Sunday, June 05, 2005

Have I Made a Mistake?

Have I Made a Mistake?


Ok, I haven't written today and I am blogging. Not what I'd planned, but it's been a crap couple of days. And I did not know that my evening would be taken up with a pity (or self-pity?) visit from a 24-year old boy. The ex-putative son-in-law, if you must know. He will be moving in with AXADH when I move out. He came over to bring me moving boxes from work and then to keep me company because AXADH is out on another date. Yes, it's frigging weird. What I wanted to do was use the quiet time to work. Ha!

But that's not what concerns me. Got an e-mail today from one of the brightest students I've had. She took seven different courses from me in as many quarters. I did get her to take one History class from someone else, because I kept telling her she needed to get used to other people's styles and broaden her knowledge of different approaches. Her one shortcoming is that she can be a bit stubborn and a little closed-minded about following the instructions of a professor who seems uninteresting or less-than-competent. Last year I had to convince her that a critique she'd received on Humanities paper was valid, despite the fact that the English teacher was trying to teach history that was absolutely appaling both in content and in approach. So, don't criticize the colleague and focus on what really was a masterful editing job. That I could do.

By the way, I'm not the only person who thinks this student is hugely talented, bright, and promising, either. But she's gone off to Flagship U and got a 'D' on a term paper (the first one in her life). And she is now thinking she needs to change her major. Even worse, this may be for a medieval History class with someone I have met, but don't know, who is expert in something I really know little about.
So my selfish concern is that I'm a crap teacher/advisor -- and that my colleagues will find me out. My main concern is that my student learns to trust in the expertise of her professors, even if she doesn't like their approach or think the assignments make sense. She needs to be able to go to a professor and tell them she doesn't get what they're looking for (although I'm not sure if it's the prof or a grad student who's done the marking) and ask for help. And she needs to learn that sometimes, it is a game, and you just have to play it. And I'm not sure why I never told her these things, except that she's so damned bright. And she'll be a really good historian (although I think she really wishes she could be a modern-day Procopius, but with footnotes!), if she sticks it out. But now I've offered to meet with her, and may have to tell her that she might just have to suck it up. I'll also do what I can to explain what she's supposed to do, but it's going to be awkward, because one of the things she's supposed to do, I think, is let me let her go and find a mentor at Flagship U. And I really care about this student, and want them to know how special she is. And I suppose that's one of the reasons I want to teach at a 4-year school. Because I can only be there for so long, and then they have to find new mentors who can help them move forward.

Student crisis update: OK. That was hard. It was the medieval class. And on a topic about which I know nothing. Time period not unfamiliar, if a bit earlier than my stuff, but geographically far different and almost all of the sources literary. None of these things makes it easy for me to help -- I kept saying, "you could have written on laws!" "you could have written on kinship and fostering?" But basically, I could see the problems in the paper, and some of the criticisms were very fair (although others I did have a hard time seeing within the page constraints of the assignment). And I was right, part of the problem is that the student was just not all that interested in the class. So we ripped apart the first draft, and the beginnings of the second draft that she brought with. I loaded it up with caveats on content knowledge and not knowing the TA, but student pointed out she couldn't really do much worse ;-) And I harped a lot on where she really needed to (and ways to) address the criticisms on the first draft. And she promised to go talk to the TA in person. And I promised to look at the next draft in time for her to turn in the final on Friday. I think it was a formative 'D' though -- the person who graded the paper said, "I know you can do much better." And apparently calls on student all the time. If the desired effect was for the student to kick it up a bit, it worked. On the other hand, that's a tactic that really can backfire, and I wonder what the TA would have said had the TA known that the D drove student to tears and almost into another major.

Update -- weird mentoring note So you know I'm packing, right? And that includes judicious jettisonning of junk. But I just found a card from my best friend's mom. "Saw Really Famous Anglo-Normanist at a funeral (they'd known each other from church for years). He asked about you. Said he'd sent his best student to Graduate U. Said to tell you that and to finish the diss." OK -- RFAN was no doubt being hyperbolic. But damn. It's made me think of the unbelievably wonderful mentors I've had in my academic career, from the really famous, to the grad students who nurtured me when I was an undergrad (and are still helping!), to the senior colleagues who have spent time with me at conferences and told me that I was one of the lions -- or should be. I feel humbled and obligated. I now must get a job and write. Not necessarily in that order. Thank you all. For everything.

