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Are Students Really "Unteachable"?
May 22, 2012 - 12:44pm

I often think that my career as an uninspired and uninspiring student is my greatest asset as a teacher.

I was reminded of this while reading a recent article by Janice Fiamengo of the University of Ottawa, published at Pajamas Media titled, “The Unteachables: A Generation That Cannot Learn.”

The article describes an experience with which I, as a teacher of freshman writing, am well-acquainted:

“Instructors who award low grades in humanities disciplines will likely be familiar with a phenomenon that occurs after the first essays are returned to students: former smiles vanish, hands once jubilantly raised to answer questions are now resentfully folded across chests, offended pride and sulkiness replace the careless cheer of former days. Too often, the smiles are gone for good because the customary “B+” or “A” grades have been withheld, and many students cannot forgive the insult.”

The article goes on to describe a generation of students that is focused entirely on the grade itself, rather than the learning that’s expected to be reflected in the grade. As Professor Fiamengo says:

“I have spent hours explaining an essay’s grammatical, stylistic, and logical weaknesses in the wearying certainty that the student was unable, both intellectually and emotionally, to comprehend what I was saying or to act on my advice. It is rare for such students to be genuinely desirous and capable of learning how to improve. Most of them simply hope that I will come around. Their belief that nothing requires improvement except the grade is one of the biggest obstacles that teachers face in the modern university.”

She offers a definitive and dire prognosis:

“And that is perhaps the real tragedy of our education system: not only that so many students enter university lacking the basic skills and knowledge to succeed in their courses — terrible in itself — but also that they often arrive essentially unteachable, lacking the personal qualities necessary to respond to criticism.”

As the source publication indicates, there is a larger agenda to Professor Fiamengo’s identification of these “intellectual” and “emotional” shortcomings, an attack on “progressive” education that has created a culture of entitlement, free of accountability, likely in the service of making the students malleable to the goal of creating a future socialist paradise, har har har.

Professor Fiamengo provides a definitive diagnosis, “Rather than forming cheerful, self-directed learners, the pedagogy of self-esteem has often created disaffected, passive pupils, bored precisely because they were never forced to learn.”

It would be hard-to-impossible to argue that the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality hasn’t resulted in some, let’s say, excesses of self-esteem that occasionally rear themselves in ugly ways in the classroom. I don’t think this concern is limited to traditionalists or conservatives, however, as you can hear this lament in the hallways of the most liberal of institutions.

I think it’s just as reasonable, however, to argue that the attitude of entitlement is rooted in the corporatization of higher education, where a degree is a commodity, and students (and parents) are customers.

Ultimately, though, that debate isn’t all that interesting to me. Whatever the cause, many of us agree on the result that winds up in our classrooms.

What piqued my interest is her conclusion that these students are somehow “unteachable,” because my experience is the opposite, and the notion that today’s generation of students is somehow any more “unteachable” than any other is total horseshit.

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When I hear that this generation of students is particularly…

  1. Entitled
  2. Unmotivated
  3. Ill-prepared
  4. All of the above

…I just think back to my eighteen-year-old self and realize how it has been ever thus.

As a college freshman I was lazy, spoiled, and smart enough to pass, but not so smart as to see the value in courses that weren’t immediately “interesting.” Because I was lazy and thought the point of college was to get a degree while let’s say, “balancing” one’s other responsibilities, I wound up in a lot of very large classes (650 plus students) where the only option was traditional – and yes, boring – lectures utilizing a lot of overhead projector slides.

Not even PowerPoint, which wouldn't be invented for another decade!

I wasn’t the unfortunate byproduct of a progressive education system; my problem was that I was eighteen and when you’re eighteen, or at least my kind of eighteen (which seems common), school doesn’t feel like the most important thing in the world. I was probably at the wrong kind of (large, public) school to meet my needs when it came to my education, even as it fit the bill perfectly in other ways (beer, girls).

Lest we think this attitude started with my generation (X), Fiamengo herself cites a 1953 book by Hilda Neatby, where Heatby finds graduates of elementary and high school to be “Ignorant even of things that they might be expected to know, they do not care to learn. They lack an object in life, they are unaware of the joy of achievement. They have been allowed to assume that happiness is a goal, rather than a by-product.”

