Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Day 30 "In the trenches" (aftermath edition)

Aftermath of TMEA and the first undergrad exam grades, that is.

Continuity in our spring semester is tough: it's broken up by tours and the Convention, the kids are more or less sprinting forward at a 45 degree angle counting the days 'til Spring Break (and convinced that anything between Jan 15 and March 12 is basically time-serving, to be resented and avoided), and we're finishing up the fourth (sophomore) semester of the Music History sequence. Both the interruptions and distractions ought to be anticipated and coped-with by us, the teaching staff, and the kids should be able to handle certain skills and tasks (especially the semester-long research project) with little coaching or nagging, compared to earlier iterations.

Neither of these presumptions typically proves out as well as we would like:

We now know, after seven years, both how the Spring schedule can shift around, and the likely calendar-and-concentration impact of those interruptions, and we now know--pretty well--how to anticipate and cope with the inevitable erosion of continuity. But the reality is that, with a 1st and 4th semester of the sequence taught by one professor, and a 2nd and 3rd taught by another, there are bound to be--should be--contrast of presentation, focus, approach, vibe, and, crucially, testing method.

So the first exam in any given semester can be a bit of a shock--hell, a douse of frigid water--for kids who are either accustomed to doing something a certain, other way, or, as we say around here, "have to be re-trained after the coffee break." We administer exam #1 prior to the first big chunk of away dates, just as we make the first major chunk of the research assignment due prior to Spring Break, because we know that their focus, concentration, and ability to get back in the saddle will be terribly deteriorated by those respective interruptions of the normal weekly schedule. By hitting them with those big-chunk assessments before they go, we (a) get a sense of where they're at when their concentration is at its peak, and (b) let them know, before they go, that they're going to have stuff to come back to.

Unfortunately, that stuff they come back to can turn into stuff they have to face up to: the ones who've been coasting too severely (or the real criminals who've just been blowing off coming to class) are almost bound to fail that first exam--and they need to know and to see that failure early, if we're going to have a prayer of pulling them back from the brink; on the other hand, the ones who have been working hard, and attending, and still do poorly on that first exam, need a morale pick-me-up.

Because it's shocking and depressing to have done your best and still scored poorly. We need to find ways to open dialog (mental, if not literal) that lets that latter crew of low-scoring kids know that we believe they can succeed, even in the face of this initial setback. Too often, a kid who has despite honest effort still done badly will be so let-down that s/he will just give up. And we can't let that happen to any kid if there's a prayer s/he could be recovered with a little bit of a psychological pick-me-up and a bit of an academic lifeline.

So today I went into class before they ever arrived, fired up the technology and put up this PPT slide:
I put it up straightaway because I wanted them to be thinking about the exam before I ever started talking. Not because I wanted them to feel guilty or scared, but because I wanted them already to be focusing in on the "oh yeah, I really tanked that exam" or the "damn, I thought I did better than I did." Because it's by getting them to focus that I might stand a prayer of getting the kind of discussion/debriefing that I think they need after the first exam.

The goal here is to be open, honest, and transparent: to tell the ones who haven't been working "look, this is within your power to fix, but you have to start working"; to tell the ones who don't know how to study "look, we will help you learn study skills, but you have to ask for help"; to tell the ones who, with that particular blend of arrogance and naivete in which some undergraduates specialize, don't do any fuckin' work "I can look around this room and know who hasn't been coming to class, and I know that's why those particular individuals failed this exam."

These are not accusations: they are--we hope--a bracing (and ultimately, liberating) dose of realistic straight talk. We are not K-12 teachers and we're not obligated to cushion the blow. Our job is to use every bit of experience, attention, insight, instinct, learned skill, and experimentation to grow these minds. Part of that means telling them the truth--both about their failures and about their successes.

But the other part of the process is to help them realize that they also have to tell the truth: not only to us, about the problems they're having or the bad choices they've made, but even more importantly, to themselves, about those same problems or bad choices. It's a common, human, understandable, and really really ill-advised undergraduate tendency, upon receiving unwelcome or disappointing news, to blot it out: to avoid thinking about it, to quit going to class, to avoid making eye-contact with the professor in the hall in hopes s/he "won't see me" (too many of these kids have no idea how good a large-lecture professor's peripheral vision gets to be), to just generally pretend the problem's not happening, because acknowledging that it is happening, particularly if you're young and don't know how to begin to fix it, is just too scary.

I bitch a lot, in these pages (dating myself, there) about the bad attitudes, misplaced sense of entitlement, passivity, and general emotional immaturity of these kids, and about the fucked-up and arrogant choices they make behind those psychological handicaps. But, really, and when I'm not fuming at the nth iPod-hazed living-in-the-pod big-sunglassed, Uggs-wearing, cell-phone cackling, credit-card waving male or female bimbo in the Student Union, I know that, for my kids in the School of Music, only a small percentage of the bad behavior, staring into the fog, or childish absenteeism really comes from spoiled arrogance (I think the brand-new BMW's or gigantic size-of-a-suburb white GMC behemoths or jacked-up pickups or $500 iPhones argue pretty conclusively for spoiled arrogance in the general undergrad population).

