The Imaginary Student, Teaching, Self-righteousness, etc.
Yo! college profs! Ever hear yourself thinking or saying this kind of thing?: students are lazy, unmotivated, unwilling to work, only interested in football or fraternities or sororities or television or facebook or texting or whatever? They have no sense of discipline and don’t care about learning. If they do happen to care, it’s only about the grade, and even then many of them are so slack that they’re perfectly happy with a C. Ever gripe about what students don’t know? Here they are in college, and they don’t know how to read or write or think or spell or do research, etc, etc. Did no one teach them anything in high school? Ever wonder how these people got to my class? Have their other teachers taught them nothing? Ever lament about how this crowd compares to “the way students used to be?”
Well, I’m here to call us all out about these kinds of generalizations. They’re almost never simply true to reality, though they’re a common way of thinking. So this attitude about students makes me curious, interested. What is its nature? Where does it come from? How does it work? What are its consequences?
For instance, what do we mean when we say—with disgust or exasperation or scorn or disappointment—that our students just aren’t willing to think? In order to make such a judgment there must be somewhere in our minds a model of right student thinking. Such a model must be in operation just in order for us to know that our actual students are not coming up to it. But where does this model come from? I offer this question to all college professors, but especially to those new to the classroom, as for instance in your first tenure-track position. You grade a batch of essays or exams, and if you’re new, it’s common to be more or less stunned at how awful they are. If you’re an older hand, you may no longer be stunned. But you’re still often disgusted, put out, maybe even ready to call it quits. Why?
As far as I can tell, most of us come to teaching with certain unexamined notions of how students in general ought to be. Why else would we be so regularly disappointed by how the great majority of them actually are? In fact we summarily judge our actual students in relation to what I call the imaginary student. I’ve concluded that, although there are some variations, in general the imaginary student is a loose projection of our own student-selves. Whether we think it overtly or not, we just cannot understand why most students are not the kinds of students that we were.
These judgments typically forget a crucial fact: we’re the oddballs. That great mass of slackers that constantly outrage us is just the normal way to be (which means calling them slackers is unjust). The true mystery is that anybody would ever be as extremely interested in both college and our subject as we are. Think about growing up in the US. Our culture has a historically documented streak of anti-intellectualism, so most kids only get a modest push to do more than make decent grades. Most parents who are not teachers want their kids to do well in K-12, but they hardly want bookworms. Childhood happens only once, and much will be missed if we’re buried in books. College for most parents and students is mainly a means to all manner of everyday ends, primarily a good-paying job. For this reason, most students experience college itself like a job: you endure it so you can eventually do what you really want to do. The difference is that you have to pay to do this job. Almost no one sees college and college-type learning as ends in themselves. Nor is there any substantial reason why they should.
But then there are those few students who, typically, are book-learners from early on, at least from beginning undergrad if not from first grade. They are not usually the brightest flames in the high-school social fire, not athletes or cheerleaders. How could they be? They do all their homework all the time, even on weekends. They read for pleasure. They’ll be in the knowledge clubs instead of the social clubs. In college they’ll find themselves in an environment that is at least in some ways pro-intellectual, and they’ll thrive. They’ll do all the work all the time, bring in unrequired rough drafts, do extra research, and even go to the library. They’ll be upset with any grade less than A.
And within this small bunch there is the even smaller one, made up of the straightforwardly obsessive learners, the few who would take this kind of life—almost totally oriented toward academic learning—on to graduate school. And of these few there are even fewer still, who tough out a doctoral program in order to become a “professor” and so spend the rest of their lives in much this same way. For this final few, unlike almost everybody else, college is not merely a means of being able to do what we really want to do in our everyday lives. It’s just what we want to do. Sure I’m over-generalizing. But still, I’m betting that most professors have been this kind of hyper-studious person. Now, we typically feel proud to be a member of this small group of over-achievers. And so we should. Becoming a professor is a fine and difficult accomplishment. But we have no business assuming that students in general ought to be like us. And yet some version of “us” is just who the imaginary student is.
I’m convinced that anyone who wants to be a better teacher needs to think seriously about this state of affairs. It takes serious thinking because it’s not that easy to fully grasp. It’s natural enough to look for the causes of our students’ poor performances. But unless we have direct knowledge of some specific cause for a specific student’s failure—say a crisis at home, or a health problem or the like—we often search, without quite knowing it, for a cause in relation to the imaginary student. We judge our actual students by a nonexistent “right student” who is ultimately a version of ourselves. This is not to say that blame is not validly assignable. You bet it is. But if you’re interested in being a better teacher, the blame doesn’t matter. Or rather, it does matter, but only in a negative way.
Here’s an example of how it too often works. College professors constantly blame high school for failing to prepare students for college. Well, one way or the other this has to be true. College follows high school, so of course high school should be preparing students for college. If students aren’t prepared, high school must be to blame. But where do we get the idea of what “prepared” means? On what reality is it based? Can it really be possible that all those many, many high school teachers are almost universally failing to do their jobs? This is another negative summary judgment that I find hard to buy. And in any case, what matters is the living, inadequately-educated people we have in front of us. Trying to find out who’s to blame for their inadequacies is a distraction. Further, I’m betting those high school teachers are going to blame the teachers of the lower grades for failing to prepare students for high school. And then I’m betting that the teachers of those lower grades are going to blame the families of their students for failing to… You can see how it works. Someone or something else must always be to blame. Apart from the validity (or not) of these charges, what matters is that they make us feel better about the failures in our own classes. How can we possibly be expected to teach in any legitimate way when someone or something else makes it so very difficult, if not impossible, for us to do so?
