Start Where the Student Is

Sometimes conversations on education seem out of Groundhog Day–but without the possibilities for improvement.  It’s just the same old merry-go-round.  “Professor X” (an adjunct unwilling to put himself on the line with his real name), who wrote an article in The Atlantic a few years ago about higher education, has now turned that into a book: In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic.  He also answered a few questions for Inside Higher Education, which is where I get my information about the book and his views.

He is quoted in IHE: “The students… leave me with two choices: teach at a true college level and fail everybody, or dumb things down enough so that more students can pass.”  This is a false dichotomy, and is the reason I’ve no interest in reading his book: No one who sees things so simplistically and in black-or-white will be able to help me become a better teacher or be able to help improve education as a whole.  With his false choice, Professor X wipes away any chance for progress… so why should I bother reading him?  What can he do for me?

Yet he still needs response.

The only solution he offers is to revert to trade schools, completely erasing John Dewey and the idea that education (even higher education) has an essential role in a democracy extending far beyond job preparation, completely erasing the idea that ours is a society without firm boundaries of class.  I reject his solution for a number of reasons but, today, find it more troubling than otherwise I might.  We are in the process of establishing a bifurcated society with a distant elite at the top and what is quickly becoming a defeated mass below.  His solution will only grease the skids as we slide towards a two-tier state.  He is providing justification for an elite that doesn’t want to care about the fate of the rest in the first place.

College students, even in open admissions situations, know a great deal–just not necessarily what their instructors expect them to know.  Teaching “at a true college level” contains assumptions about what students already know and about what students can already do.  That they haven’t these skills makes them vulnerable to claims that they aren’t “ready” for college (shades of colonies not being “ready” for self-government).  That they haven’t these skills makes it possible for Professor X to justify failing them–and then putting the blame on them and not on himself.

A teacher who puts in the effort to learn something about the students generally finds that there are levels of knowledge within the students sufficient as starting places for reaching course goals–though by routes different, possibly, than those taken before.  This takes willingness to be flexible, to experiment, and (yes) even to fail.  But it makes success possible… something Professor X, in his dichotomy, rejects.

Professor X’s alternative, to “dumb things down,” is equally unacceptable and equally unnecessary.  It’s also something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you have to dumb things down, you assume the students are dumb and start treating them as dumb–and then they will act dumb.  Starting where the students are isn’t necessarily starting with the dumb, and it doesn’t carry the assumption that it is the students who are dumb.  Put the knowledge and skills within a context familiar to the students, and they will grasp them quickly, proving that they are able–something the instructor has to understand and believe, if the class is going to be a success at all.

There is more in the IHE piece about Professor X that drives me crazy, but I will save that for another post.

4 thoughts on “Start Where the Student Is

  1. You're totally right. I see this everyday among my colleagues. There is a false expectation that students will enter your course with all the knowledge that you've accumulated upon exiting graduate school. Teachers forget what it was like to be a 18 or 19 year old first entering the academic discourse community. It's daunting, to say the least. As you point out, students have a wealth of knowledge and perspectives to bring to the table, they just haven't learned how to express it using the discursive conventions.
    But isn't that our job? To help students enter the academic community? It's the problem with higher education across disciplines. Instructors are experts in their field, but not in pedagogy.
    I would advise Professor X to pick up something (anything) from Peter Elbow, or Donald Murray, or Irene Clark, or any of the thousands of experts in education. The “sage on the stage” has been a proven failure.


  2. Hi Aaron,

    Great post! I'm not fond of anonymous experts either.

    And Morgan's comment is agreeable too. Elbow, Murray, and Clark are good places to start reading about the problems and possibilities of teaching college level writing– and wrestling with pedagogy theory in general. I also recommend Donald Bartholomae.

    Sean Scanlan


  3. Thanks Morgan and Sean. Elbow's Writing Without Teachers was of great importance to me when I was first learning to assist in Lou Kelly's writing lab at the University of Iowa way back around 1980. And Bartholomae and Petrosky's Facts, Counterfacts, and Artifacts was equally important as I learned new ways of teaching writing in the classroom in the 1990s. The greatest influence on how I view the classroom, however, was Fred Keller, whose article “Good-bye Teacher” still challenges me to re-assess what I am doing each semester and to insist on keeping students, not the teacher, at the center of my pedagogy.


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