Keeping our students off-balance

A student sent me the following note (I have her permission to post it):

Dr. Peckham,
I want to let you know what’s going on so you know why I’ve been missing class. I am overwhelmed more this semester than I have yet in my college career. Today I am meeting with a counselor to discuss dropping my 3015 course to help alleviate some of this stress, which is why I’m missing today, and discuss how to balance my schooling. I have been trying to manage it all but sometimes I just don’t know how to. This reflects in my autobiography. I have been trying to finish my autobiography and add the parts about college, but it’s hard because I have been feeling so negative about college lately that my writing reflects that negativity. I hate that. Remember in class when we talked about how we were nervous how our autobiographies were portraying us? Right now mine would portray me as a miserable human. I’m not. I’m the farthest thing from that. But with all this stress I can’t think of what to write about in college. The difficulty? The amount of pressure I receive constantly from my parents, my sorority, my friends? How angry I am that my teachers have made me question my passion for writing? It’s just a lot to realize that is what I want to say when I used to be happy-go-lucky Gabrielle. When your colleagues try to tell you that writing an autobiography is too easy, it makes no sense to me. This autobiography is not easy. It has made me reflect upon where I’ve been, where I am now, and realize that I am not where I thought I would be. I know that one of the beauties of life is that it will always turn out how the way you didn’t expect, but writing this has made me question if I’ve done anything in college worth writing about yet. This can be terrifying, especially since I’m already a junior.
She is one of my very good students and writers in my life writing class.  She is really a lovely girl and has a million things going for her.  This note disturbed me on several levels.  I’m just going to think for a few minutes about where we might be going wrong and what we writing teachers can do to at least ameliorate this kind of response to education.  I guess I’ll start with the obvious:  Dewey certainly wasn’t the first educator to understand that we’re teaching students how rather than what–we’re teaching them how to learn (Experience and Education).  We want to encourage a love of learning so that learning will for the student be a lifelong project.  Students will love learning if it’s an enjoyable, exciting experience, which it has not been for my student above–and we all know that she is hardly an exception.  Higher education seems to specialize in stressing students–preparing for the “real” world, I suppose.  I think we specialize in keeping them off-balance, which might be  a way of protecting ourselves, of maintaining control.  Freire has of course written about this extensively: the “knower” controlling by impelling into others their sense of being ignorant.  
My student is angry that that mechanism is undermining her love of writing.  I’m angry, too.  I think so much of what we do in our writing classes works against what should be our dominant objective: helping our students to love writing.  I used to think as a WPA that we could sacrifice that objective for the more defensible objective: preparing our students to meet the kind of writing tasks they will encounter in their other classes.  But I am convinced that if that latter objective discolors what I think should be the dominant objective, we are failing as writing teachers and as educators.  I think we make up all sorts of crazy justifications for teaching writing as hard work.  Our history if full of good intentions and bad instruction–guaranteeing that only those who have a kind of parental support and certain kind of linguistic environment will be able to endure.  I think the craziest thing we do is to fall into the “rigor” trap–as if life should be hard (all phallic connotations are inescapable).  This is just CRAZY.  I vote for life as fun.  I vote for teaching as fun, education as fun, writing as fun.  
I asked my students in one of my classes to list the kind of writing assignments they have been doing.  You might want to look at them on one of my pages (Kinds of writing tasks–or something like that).  Notice that few tasks are argumentative assignments (not in Kinneavy’s s sense of scientific writing).  Yes, yes, I know: everything’s an argument (which, I’m sorry, is like saying everything is strawberries).  And so we have gotten into this argument fixation.  Crazy.

One Reply to “Keeping our students off-balance”

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