thirsting against the tide

Phyllis Ryder (pryder@CCIT.ARIZONA.EDU)
Fri, 6 Sep 1996 12:43:02 -0700

> On Fri, 6 Sep 1996, Greg Sturgeon wrote:
> > What about institutional constraints? I hate to sound like a wuss here,
> > but what kind of service are we doing to our students if we let them drink
> > what and when they like, and neglect the fact that they drink the wrong
> > stuff, or not enough of the right stuff?

Your question makes me wonder how much of our jobs as teachers is to
provide the (proper) water, and how much of it is to persuade them that
drinking the (proper) water is good for them? Especially in required
courses, students come in feeling the whip (the requirement put in place
by an administration that they vaguely trust) but not the admiration
and desire that precedes learning. They'll drink, but won't necessarily
believe that the drinking is REALLY necessary or useful. With these
students I have two reactions: 1) I want to tell THEM to go do the work
and study why/whether this class is important and come back when they
believe it is; 2) I want to persuade them, early in the course, that this
class is important and useful (sometimes for reasons different from why
they came in the first place.) I want to inspire that thirst, if I can.
So I'm hung up sometimes between feeling I should be a motivator and
feeling that, in college at least, students should already know how to
motivate themselves. . .

Nick wrote:

> So while I give my students the responsibility of writing an
> argument for a grade, that argument must include a consideration of these
> other readers, readers who will see only the recorded grade and not the
> argument, readers who will make certain assumptions about the student as
> a writer based on the grade that may or may not be true about the
> student. By requiring this consideration as part of the argument's
> pervue, it forces students to consider the course and their learning in
> it in a larger institutional context.
Nick, I connect this back to the question of persuading our students,
too. This time, we persuade them that they should be responsible for the
consequences of the grading scenarios they (and we, hopefully)want to
endorse. It's important to explain to our students what the larger
context is for our teaching, but (and I think you'd agree) we aren't
necessarily constrained to conform to that context. It is our
responsibility (and I think this is what you're getting at in your
student-grade-arguments) to explain why we value what we do in our
classes and how those values match up with or contradict the larger
context out there, so that students know how to "read" what is happening
in the class, the grading, etc.

Greg says
> > When I let my students have>
> > more choice as to what and when to write, I got several who took it as
> > license to sit around and do nothing. They didn't drink because drinking
> > would have been too much effort, or would have meant that they couldn't
> > study for that chemistry exam, or whatever.
And Nick said
If they choose to swim against the tide, god love 'em, then
> they need to know the tides. So part of what I see in the role
> self-evaluation and peer evaluation has to play at all levels is in this--
> learning ways to read the tides, be they rhetorial, cultural,
> institutional, pedagogical, or personal.

And I think the converse is also true. If they choose not to drink or go
with the flow, especially if we have changed the factors of motivation
(ie the grading criteria) it's also likely that they don't quite believe
that the tides HAVE changed, and they are waiting and reading the water
to learn what the REAL (old) criteria are. When I taught an Advanced Comp
course last spring and told students they were to investigate their
chosen rhetorical situations and choose the best methods for intervening
in an ongoing conversation, and that my grading was based on how well
they did that (not on some chart of what defines "good writing") I had
several students who waited me out for several assignments to see what
they thought my definitions of a universal good assignment were so that
they could give me what I wanted. It looked like they were just goofing
off, but I think really they were distrustful of the change and didn't
believe me when I said that THEY were responsible for determining what
made up good writing in different contexts.

So it goes back to the
question of teachers as persuaders: how much of our classes should we
spend persuading students that our content and methods are worthwhile,
how they fit into the larger context of the institution, and that we
really mean it when we are trying to go against the constraints of that
system and why we choose to do so.??