Revealing comments…

… by second-year students in the small-group essay tutorials for my course on ‘The Making of Modern Belief’ (aka ‘my chance to enthuse about nineteenth-century thought’). The essays are basically text analyses on extracts from various nineteenth-century “classics” of religious thought. I am not sure what, exactly, these comments reveal, but:

(looking round my office) “You have SO many books”. (I make some comment about needing most of them, believe it or not). “Oh yes. I keep forgetting that you’re an academic… I mean, not a normal teacher…”

(in a tone of mild disbelief) “Do you mean you want our own personal opinions about the texts, what WE think they mean?” (Me: Well, yes, but I want you to tell me why you think that and persuade me to think the same… and I don’t expect what you think to be radically different from what anyone else thinks).(Someone else) “You mean we don’t have to go and find lots of extra information about them?” (Me: Not really; this module’s about ideas, not information).  “Well. It’s different from all the other modules. All the others you just have to use other people’s ideas. You seem to be the only lecturer who cares what we think”. (Me: Er – I think you’ll find that’s not really how it works… and this is not very different at all from modules x and y and z…) (but they don’t look as if they believe it).

“This essay’s the scariest and the most exciting because with all the others you have this mass of information to put in and with this one it’s just you and the text”.


6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Alice on 19 March, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    What they mean is, Rachel is the teacher who does best at convincing them that it’s ok for them to engage with the text and that they are allowed to have opinions. Trust me, i remember.

    I love ‘you’re an academic, not a normal teacher.’ That’s so cute.


  2. So perhaps I overreact when I start to worry about whether they have grasped the point of university education, and whether school has prepared them in precisely the wrong way for the kind of work they have to do here? That the idea that ‘the right answer is out there somewhere written in a textbook and what they want me to do is find it’ is disturbingly deep-rooted?


  3. Posted by Ben on 22 March, 2010 at 12:12 pm

    Ben and I spent a couple of days discussing this following the seminar marathon on Tuesday.

    There’s nothing like saying, ‘Look, there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer, just think about it and we’ll see where it leads us’ to deepen the silence and increase looks of expectancy.

    I do remember that at (my) school, in order to ensure they kept their grade averages high they went through the ordeal of actually teaching us the arguments we should write down. A depressing situation – ‘thinking-without-thinking’.

    It’s a self-perpetuating system of homogeneous demand though: parents read in newspapers that ‘everyone gets A’s’, parents raise expectations on schools to give their child A’s, schools have to find a way to guarantee more of their students A’s than perhaps ought to ‘achieve’ them.

    I’m not sure there is a solution beyond radically changing the entire comprehensive education system to assess intelligence rather than memory, though.


  4. Posted by Lisa on 25 March, 2010 at 6:28 pm

    “You’re an academic, not a normal teacher” is great…
    But then, walking into either my classroom, or my office, students don’t tend to mention the books…. The feature of the moment is the vase of dead flowers (used for teaching Yr 9 death)


  5. @Ben – hmm, yes, ‘teaching the arguments’ – and hence neatly taking away, inter alia, the need to read the primary texts very much? My hunch is that it is not as simple as ‘everyone wants to get As so we need to guarantee As’, though. I think there is something deeper going on – perhaps about the non-quantifiability and unpredictability of thought, which makes people scared of it; or perhaps about the difficulties we have in instilling that basic trust in comprehensibility and non-randomness (the comprehensibility of the text, of features of the natural or social world, of the experimental apparatus) that is necessary in order to embark on thought.

    I got the idea when I was at school that a university was a place where people might think or understand things that had NEVER been thought or understood before, and that was what made me excited about going to university. But I think I have realised, since then, that I was and am a bit strange.

    @Lisa – well, I hope your Yr 9s never give you the urge to teach them about death in some more immediate and dramatic way.


  6. Posted by Lisa on 5 April, 2010 at 11:54 am

    Sadly, on many levels, it is not more complicated than ‘everyone wants to get As so we need to guarantee As’…. To a large extent, it is ‘this bunch of data tells us that these students should get As (and these should get Bs, and so on) so we need to guarantee As (or Bs etc….)’ otherwise the government gets upset, and Ofsted puts the school into special measures, or something….


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