Commentary: What My Struggling Students Wanted Me to Understand

I haven’t taught a developmental course at SHU, but when I teach freshman writing, I often encounter students who struggle with the transition from high school to college writing. Those who were praised all their lives as good writers can tell good personal stories, and they can deploy accurate summaries of non-controversial, “correct” facts.

I give them free reign to pick any topic they wish, asking them to demonstrate their ability to engage with scholarly sources. I give them the very rough model of “Although Smith says X, this paper will use Lee to argue Y,” but I still get a lot of rough drafts that are more like “Lee says Y. Please allow me to demonstrate that I can summarize Lee’s argument.”   I tell them that if they don’t have both a Smith and a Lee, then they don’t have an X to argue against, so they don’t have a Y to prove.

But in the rough drafts, in response to vague opposition from “some people” who apparently think that technology has had no effect on the workforce, or that millennials have not influenced education, some will write entire paragraphs, or a run of several pages, that present their personal views without citing a single source.  It’s a simple matter for me to call such passages to their attention, but not a simple matter for them to replace the filler with substantial writing (especially when they have five other classes, rehearsals and/or practice, a job, family obligations, and who knows what else competing for their time.

I tell my students that if they weren’t feeling at least a little stress, and if their head didn’t hurt at least some of the time, then they aren’t pushing themselves very far out of their comfort zone, so they aren’t giving themselves much opportunity to grow. I can’t make their stress go away, but at least I can acknowledge it and remind them that they aren’t alone.

First and foremost, my students suggested, developmental instructors need to make room for students’ feelings, and recognize that their feelings (as messy and intimate and seemingly extra-academic as they are) will always influence classroom performance. As one student put it, “If we don’t seem motivated, it might be because you don’t seem to care how we actually feel.” Note that the emphasis there is on whether the professor listens — and responds — to students’ feelings, and not on the emotional persona projected by the faculty member. —Commentary: What My Struggling Students Wanted Me to Understand