Some End-of-Semester Thoughts on Academic Struggle

shoes_palsjune18Running has been a part of my life, off and on, since I was about 6 years old. I always loved track but at my high school, cross country was a big deal and you couldn’t do one without the other. So began 7 years of competitive distance running where I did great in workouts and absolutely fell apart in races. I struggled. With the heat. With allergies. With what was then diagnosed as exercise-induced asthma but in retrospect was probably related to anxiety. I struggled to stay positive when it got tough in the middle of races. I struggled to stay awake in 8am classes after early morning 10-milers. On several occasions I literally struggled to cross the finish line. Three times I collapsed.

After college I kept running but only a couple days a week, never more than four miles, and never with a watch. I did that for over a decade, until recently. In the midst of a tough semester professionally and personally, this winter I decided to channel my frustration into running and decided to start training for my first half marathon. On a bitterly cold, snowy morning in April, I surprised myself and ran 3 minutes faster than I had thought possible in a local 5-mile race. I was ecstatic. I hadn’t struggled. I hurt, and I was tired, and at every step I had to tell myself to keep going and to keep pushing, but I didn’t struggle.

One of the most valuable things that running has done for me over the course of my life has been to give me some perspective on what’s really important and what’s not and on what it means to be successful. In the wake of the 5-mile race, following midterms as it did, I began thinking a lot about academic struggle through the lens of running. Also about that time, I had joked with one of the PALS editors that we should do another roundtable, this time on “What I Wish My Faculty Colleagues in Other Disciplines Would Stop Doing.” I knew immediately that I had things to say about the kinds of classes where a student can score no higher than a 75 on any exam and somehow still get an A. When I started teaching, it was my students who frustrated me but now, over a decade into this profession, I find myself most frustrated by the college experience my students have to navigate. The college experience feels less and less about learning and more about surviving. Some of it has to do with the increasing corporatization of higher education and some of it has to do with the financial insecurity that skyrocketing tuition coupled with stagnant wages brings. At other times, though, we, the faculty, seem to cultivate a culture that glorifies struggle for the sake of struggle.

In my current position I have the opportunity to serve as advisor to first-year students and this was my first time to do that. In one way or another, almost every conversation with my advisees turned to struggle. While some of the struggle they face comes from outside of the university community, a lot of it comes from within. I can only speak to the students I’ve taught but one of the things I’ve noticed about selective institutions is that there is a sense that all high-aptitude students are capable of anything if only they try hard enough. Sometimes, though, there are other issues at play, and this perspective can ignore that. As a result, students will push on, not sleeping, not eating well (or at all), isolating themselves from friends and family, engaging in destructive behaviors, disregarding their physical and mental well being, etc. By graduation—if they make it that far—they are worn down and burned out. Where I once spent the semester trying to push students to try harder, I more often than not now find myself telling students to stop revising or to stop reading. I don’t want to do that but I find that I have to in order to protect my students. I have learning outcomes and course goals, and I teach to those. I do the best that I can to support my students as they strive to meet or exceed those standards. However, I also find it increasingly important to strive to help my students find balance in their lives as they adjust to college and to help them to process the new challenges they are facing in the classroom. Above all else, I want to make sure that my pedagogy doesn’t compound or enable unnecessary and unproductive struggle.

Students at STEM-focused, selective institutions like those that I’ve taught at come in with very real anxieties about their abilities and their futures, only to be put through a curriculum that many faculty use to “weed out” the weakest students (who, by the way, would be successful anywhere else in most cases). Talk to many students, and you find out that it is very common for the class average on an exam in one of these lectures to be a D. Mysteriously, many of these same students will ultimately do well in the course, earning As or Bs when grades are curved. Sometimes they aren’t even getting feedback besides the grades popping up every few weeks in the online gradebook. This is not to say that all STEM faculty “motivate” students in this way but there are certainly many who do, and the practice is far more acceptable in STEM fields than in the humanities. Either way though, the result is the same for high-aptitude students: they begin to believe that they haven’t earned an A unless they have struggled, even if the struggle was artificially created. Then, when those same students succeed in another class without running the gauntlet, they often seem to measure the value of the course and their own achievement by the standard set by these courses designed to “weed out” students.

