So Many Hands to Hold in the Classroom

September 17, 2012

Over the 17 years I've taught writing at the college level, I used to occasionally have a student who was afraid to choose a topic for an essay, or even to ask a question, because she didn't know what was "right." One young man chose not to turn in an assignment at all, because he didn't understand the instructions and was afraid to say so. Now, instead of the occasional student in this condition, I'm getting classrooms full.

So many of them are so unused to thinking on their own that they cannot formulate an opinion without being told what opinion they are supposed to have. And if someone shares his opinion, he is obviously—as far as many students are concerned—trying to foist it on others rather than offering them an opportunity to challenge that opinion and debate it.

What fascinates me most is that, over the past five years in particular, students have become quite sure what we faculty members should be doing for them, which is essentially giving them the answers to the questions that we pose.

"What do you want me to say?" they ask. "Where's the template? Where's the model?" Examples and explanations are no longer good enough.

In past years, when we were faced with these kinds of students, all that seemed to be required was convincing them that they were safe, showing them that their education was now in their hands and that they were free to explore.

In the past, I have watched students who had seemed to be unprepared for college suddenly stuff themselves with knowledge once they realized that the banquet had finally been served. Those days are gone. The majority of students today expect assignments with finite parameters, clear grading paths, and a checklist of things they can tick off to get an A.

"Pick my own topic for an essay? What do you mean by that? What topic do you want me to pick? Is there a list?" It would approach the comical if it weren't so sad.

Even though I explain during my course introduction that merely fulfilling the parameters of the rubric will usually net no more than a C, and that to get an A they must write so well that I forget that I'm grading a paper and become simply a reader, my students want me to tell them how they're supposed to do that.

Well, the entire course is meant to tell them how to do that, but they don't want to explore, examine, analyze, and consider; they just want me to give it to them in black and white. Up front. Right away. They don't want to be creative; they just want an A.

This should not be a surprise, of course. The types of assignments they became accustomed to in elementary and secondary schools were not subjectively graded but were rooted in a behaviorist system that, intentionally, does not challenge students to think or be creative. Instead it tells them what result they should have and then offers them the map to it.

Unfortunately, following a map may teach them how to navigate, but it does not teach them how to drive. Few students seem to be able to find their way through their courses anymore without that map. And, interestingly, they hold the instructor responsible for their lack of learning if she does not provide GPS coordinates.

What has become more troubling, however, is that we at the college level seem to be falling into line with these ideas. We, on the front lines, are being hit with departmentwide assignments, departmental student assessments, and—worst—homogenized, packaged curricula that offer the kinds of maps for which these students are hoping.

Suddenly colleges want one class to be exactly like another, so that each one can be measured. But one class is not like another, and should not be—cannot be—even if it is in the same subject. Each class has unique students, with unique perspectives. Each student, challenged with analysis, will be provoked to draw and state her own conclusions.

Why in the world would we want students to be the same? Yet that seems to be where we're headed.

Before we are caught in this sticky trap, designed by the behaviorists, the politically correct pundits, and the measurers, we need to remind ourselves that a college education is meant for individual enlightenment.

But first we have to convince our students that they must participate in it—that they have something to contribute. And I'm finding that harder and harder to do.

Lynda C. Lambert is a writing instructor at community colleges in Maryland.