When my friends and I first got our driver’s licenses, one of our favorite pastimes was to hop in someone’s car and try to “get lost.”
We’re talking the northern Chicago suburbs - John Hughes movie-land - so the chances of meeting actual danger in the form of a “bad” neighborhood were zero.
(Where I grew up, the wrong side of the tracks were the houses without pools.)
Occasionally, we would range close to Chicago, at least into Evanston, turning this way and that, seeing what was around, stopping at record or musical instrument shops or diners that seemed interesting. We often did manage to get at least a little lost, forcing us into driving a grid pattern until we ran into one of the arteries we recognized, after which we would give a little cheer to our own resourcefulness and zip home to our upper-middle class comfort.
It was our version of freedom, fundamentally safe, but still sort of thrilling and, in its way, confidence building.
I thought of this when reading a recent essay at the Chronicle of Higher Education by Lynda C. Lambert titled “So Many Hands to Hold in the Classroom,” where she talks about some of her frustrations with the current generation of students. She says of them, “So many of them are so unused to thinking on their own that they cannot formulate an opinion without being told what opinion they are supposed to have.”
She says her students want “templates” and “models” to follow, to be told the answer so they can make sure they’re heading in the proper direction. She is frustrated by their frustration, their seeming refusal to take advantage of the freedom she wants them to explore, the opportunity she’s giving them to be creative.
By their very nature these sorts of essays tend to paint with a broader brush than I’m comfortable with, but I nonetheless found myself agreeing with many of her points. In my academic writing course, we’ve just finished our first assignment, and a fair number of my students struggled over the different demands of writing for a specific audience with specific needs – as asked in my class – versus the kind of 5-paragraph essay model with which they’d become so comfortable previously.
Despite much class time spent in discussion about how what we were doing was different, that writing a 5-paragraph essay was not the solution to this particular writing problem, a non-negligible number wrote 5-paragraph essays.
I will admit to some frustration of the “what’s wrong with these people?” variety as I worked through the assignments, at least until I realized my frustration was just a mirror image of theirs with my assignment, and so the solution was to head straight toward it, drag it into the open, and deal with it.
The first step for me was to understand where these attitudes are coming from and find some spot of empathy. In these uncertain times, where the stakes for success seem higher than ever, when a college education is increasingly seen as a bigger financial risk, why wouldn’t they feel anxiety over wanting, above all, to do “well?”
We’ve already sold college itself as the next destination on the map, so why wouldn’t their college courses provide the maps for success? Students’ desires for this kind of guidance is mostly a demonstration of how they’re eager to please – patterns first developed in response to what Lambert I believe correctly labels, the “behaviorist system” they’ve been marinating in prior to college. It’s smart of them to apply previous working models to new problems until those models are shown to be ineffective. That they want new models shouldn’t be surprising to me or anyone else, even as it may cause a certain amount of frustration.
Is a college student’s wish for a map to an A in a course any different than an assistant professor’s desire to know how to climb the ladder towards associate?
So adjustments are necessary.
Don’t get me wrong. We are not meeting in the middle. I will not be providing them with letter-perfect models for them to copy. It is well-established that they’re already good at this. That’s how they wound up in my classroom in the first place as successful high school students.
What I am attempting, is to win them over the virtues of getting lost, to show them the joy that comes from crafting a piece of writing from scratch, knowing only your audience and your purpose. I want them to feel that they have the power to do something like…I don’t know…read a provocative article in the Chronicle, and then to piggyback their thoughts on to someone else’s conversation.
I believe they are more than open to these ideas because they are young and they recognize that their educational selves up to this time have been cosseted. They just figured that this is the point of education, to conform. I think for the most part, they've been waiting for permission to be released and they will thrive.
I want them to experience the confusion and vertigo of heading down a blind alley, or suddenly turning the wrong way on to a one way street.
(This happened to my friends and I once in Chicago on our way to Blues Fest. Four lanes of traffic all coming at us, like an actual scene out of a John Hughes movie. Twenty-five years later, we still talk about this when we get together.)
I want to show them that they can survive frustration and manage uncertainty, that they maintain agency over their thoughts and their lives. I want them to know that on the other side of confusion, when you at last glimpse that road home, you get to give a cheer and pat yourself on the back and know that next time, you can risk a little more.