Who Do They Think We Are?

Miriam Kalman Harris
Tarrant County College, Fort Worth, TX

[Editor's Note: An earlier version of Prof. Harris's article appeared under the title "We are Smarter Than Our Students" in the 11 Nov. 2002 issue of the Chronicle Review. Responses appeared in the Nov. 15th issue of the Review. The interview with Prof. Harris which follows below was conducted by Assistant Editor Paul Trout for TMP.]

I'm standing at the blackboard writing out words used to define the elements of fiction: plot, character, setting. Irony, metaphor, symbol. Climax. Denouement.

The hum of chatter rises from the cluster of students over my right shoulder. They've been disruptive since the class began, since the semester began. Most hadn't read the assignment and had therefore failed the pop reading quiz I surprised them with that morning. Undaunted by the F they'd just received, they continued to chat instead of listening, contributing, taking notes. As I turned to coach them into discussion, one young woman blurted out: "Msssss Harris, why are some of the same stories in each of our two books?"

"What?" My breath exhaled like a burst balloon. "What do you mean?" "Well, this book (our fiction anthology) has the same story by Poe as the other one (our writing-themes-about-literature text) does."

"I'm not going to answer that question right now," I replied. "It's not relevant to the discussion at hand. We can talk about course materials some other time. Now, tell me, what part of the story....?"

The buzz of voices rose in tenor, "Gosh. We asked a question," I heard them murmur. "Yeah Mssssss Harris, we really really want to know," another student quipped. "You told us you wanted us to ask you things," whined yet another.

My patience stretched to the limit, I ignored their badgering and pushed forward. "Plot moves the story along--plot structures the action the characters take as they conduct their lives. Plot asks why? Plot reveals intention.

"How, then, does setting in this story interact with plot?" I waited patiently. One student squirmed, two others yawned; another looked at the clock and began to stuff his blank notebook into his backpack. Someone in the back row giggled.

"Write a paragraph on the influence of setting on plot in "A & P" and bring it in typed and double spaced on Monday," I announced. "That will be all for today." I sighed. Audibly.

After class, two students came up to find out how much the pop quiz would set back their grades if they'd failed (both had). One woman waited quietly until they left. With an edge of hostility, she walked toward me: "You act like you're smarter than us," she said.

"Excuse me?" I responded.

"When we asked a question, you wouldn't even answer it. Why not?" she asked.

"We were in the middle of a lecture and discussion concerning the elements of story. I expect students to listen to these explanations and contribute to the discussion. I do not expect them to leaf through the text comparing tables of contents. Of course, it's fine to question the strategies of your textbook, but not in the middle of a lecture. Not during a class discussion on other important material." I began to edge out of the room, on my way to my next class.

But... "I am smarter--meaning better educated--than you," I wanted to say. "If I'm not, what am I doing teaching you? If you already know what I know, then you should have placed out of freshman English. If you don't, open your book and your brain, please, and begin to answer the critical questions at hand. I'm trying to teach you to think and to write with critical insights, not how to evaluate course materials," I wanted to say. I should have. I should have sat her down right then and there and told her exactly how much "smarter" than she and her friends I really am. She needed to hear that. She deserved to know.

More than once I've been called a snob. Intellectual snob that is. Students mean the accusation as a slur, as in: "I know you're a doctor and all that but you act like you're smarter than us and that makes us feel bad."

The first time I heard this comment, I was speechless. What kind of professor, with or without a Ph.D., isn't "smarter" than his or her freshman students? And if we aren't smarter, then what in heaven's name are we doing teaching?

As an undergraduate, I considered my professors over-the-top brilliant. I knew so little and their knowledge seemed so vast. I don't, however, think it made me feel stupid; rather, I felt privileged to study with them. My first semester back in college (I am one of those retreads of the early eighties), I took a literature course from Jon Thiem (how appropriate was his name?). Professor Thiem held himself in professional distance from his students; most of us found his pompous, self-satisfied attitude to be irresistible. His standards caused us to reach for our highest capacities, to perform at top mark. If we could please him, earn an A or even a B, we knew we'd made progress.

