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Center for Teaching Excellence

What Do You Know? Not Much; You?

Posted by on February 11, 2014 | General | 1 Comment »

I often hear my colleagues (and I am guilty of this, as well) complain about what our students don’t know.  These range from the political—who the Speaker of the House is, for example (it’s John Boehner, just in case you didn’t know, and I’ll admit here I thought it was Mitch McConnell, the minority leader in the Senate)—to disciplinary knowledge—how can they not know who Anthony Trollope is?—to just general information we expect them to have picked up along the way—I simply assumed they knew what countries make up the United Kingdom.  We usually blame technology or the educational system or the students themselves for not taking more of an interest in such things.  I don’t believe any of those are the cause for students’ lack of such knowledge; instead, I would argue that their ignorance comes from the simple fact that they’re mainly 18-22 years old, that, if we’re honest, we would have to admit that we were no different when we were their age.

The first time I realized this was the first time I was teaching our Contemporary Literature course, which we had just added to the curriculum.  I was introducing Kurt Vonnegut, one of the authors who formed the basis of my dissertation.  I was mentioning some of his other works, especially short stories, as we were about to discuss “Harrison Bergeron,” one of his more famous stories.  I was telling them about “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” a story set in a future of overcrowding due to a much longer lifespan.  Multiple generations live with one another in uncomfortable settings, which leads to a fight within one family.  They are arrested and imprisoned, where they have plenty of space and food; they are told that if they complain, they will be released and have to live together once again.

In talking about that story, I made what I thought was an off-hand comment, “Of course you all know where the title comes from.”  I started to move on to discussing the assigned story when I realized that, no, they probably did not know where the title comes from.  Instead of noting this in my mind, I decided to talk about it with them.  Most of them, in fact, did not know where the title comes from, and, I admitted to them, neither did I when I was their age.  I had studied Macbeth (in case you’ve been wondering) when I was in high school, and I even had to memorize that speech in my junior English class.  I read the Vonnegut story just a few years later, and I never made the connection to Shakespeare.  It was not until I began teaching Macbeth when I taught high school that it clicked for me.

I also admitted to the students that we professors do this on a regular basis.  We have studied things for so long (I started studying English in college 23 years ago this fall, for example) that we forget what we knew when.  If we learned something in graduate school, we believe we have known it since college or even high school.  Honestly, most of what I learned came from teaching classes, not from studying in college or graduate school, though they gave me a solid foundation.  Like most students, I learned material for exams, then moved on to whatever else I needed to learn.  Given my 3.3 overall GPA, I can assure you I didn’t even learn the material all that well the first time around.

Of course, this is not just true for students who are not the top of their classes.  I went to both college and my Master’s program with a young woman named Monica.  At Milligan, we nicknamed her “the English goddess” because she was clearly the best student in our classes.  One of our professors only gave one A per class per semester.  When I was in a class with Monica, I knew my goal was to make an A-, as I knew who would get the A.  She and I took a U.S. Literature I course during our junior year.  One day we were talking with the professor after class, and she asked why we were not studying Dylan Thomas in class.  He reminded her that Thomas is not American (he’s Welsh, and he also wouldn’t have fit in the time period, as we stopped the class at the Civil War, and he was born and wrote in the twentieth century).  She was a bit sheepish about her comment, not surprisingly, but, to his credit, he did not say it in such a way to shame her.  He realized that we were college students who had been studying English for a year or two, at best.

This is a realization we need on a regular basis, as it’s something we forget the longer we’re in the profession.  We idealize and romanticize our educations and the way we were as students.  We believe we completed all of the reading for all of our classes, that we loved knowledge for its own sake, not for the grades we were earning.  And we knew much more than this generation knows, certainly.  At least that’s what we know now.

  1. And speaking of things we know and things we don’t know, you mention that you were teaching Contemporary Literature “which we had just added to the curriculum.” I think that was actually added in the 1970s. I taught it for years, and one of my starkest memories is teaching Sylvia Plath’s poems “Lady Lazarus” and “Dada” when Dr. Lee, then my dean, came to observe me. I actually had a cassette tape of poets reading their work. I wonder if that’s still in the library. But the point about what we know and when we learned it is really well made. I always thought Chekov was Danish, and I’m still confused about which countries comprise the horn of Africa. So much to learn. So little time.

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