As an instructor, I hope students see value in my courses, but ultimately I understand that many will not, and that’s ok. What does bother me is when students measure their own achievement and abilities according to the standards set in courses where struggle is valorized but ultimately unproductive. I once had a math teacher who told me that confusion is good because it means you’re thinking—because you’re in the process of learning. When we talk to students, we can help students think about their academic experiences, helping them to assess the nature of their struggle. Is it because this is new material and your brain is working overtime to process everything? Is it because of the way the class is taught? Is it because you really aren’t invested in the subject matter? Is it because there is something going on outside of class that needs to take precedence in your life right now? It turned out that these were some of the most important questions I could ask. Struggle is good but only if it is productive. While we can’t change what goes on in other classes, we can make sure that our own interactions with students don’t reinforce struggle for struggle’s sake and that we acknowledge that they are experiencing that. Like teaching, I’m learning as I go with advising, but this is the biggest lesson I learned in my first year.

Both as advisor and teacher, I want to give my students opportunities to address the struggles that they face; then, perhaps struggle can at least become something productive, something generative, for them, rather than something that breaks them down. Looking back on my own college experience, I realize now that I would have been better off had I stopped and addressed my struggles head on when a breakthrough moment never came. Maybe some work with a sports psychologist would have helped. Or maybe I should have done as several of my friends did and stepped away from competitive sports. But, I did exactly what I see so many students do and just kept doing the same thing over and over, regardless of that fact that the struggle clearly wasn’t productive and was, in many ways, destructive. Whether it is on the track or in the classroom, struggle is a part of the process but it should always be productive. That doesn’t mean you win the race or get the A, but it means you come out of the experience stronger than you went in—and that’s what I don’t see happening a lot with my students. Sometimes “mind over matter” isn’t going to happen no matter how hard we try, and how we deal with that is where we learn and grow. We can only do that if we come to terms with our own limitations and give ourselves credit for what we are able to accomplish under the given circumstances, and helping students to identify those things is a step in the right direction.

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Dear College Professor: On Your Incoming Students

PALS is thrilled to have a guest post by Clay Zuba, a teacher at Xavier College Preparatory High School in Phoenix, Arizona. Zuba writes about his prior experience in the college-level classroom and asks higher education professionals to consider how to best serve the level and teaching needs of incoming students. Zuba makes the point that we need to understand how students develop as learners in order to best meet their needs. For more from Zuba, you can find his nonfiction and fiction writing about House of the Seven Gables here

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via Ed Lim Photo

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a preponderance of professors, have at least once or twice recently said to themselves, “students today . . .”

Fill in these ellipses with your most common complaint about students entering your classrooms. You may find that they cannot read critically or write clearly. Perhaps they don’t know how to pose thoughtful questions or conduct research. Or know the first thing about symbolism, or the American Revolution.

I’m a high school English teacher. I’m writing to you regarding our students, their preparation for college, and how you can best build on this preparation in your classrooms. I freely admit that I am still learning to teach my own students. And I wouldn’t presume to tell you what to do. But in my younger days, almost every faculty member with whom I spoke at least once said, “students today . . .”

Including myself. Since beginning as a high school English teacher about a year ago, I’ve learned a lot about these students. It surprised me. I wanted to share. Maybe we can work together.

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via Geoff Livingston

Who I was, and who I came to be

I was one of you once. In January 2016 I earned my Ph.D. in American Literature, with a specialization in antebellum print culture. I published. I held a number of research fellowships. Between the time I started a Master’s Degree in 2010 and I moved on from the academic job market in 2017, I taught undergraduates at six universities on the east coast, in Texas, and the southwest. I had on-campus interviews, no offers. That is the way it is for many of us right now.

I began teaching at a college preparatory high school this past fall. I teach English to juniors and sophomores at what is considered an elite high school. One hundred percent the students with whom I work will attend a four-year college. This year they have been accepted to places such as Duke, and Stanford, and Airforce Academy. But many will attend in-state land-grant universities or smaller, out-of-state niche schools private and public. My students are very likely representative of those that will enter your classrooms as freshmen.

Even though I am very good at research, I admit that I love to teach young people in writing and literature. And I believe in the mission to prepare my students for university-level study. Much like you, as a university instructor, I often found my students insufficiently prepared to undertake their course of study in higher education. A few of them had a strong foundation in writing and literature. But many of them had trouble paraphrasing a thesis in an article in The Atlantic. Even the ones that could needed to learn to think  more critically. And some of the others (literally) didn’t understand how to analyze figurative language. I admit to thinking some version of “what on earth is going on in high schools”?

What I found out is going on surprised me. It may surprise you, too. We are actually teaching students all of these skills in high schools. We are teaching them to write essays with a clear thesis sentence at the end of the first paragraph. We are teaching them the elements of the gothic as a literary genre. We are teaching them to identify and analyze figurative language. And most students take their education seriously.

