Paul Worley, Assistant Professor, Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, University of North Dakota
I begin every semester by telling students that my principal goal is that they engage the course material and learn how to apply it. As I explain everything else, including their grades, is secondary. After all, what good is an “A” in Spanish if that same “A” student cannot hold a basic conversation?
In turn I encourage them to think about what goals they have for the class, how they are going to achieve those goals, and most importantly why they are in the class to begin with. When they are writing these goals I remind them that desiring to learn Spanish is not the same as learning the language, just like wanting to earn an “A” is not the same as earning it. I assert that there is a good deal of work involved, and while I will meet them half way in terms of providing an environment in which they can achieve their goals they are ultimately responsible for the work.
Unfortunately, whether or not my main goal for the course is met is not easily quantified on evaluations. In most cases student engagement with the material begins or continues in my class, going on long after the semester is over. This semester, however, I have a few early returns I can share.
My Intro to Hispanic Literatures Class presented one-act plays based on course readings as their final projects in the Burtness Lab Theater on April 29. (As an aside, many thanks to Emily Cherry for helping us get the theater!) Both plays were excellent, and both included me as a character. In one the protagonist is running late to my class, which causes him to be in such a hurry he has an accident en route. In the other play I am the main character. As stated by that play’s narrator I, or at least my dramatic representation, “do not like it when students come to class unprepared” and “wear baggy, fabulous pants.” I suppose I am guilty as charged on all accounts, from the insistence that students come to class on time and prepared to the baggy pants. Despite these things, as stated in the one play, “the students respected” me. Light-hearted flattery and fabulous pants aside, the students did all of this in Spanish. That is, they not only fulfilled the assigned task (to write and produce a one-act based on a course reading) but they also engaged the language and the material in a meaningful way independent of the assignment itself (the humor at my expense). The former is the object of assessment. The latter is my goal for the class and something that cannot be forced. Needless to say I am thrilled with the results.
A more ambivalent example was a my student from another class whom I’ll call “Bob.” From the beginning of the semester Bob was a good deal less enthusiastic about his course with me and had no problems expressing his feelings. I caught Bob texting in class more than once, he met class activities with loud sighs of protest and in general made it known he would have rather been elsewhere. About mid-semester Bob had his head down on his desk during a group activity and I asked him in the joking, coaxing way I try to use with such students to join his group. With a loud sigh Bob sat up and, as I turned around, let it be known that, “This class sucks.” I turned back and instructed him to leave, at which point Bob said he would stay and participate. I responded that he could do so as long as he began to engage with the material and stopped sending me negative messages about the course.
Despite the fact that Bob did wake up for the last half of the class I went to my office feeling hollow. Being all too human what I really wanted to do was humiliate Bob, insist he leave and put my absolute authority on display for any other student so mired in his/her apathy that he/she would inform me of such feelings in front of the other 20+ students. It was of small consolation at the time, but I reflected that my goals have nothing to do with policing student behaviors or dispensing punitive measures. Confronted with a student who declared that my class “sucked,” I had restated my course goal as the guiding principals of the class. This, certainly, is far more important than any single incident with any individual student.
I would stop well short of directly attributing this to anything I said, but as we arrive at the end of the semester Bob is one of the more active students in that class. He is also signed up to take a course with me in the fall. Whatever the reasons for Bob’s change of heart, I feel confident that if I had responded to Bob differently and given in to my impulse to make an example of him, things would have been much different for all of us.
We all deal with students who are uninterested and unengaged, and none of this is to imply that I make an effort to “meet that students where they are” as the saying goes. On the contrary and as I state the first day of class, I go in with high expectations and encourage the students to engage the material, in other words to meet me where I am. The student plays did this without being required to do so and Bob decided to engage after I reiterated my course goal instead of punishing him. After some cajoling and prodding, students this semester have met and in many cases exceeded my expectations regardless of their grades. I can only hope that they share in the pride that their work has given me.