But not the Music School kids. Only a very small percentage are arrogant or spoiled, even if every external behavioral, attitudinal, postural, and conversational behavior would seem to confirm precisely that. Most of the rest are neither.

Mostly, they're scared.

They're scared they can't cut it;

They're scared that other students have expertise or skills they themselves lack;

They're scared that getting into Music School was either a fluke or a bad idea;

They're scared because college--or any college worthy of that distinction--is both categorically, experientially, and intentionally different than high school (a small percentage--those who like me were bored snotless in high-school, rejoice in this difference--but most fear it);

They're scared of the professors, and particularly of those professors (us!) who will actually call on them in class;

They're scared, most of all, deep down in their heart of hearts, no matter how popular they were in high school or how high they could play or how many first-chair assignments they got or how far they could throw a tight spiral or how many guys bought them how many worthless trinkets (or illegal beers)...

...that they're dumb.

They're not dumb, most of them. But it's a pardonable error for them to be afraid that perhaps they might be, because it is the flat fucking truth that they live in a society whose power structure wants them to be dumb--or failing that, at least wants to keep them ignorant. Of course they "don't know stuff" (one of the great lines by the character Wayne Wayne Wayne in Happy, Texas)--mostly, their parents or legislators or motherfucking president doesn't want them to "know stuff."

So they come into a college situation where they are encouraged, expected, and tested-on-their-ability to "know stuff", and where, even if nobody ever taught them how to learn stuff before, they're actually going to be tested on that ability, and then they get a first-exam grade that's below passing, and all those fears come rushing back, and they think "Oh, shit--this is where I finally get found out. This is where They finally realize I'm actually dumb. This is where They tell me I can't do it anymore."

As their teachers, we just cannot let that happen. We have to walk that fine line of expecting the highest standards of ethics, effort, and execution--without letting them fall off the edge of failure that lies just on the other side of "Oh, I give up. I guess I'm too dumb." We cannot let that happen.

Honesty helps. A professor who stands up in class and says "I know--it really feels lousy to get back a bad grade. We don't think you're a bad person, just because you got a bad grade. We will help you, because that's our job" helps too. Just a professor who acknowledges what being graded, or trying and failing, feels like, provides--in my estimation--a huge sense of validation of the kid's own experience.

If as the professor you stand up, and make the point-of-departure of your post-mortem "yes, it feels lousy to get a bad grade", then the students are, in my observation and experience, infinitely more able to actually hear the second part of the statement, which is "and we can fix this." Then you can say "there are people in this room who've done none of the online assignments, who've blown off more classes than they've attended, who've been unprepared when they have attended" and point out the absurdity of those people thinking they could do anything but fail. And you can say, "the highest actual score was a 95, so we've added a plus-2-points curve: if you made an 88 or above, you get an A; 78 or above, a B" and so on.

And you can say, at the end of that speech, "OK, the grades have already been turned in. You can speak freely. How many people felt that what appeared on the exam, in content, range, and detail, was roughly what they expected?" And made 65% of the hands go up. "How many felt what appeared was at least in part not what they expected?" and about 25% of the hands go up (the final 10% are the ones who didn't even think about the exam in advance and don't know what they expected). And you can say, "OK, let's talk about that; tell what you did or didn't expect, so that together we can plan better for the next exam."

If as the professor you've done this right, if you've established enough of an atmosphere of honesty and trust, then some percentage of them will actually tell you, truthfully. And you can respond, honestly and non-defensively. You can acknowledge the reality that professors make errors and design bad questions ("Look, folks, if 71 out of 73 out of you tanked a certain question, I can promise you that I will presume it was a badly-written question"). And that is very very valuable, because the power relations in the classroom are so hopelessly unbalanced. It's bad enough that you have almost all the information, and nearly all the power, and the entire weight of the institution (particularly post-tenure) behind you; it's worse when a kid has done badly and thinks that all that information, power, and institutional weight is correct in saying "you're a dumb kid".

This can be avoided. You start by giving back some of the most fundamental power: the power to have an (informed) opinion and the freedom to express that opinion safely. We can't spend 3/4 of our time teaching them "generate an opinion; outgrow high-school; develop a thesis; think for yourself" and then, only at exam time, say "shut up, kid--our test strategy and design is impeccable, and a bad performance on an exam can only be your fault." It calls for a lot of confidence, and a willingness to engage with some contrary or resentful opinion in the post-mortem (as one of our Tibetan teachers said, "You have to dare to be disliked"), but if you do it successfully, you have created an infinitely more open, honest, fair, constructive, and emotionally mature space.

And that's where the teaching happens.

Below the jump: swingin' south sunrise on the springtime South Plains.

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