I had a thought while reading Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto about the purpose of teaching. It led me to make a connection to my own undergraduate experience that I had really never made before.
In Chapter 2 of the book, titled “The Things We Tell Our Students,” Gannon discusses the weed-out classes — those classes with the reputation of thinning out students and being a gateway to higher-level courses in the major. This passage really spoke to me:
Think about a particular course at your institution that has the reputation as a “weed-out” class for a particular major. Perhaps the instructor has a first-day tradition of dramatically conveying to students what the class’s purpose is. Turn to your left, now turn to your right, they intone; judging by historical averages, one of the three of you will not make it through this semester. Students who survived this gateway course talk about the demands of upper-level work in the particular program of which it’s a part. All-nighters, brutal exams, impossible group projects—there might even be an institutional lore surrounding the program, and an almost perverse pride from some of its members in being the most rigorous or demanding or intense major out there. Now ask what this type of culture is really saying to students. What’s really valued here: learning, or endurance? If students major in this program, will they embark on an intellectual journey, or a gauntlet of academic hazing? Are students being told what really matters is their readiness to submit to all sorts of draconian requirements inflicted in the name of “rigor,” rather than the specific knowledge and habits of mind needed by practitioners of this discipline? (33)
Kevin M. Gannon. Radical Hope : A Teaching Manifesto. West Virginia University Press, 2020.
I remember back to my own undergraduate days at Rice University. I did not personally take this class. In fact, I actively avoided it because of its reputation. The class was PHYS 101, the introductory physics class. As a history major, I had to choose some math and science to take. The two choices presented to me were to take one each of MATH 101, CHEM 101, and PHYS 101, or to take two classes of two of those. I chose to take MATH 101 and 102 and CHEM 101 and 102 just so I could avoid the physics class. And, everything I heard from those in the math/science/engineering pathway that took physics justified my choice.
The class was brutal, according to them, with class averages on the exams in the 40s and 50s. Yet, those who made it through the course felt proud that they had survived and could now go on to the field they had chosen. That seemed normal at the time. What Gannon talked about was in full presentation with physics at Rice in the mid-1990s. But looking back now, I have a completely different opinion on it, especially after reading this section from Gannon’s book.
At that time, the fault for not succeeding in the class was fully on the student. If they can’t handle this class, then they will never succeed in future classes. But, thinking about it, that is so perverse. They have created a course that is so difficult that many do not pass. Here’s the thing — if you create a class where the class average on exams is in the 40s and 50s, then the problem is not with the students but with the teaching. If you can’t teach the material well enough to where students have a chance to not only pass but to succeed on assessments, then you are doing a poor job of teaching. If your students cannot pass the exams you have put together, despite having done the homework and attended your lectures, then the fault is not theirs, but yours. The whole design of the class is set up to make each student work as hard as possible (and this was Rice, which was already a challenging school) for the chance that they might pass. Instead of assessments being a point where students can show what they have learned and apply that learning, the assessments were designed to highlight how little the students can actually do, despite the instruction given to them.
Now, I am guessing on much of that, as I did not take the class myself. However, I had a number of friends who struggled through it, and my memory of things they said has stuck with me. I do remember two classes I took that worked in a similar way.
- I thought I might be interested in Psychology, and so I took PSYC 101. The class ended up being in a large lecture hall with an old white male professor droning on at the front. I remember almost nothing from what he said, and I learned pretty quickly that what he said was not what was important. Instead, what was important was the textbook. We had three exams as our only grades in the class, and they were essentially over anything that you could find in the book. We had little guidance as to what to study, and were faced with long multiple-choice exams (I seem to remember about 100 questions, but that was a long time ago). I did not do great on them, but I didn’t do terrible either ending up in the mid- to upper- B range. Then, on top of that, the class was then put on a curve, which could either move you up or down. In my case, it went down, leading to an ultimate B- in the class. There was little to inspire me to be interested in anything to do with Psychology out of this class, and I the class and assessments were more like a chore to get through than any sort of inspiration to go on to further study. And, I didn’t, as I never took another Psychology class.
- I am still not sure to this day why I took an Economics class my freshman year. I did generally do well in Economics in high school, but it had never been a real interest. However, somewhere along the way, I decided to take Macro-Economics. It was hands down the worst class I had at Rice. I have talked about it many times with my family, with colleagues, even with my current classes that I teach. The way I characterize it is this: There were three aspects to the class — lecture, homework, and exams. None of those three had anything to do with the other. Attending lecture did not help with homework or exams. Doing the homework did not help with the exams. In fact, each seemed to exist completely separate from the other. Not only did I learn nothing, but I actively avoided anything to do with economics for more than a decade afterwards. Only as I have come to realize that an understanding of economics is key to teaching history have I gone back and tried to learn what I should have at the time. I ended up making my only C at Rice in this class, and those of us who survived the class had a ritual book burning of the book at the end of the semester.
What is my point in all of this. I teach differently. Not because of these things necessarily, but those lessons resonate with my own approach. I teach now with the aim of working with my students, engaging with them, teaching and learning with them. My class is demanding, but it is demanding because I ask the students to be active participants in their learning. They are not just told the history, but they work with it, question it, challenge it, make links, and apply the history to their lives today. As I say to my students every semester, my goal is to have my students succeed. I will do everything I can to help them succeed. They just have to meet me halfway – by doing the work. If they can do that, we will all learn together, and I promise them a much more engaging and interesting history class than they have often found in the past.
Posted every semester in my class is a short biography of me that includes my teaching history, my teaching philosophy, and a section I call “My Goals for the Class.” I am going to paste that part in full here, because I think it reflects exactly what I am saying here while also attempting to not be what those courses above were to me as an undergraduate:
My Goals for this Class
My goal for you and this class is to help you succeed. This does not mean that my goal is to guarantee you an A or a passing grade. Instead, my goal is to provide you with all of the material and guidance that you need to achieve what you want to in the class. For this, I promise you these things:
- I will do my best to be open, fair, and available to you throughout the semester or summer session.
- I will provide a working classroom that contains all of the information that you need to succeed.
- I will be an active participant both online and in person throughout the semester or summer session.
- I will hold all office hours that I can and notify you when I will not be around.
- I will answer emails and Canvas messages as soon as I can, but no longer than 24 hours after you have submitted them to me.
- I will do my best to complete all grading within a week from when the assignment closes. However, I will notify you of my progress throughout my grading and will let you know if it will take longer than a week.
- I will communicate with you regularly through Announcements.
- I will grade your work fairly and will give you the grade that you deserve based upon your effort and skill.
Beyond my specific goals for the class, I hope to help each of you develop skills that can help you succeed in your future college classes. I aim to develop three basic skills that will help you in future classes. These are critical thinking, critical reading, and critical writing. Again, the hybrid class is more aimed at these skills than the online class, but I am working on developing the online class more in that direction. I am also available for academic advising and counseling to all of my students, so if you want to discuss college planning, scheduling, majors, transfer, degrees, programs of study, life issues, or anything else, please come by my office at any point where I am there. You can also contact me via email or Canvas messaging at any point.
I hope you can see from that what I try to bring to my classes. I am interested in any feedback or thoughts on this.