Reluctantly

frustratedI momentarily lost it last fall when another senior complained about reading 22 pages assigned over two nights—in 14-point font, with sections interrupted and the rest of the page blank. In I983, my first year of teaching, I asked my department chair what homework reading load was reasonable. I operated on her standard for nearly a decade, 30 pages, but since then…

People outside my profession ask me, “How do your current students compare to the first students you taught?”

Honestly, I fear the question, as who wants to be a prune-faced back-in-my-day-er howling about change most label progress? I’ve rehearsed my answer, picturing the students I teach lugging their stretched-to-bursting backpacks into class. I like them. They smile at me. They thank me. They wave hello, goodbye.

The invention of averages hasn’t done much for subtlety. If I say, on average, my students are not as good at reading and writing, then one of the sharpest of my current students appears at an imagined door. I do teach some powerful thinkers, idealists, imaginative innovators. Some revere books and commit themselves to absorbing, testing, and exploiting ideas. The rest are, as a whole, good people. I respect them and would hate offending them.

But you hear me winding up. Whether I want an answer, I have one.

Unsurprisingly, reading challenges my students most. They seem unpracticed because few circumstances in the rest of their lives expects reading, and it’s a trial to convince them patience matters, that, the more they notice and retain, the more discerning their understanding and interpretation will be. For them, nuance matters less and less. They make dramatic links between disparate ideas but aim for fireworks, not gentle brushstrokes. Skilled at the broadest thinking, they sometimes resemble bots devoted to cursory recognition. Complications, exceptions, paradoxes, and mysteries don’t interest them as much. Instructions falling between extremes tax them. They want to know what’s required.

Impatience, I think, makes a bigger difference. The issue isn’t the number of pages but the page number where they become frustrated. The particular assignment my seniors objected to was Eula Biss’ “Pain Scale,” a roaming lyric essay about Biss’ back pain that included allusions to Dante’s Inferno and the history of numbers. Quixotically, I believed they might take to its strange and dramatic leaps between different arenas of thought, but some barely reached the bottom of the first page before deciding, and later letting me know, “This is bullshit.”

Every good student is a good critic, but judgment can be peremptory, skipping knowing, understanding, interpreting, detecting authors’ aims, and formulating thoughtful responses. Obviously, I’m heavy on judgment myself—it’s in the RNA of our times—but I’d love more than a “I didn’t like it.”

Maybe pragmatism explains their perspective. They’ve been conditioned not to deviate from straight paths. Their parents urge them to fix on destinations with less help getting there. Many parents forget about encouraging joy. To recognize how limitless they might be, students need to struggle and overcome, yet, because minor dents are too costly to their reputations, every accident or setback needs immediate remediation. They hardly have time to stumble or to distinguish between stumbling and failing. They’re told they must not fail and seldom come close. Few experiences lead to the redefinition—refinement—arising from discovering where strengths and weaknesses lie.

They’re an anxious generation—of course and understandably. Yet sometimes I wonder why. Granted, we’ve given them a terrible world, but they’re also ready to tell you how much harder they have it, and each challenge can feel to them like too much on top of too much. I long for the student who asks me to be hard, who accepts struggle as fundamental to education.

None of what I’ve said diminishes my affection, but it doesn’t lessen my concern either. I generally don’t compare current students to historical ones. I know it could be my problem, my nostalgia for a past that never was. Maybe I shouldn’t speak at all, but there they are, right in front of me, every day.

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4 Comments

Filed under Aging, Doubt, Education, Empathy, Essays, High School Teaching, Identity, Jeremiads, Laments, Meditations, Modern Life, Nostalgia, Opinion, Parenting, Rationalizations, Reading, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts, Work, Worry

4 responses to “Reluctantly

  1. I returned to school to finish my B.A. in the mid-80s. I complained to my American Lit teacher that he was too easy, that when I first started college (in the ’60s) we were assigned WHOLE books to read, and two or three papers a semester. He assigned only short stories, essays, or portions of books. I don’t remember if there were ANY term papers. So it seems rigor keeps decreasing over the generations. It’s troubling.

    • dmarshall58

      Yes, from my perspective, rigor has decreased, but I sometimes rationalize my concessions by telling myself I’m offering students a different sort of rigor. I assign fewer pages so the they can “cover less and uncover more.” That sounds good, and sometimes I even believe it’s working. It IS working for some of my students. Others, however, read the fewer pages I assign with equal—or worse—inattention. I’m thinking more and more about the end of my teaching career, and some days that seems the best solution to my frustration.

  2. SC

    They’re soft and it’s our fault.

    • dmarshall58

      I hate thinking that’s true, but I confess feeling the same disappointment in them and in me. They might rise to higher standards if I had the will and courage to insist on higher standards. Some of my students do rise to those standards. However, it’s easy for teachers to feel beaten down these days. The public suspects teachers are incompetent, parents want teachers to accommodate every entreaty, and the students regard school as a holding pen or way station—the whole situation douses the inspiration of even the most committed and idealistic. I’m lucky. I think most of my students appreciate my efforts, but, in secondary education generally, faith in the value of school and education seems to be dwindling. A vote of confidence might go a long way, but I’m not holding my breath.

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