Friday, July 25, 2008

"Honored and Helpless" or "Yes, I am an A-Hole"

Ok, I'm still in rant mode. I have nearly recovered from my mind-blowing Kaua'i trip, and come almost all the way back down to earth (sometimes I'm still on my tiptoes). But I'm not ready for heady writing yet. So here's some more complaining.

Ever since high school I have been plagued by a type of student that gets under my skin - the overeager honors student that really isn't all that honorable. By "honorable" I mean smart, as in, "worthy of honors." Now that you all think I'm an asshole, let me explain.

I have no contempt for people of different abilities. I would not want to be hated by math whizzes if I happened to end up in a math class. (Let me pause and thank God that my College Algebra credits from ten years ago transferred without a hitch.) So I don't look down on students who struggle for their breakthrough, or even students who just get by. And as for intro courses or boring classes, I don't even look down on slackers (unless they're disruptive). It's not the academic differences, it's the personality type of the overeager honors student that bothers me so.

Problem Student #1 -- "I have to get an A."

Astronomy class, Spring 2007. An honors class, a lot of real smart kids. On our lab days we could work in teams, and given the amount of math on the labs I overcame my introversion and joined a group. By the third week I couldn't take it anymore. The constant banter over every single question made the labs take twice as long as if I was working alone. There was fear in their voices as they debated. Sometimes, not being afraid the lurking danger they perceived, I would cut through the crap and offer a solution they'd missed in their panic. I couldn't explain myself well enough, not being a mathy type, so I only put them in an uglier fit. I took my answers with me to another table and sat alone from then on. My scores did drop a little (maybe 5%, all on the math questions) but the lab took half as long and I understood the readings in the lab far better. On my first solo lab the professor wrote (referring to my earlier scores) "Great! But I know you can do better." It made me smile because I knew I couldn't, and that was all right with me.

The above panic episode is classic overeager honors student behavior. They can't step back and look at a project as a learning opportunity. They reduce it to a number, and reduce that number to a part of that big final number -- their final grade. That is the last thing on my mind when I work. If you open yourself up to learning and put unrelated thoughts out of your mind, you will understand the material far better than those who work themselves to a frenzy over five points here and there.

Problem Student #2 -- "Please tell me exactly what to do"

This one kills me, but by the third or fourth week I can anticipate it, and then laugh at it. Honors students have an irrational need to know exactly what is expected of them. They probably see this need as an extension of their perfectionism, a perfectionism they think is perfectly healthy because it will win them lots of money someday.

I have too many experiences with this to list them all, and I've had two professors in different departments comment on this to the class when assigning a paper. "I know you honors students want to know what is expected of you..." I'd like to correct that. It should be "I know you honors students have no idea how to take responsibility for your own education..."

They ask what to do because they don't want to get a B for missing a subtle point on the assignment guidelines. In reality, there are no subtle points made to freshman and you'd have to try pretty hard to completely miss a requirement on an assignment. As a transfer student I sat through two compulsory freshman-level classes in my junior year. In one class we were knocked over the head with specific guidelines, and in the other it was reiterated how much freedom we had. Still the unsure scholars put their whiney questions to the professors, "I don't really know what I'm supposed to be doing here?"

While subtle points may be made to upperclassmen, the professors are confident that the students will catch them, and confident that the students can provide the best guidelines for their own individual projects. In today's American university, creativity is still allowed and in some cases, especially in the humanities, encouraged. Still, I see juniors and seniors marking their powerpoint slides with the exact words from the assignment guidelines: "Introduction" "Why should we care?" "Main Points Revisited"

Who does that?! I feel like this need for clarification of things that are already clear or can be made clear with some effort is a nasty combination of:

Showmanship ("I'm smart, I ask questions.")

Laziness ("Let's just copy what the syllabus says and be done with it")

Mind-Boggling Lack of Creativity ("I can't come up with my own way to do something. I need step by step instructions -- with pictures.")

Creativity does not just mean the ability to draw funny pictures or do a dance. It means resourcefulness, initiative, putting one's self into one's work!

That said, the class I am currently taking has two of these students in it. And it is an art class. We are recreating medieval manuscripts (I can't imagine why you would sign up for such a weird class if you don't have a personality). I have begun to laugh out loud in the classroom, and I fully expect them to ask what colors to use on our first full studio day next Monday.

Ok, so maybe I am an asshole. But I'm not alone. An article on today's overeager college students called them "mere anxious, status-obsessed, soulless overachievers." Now that's just mean.

