a bit less baffled

I have to thank my blogging pal Christy for a really thoughtful response to my rant about students who don’t participate in seminars. She raises some interesting questions about whether 18 is the best age to start a university education, but on top of that she also made me wonder whether the problem doesn’t lie more with the system than with us individual students.

Along with something that Colleen said in the comments, Christy’s piece made me wonder if the problem might be down to me – perhaps my presence as a much older woman was actually making it more difficult for students to participate. At first I thought, no – my children are this age and they talk to me about almost everything. What’s more their friends seem to like talking to me too. But then I realised this was a stupid comparison. My kids and their friends generally relate to me in the kitchen, where I am chopping and stirring, baking cakes and making cups of tea – in other words, whether I am talking about Virginia Woolf or my daughter’s new shoes, I am basically a nurturing mother figure.

Christy and Colleen on the other hand made me wonder how I come across in the seminar room. I realised there is probably a huge gulf between how I might look and how I actually feel. Christy describes how when she was in uni, the few mature students she met ‘always seemed to have something eloquent and interesting to say’. Now, this is definitely not the case where I am concerned, but I do see that it might appear that way to a nervous 19-year-old.

If so, I wish I could tell my teenage colleagues that I really do not feel confident or eloquent at uni at all. I wish I could tell them that I often feel really stupid and that I even cried in a tutorial today when the creative writing tutor gently tore my latest submission to shreds.

The more I think about this, the more I think that the problem with seminars might not actually lie with any of us students but in the way they are set up. After all, in what other situation are you expected to talk to near strangers about ‘love, joy, death, dying, redemption, forgiveness, sorrow’, as Christy neatly sums up the themes of great literature? Not to mention sex, which was the elephant in the room at this week’s session on French feminists.

When I worked in EFL teaching, the entire point of classes was communication. Our students were there to learn English and they were never going to do that if they didn’t speak. But we didn’t expect communication to happen spontaneously; we worked really hard to ensure a good rapport among the participants. In fact one of the most rewarding parts of the job was seeing friendships spring up between people of different nationalities who might, in other circumstances, have been deeply suspicious of each other.

I think higher education teachers would do well to learn a few tricks from the EFL classroom. Occasionally I have been to a seminar where the tutor has worked like this, dividing us into small groups and setting us specific tasks around a text. Those sessions were much more rewarding than the rather loose ‘let’s all talk about this together’ model.

The university where I study is extremely responsive to students’ views on the learning process. I might just take this up with the staff-student committee. But I’d be interested to hear what other people think first.

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4 comments

  1. I’m a young (23) graduate student in English at a large public university in the US…and your post last week really got me thinking, but I wasn’t able to articulate any response at the time. I remember, during the last part of my undergrad career, being in classes with lively discussions and lots of great points being made and discussed and ideas flying about the room. Now, in my first semester of graduate classes, I feel as if it’s partly disappeared. Sometimes, I think it’s a matter of perception–I’ve been at this school three years now, including two years of my undergrad degree, and I’m in tougher classes. I feel as if a lot of my classmates, even in the mixed grad/undergrad courses, seem intimidated by our instructors, and hushed by their fear of an inability to say anything new. In fact, I think that in English studies, that’s the most frequent fear I come across, in myself and others. I want to formulate something intelligent, new, creative, and say it in a witty way that’ll get people talking, but by the time I get it worked out, the moment to speak has passed.

    1. This struck a chord with me, Katie. This business of finding something new to say in English studies really challenges me. It’s not just in seminars, but also in essay writing. It makes me shy away from the ‘greats’ because I know my chances of saying anything new about Shakespeare, for example, are close to nil. Whereas if I write about a more recent work, it is much easier to fulfil the requirement for ‘fresh and lively engagement with the text’. I keep having to remind myself that I came to uni to fill the gaps in my education, not to jump through hoops for good grades.

  2. Excellent, excellent notion about drawing on the sense of “camaraderie” that is established in EFL classes as a way to engender class discussion. I was, first and foremost, an English major. But, I minored in French, and interestingly, my French classes rarely lacked in student participation! I once remember this (amazing, charismatic) instructor conducting an entire conversational French class around the question, “Does true love exist at first sight?” Now that, was a topic 20-somethings had something to weigh in on! All of us, in our broken and pathetically enunciated French, had something to contribute, and no matter how pitiful we sounded, we ventured forth to share our opinion. Thank you for reminding me of this, and also for this thought-provoking response on the way education is conducted today.

    Also, I love your statement about the gulf between how you *look,* and how you actually *feel.* Oh my goodness…..truer words were never writ!

    Anyway, I think you have hit the nail on the head, that the system itself is rather, well, backwards. I’m not sure what is to be done about it, because really, how do you go about changing an entire institution and its ‘system’?? If you do go forward and share your views with the student-staff committee, however, I’d *love* to hear about the response you get. I had a friend, whose husband is a university professor, comment on my own post about how she was going to share all this with him, because he is completely in favor of his own kids taking a few years to ‘find themselves’ before they head off to college. Our perspectives on things seemed to confirm what he, as a prof, already feels. Interesting, no?

    Anyway ~ what a fun ‘discussion’ this has been, Jo. Thank you so much, again, for your inspirational post!

    1. Thank you too, Christy. Bother the system! It might work against your professor friend’s children too – my experience was that for various reasons I delayed doing my degree when I was 18 but then the responsibilities piled up and it was 30 years before I could make space for it!

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