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.