I have been in school for a long time, which I love, but when do I get to work with students who want to be scholars? Is grad school any better? Some sources tell me no, it's all the same. Though I can't imagine you'd keep a fellowship long if you asked everyone what you should write about in each paragraph of your dissertation. "Um, do you have like, a template or something?"

I have no doubt that some of these students will go onto grad school. But hopefully there are processes in place that will weed out the overeager honors students and let them proliferate all over the "career world," producing a new generation of overeager honors students to pester the professors of tomorrow (uh oh, that would be me.) As for the next ten years, I would really love to run into some people who are actually interested in things. And who ask good questions.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The University Uniform

I am a college student. I dress like a college student. At least I think I do. What I have noticed lately is that most college students no longer have a "style" (or budget, or shred of modesty?) that matches their place in life.

I wear clothes that are comfortable and durable. Many of them have useful pockets. Most of them are cotton. This is what I think of when I picture the quintessential college student, especially the older student or the grad student: cargo pants, t-shirts, Converses or Birkenstocks, an old backpack whose zippers are held together with zip-ties.

My kind of students. They even call this grassy knoll "Hippy Hill."

This is at Appalachian State University.

Maybe I live in the wrong part of the country. Or the wrong decade. People don't even sit on the grass in the quad.

At my school, we have two main "types" of college students that look nothing like college students:

Perpetual Teenager

Career Thirty-Something

The perpetual teenagers wear the same clothes they wore in high school. Their shorts are still too short, they carry their stuff in Nike sport sacks (which only hold about two small books), and they invariably have glitter or sequins on one or more of their garments. They are not ready to be here in some ways, if their exterior is any reflection of their interior.

These un-university like ladies trouble me because I thought I escaped the pressure of being "cool" when I finished high school. Luckily for me that was more than ten years ago, so I dont feel too much pressure. But I can see how it would be applied to more youthful incoming students who don't wear the right color hot pants for this season. I do get strange looks, even though I'm not the one wearing pajama pants to class.

I think the Career Thirty-Somethings bother me even more than the "barely-legals." These women are my age, or nearly my age (usually they are upperclassmen or grad students) but they dress like they work at a bank. Heels every day, jackets or cardigans over camisoles, real jewelry, and the crowning accessory that makes me cringe: the giant Gucci hobo purse that holds their textbooks. My first thought is why would you waste so much money on a wardrobe for college, and my second is, how can you be comfortable? And how can you enjoy being in your twenties? And how do you throw your bag on the floor, or put food in it, or ride a bike with it?

All dressed up and ready for her . . . midterm exam.

There's nothing wrong with a professional look on a young woman if it's sexy. But this is the midwest. Not exactly the fashion capital of the world. These girls aren't making themselves look better, they just look old. And their career-focused outfits make me think they are only in school because they want to make more money than people who don't go to school. "Ok, I'm here, give me my paper so I can get an easy job."

Here's what I love about being a college student and being in my twenties: I am young enough that I don't have to dress like a tool, I am old enough that I don't give a shit what teenagers think about my idiosyncratic wardrobe. Personally, I think I look pretty good most of the time. But to them I probably look like a cross between an Anthropologie and an L.L. Bean catalog. And I carry . . . a backpack! (GASP!)

I have often thought about what I would wear once I am a professor. I have some good role models in that department. Even among the overdressed students the faculty at my school maintain something of my philosophy on utilitarian clothing. They wear the same outfits every few days, and most of them look comfortable. My favorite professors even fit my description of "grad school student" sometimes, with their baggy shirts and wrinkled pants. They aren't allowed to wear jeans or t-shirts, but they dress down as much a possible. Once I complemented one of them on her simple taste. I don't think she took it as a complement, but I think she understood what I was getting at once I stammered out an explanation.

So even as I wince on seeing the goosebumps form on the arms of pink-camisoled, blow-dried women in the cold of the classroom A/C (while I am bundled in a Columbia sweater), and watch bewildered as they change out of their "presentation" shoes and into patent leather flats (I have kicked off my shoes and am sitting cross-legged on top of my sock feet) I can take heart in the path I've chosen for my future. Grad school will find me in the same comfy duds, and besides the interviews and other functions that will precede my employment, I need not worry about wearing any uniform except that of the university. Which, as in the case of a small liberal arts college such as mine, will hopefully be nothing more than a loose dress code.

I suppose I heeded Thoreau when he warned "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothing," and I set my path from there.

Here's me leading a hike in Kauai. I would wear everything here to school -- I've even incorportaed carabiners into my wardrobe since the trip. Why not!?