Professor Fiamengo laments that these students do not arrive ready to do the work of the university. In a previous article at Pajamas Media, she describes the phenomenon:

“I was unprepared for the level of illiteracy, the stunted vocabularies, near-complete absence of historical knowledge, and above all the extraordinary apathy of many English majors. The most basic of expression rules — the difference between it’s and its, the incorrectness of “would of” for “would have,” the role of the apostrophe or semi-colon, the fact that “a lot” was two words — were beyond the grasp of the majority, no matter how often I reviewed grammar or devised mnemonic devices. And the sheer sloppiness and muddled thinking in the essays, where the titles of poems and authors’ names were frequently misspelled and dates were wildly inaccurate, suggested a fundamental indifference to the subject matter.”

It is unfair to judge Professor Fiamengo’s methods on a couple of articles, but I believe what is missing from her approach is context. If her students are not aware of, or even worse, don’t believe in, these things she and I both value – accuracy, correct grammar and mechanics, intellectual engagement – no amount of drills or mnemonics can hope to overcome that indifference.

When I look at my classroom at the start of each semester, particularly in a freshman writing course, I realize that I’m looking at a room of people who, in reality, don’t really know what it is we’re there to do.

I know this because I was them. My hunch is that Professor Fiamengo was not. Professor Fiamengo is assuming our students to be familiar with things they can’t possibly know, or, even on her own terms, are too warped by their progressive educations to understand.

If our students don’t know something we think they should, it is our job to teach them.

This is why, the very first day in all of my classes – regardless of the focus of the course -  we spend the entire period discussing the course objectives and policies. I do it Q&A-style, where I have anticipated as many of their questions as I can, mostly questions they don’t even know or wouldn’t think to ask -- things that Professor Fiamengo thinks are givens but most definitely are not, questions like: “Why is the university making me take this course?”

At the risk of boredom, I’m going to quote at length from my own course policies for the purposes of illustration:

Q: Why is the university making me take this course?

A: English 110 is the course that fulfills what is known colloquially as “freshman composition.” Here, we call it “academic writing.” Once you advance to your 300 and 400-level course work, you’re going to be expected to know certain things, one of which is how to write.

Q: I hate to interrupt, but don’t we already know how to write? We did get admitted to a rather selective university, after all.

A: Indeed, it is my understanding and hope that you come equipped with a solid base of writing skills nurtured through the years of your primary and secondary educations. But what we’re up to at the college level is going to be a little different.

Q: Different how?

A: For the most part, while there are some exceptions, most of the learning in high school (and before) is in the service of acquiring “information.” You’ve learned facts and figures and been asked to prove your acquisition of this information. You probably know the difference between meiosis and mitosis. You’ve been told that when Hamlet starts his soliloquy with “To be or not to be,” that he’s demonstrating the duality of his nature and the conflict at the center of the play. You know what a soliloquy is. You know all kinds of things because you’ve been told them or read them, and you’ve remembered them. You’ve acquired an amazing amount of information. This was all good and necessary and is an excellent marker for your future success in college.

But it is also now largely irrelevant, or more accurately, insufficient.

Q: You still haven’t quite answered the question. What’s different between the writing we’ve done in high school and the writing we’re expected to do in this course?

A: At a university such as this one, the acquisition of information is secondary to our real goal, which is the creation of “knowledge.” Knowledge is what happens when information is filtered through a particular point of view, a unique intelligence, if you will.

You all are a bunch of unique intelligences, so your role here, rather than to prove to me that you can pay attention in class and write stuff down to later regurgitate it in the form of a quiz or essay, is to pick up an oar and start helping us row the ship and the world at large towards greater enlightenment. Information is highly perishable. Knowledge is a building block upon which more knowledge can rest.

You are being asked to join in the “academic conversation.”

As students enter the classroom the first day, I hand each of them a small slip of paper with a number and a question on it. In order, we discuss all of them. Later, they print off the (now ten page, single-spaced) document associated with the exercise, and read through it independently.

