Wednesday, December 05, 2012

are students weird? -- an inquiry


I believe most faculty teach more than one section of a course in any given semester. This semester, I have had two sections of Bioethics and two sections of Professional Ethics. The two sections of each course are markedly different. Contrasting, you might say. Almost entirely unalike would not be overly hyperbolic.

One section of one of these courses has been among the very most open, receptive, and engaged I've ever had. The students took the material and issues all over the place, practically every class session. They were happy, I'd say, to be in the philosophically delicious state of mind of perplexity. Almost every class session someone raised a question that stumped us all. It is clear from class discussions that these students are seriously engaged with the themes and texts, and are genuinely facing the central struggle of ethics (for purposes of this discussion, I shall stipulate that the "central struggle of ethics" is "Shit! Now what?!").

Not the best writers, however. Somehow this serious play hasn't been translated into text.

Another section of the same course is, in a word, reticent. I have sometimes felt as if I've walked into a poker game, their faces are so inscrutable. A small group of sometimes unreliably-attending students carries the conversation. When one is missing, the class has slowed. When two are missing, the class has sometimes stopped in its tracks. I have let long moments of uncomfortable silence pass, hoping the awkwardness would provoke some hesitant comment. I have cajoled. I have joked.

And yet, their papers are pretty good. Somehow their grasp of the ideas and texts in the course hasn't prompted them to raise questions, or respond to questions.

Is one class thinking philosophically, and the other not? How shall I correlate the verbal engagement of one class with the clear writing of the other? Should I give more weight to the strength of each class? Why?

Shit! Now what?!

In the other course, the differences are somewhat less acute, and the less verbal class has become much more active in just the last third of the semester. It's just as puzzling, though. What's so different about the classes, the student population, or perhaps my own approach, in each class? Does a more reserved kind of student tend to select one particular time slot for a class? Given the impaction of our schedule and the difficulty students have getting into classes (or enough classes, i.e., to qualify for financial aid), is it even plausible that students pick a class time?

Excuse me, but I'm inclined to believe that I do not have sufficient power over my students or the classroom environment to be the main determinant of these differences. I am but one man, after all. Unless a faculty member treats every class the same way, by standing up and lecturing to them every session, the students have a great deal of responsibility for what we might call the class ethos. It develops very much as a habit, and I guess that the first half-dozen class sessions more or less ingrain this habit. In those sessions, tacit consensus is built regarding who speaks and when, about the tone of discourse. Roles become defined and assigned through this process.

The habits become a template of expectations for each session. If a contrarian or devil's advocate arises, it becomes part of the script of the class that the person in that role reliably and predictably does his/her (usually his) thing at some point in each session. Often a co-teacher sort arises, who either has or imagines he/she (usually she) has superior understanding of course material and provides it when the moment comes.

From time to time, a monkey-wrencher arises, whose role is to cause breakdowns in a discussion that make some issue problematic at another level than the class had expected. Rarely, someone like a sage arises, who is able, at certain moments, to crystalize an entire concept, and place it in front of us.

I place an arbitrary value of 10% of overall grade on class participation. Almost every semester I have a class whose participation demands far more weight, because they have taken over the class, made it their own, and gone in directions I could scarcely have anticipated. Are those classes "better"?

In short, this is one of the things I most hate about grading. It's repulsive to take a set of experiences like these and turn them into a score.

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