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Why Class Matters to Teaching in Higher Ed

My first 4 years of teaching at my college were a real struggle, I had the hardest time trying to figure out how to be a good teacher for my students.  The problem wasn’t that the college was a bad fit for me or that I was terrible or unprepared teacher.  It certainly wasn’t because I didn’t care.  But it seemed like nothing I did worked right.  My students were constantly frustrated and often angry at me.  Their biggest complaint was “We don’t know what you want from us!”  And this was very confusing to me.  If you saw my assignments, I detail every single thing students need to do.  I don’t say, “Go write a research paper,” I ask very specific questions and guide them through how to answer them, sometimes even laying out how many paragraphs should be devoted to each section of an assignment.  My assignment handouts include learning goals and a list of things to check before you turn the paper in, and have grading rubrics.  I work really hard to find and assign accessible readings for all my courses.    So where was the disconnect?

The majority of the students at my college are working class and lower income students.  They are black, white and Latino, both urban and suburban students.  When I was hired to teach at my school, I think one of my selling points was that I had a lot of experience working with diverse groups of students.  My grad school was a majority minority campus where about 38% of the students were white, 45% Asian American, and the remainder Latino and African American.  So, I really did learn to teach in multicultural classrooms.  Not only that, but I taught about diversity and social inequality, and my research focused on how interesting systems of inequality shape social life.  I very deliberately constructed my course curriculum, assignments, and class management style to allow for a maximum inclusion of diversity among students in terms of race/ethnicity, geography, gender, sexual orientation and disability.

Given my background you would think I was well prepared to teach the students on my urban campus, but I wasn’t.  I thought a lot about inequality and diversity, but the truth is, I was clueless about how class worked.  And that was the problem.  I taught as if all of my students had the same basic resources that I had growing up:  access to books, lots of conversation about social and political issues around the diner table, exposure to a variety of ideas and an educational setting that nurtured my curiosity and encouraged my exploration of the world.  I taught as if all of my students were having the same basic college experience I had — full time, fully funded, supported by everyone around me.

Somewhere in the midst of trying figure out how to be a better teacher for my students, I did something I hadn’t done much of before.  I started talking to them.  I began to ask my students about their lives, about why they were in college and what they dreamed of.  What I found out was that they were in college to get a job, and what they dreamed of was a job.  And not a very fancy job, but one that would basically pay the rent.  And I thought, what have we done to them?  How have we ended up in a world where our young people dream of getting a job that pays the rent?

And I realized, it was really nothing new.  For as long as we have had a capitalist economy, there have been people whose dreams are limited by the need for a decent job that pays the rent.  What is new is that people in this category are beginning to go to college in greater numbers than ever before.  And if we want to be good educators for them, we are going to have to rethink how we teach.

There are two student stories that illustrate how blind both I and my students were to the impacts of class inequality on their lives before I started taking class seriously.   The first story involves a young Latina student, a junior who had a 6 month old baby and who had missed about 3 weeks of class and a whole series of assignments.  She called me one day and said she knew she didn’t deserve a second chance, she knew she was going to fail the class, but she just wanted to know if she could talk to me.  She goes on to tell me that her grandmother, who raised her after her mother disappeared when she was a young teen, had just died.  But, she said, that wasn’t the problem, that didn’t stop her from getting her work done.  She was glad that her grandmother at least got to meet her great grandchild before she died.  The problem was more complicated — her grandmother was her only real family, and so after she died the student decided to try to find her mother.  In all these years the police had never come up with anything, but since her mother was an addict when she disappeared, the student help out hope that she was out there somewhere.  It took the private investigator she hired all of about two weeks to discover her mother’s body along with two other women’s bodies in an old abandoned house a few blocks from where the student had lived.  They had all been murdered.  So she finished, “I know it’s no excuse, but if I could just have a little more time, I know I can make up the work.”

