I asked, in a recent post, what do we expect from Freshmen? I was responding, in part, to the criticism, that I had expected too much of my students in their final assignment. And then, today, I came across (or rediscovered) the following essay by Alfie Kohn, explaining “How to Create Nonreaders.” In it, he radically proposes that we empower students and allow them to shape the curriculum in their language arts/reading and writing classes at the K-12 level.
We expect even less of students in college classes. Part of it is the institutional tradition: students come to higher education (and pay a lot of money) in order to benefit from our (the professor’s) expertise. If they wanted to direct their own learning, they are free to do so, for free. You get what you pay for, and they are paying for my wisdom, experience, and knowledge. But why does it have to be that way? As Kohn points out, the instructor is not removed from the equation; they are important guides in the process of shaping the educational experience. Why does our experience have to be shared with students in a top-down approach?
When I ask the question, however, what can we expect from freshmen, I don’t just mean what could we reasonable expect a freshman to do in a class. I don’t think that it would be entirely unreasonable to immediately ask a freshman to take control and ownership of their education in order to prepare them for not only the next four years, but their professional lives beyond their degree. No, I am also asking what are we allowed to ask of our freshmen.
Kohn talks about how it’s important that students are given “voice and choice.” Why? Two reasons:
How can we allow students to generate possibilities when the instructors themselves aren’t allowed to generate possibilities, allowed our own autonomy? Instead, we are limited to a selection of pre-approved texts, mandated assignments, and set learning outcomes? My fellow University of Venus colleague Afshan Jafar has written quite eloquently on the McDonaldization of higher education and why it is taking place, but I am interested here in examining the effects on the teaching and course development process. For Mary Churchill, the assembly-line teaching mentality caused her to choose administration over academia. For me, it means that I can’t at least try to empower and challenge my freshmen writers.
This next semester, I am teaching Freshman Writing at my institution for the first time. I’ve taught the course elsewhere, but of course, I have to re-learn a new textbook, fit in all of the mandated assignments, and this semester, the added pressure of being one of the courses whose papers will be evaluated for accreditation and evaluation purposes. Could I, would I, come to class on the first day with the long pre-formatted syllabus with all of the requirements, course goals, learning outcomes, and assignments already in place and pre-selected textbook, and say to the class, here are our guidelines, now we make the class together? I do have the flexibility to assign specific readings, come up with homework/in-class exercises, and a small number of major assignments, as well as the specific schedule for the semester. Could I, would I, hand over the small amount of choice and freedom I do have as an instructor to my students?
I worry about my job. I worry about the perception of me as an instructor. I worry about my students learning. I worry (in my most optimistic moments) that I will upset the expectations of other professors who later have my students, students who now expect a degree of autonomy that they will not receive in other classes. I worry about our accreditation; I have now been at two schools that have completely overhauled their Freshman Writing because of the demands of the same accreditation board. Of course, the accreditation board didn’t demand specifically that Freshman Writing change, but they did demand that there be put in place a program that would impact all students. Freshman Writing it is.
I have about three weeks to decide. I’m not going to lie; I’ll probably take the “easy” and safe way out, developing my syllabus myself, mostly dictating the readings and assignments, according to the limitations that have already been placed on me. But like I did in my 200-level class this past semester, I’ll push the envelope; blogs, self-directed reading and research, and at least one assignment that upsets everyone’s assumptions, students’ and professors’, as to what a freshman can do. It might not be much, but it’s a start. It is, literally, the least and most I can do.