Dangerous Classroom Assumption Two

I’m not sure how many of these there are going to be, but the more I think about it there are probably a lot of assumptions we make as teachers that are dangerous not only to the class you have right now, but to peoples’ conception of teaching and learning in the meta.

Every class and every teacher generates evidence and proof for what education “really is” for people. Every bad experience a student has encourages them to discount higher education or education in general and spin a narrative circled around things like “the only good teacher is experience” or “when you get a job, that’s when your real education begins.”

This dangerous assumption, as you have probably already guessed, is that you are preparing students for a life of work. That the things you teach them - or even the policies you have in your class - are essential to them being able to get and hold down a job.

This is usually easy for teachers to accept because teachers love exercising their authority. Most of the teachers I know enjoy being disciplinarians - making students do this or that, enforcing due dates and format of papers, shaking their head when students fail to read the details in a 15 page assignment description and make a mistake. They do not enjoy this because they are sadists, but because they really and truly believe they are serving the greater good of society and helping these students be able to function in the world.

Never does it cross the mind of the professor, upset that the syllabus wasn’t read, that the student might not automatically believe the class is important. What a shock that your class might not be the most important part of the students’ day or week?

This has to be communicated, and the idea that you are there to prepare them for a life of sitting in a cubicle, moving around files between different email servers, writing memos, and holding meetings isn’t going to cut it.

The assumption we should make is that student employment is not our business. That is between the university and the student, or even better, the student and the future employer. What we are here to do is introduce new, different, or discarded ways of thinking, feeling, and questioning to the student. Later, this expanded capacity for inquiry will lead them to a successful life, one that might not be centered around going to work at 8AM every weekday.

The university should argue that there is a strong correlation between a good job and attendance. But this is the only argument that is made these days. There is no attempt to convey that capacity to change one’s mind, to investigate ideas, and to expose oneself to difficult or unusual texts (either written or in other media) is valuable is totally absent. Instead, we demand medical excuses and funeral programs because we want the students to show respect and responsibility.

These two terms - respect and responsibility - are nearly absent from the professoriate. To assume you have a deep responsibility to your students never crosses the mind of the college teacher. Students are irresponsible, therefore I can mail it in. Ethics would question this: Why isn’t it that you now have to double down on your responsibility? Why don’t you have the charge to get the students interested in what you are having them do? Sadly though, most assignments are there just to generate points so a grade can be calculated. A mechanical operation doesn’t need to involve interaction between living people who care.

Respect is another one. This term needs deep exploration, away from the idea that one functions as a boss and an employee. When professors talk about respect, they use a corporate language. Why is this the assumed relationship? A teacher is not a boss - they have a relationship like a doctor or lawyer does with clients. This is uninvestigated, as we assume the teacher is the boss, they demand work, it’s done, and the students are “paid” with points. Disgusting.

It would be ok perhaps to prepare students for the working world if the working world were a valuable life, or if the metaphor did not expand to consume in totality all the possible relationships that teachers and students can have. “The syllabus is a contract” is a horrible phrase that thoughtless professors proclaim every semester, unaware that they are participating in the colonization of all relationships as if they were business ventures.

Abandoning this assumption leave the question open in an uncomfortable way: What are we preparing students for? This moves us immediately into the petitio principii: Should we prepare students? Is that what we are doing?

Other possible metaphors could be: co-creating, sharing, building, working, discussing, and inquiring together. Whether these are preparation or not, I am not sure. I’m not even sure if I’m interested.

What actions help students become better at inquiry? This is the question that frames the encounter of the class, classroom optional.