When it comes to grading, I tell them that grammar and mechanics and accuracy count because in this class, the ideas are inseparable from the way they are expressed. I explain my attendance policy (there isn’t one), my loathing of cell phones, why I don’t allow computer-aided note taking, what to do if they miss class. I briefly describe all the assignments they’ll be doing. I inform them of my teaching philosophy, of my grading standards, and even the historical distribution of grades in the class.

In sum, I inform them of all the things that I believe are important in the course and discipline we are studying, and I am inviting them on board the train as it leaves the station.

Does everyone get on board? Of course not. Do I still get disgruntled and upset students in my office? Of course I do. But when they’re there, it’s not to try to move me toward their standard, it’s to understand what they should be doing differently to succeed at mine, something I’m willing to spend as much time as necessary doing.

What I am doing, is offering them access to a kind of power, a freedom, agency over themselves and the world. I dare say, it’s something even the PJ Media crowd could get behind.

My course policies continue:

Q: How does the “academic conversation” fit into “academic writing?”

A: In this course we will engage with a process (or series of processes really) that will be applicable to the pursuit of knowledge regardless of the subject at hand. We are going to practice “critical thinking,” which at its heart is the ability to understand someone else’s point or argument, and then respond appropriately. Through this practice, you will learn how to unlock the meaning and significance of any “text” (written as well as visual media), and produce a well-reasoned, clear response in writing.

This is conversation, albeit in written form.

Q: That sounds like it might be useful.

A: It’s beyond useful. It’s the key to ultimate happiness and fulfillment.

Q: You’re exaggerating for effect, right?

A: Not really. Think about the world we live in today, its speed, the way we’re constantly being bombarded by information and events. We are subject to an unimaginable amount of stimulus, much of it confusing and contradictory, and at times it can become overwhelming. The ability to think critically, to assess and sort and digest information, and formulate a response to it is a necessary adaptation to a world that won’t sit still. The alternative is aimless drift, going about your day-to-day life not really understanding what’s going on around you, which can be very unsettling. Think about when you were little and you were scared by thunder, or the monsters under your bed or in your closet. At the time, you didn’t know that thunder is harmless (lightning is another matter), and there is no such thing as imaginary monsters. Later, once you achieved knowledge, those fears (hopefully) disappeared.

I believe that my approach retains many of the traditional educational ideals that Professor Fiamengo could get behind. My students are held to specific, articulated standards. I do my best to apply those standards equitably across the entire cohort of students. We practice an ethic of self-accountability in all things.

Additionally, I am actually quite skeptical of some of the trends in “gaming” higher education, that we must keep moving ourselves towards student interests to be engaging or engender learning. I do not think that turning in a video is an acceptable substitute in a composition course. I do not know why “leveling-up” is superior to receiving grades, particularly if the grades themselves are not as important as the content within the assignment.

I believe that the struggle to express oneself clearly and well in writing is worth doing, and once learned, those skills are easily transferred to any number of other pursuits. That doesn’t need any fancying-up.

The notion that the students are unteachable suggests a lack of faith in her own discipline, that Professor Fiamengo doesn’t believe in the power of expression. No one needs to be “forced” to learn. Even as she decries the attitude of entitlement in her students, she displays one herself, demanding a respect and attention she’s done nothing to earn, other than by achieving the title of “professor.” That doesn’t sound conservative to me.

I note, with great interest, that while Professor Fiamengo finds her students wanting, the reverse is not true, at least judging from RateMyProfessor.com, where she has an outstanding overall rating, and is described as “impassioned,” “considerably invested in teaching,” “sweet,” and “darling” as well as “not the easiest marker.” It makes me wonder what that Professor Fiamengo is doing hanging around with Pajamas Media. Her students display considerably more grace and understanding as to the eternal challenges of education than their professor.

Professor Fiamengo says she’s tired of students acting like entitled victims, a generation of the aggrieved, but how is Professor Fiamengo coming across any differently in her essay, lamenting that she’s trapped among the “unteachable” even as her own students, via their comments, display the opposite?

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As of this writing, Professor Fiamengo's original article has been Tweeted 93 times and has over 4000 recommendations on Facebook. Can we achieve the same? Probably not, but that's what those little buttons below are for.

@biblioracle is the Twitter handle of John Warner.

 

 

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