And what about the problem of students “nowadays”? We hear it all the time. Nowadays students only care about getting a future job, not learning for its own sake. Recent research has shown that nowadays students study less. Some people argue that this is because over time student evaluations have caused too many professors to require less work in order get good reviews at the end of the term. Or in a different vein, students nowadays can’t think or read or write or study because their attention span has been sapped away by movies and digital media. They can’t do well in college because they can’t pay attention to anything longer than a sound bite or a five-minute youtube video. This latter kind of complaint at least tries not to blame the students directly. Instead it pictures them as the passive dupes of sinister anti-educational forces. Either way, the implication is that in the good old days students didn’t have this problem.
But wait a minute, don’t I remember hearing that my own generation had been similarly ruined by TV? And yet somehow I became a professor. In general I’m convinced that there never were any good old days, at least in the ways we like to think. In fact only a tiny minority of students ever performed in the way so many college professors regularly expect students ought to perform. Guess what?: that tiny minority was us. Not surprisingly it’s still the case that most students are average. Most of us have at least one or two actual students every term who more or less fit the imaginary model. But these odd cases only reinforce our idea of the imaginary student. Rather than see them as, like us, special cases, we conclude: since these students are getting it, the problem obviously can’t be my teaching. Then we look for someone or something to blame for the failures of the rest. Whether there really were good old days or not, once again we invoke them because they make us, in a roundabout way, feel better about poor student performance in our classes. After all, why should we feel bad about (which is to say responsible for) student failure when students lack not just the will but even the cognitive ability to learn as they ought to? Compared to those (imaginary) students of yore, this crowd is damn near hopeless.
I say again, we are not necessarily factually wrong when we blame someone or something else for our students’ shortcomings. But as practicing teachers of flesh and blood (not imaginary) students, these attitudes, especially if we don’t know we have them, can inhibit our own performance in important ways. In its most pernicious form, the imaginary student can prevent us from making any serious effort to improve as teachers. It does this because it gives us the pleasure of self-righteousness. By self-righteousness I mean taking emotional pleasure in the act of negating someone else. We not only think of someone as wrong or evil or stupid or whatever; we take pleasure in doing so. Self-righteousness is a truly universal human pleasure, almost impossible to avoid, and sometimes justified. But it’s one thing to feel self-righteous. It’s another thing to know that’s what we’re feeling, and then another thing to know how that feeling operates. The attitude in this extreme case is: I won’t lower myself by trying to improve as a teacher when these students are—not my fault!—hopeless to begin with. Sure, I’ll take trouble with the one or two superior students. But then, those students don’t really take much trouble. With them, I can do what I always do. There’s a certain pleasure in this attitude, because it leaves our own superiority so safely beyond question. I assume this extreme example is rare, though I suspect we’ve all known teachers like this.
But there are more common effects of the imaginary student. As I’ve said, the imaginary student can easily cause us to be depressed or disgusted or outraged by our actual students’ performances. None of these responses are in themselves necessarily a problem, unless they keep us teachers from being what we also ought to be: learners. In other words if we base our judgments unknowingly on the imaginary student, we will be less likely to be interested in, curious about, our actual students. Unless we’re interested in why, despite our own dazzling performance, they do poorly, we’re unlikely to be motivated to learn how to be better. Unless we fully understand that it’s perfectly normal for non-imaginary students not to be interested in our staggeringly interesting subject, we’re not likely to think effectively about how to induce their interest. Finally, unless we understand that of course college learning is not only boring but difficult for most non-imaginary students, we’re not likely to do the work to make our subject as accessible as possible, or to see our way to be as compassionate as possible. This is important. And no, “accessible” does not mean dumbing down, nor does “compassionate” mean being a new-age teacher-savior.
Because we’ve all been students for so long, and because we’ve mastered our subjects, we can easily forget how very challenging (and boring) much of our material can be. If we’re teaching the imaginary student, we don’t have to care about this because he or she will do whatever it takes to get it, no matter how we present things. But if we don’t care enough about our actual students to figure out how to make the ideas understandable and important, if not interesting, to them, whatever their state of preparation; then we may well either wrongly assume that they know more coming in than they actually know, or worse, take it that they just ought to know more than they know, and they just ought to be interested. As a result, either from thoughtlessness or self-righteousness we’ll just go along, leaving students bewildered, behind, and resentful. They’ll see that we care about our subject, but not about them as living learners.
The unpleasant conclusion is that teaching ourselves to be better teachers requires a serious investment in a specific kind of thinking, thinking that is usually quite different from our own research. As we of all people should know, serious thinking takes work and time. Too often, I’m afraid we use the imaginary student instead of doing this work.