Was I intimidated by his attitude? You betcha. But that intimidation motivated me to work harder. I'd have no more shown up for class unprepared than I'd have walked into class stark naked. And forget about not having my book with me. That would never have crossed my mind.

Prof. Thiem was a "perfectionist." Yet, when I've been accused of demanding "perfection," my students intend to intimidate me into accepting the work as they are willing to present it. Students today take exception to professors' minimal expectations: they appear insulted when we insinuate they should bring their books to class, much less have them opened to the appropriate chapter. Some never even bother to buy them. And note taking? We want them to write down what we say? They seem insulted by our expectations. And their comments indicate that they believe that what we have to say isn't worth writing down.

As for myself, I cannot remember professors having to say, "Please take notes; this is important." We considered their lectures part of our curriculum.

Do I sound old fashioned? I hope so, because I find the new fashion repugnant, and bad for the health of our country. Why do I react to my generation of professors' tales of woe with such pessimism? Because students aren't learning to respect others; because students think they don't need to follow proper procedures; because students have not learned to read with comprehension or to write with authority. And therefore, we professors are failing our students even as these students are failing us--and themselves. Student attitudes have declined right along with their SAT scores. As a result, we have lost control of the classroom, and students have lost control of their lives.

What can we do? We still have many good students; but how can we train average students to respect learning, to admire other people's accomplishments, to stand in awe of their privilege to study, learn, improve their minds so they can improve their lives?

Rhetorical questions such as these dominate conversations among academics at conferences and meetings across the country--not just in Texas, or the South, and not just in community colleges. We hear them from faculty members all over the country and every level of institution. And we hear an odd explanation: we hear our colleagues refer to something called "consumer education." The term means that colleges and universities have been trying to please and appease students so that they will stay in school longer, so that they won't file lawsuits against faculty members for not giving them the grades they expect--or, worse, for not passing them. The term means that yet again institutions that form the backbone of American culture have succumbed to the lure of the bottom line, the black line, the dollar figures.

Our students' goals mirror our own. They too have bottom lines. They want a grade as payment for showing up now and then. Learning may happen along the way, but that's not the point. For them, the point involves the bottom line: the degree, the piece of paper that they see as a ticket to success. Students seem to think of us as purveyors of these tickets which will admit them into a guild where they can command high salaries.

Our students are top grade negotiators. They ask for grades like workers ask for raises. Who is going to tell them that grades are not compensation for work, but measurements of achievement? Grades are not always accurate, it's true; but most of us come as close to being fair and objective as we can. Grades, like salaries, are earned; but the similarity ends there. Those of us in the academy need to clarify the distinction between recompense and measurements of achievement and force students to realize grades are not negotiable. It's our job to teach the meaning of education. If we don't, who will?

I propose a movement, a revolution not unlike the one in the Sixties when students demanded a voice in shaping their own education. They were right. But now we of the academy must reassert our voice of authority, require students to master our curricula and turn aside those who try to negotiate their way to a degree.

Have we become so paranoid in the face of our litigious society that we have forgotten our reason for being here in the first place? While I firmly believe in students' rights and in their assuming an appropriate voice in the academy, we all know they are not qualified as undergraduates to design the curriculum or tell us how to administer it. They do not know what they need to know, yet.

I, along with my colleagues, have earned the right to say: You're darn right I'm "smarter" than you. You know why? Because I learned how to learn from my professors, who were all, even the least effective ones, smarter than I was back then. Students should come first: after all, they are the reason we are here. But putting them first does not require that we put their education second. On the contrary: it means we must help them redefine their educational goals and expectations. No matter who they think we are, our job is to teach them to value discipline, to respect knowledge, to carve the chips on their shoulders into medals of accomplishment. We must help them earn the right to feel "smart," too. If we don't, who will?

Interview with Miriam Harris

TMP: What is your educational background?