Of course I worked with her and she eventually graduated.  I’ve kept in touch with her, and she is doing really well.  She recently thanked me for everything I did for her, and I told her that really she did so much for me than I did for her.  All I did was listen and give her the space she needed to do her work.  But she taught me more about sociology than I ever understood before.  One of the key insights of feminist sociology is that standpoint, or social location matter.  And even though I knew that intellectually and had applied it to understanding my own life, I hadn’t applied it to understanding my students.  It’s one thing to read about the impact of drug use on families, or racism in the criminal justice system, or the devaluing of the lives of women who use drugs, and it’s a whole other thing to know that those processes have shaped this student who is sitting in your classroom.  All I had to do was extend a deadline.  No single moment in my own college career ever came as close to being as important to me as this moment was to her.

Around the same time I had another student who was junior sociology major who never missed a day of class.  He actively participated in class discussions, and always had smart and interesting and insightful things to say even though he never did the readings.  He could pick up the most complex concepts in just a short lecture.  He also never handed in any work.  No home work, no exams, no papers.  He failed my class the first time I had him.  The next semester he had 2 more classes with me, so I saw him 5 days a week.  He was so consistent in his attendance and willing to participate in class, that I assumed the semester before was just a normal college student blip.  But after about a month it became clear he still wasn’t turning in any written work.  So I finally sat down with him and asked him straight out what was going on.  I said, “you come to class every day, you listen, you’re smart and you pay attention, so why don’t you hand anything in?”  He looked right at me, eye to eye, and said, “I’m just lazy I guess.”  And that was it.  I sat there for a minute, waiting for more.  But there was nothing else, just a blank expression on his face.

At first I didn’t know how to respond.  Being lazy in the US is considered a pretty serious character flaw.  Who embraces that?  Furthermore, if you are that lazy, why show up to class everyday?  Why participate?  Finally I said, “No, that just doesn’t make any sense.  You have to figure this out for yourself one way or the other.”  So we started a series of conversation where I would ask him what could I do to help him get his work done.  “Nothing,” he would say, “I just have to do it.”  He never made excuses, he just looked at me, inviting me to write him off.  So finally one day I just started asking him simple questions — where do you live, what do you like to do for fun, do you have brothers or sisters, and so on.  It was like pulling teeth.  He tells me he goes to school and goes home and plays video games and that’s it.  So I start pushing him on why he doesn’t go out more, do things.  I said, forget school, why don’t you have any fun?  Well he says, “I have to be home, I have to make sure my mother takes her meds.”

And that was it.  I finally get his story.  All he has ever really done in his life is go to school and then go home and take care of his mother who is has been diagnosed schizophrenic.  As an only child with no other relatives, since he was 5 years old he has been his mother’s only caretaker.  Of course he doesn’t say it this way.  He just shrugs and says, “She won’t take her meds if I don’t make her.”  He has no real friends, no social life, he loves sports but never had the chance to play any.  I explain it sounds like he has a lot of stress, maybe he should think of talking to somehow, maybe he is depressed.  “Maybe,” he says.

If the first student taught me that my experiences blinded me to the challenges my students faced as a result of living lower income lives, the second student taught me that my students don’t get it either.  The dominant discourse of education in the US places almost complete responsibility for success or failure on the individual student.  So when lower income students or student of color face real challenges that would stop any student in their tracks, they don’t know how to think of it as anything other than individual failure.

As educators of working class and lower income students it is incumbent on us to do the hard work of thinking critically about how class shapes our teaching and shapes our student’s lives.  It is up to us to educate the students in our classrooms.  How we do that will be the subject of further blog posts, but I welcome all suggestions.

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12 Comments

  1. jane

    Thanks for this timely post. So much of the literature on “First Generation” students focuses on what they can’t do and what they don’t know. It’s remarkably refreshing to read such a thoughtful essay on the importance of acknowledging what we as faculty don’t know and can’t do, in spite of our commitments to serve all students well. I’ll look forward to reading the promised next posts on this.

    1. jan

      Thank you so much for this beautiful post. I am at a school that sounds very much like your’s, and like Jane above, I find that the literature on First Generation Students focuses so much on what they can’t do, and not what they know. And they know so much! Drawing that out of them in class (and in their work) means I get to watch them build confidence they didn’t know they had as students.

    2. Karen

      I am so glad to hear you say that! I found the same thing — as academics we are so much better at finding and explaining problems than we are at holding ourselves responsible for finding solutions.

