Monday, October 03, 2016

Empowerment or Abandonment

“Why won’t he just give us the answers?”

I used to get that question in my teaching evals.  It always struck me as partially false -- I gave some answers -- and partially off-point.  My job, as I saw it, wasn’t to fill heads with answers.  It was to empower students to find their own answers.  Sometimes, that meant waiting for them to connect the dots for themselves.  Some students rebelled against that, using the sort of language and attitude that one might direct towards a lazy customer service rep.

At the time, I felt confident in my overall philosophy, even if not necessarily in every single moment.  My job, as I saw it, was to create students who didn’t need professors.  At some level, I still believe that.  After all, when they graduate, they won’t have professors or t.a.’s around to decode things for them.  

From a distance, though, and in a very different institutional setting, I see a different possible interpretation of what I was doing.  Students with some cultural capital, and some academic confidence, could respond to that sort of teaching as a challenge, and some did.  Students without much cultural or academic capital could read it as indifference, and respond in kind.  That wasn’t what I intended, but intentions only get you so far.  If you’re a student with a relatively fragile sense of belonging in college in the first place, someone refusing to help you could look like a sign of hostility, or as confirmation that you don’t belong.  

The teaching style with which I started was the one I had seen quite a bit as a student.  I cobbled together a general theory behind it and went with it.  And at the flagship research university where I was in grad school, it worked tolerably well.  The students generally were well-enough prepared in traditional ways that they could work with it.  They didn’t always like it, but they could work with it.

Upon moving to a very different setting, it took a while to make the adjustment.  

I was reminded of that recently in visiting a class of entering students and hearing them describe their own frustration at some institutional practices designed to empower them.  What was supposed to convey empowerment instead made them feel abandoned.  

The challenge in designing systems for students is in accurately picturing different students encountering it for the first time.  Does being told “it’s on the website” come as a relief -- “I don’t have to wait for you!” -- or as evasion (“why won’t you help me?”)?  Given the diversity of the student body at most community colleges, the answer is “yes.”  

The long-term answer (!), I think, is in conceiving of all of our processes as part of the learning experience.  Even if the eventual goal is to foster empowered, self-directed learners, some need more initial guidance than others to get there.  And that’s okay; people start in different places.  I can just imagine if I hired a personal trainer who started with “okay, let’s warm up with a five mile run.”  Um, no.  Not gonna happen.  Maybe someday, but not right out of the gate.  Replace “five mile run” with “five page paper” or “FAFSA workshop,” and the same principle holds.  If you don’t start within shouting distance of where people are, you’ll lose them.

That’s hard to do when you have to process the paperwork for thousands of people, quickly.  It’s that much worse when the rules in the paperwork only kinda-sorta fits the realities of students’ lives.  (Is someone who’s staying on a friend’s couch homeless?  Kinda-sorta…)  When staffing is tight, deadlines are looming, and the pressure is on, it can be hard to customize every process to every person.  We’ve done a good job of building classes as learning environments, but in some other areas, we tend to default to “they’re adults.”  And our definition of “adults” assumes the presence of cultural and economic capital that we can’t necessarily take for granted.  It isn’t entirely wrong, but it isn’t quite right, either.

The goal of producing graduates who are capable of teaching themselves still seems right to me.  Getting them there without feeling too abandoned is the hard part.  And a big “thank you” to the students who reminded me of the value of giving at least some answers.