I have an exceptional student in class. This is when you know that someone might pursue an academic career and quite possibly do much better than any teacher s/he’s met at university, including yourself. I have gone through that a few times and it’s beautiful, pure enjoyment. I am, however, concerned that this kind of students are now painting themselves into a corner, as the whole system seems geared towards suppressing excellence.
This good student is not the only one in class. Judging by the marks in their last exercise, I have 6 very good students in a group of 43–and his is not the best exercise. As happens, the number of students who have done very poorly in the same exercise is 7, which seems quite balanced. This, however, puzzles me very much for, essentially in this case the exercise consisted of following my instructions to produce an abstract, accompanied by a bibliography and a selection of quotations in preparation for writing their first academic paper. Naturally, all my students have received the same instructions so what makes the difference is their ability to follow them; also, their keenness (or lack thereof). The best 6 have fulfilled all the requirements, the 7 worst ones have failed to do so… twice (I allowed them to re-submit).
This makes me wonder whether the exercise itself is beginning to show signs of its unsuitability, for if only the top students can complete it, then it’s clearly above the abilities of most students. Yet, I cannot lower standards for, as I explained to my class, with the new 3+2 BA and MA degrees it is even more urgent that they learn basic academic skills in the second year–this process simply cannot be delayed. On the other hand, I’m concerned that the papers I used to mark in my first years as a teacher, so more than 20 years ago, in the same second-year course, would now do as BA dissertations. I did not have to teach my students then to search for secondary sources, they knew where to find them; now I need to explain what valid academic work is constantly. I’m also very worried by what a colleague told me: her students recently mounted a rebellion against her teaching and plainly refused to do the exercises she demanded for assessment, as they found them too difficult. As it turns out, my colleague had been using the same exercises for years with no complaints.
Back to the good student. The other good students follow my lectures with interest (mostly); they look at me as I speak, something which not all students do, nod their heads in agreement, make notes now and then and even smile in encouragement. The bad students, by the way, keep that glassy stare that makes no bones of politeness and clearly announces they’re bored, sit either rigidly or slumping, never make a note, sigh when I go on for more than five minutes in one of my usual tirades. Their attendance is spotty (I check it). The very good student attends quite regularly, takes notes (perhaps not of my lectures) but is constantly switching on and off. I don’t mean he is distracted. What I mean is that he sort of skims as I speak but lights up almost visibly when I go into deeper waters. The problem is that he tends not to acknowledge the allusions I make to names only he recognizes and possibly knows well, since being the centre of attention as a pedantic student (which he is not at all) must be a drag.
I do not connect particularly well with him. I’m used to establishing a sense of complicity with my better students, which often leads to my being later their tutor in one way or another. I have tried with this young gentleman but I simply feel too embarrassed: I know he sees through our collective mediocrity. And this is the problem I really want to discuss here.
Perhaps I am wrong to attribute this to the language barrier but I’m frustrated that we (I’m speaking of the Literature teachers, though I assume this also applies to language) cannot give our best. In a sense, this student is displaced in time, as he seems to belong in one of my 1990s classes, when my being very junior mattered less because my students were better read. Now when I am a senior teacher, when I know more than ever, my students reach me with the lowest training in culture and literature I have seen in 24 years. The result is an uncomfortable mismatch: instead of raising the level of my lectures I find myself simplifying my teaching to levels that often want to make me cry. Particularly when I notice my very good student disconnecting, which is his polite way (for he is very polite) of telling me ‘you’re not doing well’.
I’m not paranoid, believe me–I have discussed this student with another colleague and it’s funny how relieved we felt to share the same anxieties. I have had students look at me with critical eyes often but I’m very self-assertive, despite my many insecurities, and usually enjoy the challenge. With this young man, though, there is no challenge, for he puts up a mirror and I see myself as what I don’t want to be: a mediocre teacher. To compensate for that I have a very sweet student, another young man, who spends my lectures looking raptly at me, taking in every point I make, even the silly ones, as the voice of wisdom. I could do with more like him, certainly… but I wish I had many more of the other kind.
The language barrier is a problem, as I say, because it makes it hard for students to follow the texts they need to read, leaving aside their increasing displeasure with reading. The other problem, however, what makes me so self-conscious with my very good student is the diminishing understanding of what academic work is, as I have hinted. Students seem to think generally that we’re teachers, not active researchers; I make a point of telling them what I’m up to in that sense but they see us primarily as their teachers. In my first year as a student when, together with the rest of the class, I was frightened by the loud-voiced Prof. Luis Izquierdo into going at once to the library or else be branded an idiot for the rest of my studies, we got the message. Either you wise up or you’re out of the game. Now, the game is invisible for the students–except that one.
I don’t think he reads my blog, but if he does, my other concern is that he needs to be a bit more humble. I’m not saying that his constant scrutiny is not welcome, for it keeps me on my toes and this is refreshing. What I mean is that it can be self-defeating, as lacking the stimulus to do his very best, he’s just doing well–probably with more ease than effort. The difference between his exercise and the other good students’ exercises was precisely that: the other were trying harder. Also, sooner or later, a mentor is useful-whoever that is.
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