  2. Eira

    Karen, your blog has brought back so many memories of teaching in a community college and also in a state university in the US. I am from northern Europe, but I went to graduate school in the US (in a state university) and lived there for about 15 years. When teaching sociology in the US, I was always struck by the harsh attitude students had towards ‘welfare recipients’ or other groups seen as marginal, but also by how they had learned to blame themselves when they did not succeed – as you mention in your blog. Students seemed to lack the vocabulary to discuss social structures, and they were not accustomed to thinking about the big picture. But what they did know was the discourse of ‘individual responsibility’ and they applied it to others, but also to themselves. There are times when students do need to be hard on themselves and practice some healthy self-criticism, but sometimes it seems that the students who are the most in need of guidance and understanding, like the students you describe in your blog, accept too easily that they only have themselves to blame and they do not even dare to ask for help. That last point, that students would not even dare to ask for help, was probably the most difficult part for me to understand. It did not seem likely to me that they would be afraid of me, but I think it really was more that they accepted the idea that it was up to them to overcome the circumstances, and if they could not, they only had themselves to blame. (On the other hand, I think I did meet the other extreme as well: students whose survival mechanism was to explain everything that was going on in their lives to their instructors and keep asking for extensions and incompletes. But that is a different kind of story.) In my home country, the discussion would most likely take a different turn. However, there are clear signs also here of people accepting more and more the idea of ‘individual responsibility’. But we do need to keep talking about the bigger picture, the structures, the political ideologies, so we have tools to understand what is going on in society on the whole, while also making visible the kinds of struggles people who are disadvantaged go through in their everyday lives.

    1. Karen

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply! You mentioned something that was also a big moment for me, and that was coming to understand the very real power I held in relation to students. As a grad a student I had had to fight so hard for my own authority, that it took a long time to realize that in the classroom it was my students who were fighting for their authority and I already it. I know that race, gender, sexuality and so on create different challenges for professors in claiming an authority in the classroom, but even when the students are challenging a professor’s authority, the bottom line is that we control the grade. We can feel powerless, but we hold a very real power over students.

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  4. Justin

    “’We don’t know what you want from us!’ And this was very confusing to me. If you saw my assignments, I detail every single thing students need to do.”
    I have this same issue as an instructor, and didn’t exactly see an answer in your very moving and informative post. I also spend time with individual students hearing their stories and working out accommodations for their particular situations. But have you come up with ways of framing assignments for whole classes of students that do make it clear for them what you are looking for?

    1. Karen

      I am working on a post about some of the specific ways I’ve tried to address this issue. But I don’t think the answer is simple. I think we need to spend a lot of time explaining how academic culture works, the language and vocabulary of it. I spend a lot of time contrasting K-12 education with what we are excepting in college. I always give students the opportunity to revise, and I often require drafts and revisions. I let them know that writing is never done on the first draft, not for us or for anyone. I focus on the work as empowerment — as the students figuring out how to take control of their lives in the complicated world. Its an ongoing process.

  5. Mike

    So what happened to Gameboy Boy? It sounds like he was using your classes as a distraction from the serious responsibilities he was facing at home, but there’s no reason he could not do the reading, anyway, instead of spending the time with his video games. I think your outreach was probably a new experience for him. Hopefully, he will one day realize that the reading and writing can be entertaining as well (although I can only remember one paper in college that I really enjoyed writing….)

    1. Karen

      The last I heard he was having trouble turning his degree into a good job, and that is true for a lot of recent graduates. He is still his Mother’s primary caretaker. I agree with you that coming to class was a distraction from home. But I don’t think it is as easy as you say to substitute reading and studying for video games. It is harder to concentrate on reading and studying with distractions in the background, so he really needed to get out of the space of home to do that. Also, this was a student who struggled with reading comprehension, and people who struggle to read do not find themselves immersed in the words to the same extent as those who read easily. Reading and studying are hard work.

      I am fascinated by the fact there there is only one paper you remember enjoying working on in college. To me that signals something was going wrong, there should be more enjoyment in intellectual work — If there isn’t, then I have to agree with Marx — something is alienating us from the work itself. Not that you have to love every moment of the process, but there should at least be an overall sense of joy/pride/growth.

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