12 comments:

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I'm sure you're not a crap teacher/advisor! From what you've said about this student, I'd be willing to bet she ran up against a set of instructions she didn't like/agree with, decided to do something else, and got dinged for not following the assignment. It sounds much more likely that this is something where expectations didn't match than a question of ability. (I can't imagine the transfer somehow magically scrambled all her writing and thinking skills!)

CatoRenasci said...

I think NK is right, sounds like stubborn met stubborn and stubborn with a red pencil and tenure won. I think we've all had run-ins like than, only some of us have been better at seeing it coming and being willing to play the game. I think it's your job (as you seem to have accepted a role as the young lady's mento) to help her understand that while she should be firm (even stubborn) with respect to her integrity, intellectual honesty and curiousity, she needs to be able to be flexible in listening with an open mind to what others have to say and to their approaches to doing history generally and particular assignments -- especially at this stage in her academic career. Most teachers of history at the university level have something worthwhile to say, and as a student it's one's obligation to try to get that out of a course; even if you disagree completely (based on your own reading of the sources, etc. not mere emotional reaction).

While I never had a situation where I was completely slammed in the way your student described, my daughter was as a senior in high school in an AP European class. Despite several meetings with the teacher, and a significant effort on my part to discern just what he wanted that she wasn't doing, she couldn't satisfy the guy. He ended up giving her a C, even though she got a 5 on the AP exam. So, sometimes, the professor in question is just an idiot.

Completely turned her off to history, in which she had planned to major.

I am a bit puzzled by your statement that it's your job to find your student a mentor at Flagship U. Unless you're close to someone on the faculty there, that seems a bit of a stretch. In my own experience you might be better off helping your student find her own mentor, working with her on how to approach those from whom she might seek support and being prepared to serve as a strong reference for her should someone call. Although it is many many years ago, I transferred from a liberal arts college to a major research university as a second semester junior. My mentor at the school I was leaving didn't find me a mentor, but he did take me out and have a long conversation about the department to which I was going with sound advice on the differences in what to expect and how to approach senior faculty. Biggest surprise was a professor whom I had not known all that well and who seemed rather annoyed with me that I was leaving. When I enrolled at the Big U in a course related to the one I'd had with the fellow, I learned the professor teaching the course was expecting me, having received what he described as a two-page letter of introduction. Although that gentleman was never really a mentor, as I ended up in a completely different field, he became a friend who always encouraged me.

So, continue to work with and ecourage your good students, and use the insight you obviously have to help them prepare for Flagship U or wherever as people, not just as historians.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

CatoRenasci, that was just a bad sentence! I meant that it was my job to make sure she learned to let me go (at least to some extent -- I never let go of a good mentor!) and to make sure/encourage her to find a new mentor there. Late night posting!

Anastasia said...

I like the sound of her.

meg said...

I have a student kind of like that (although I tend to think of her as a groupie -- I too had to insist she take classes with someone besides me). She shares that stubborn streak, and one of these days I´m going to sit her down and say "Listen, hon, that stubborn streak is getting in the way of your intellectual integrity in a big way." It´s the only way I think I might be able to get the message through, and I´m not even sure about that.

CatoRenasci said...

ADM - sorry, as I reread it I see what you meant. Keep up the good work!!

Anastasia said...

how is being stubborn going to be a problem for her intellectual integrity? I mean, aren't you telling her she should listen to and do what other people think is best instead of following her own way?

sm said...

Anastasia,

Is this really an either/or situation?

Anastasia said...

probably not. I still didn't/don't really understand the comment, though.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I think the stubborn comment means, the student is letting being stubborn get in the way of what she really knows is the right approach intellectually (i.e., stubborn = "I don't want to write this kind of paper" or stubborn = "I thought X was the best way to approach this and have learned that Y would be better but I don't want to back down from X"? And so the student will sacrifice intellectual integrity if she continues in being stubborn?).

Not sure this remotely helps...

Anastasia said...

that does help, actually.

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