However, a number of entangled conundrums await students when it comes time for them to transfer their skills and knowledge from high school to college. I come to my conclusions based on my experience teaching both groups of students, rather than empirical study. I  hope you will find them helpful.

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Four rules for teaching my high school students

  1. Reorient, repeat.

I taught them to write a strong thesis statement and identify symbolism. Even so, you need to repeat and reinforce these skills. You need to reorient the knowledge students already have for their college environment. There are at least three reasons I need to ask you do this.

First, most young students do not transfer skills and knowledge well from one environment or field to another. High school students have difficulty transferring what I teach them about writing to their history class. They have difficulty applying their knowledge of history to help them historicize what they read in my American literature class. The same will be true of your students, but they will be facing an even greater change in environments, undergoing one of the great rites of passage in our society: the transition from high school teenager to college adult.

Second, if you do not demand that students apply their old close reading skills to your new classroom, they will assume that you do not require close reading skills in your classroom. They will assume that these were only for high school. So, model close reading skills as you like to see them. This will give my students confidence as they grow to use these skills in your classroom.

And three, their brains are still growing in their capacity for abstract thought.  For example, my students’ understanding of the types of abstract ideas that symbolism can encompass and how writers attach these ideas to concrete objects, will be different than when they become your students. No doubt you have your own favorite theory of intellectual development, but for reference I’ll link to the ones William Perry first published in 1968.

Believe me, my students and I discussed symbolism in The Scarlet Letter. We spoke about how the concrete symbol of the A acts as a vessel for abstract problems of sin and self-actualization. We identified how the symbolism of the A changes throughout the novel. But I’m going to have to ask you to model this thinking again if you want your students to analyze symbolism again in the college classroom, with college-level thinking.

  1. You need to teach writing – again, constantly.

The critical thinking that your students will do about literature will be deeper and more demanding than in my high school classroom. But as I mentioned above, they do not have the experience reasoning and creating on the level of abstraction necessary for your college classroom. If they do not have expertise in thinking, these students will not have experience writing with about abstract ideas, either.

You must teach writing even if, especially if, you are a tenured professor. If you appreciate the close connection between writing and critical thinking in your own work, you will see how important it is for you to give students feedback on their writing. Because it is feedback on their thinking. And if they know you are an expert on, say, Faulkner, they will value your feedback on writing more than they did the adjunct (still an expert, but an institutionally devalued expert) who taught them to write in their first-year writing course.

  1. Foster intellectual curiosity

As a high school teacher, I hope I’m helping my students build foundations that will enable them to ask worthwhile questions about literature and writing. But because, again, they are still developing, I can’t yet help many of them ask complex, nuanced abstract questions – and most questions worth asking in college are abstract.

They do have intellectual curiosity. But they are not sure yet what is worth asking. They do not know what is debatable and unanswered. And because of this, you are going to have to teach them, at least once in your classroom, to do research. If you use your university’s databases for research, you are going to be the best resource available for using research to answer the types of questions you’d like students to ask in your classroom.

  1. Be more attentive to your students as young people.

When I was teaching college, I didn’t consider it my job to think too deeply about my students inner emotional lives. And neither did any of the professors who served as my research or teaching mentors. But they need us to be attentive to them as young people, sorely.

I see my students 4-5 days a week. It gives me an awareness of how much they look to us as examples to build their spectrum of the moral and intellectual possibilities for adulthood.

It’s true that your students have plenty of other role models in college. But most of them are not good role models. Maybe your students’ parents are not even good role models. So you need to show them you care. Check in if they miss an assignment uncharacteristically. Encourage them when they doubt themselves.

It isn’t too late for you. You can still make a difference.

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via Liz West

Conclusion

I could tell you more. But you’ve already given me your attention for long enough. If you’ve read this far, you’ve been kind enough to listen. Yet, if we are really going to work together to help our mutual students, this has to be a two-way partnership. And I want to hear from you.

What can we do, as high school teachers, to help our students prepare for college? What are the gaps between high school and college?

What am I missing in the miasma of grammar, genre, symbolism, figurative language, oral proficiency, vocabulary, historicization, themes, authors, writing structures, research skills, reading skills, et cetera, that I hope to instill as foundations for their college learning experience?

Please write back.  

Contributor Bio:

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Clay Zuba is an English Teacher at Xavier College Preparatory High School in Phoenix, Arizona, where he teaches American Literature and writing. In 2016, he was awarded a Ph.D. in American literature at the University of Delaware. His acclaimed blog love7g.com about Nathaniel Hawthorne is a precursor to his upcoming historical novel Love in the House of the Seven Gables.