The College Fear Factor

What happens in a literature discussion class is very different from what happens in a traditional lecture. In The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another (which I just finished reading this morning), Rebecca Cox describes

what students expect of college instructors, such as the presentation of “informative,” essential facts and clear explanation of the textbook. In my classroom observations, students seemed wholly comfortable as passive recipients of professors’ expert knowledge…. In fact, English classrooms may be the site that best illuminates the pedagogical disconnects, because so often the goal is for students to take on authority — at least as the authors of their own writing. In the courses I observed, a sizeable number of students complained they were not being taught how to write. Colleen shed some light on this viewpoint when she told me about her original expectations for the course. “I thought that the professor would tell us how to write papers this semester; then, next semester, in Comp 1B, we would start writing papers.”

Colleen expected that during the whole first semester of a year-long course, it would be the instructor’s job to “tell us how to write,” after which the students would be prepared to start writing. Cox observes that students often come into the classroom expecting one model of instruction – the lecture format — while professors in certain disciplines (English among them) enter the classroom excited about in-depth discussions and peer-review workshops.

Reading this book was fascinating and at time hit very close to home. I dislike the thought of me coasting through class with a canned lecture… it would feel like cheating.  I prefer to prepare ten minute mini-lectures that I can launch into when the need arises, and then pull back quickly and let the discussion continue. But reading Cox has made me consider anew just how students might perceive those instructional choices.

Every teacher has experienced frustration with students who do good work when they submit it, but often miss assignments or appointments, or won’t take the help you offer.

From the faculty perspective, it seems perfectly reasonable to conclude that a student who does not turn in assignments is not motivated to learn. But if a student is losing sleep worrying over those assignments, that worry is a by-product of the student’s motivation to do well; it’s just that the fear of being found inadequate (and thus having to re-consider one’s professional ambitions) leads students to put off draft submissions, to skip workshops, to prioritize other things in their lives ahead of the scary office visit, or the demoralizing marked-up rough draft. Cox foregrounded an explanation that is not often something that occurs to me when I try to strategize ways to help struggling students: fear of disappointing a professor or other authority figure, or fear of being exposed in front of peers as needing extra help, is a much more powerful component of student behavior than I would have guessed.

Other quick observations:

  • Over and over, Cox describes a story of a student whose short-term avoidance strategy (putting off submitting a draft, not exposing themselves during discussions, not asking for extra help) reduces the student’s immediate stress, but makes it that much harder for the student to meet the next hurdle.
  • Cox deeply honors and values the motives and ambitions of the students she interviewed so much so that she has to steps out of her objective mode to point out carefully and firmly that asking faculty to understand student expectations is not the same thing ask asking faculty to fulfill those expectations.
  • She notes that one way faculty can gain the confidence of their students is to demonstrate subject-matter expertise; however, if students perceive faculty as being too much of an expert, they are more likely to resort to avoidance behavior.

When my instructional task is to facilitate a discussion or mark papers, the task is much more cognitively demanding than when I lecture. In my social and family life I find myself apologizing for what I call “slipping into lecture mode,” which suggests relying on expertise is a comfortable groove, even a rut.  It takes a lot of energy to invest in those interactive, alternative modes of instruction, and I do it with gusto, steadfast in my belief that even if students want more lectures, lecture is not the best format for helping students learn close reading skills, or organizing a research paper.

Nevertheless, if a student is equally steadfast in the belief that discussions, peer reviews, office consultations, and revision are a waste of time, the result – Cox shows us with striking clarity — is a widening gap between students who want to learn (but avoid submitting drafts and participating in class) and the professors who want to teach (but miss the big picture when they equate expectation-driven confusion with lack of initiative, or fear-driven avoidance with lack of commitment).

Fresh from reading all that, I’m gearing up to teach an American Lit course this term.

I have a fairly well-developed handout on close reading, and last term I introduced some low-risk paragraph-level exercises that I think helped students gain some confidence in that area. I found that asking students to use their iPads to highlight iBooks versions of their texts really did help the early class discussions, and that has given me some ideas for how else I might tweak the classroom discussion dynamic.