving on," enters into it as well. The real issue, however, is a misunderstanding of the relationship that should exist between teachers and students. They think I am somehow adverse to them, or at best a sort of neutral-- a referee who is charged with instructing them on the rules, then quizzing them on those rules before releasing them into what they insist on calling The Real World. Of course, a university classroom does not exist in an alternate reality: I reside in the real world, and the skills I am attempting to impart are genuine real world skills, but they don't see it that way. In fact, my status as a lawyer-- a real world authority figure in their minds--  is one of the things that attracts them to my classes. I am no shadowy academician, I am involved with the gears and levers of actual work. My students, poor little snowflakes, sincerely believe that they are in school to gain a credential, and that faculty are there to provide them with a series of tasks, the way that Greek gods or kings with beautiful daughters test people to determine their worthiness. (I should note here that my law students do not share this attitude. They are there to learn the stuff, and in general realize that I'm not there to make life difficult.) It's too bad, really. A lot of what I am trying to do is to get the students to think critically, and in order to do that I try to help them with their writing. I can show them things, but until they can clearly articulate what they observe themselves they are going to be stuck, and I can't unstick them if they are going to shrug and say, "Meh, I'll just take the grade, thanks." It is like making a fire with wet wood. Some of them get it, some of them catch on eventually, and some never will. But so far none of them have ever taken me up on what I think is a pretty decent offer, and I wish they would.

UPDATE: A friend writes, "Students don't always hear help coming at them, even it is attached to a siren."

| Comments:
This is very well put. I'm starting to wish that there were a system wherein students would work with the same instructors for at least two years. I certainly don't feel I've done enough with mine, especially since yesterday my ethics students argued, inter alia, that we should reinstate the death penalty for a greater variety of crimes to make room in prisons and that you should have to prove (to whom?) that you have a certain income level before you can have children.

I want to work with them through a process of learning these skills, and I just don't have the time or the raw material.
 
The situation you are describing is more or less what happens in a small liberal arts college. I didn't take as much advantage of it as I could have, but I didn't just brush it off either. I took as many small classes and seminars as I could, and I took multiple things from the faculty I liked.

I should add that my law students are the opposite of what I am describing here. They like extra reading-- within reason-- and they stay after, and they engage from day one. So maybe part of what is happening with my undergrads is that they don't understand that I'm there to teach them. I don't have to be there-- I am there because I want to teach them, personally, each one.
 

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