Oh, NO! Something I Haven’t Done Before! The HORROR!

It seems that in every class, there’s at least one student who gets freaked out by the fact that they’ve never done “this”–read a lot of books, write a research paper, whatever–before.  It’s not just worry or anxiety, but real frustration and anger.  Having reviewed the syllabus, the student will say something along the lines of “I’m really worried about how I’ll do all of this work,” which actually means, “Tell me how to get an A, right now, or you’re an asshole.”  I understand this, to some degree.  Students want and sometimes need good grades, and they want clear direction on how to do so.  Maybe they have received such direction in other classes, particularly those in entry-level science classes, where getting an A is a matter of answering 9 out of 10 questions correctly.  History’s a bit different, of course, what with grading that is (supposedly) partially objective and subjective.  I try to explain that aspect of the field, while also giving students a clear picture of what I’m looking for: thesis statements, supporting arguments, reasonable and logical explanations of those arguments, appropriate use of primary sources as evidence, etc.  I’ve also tried to design my courses so that the students make progress through the stages of writing history: we start the semester by talking about narrative and story-telling; then we move to a section on historiography; then a section on the use of primary sources; and then, as they are writing their final research papers, the process of putting together an original argument making use of all that other stuff.  I explain these steps to the worried students, and suggest that they take one step at a time.  I also relate to them that other students in the past have been in exactly the same situation and have yet emerged from the course with their wits in tact and, in some cases, As on their report cards.  And I try to remind the student of some other new challenge that s/he has taken on in the past and mastered–maybe cooking, or playing an instrument, or a sport, or whatever.  Finally, I tell the worried students that if they already knew how to do this, they wouldn’t need to take the course anyway, right?

But there always seems to be one student who isn’t persuaded, someone who, after this long discussion–okay, lecture–about how we all can, must, and should take on new challenges, doesn’t seem to have heard any of it.  S/he wants to know how to get the A, and wants to know right now, dammit.  And I have to strangle the voice inside me that wants to say “Get over it or get out of school.  If you don’t want to learn something new, then you have no business being in college.  You obviously only want to confirm what you think you already know.  How dull.  How sad.”  Alternately, I want to recommend counseling.  There’s something more going on here than concern about a grade.  This person has serious doubts about her/his abilities and perhaps even self-worth, and they need to speak to a professional about where that comes from.  I’m certainly not the person to talk to about it.  After all, I’ve never done that before.

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2 thoughts on “Oh, NO! Something I Haven’t Done Before! The HORROR!

  1. As someone who has some serious bouts with self doubt, I can certainly say that part of this attitude you mention may be due to a lack of confidence in ability.

    However, there is the real possibility that the attitude is a product of institutional factors that are largely outside the student’s control.

    The focus on GPA as a qualification for admission to other schools, or even just as a general measure of success means that for a lot of students, learning something new means relatively little to them. This is not a lazy or fearful attitude, but a natural reaction to their environment. Why would they be concerned with learning something new when the difference between an A and a B or C might mean the difference between them being able to transfer to a prestigious university or not? Or, the difference between being perceived as competent and successful by others?

    The high cost of university education may force students to take many more classes a semester than they otherwise would. They’re in a race against inflation, actually. So concerns about the amount of work in a class, may be less about laziness, and more about realistic concerns about their ability to graduate “on time”.

    I think you’re onto something here about lack of confidence–in my experience high school didn’t give me the tools required to be confident at the university level–but I also think you’re missing structural factors that could be encouraging this type of behavior.

  2. Excellent points, Shane (and, by the way, thanks for leaving a comment). You’re right, of course; students face very real pressures that produce very real, and very realistic, approaches to classes. And I don’t mean to imply that I think the kind of students I described are lazy–quite the contrary, in fact; the students who want to know exactly what to do are often the ones who work the hardest. I guess I’m concerned about two things: (a) the challenge of communicating to these students how history (and other humanities) isn’t as straightforward (in terms of grading and assessment) as the sciences and (b) my worry that these students are missing out on deeper, perhaps more meaningful, experiences by not challenging themselves–not only in my class, but in other aspects of their lives. I know, I know–how awfully academic and navel-gazing of me.

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