Working the Undergraduates

Yesterday, a student came to office hours and laid this on me: “I e-mailed the rest of the class, and there are a lot of us that think the workload for this class is excessive.”  Something like that, anyway–the short of it was that he and other students have been talking about how hard my class is compared to their other classes.

First, I gotta give points to this student for having the courage to come talk to me about this.  Maybe it’s because I’m just an adjunct and not as intimidating as proper professors, but to confront the person who assigns your grade is pretty gutsy.  Kudos to him for that.  And I’ll take some kudos, as well, for creating an environment where students feel comfortable approaching their instructor in such a way.  Yeah, I’m pretty sure I can take all the credit for that.

Second: How the hell am I supposed to respond to that?  I mean, my immediate response was to thank the student for letting me know, because this is something that I want to be aware of; then I rushed into a muddled explanation/defense/set of suggestions for dealing with the work load.  But obviously I need to address this somehow in class.  A group of students are now grumbling about my work load, and that grumbling could very well turn into stubborn resistance to fully participating in the class: if the students feel that the work load is unfair, they will feel justified in withholding their labor in whatever ways they can and still be safe.  We’re not talking a full-scale rebellion–they’ll still come to class, submit their work, etc.–but it’ll be like pulling teeth to get them to talk in class.  And as it’s a discussion-based course, that’s going to make my life miserable.  So: what to do?  A few options come to mind:

  1. Tell them all to go to hell.  They saw the syllabus a week before class started, and they could have got out while they had the chance.   Hell, they could still leave.  Nobody’s got a gun to their head.  If you don’t like it, fuck off.  I am sooooo tempted to say this.  But no matter how correct it is–and I’m right, right?–it would be unproductive.
  2. Show them how much I’ve reduced the work load in this particular class over the past five years.  When I first started this course, I assigned five books for course reading (each with a book review), plus a semester-long original research paper requiring ten secondary and ten primary sources.  As it is now, they have to read three books for class, and they have a series of assignments leading to a research paper proposal, not an actual research paper, based on three secondary and three primary sources.  So I could basically waltz into class and say, “You think this is hard?  You should have seen this class three years ago!  That’s hard.”  Again, though, I can’t imagine this would be productive.  The students could simply respond with “Okay, it’s better than before, but it’s still bad.”  Which would probably drive me to response #1.
  3. Address in a delicate manner the fact that college is meant to be challenging.  I’m thinking of using a series of analogies, like: if you want to get stronger, you lift heavier weights; if you want to play an instrument better, you play more difficult music; if you want to be a better chef, you cook more challenging dishes.  Somehow the students need to come to understand that this class isn’t meant to check what they already know and can already do, but to get them to learn more and to improve their academic skills.
  4. Provide the students with some strategies on handling the work load.  Stuff like scheduling your work week; forming study groups; etc.  These are first-year students, mostly, and they’re still figuring things out–although, unlike the fall, they now have some confidence that they’ve figured out the game.  Come to think of it, this is probably a pretty big part of the problem: these students have developed a bit of arrogance about what college is supposed to be like (based on the four classes they had last semester), I come along and push them harder, and they kick back. Hmmm….
  5. Talk with some other faculty about their work loads for similar courses.  The student who visited me yesterday said friends of his in similar courses reported work loads ranging from a bit harder to much easier.  I explained to the student that there’s a delicate balance between leveling course expectations and providing professors the freedom they need to teach the way they best see fit.  But I can also understand the student’s frustration.  Frankly, though, I’ve lowered the bar as much as I think is responsible; if there really are professors who teach similar courses with a reduced work load, they’re letting these students off too easy.  Which, to me anyway, indicates a basic lack of respect for what these students are capable of and what they deserve.

Obviously, this little talk left me shaken.  It’s some combination of anger, frustration, self-righteousness, and confusion, and I’m not sure how this gets resolved.

5 thoughts on “Working the Undergraduates

  1. You’re on the right track with 3 and 4. In fact, you hit on a comparison Ken Bain makes, in What the Best College Teachers Do, between physical exercise and learning critical thinking. College athletes get into competitive shape, not by watching their coach exercise in the front of the room, but by doing the exercises themselves. And not just once.

    Don’t slack off on the work load; it is perfectly reasonable. I’m sure you realize that comparing it with the past would only launch a circular discussion. If you want a pep talk, see excerpts from Bain’s book at Google Books. Ignore the cover, though. The cover designer must have assumed that the right way to teach is to be entertaining. That is not at all what the book is about; in fact, aiming to please the student-customer (a goal for certain administrators) is a trap for both you and the students.

  2. My first response was that you should crush them like the worms they are, but you probably received better advice from your earlier comment. I’ll have to check out

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