MH: I'm what some folks call a "retread." I was a practicing Dental Hygienist when I decided to go back to school and get a traditional bachelor's degree in English. I took a creative writing course, really to please a friend, and fell in love with writing. So I stayed for a master's and then a doctorate, because by then I was interested in Women's Studies. I wrote a novel and started editing an anthology on violence against women while I was still in grad school. Then I became impassioned about rediscovering a "lost woman writer." My dissertation was a critical biography of Claire Myers Owens--a published but now unknown feminist writer and mystic. I worked on all three of my degrees while raising a family. Life was hectic, but education became the focus of my life. And it worked out well; my kids are independent and self-motivated, and I'm teaching full time.

TMP: What led to your appointment at Tarrant County College?

MH: I was hired about three years ago; I apply for tenure next year. Actually I'd been on the job market for a couple of years, working as an adjunct in various college and university programs, and I chose this job over one at a university in Illinois primarily for family reasons. But I find working at TCC has certain advantages. For one thing, the collegiality among the faculty is wonderful. And for another, I feel like I can make a huge difference for students who really want to learn.

TMP: Were you concerned that your essay might upset campus administrators?

MH: Yes, a little. After I wrote a draft, I showed it to the Humanities Division Chair, just to be sure I wasn't making our school look bad. I certainly wasn't trying to outrage my superiors. As I said, I don't have tenure. If I could get their approval for what I wrote, all the better. And I got it. The division chair enthusiastically supported my point of view. Together, we ran it by the Dean of Instruction and the President of Tarrant Community College (South). The President actually sent me a letter applauding my points, and even highlighting and expanding on some of them.

TMP: Were you surprised by this support from the administration?

MH: Let me say that I was simply delighted to realize that these people want the same things that I want. They believe in the same educational standards the faculty strives for. Yes, they are expected to work on outreach and student retention. But in my experience, whenever there is a problem, the administrators on my campus, at any rate, are behind the faculty 100%. So I wanted to publish something that made our school look like a typical community college, which it is, struggling to overcome the apathy and rude behavior, the lack of preparation and commitment we all face daily.

TMP: How did you get the piece into The Chronicle of Higher Education?

MH: Well, I wrote the essay one day after class, the class I mention in the piece. I went back to my office after that class and told my colleague Pauline Griffith the story of the student who had said to me that I acted as if I thought I was "smarter" than they are. Pauline blurted out, "Who do they think we are?" I said, "Sounds like a title for an essay." Of course, the Chronicle changed the title, making it a bit more provocative than I wanted it to be. For the most part I've received positive responses--with a few exceptions.

TMP: What did your respondents say?

MH: All of the emails and phone calls I received (save for one) have been supportive. One woman who teaches at Monroe College in Rochester, NY emailed: "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!" and went on to say that their faculty senate has instituted a campaign entitled: "The New 3 Rs: Respect, Responsibility, Reality." She asked for permission to quote from my article.

I received another email from a professor who teaches a class on Police Organizational Structure who wrote that he saw my article after he cut his class short due to the "sea of dulled eyes and constant irrelevant questions about a midterm format." He went home feeling defeated, wondering if the hours of class preparation were rewarded by a sincere thirst for learning from "students who are more concerned with the trivialities of college life and the make-up of the exams." That letter, by the way, was published in the Chronicle on November 14. Other letters complained, similarly, that students cared only about the grade and little about the knowledge or skills they were expected to acquire.

TMP: What about those other responses published in The Chronicle of Higher Education?

MH: For some reason, the Chronicle mostly published negative responses, in fact, very insulting responses arguing that the problem was not with the students, but with me! I was an incompetent teacher. I should have interrupted what I was teaching to answer a question that I found distracting, and which I could just as well answer later, even after class.

TMP: Maybe you should have?

MH: I have to say two things on that point: First, I wasn't following a plan; I was desperately trying to find a way to get through to this class. They just weren't getting it, so I resorted to a schematic on the board outlining the elements of fiction. I was in the middle of a spontaneous lecture that emerged from desperation, since none of the students had a clue what they were supposed to do beyond retelling the story. To stop what I was doing to give an analysis of canon formation and the economics of anthologies would have derailed an even more important topic, considering the confusion of students about how to read a story.

TMP: So you didn't dismiss the student's question because it was stupid.

