Inside Higher Ed
February 16, 2016
By John Warner
By John Warner
In my general education, first-year writing course, a few periods in I offer students a hypothetical. I tell them they can have an “A” in exchange for never doing anything. No classes, no assignments, no reading, no feedback, nothing. They just have to make sure not to tell anyone because we’d all get in a lot of trouble.
This past semester 80-85% of my students said they would take that deal.
An “A” is an “A,” and “A’s” are good because they help their overall GPA. It would mean more time to dedicate to their other classes. They could sleep in later. They do not like English classes and would therefore dodge the unpleasantness of such a thing. They could check off a requirement without having to do any work. They could take 18 instead of 15 hours and be closer to graduation. They could pick up an extra shift at their job.
They ask, “What’s the trick?” This is when I tell them they won’t learn anything. They acknowledge this reality, but are willing to shrug it off for all the above reasons.
When I drop the guaranteed grade to a “B” I only get about 50% of the class to bite. For 30% of them, the pain of the course will be worth it if they can get an “A” instead, but otherwise, no.
Here is where we are tempted to lament the coddling of the “everyone gets a trophy,” “special snowflake” generation. They are spoiled and entitled. Swine unable to appreciate the pearls cast before them.
I have a different take. Students are not coddled or entitled, they are defeated.
We have divorced school from learning, and this is the result.
For most of my students, the purpose of school is to do well in school so you can climb the ladder to the next part of school. I am giving them a free pass at school, so it would be silly not to grab at the opportunity.
I do not take their desire to opt out of my course personally, but I take it seriously. Students are clearly communicating that what they think they need are “good grades,” better than good, actually, since for many, a “B” is not acceptable. Learning stuff, particularly in the context of a required general education course is not just secondary, but close to irrelevant.
In the abstract, they don’t feel this way. When I ask them if they think they’re going to have to know how to write in their jobs and careers, most answer in the affirmative.
But here’s the most important thing: they do not believe that their college composition course has any relationship to that need.
Other than its credentialing function, much of school is viewed as unrelated to their futures.
Why should they believe otherwise about a first-year writing course? Much of the writing they’ve been asked to do is divorced from any areas of interest or relevance, a series of “close reading” exercises that have little purpose other that to prove you can complete a close reading exercise. To them, writing in school is a performance for the sake of the teacher, or worse, an anonymous assessor. It is pointless, except to impress the person who will hand them a grade.
I happen to think the course I teach is the most important one they’ll take in four years and tell them so. They think I’m being funny.
Look at the cute little teacher who actually thinks this stuff matters.
The vast majority of my students do not want my course, but they need it. Because of this, I try to meet them where they are, and so I make it clear that our writing course is not about preparing them to do well in school, but to help them develop a flexible, adaptable writing process that will allow them to first understand, and then meet any writing challenge that they will encounter.
They will write for audiences with real-world needs, attitudes, and knowledge. They will write in forms that require them to make meaning, rather than regurgitate the ideas of others.
At first, this is profoundly uncomfortable for some students. When one of the assignments asks them to respond to an argument with an argument of their own rooted in experience and example, some ask if it’s okay to use “I.”
“How else would you do it?” I reply. They don’t know. They just know that whatever they might have to say isn’t of worth within the world of school.
Hardly the attitudes of a bunch of “special snowflakes.”
I do some other things to undo the damage. I use a grading contract in order to redirect their efforts from product to process. I share information from the Gallup Student Poll that suggests what we experience in college matters more to our future happiness than any grade ever could.
And I talk to them. What I find is that students hold plenty of internal passion and drive, but very little of that intrinsic motivation extends to school.
I ask them how they feel about school. I ask them what they enjoy, and why they enjoy it. I ask them what they want from their lives and how they think they might arrive in that place. I urge them to share their values in their writing, to articulate the world view that makes sense to them.
Lastly, I apologize. I apologize for the system of education my generation and the ones before have made for them, where they are largely treated like a cog as part of a machine. I encourage them to believe that if they choose, they could remake the world in a way that makes sense to them.
Sadly, I’m not sure they believe me.
 Two plus years ago I described the same exercise and said that 70% or so of students take the bargain. It’s now 85%.
 The exception is courses in their major that they think may be directly relevant to a career. You can be an accountant without taking accounting. Doctors have to know biology. They don’t really like those courses and aren’t particularly eager to learn, but at least they have a purpose beyond school for school’s sake.
 In reality, not so “close” because students can routinely do well by spinning some B.S. that communicates the gist, but does not make meaning.
 The saddest part of this is some students will tell me “nothing.” There is school and there are things like drinking, social media, video games, Netflix, that are distractions from school, but those things are not viewed as enjoyment. They are an anesthetic at best.