The Week Three Clean and Jerk

I have been meeting one-on-one with my new baby freshmen for the past two weeks.  Every year I am assigned 20 new ones and they are required to be in my three-credit First-Year Seminar for fall semester (and for the one-credit follow up course in spring).  The first question I ask each one goes something like this: "So after X many days in college, what do you think?"  

The answers vary, but the one I fear is "It's not really as hard as I thought it would be." 

Very few of my students have been aimed at higher education like cruise missiles.  Most amble in with a vague sense of what college is and, often, an even vaguer sense of who they are and where they want to end up.  They're here because they have heard that you need a degree to avoid a crappy job, or they wanted to keep playing a sport, or their high school somehow lacked a 13th grade.  This is just the next place you go when you are done with what came before.

Not a few of these kids swanned through high school blowing off reading, turning in the bare minimum, memorizing just enough to pass an exam.  High School was for many of them pro forma, a joke, a mug's game. I've got two weeks--three tops--to convince them college is different.  After that they know it all.

And they really do arrive here hoping it will be different.  They want to change their approach.  I have them set goals for themselves in a paper due at the second class meeting, and these goals are honest and earnest in the way only an 18-year-old can be earnest.
  • In high school I never really read.  I want to read and really understand things at a deeper level.
  • I know my writing is bad. I want to strengthen it.
  • I kind of blew off a lot my senior year.  I sure don't want to do that in college.
The first few weeks either confirm or negate the assumption that they need to make any changes, which is why I have been busting my hump reading, responding and grading essays in my first-year seminar.  My 100-level classes are all heavily front loaded with writing assignments.  There is one due every single meeting the first three weeks, and I work like hell to get it back with a page of comments at the next class meeting.  For me and for them, it's one heavy lift just to get to the set point.

Add to that meeting four times last week on a hiring committee for a new Admissions Director, and this week standing in for a colleague with a father in the last stages of life, and it's been a nearly impossible lift.  Up every morning at 4:00 am to read, grade and prepare, grading every night after dinner...

But these two or three weeks are the most crucial weeks in my baby freshmen's college experience.  They have to get the message that the same old approach will yield the same old results.  So I growl, I cajole, I sweet talk and I bluff.  Whatever it takes.  I found myself writing this on a kid's paper last night:

Ahem, a few words about turning in your best effort.  This looks like it was dashed off and given a once over with spell check.  That won’t cut it.  You are in a university now and the expectations are higher.  So let’s slow down, read your paper aloud before hitting print and catch the little things. You are paying for an education and I’m determined to give you one, but you have to step up.   So this is the last time you hand in work with un-capitalized proper nouns.  This isn’t a text message.  Let’s get in the ball park.  Show me what you can do.  I’ll shower you with praise when you do.  Promise.

And I do promise.
Yesterday in my 100-level Humanities section I found myself explaining the Greek idea of a kairotic moment.  This is a moment when an opportunity arises that must be seized or rejected.  You have a choice, but once the choice is made the outcome is determined and the opportunity will not come again.  Think Oedipus at the crossroad.  That way lies Corinth, that way lies Thebes, and who is this disagreeable man in my way? 
The first three weeks of a kid's freshmen year is a kairotic moment.  It will not come again.  And it is the great tragedy of life that we seldom recognize these things when they appear. 


Anti-Dada said…
I remember feeling things were easy my first month as a freshman. Then the tests and papers started piling up and I had an "Oh, crap" moment. I managed to shift from autopilot to hard work but the damage was done as far as my overall grades went. Good life lesson right there.
Professor Quest said…
I am constantly amazed by the magical effect of saying to a student "You can do better than this." I challenged the young man above to step up. And he did. Here were my comments on his next paper.

Thank you for stepping up. This response is a better reflection of what you’re capable of doing. Now… wait for it… Here it comes… praise, praise, praise. Told you I would shower you with praise if you came my way. And I mean it. I want your best effort. Now let’s keep going. This is the new baseline. Each response should get stronger.

Here’s where I see improvement. You are supporting your assertions about the text with careful citations – yeah! You are having a reaction to the reading. And you’re right. Frederick Douglass’ Autobiography is one of the great classics of American literature. We actually don’t have a lot of first-person narratives of what slave life was like because (as was evident in the reading) it was illegal to teach slaves to read in many Southern states. Douglass even began secretly to teach his fellow slaves, but eventually he escaped to the North and became a fierce abolitionist.
I also like the way you’re looking for inter-textual connections. I actually think it might have been more fruitful to look for connections between Douglass and our other reading, Plato’s 'Allegory of the Cave.' Little tip: when I assign two readings it’s generally because I’m trying to get students to tease out similarities or differences. Think about it: Plato argued ignorance of one’s true reality is a form of mental slavery. Douglass learned the true horror of his situation (i.e., slavery wasn’t a fact of nature, but a crime against him) and he was unhappy. Even so, he was already free in his thinking. See any connections?

Douglass’ story is really amazing. He was what we professors call “a commitment learner.” He was absolutely committed to learning the secret of the white man’s power: knowledge is power, ignorance is slavery. Now I want you to commit yourself to improving your effort with every response. For next time, how about trying my 'read aloud' tip? Just read your essay aloud slowly before you hit print. Listen for wrong words (slave instead of sale, or omitted words, wrong words). The ear is often a better editor than the eye.

Then we’ll move on from there. So will you commit to trying to make small improvements with each response? You may as well. You have nothing to lose but your chains!

Good work. Now I want more
Anti-Dada said…
Excellent. I would have felt encouraged after reading that ... and driven to continue excelling. Especially at that age. Heck, even now I value external validation of my efforts, but when I was that age I, like most young college students, didn't yet have a strong sense of self. I still didn't know or understand enough about myself or the world to believe my internal judgments of my efforts. Experience does wonders. For the inexperienced, careful and caring guidance is crucial.

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