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.

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