MH: There are no stupid questions. I'm glad to answer just about anything students can come up with. But there are questions, usually posed by students who aren't listening (giggling to themselves, in the case mentioned in the essay) that are intended to distract the professor, manipulate the discussion so that students won't have to learn anything substantive.

TMP: How did these attacks make you feel?

MH: They hurt. Sure, the positive responses outnumbered the negative ones but I must say the negative ones really hurt because they accused me of incompetence and of not deserving the respect of students, in front of everyone in higher education. And I simply don't think what they said about me is true. In fact, I know it isn't but still the mean words bite.

TMP: What do you think provoked some professors to write such withering rejoinders?

MH: I'm not sure. Perhaps those who wrote letters attacking me teach at institutions with a high percentage of achievement-oriented students and they just don't know what is happening at the less elite universities and colleges. After all, I teach at an open-enrollment institution. One of my critics taught in medical school, and another one was a law professor. They encounter mostly well prepared and highly motivated students. On the other hand, I received supportive letters from professors teaching at a wide variety of institutions, including Notre Dame. And I received an invitation to participate in a conference at a university in Georgia.

Another thing which may have provoked some critics was the title, which was not mine. In fact, one letter called the title "arrogant" and I think it was offensive to others, maybe even to me.

TMP: How would you characterize the students you encounter?

MH: I'd say I have a mix--strong, motivated learners who work hard and go on to universities, as well as those who seem to resent having to learn; they even resent having to attend classes. It's hard to stay balanced, to stay focused on the motivated students without becoming preoccupied with--and discouraged by--those who refuse to prepare for classes. We have way too many students who just want a piece of paper saying they have a degree.

But I find that in spite of the obstacles, I love my job; I've decided I even love the parts of my job you would think that I wouldn't particularly like. I love the challenging aspects of teaching; but that doesn't mean I don't find it frustrating.

TMP: I'm afraid I don't know what you mean.

MH: All right, let me give you an anecdote. Several semesters ago I had a student who crossed his arms in front of the computer and said: "I'm not writing. I'm not doing it. It's not fair." I told him, "This is a writing class, it's a composition class. What did you think you'd be doing?" And he said: "I didn't think we'd have to write every week and I'm not writing again. All I really want to do is play football." I found what he said humorous. And let's face it, even the laziest students don't make those kinds of absurd remarks very often. But that's an example of the ways the difficult students take up too much class time in fruitless arguments. Of course, the "good students" were typing away the whole time he was arguing with me and the "borderline" students were watching, listening, and laughing and egging him on. But this even sort of sensitized me to student attitudes, and, instead of laughing them off, I started to think about them and what they revealed about the problems of teaching generations X, Y, and Z.

TMP: Anything else?

MH: Yes. My best students resent students who create willful distractions. As one of my wonderful writing students in my Creative Non-Fiction class told me a few weeks ago: "I resent the flakes around here, the ones who don't buy the books, don't read the material and therefore can't help me in a workshop or add to the discussion. They're just taking up space." He's right about that. I find I have to discipline myself so these students don't drain my energy to the point that I have nothing left to give those who really want to learn.

TMP: What can professors do to remedy student disengagement and resentment?

MH: Our country is in a crisis. The solutions are complex and will take decades to achieve even after we identify a course of action. I believe that among the current, and forthcoming, generations of high school and college students, there are far too few who grow up with realistic goals. They all want to be rich and let their "secretaries" do the writing for them. When I get this flip remark I always ask: Where do you think these "secretaries" will come from? And why should they work for someone who knows less and has fewer skills than they have?

I know that unless we start reversing the current students' expectations, we will all lose. We must start immediately holding student orientations before each semester, setting out our goals, demands, and standards and then spend the rest of the semester holding firm in our resolve. We may lose a lot of students--that's why administrators get worried and I can't say I blame them. But we will be graduating people who have earned their degrees and will be able to write a sentence, even a paragraph, and learn their other subjects as well. And the most important thing is that the people with degrees will be educated people. Education will start to mean something again. But not unless we stop gratuitous grading and passing and hold true to real goals and standards.

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