Monday, October 08, 2007

To student, or not to student.

A colleague of mine recently alerted me to an interesting passage in Garry D. Fenstermacher's essay, “Rediscovering the Student in Democracy and Education,” in John Dewey and Our Educational Prospects: A Critical Engagement with Dewey's Democracy and Education. Fenstermacher suggests imagining that the word "student" might function as a verb or a noun. He writes,

"That is, one can be a student, but one can also student. To student is to be engaged in a series of performances whose form and substance are primarily shaped by the institutional and organizational properties of the school setting. Thus, the term ‘student,’ employed as a verb, may be distinguished from the term ‘learn,’ where this latter term might be defined as a series of performances that are, in considerable part, formed by the properties of a discipline or subject matter as well as the methods of inquiry appropriate to that subject matter....

Many of us think that the task and the achievement of being a student are to learn. Consider, however, the possibility that what a student (noun) does is not learn, but instead student (verb). That is, the student becomes proficient in doing the kinds of things that students do, such as ‘psyching out’ teachers, figuring out how to get certain grades or ‘beat the system,’ dealing with boredom so that it is not obvious to teachers, negotiating the best deals on reading and writing assignments, treading the right line between curricular and extracurricular activities, and determining what is likely to be on the test and what is not.”

First, I want to say, why oh why has no one ever thought of this before??!! The idea that the activity of "studenting" now mostly involves getting one over (on the system, on the professor, on the constructors of standardized tests, on the bursar)-- and vey seldom involves actually learning--seems so manifestly true that I have decided to put this new verb to immediate use. Sadly, I do not expect that it will need much explanation.

A supporting anecdote: My college has a "Fall Break" that is maddeningly, but brilliantly, scheduled from 5:00 pm on Friday through 8:00 am the following Wednesday. Of course, what that means is that the break is really only Monday and Tuesday. But one of my students was studenting this afternoon and explaining to me that she would be absent on Thursday, because she needed to leave a day early for break. Mustering all the patience I could, I explained that, in fact, leaving Thursday would mean she was leaving two days early-- technically, it would mean she was leaving four days early, but I didn't want to belabor the point-- since the entire "school day" of Friday isn't part of the break period. She said, "Well, since the break was scheduled for Friday through Monday, I didn't think it would be a big deal to leave a day early"... ignoring my thorough and crystal clear explanation altogether. You know, in the way that students student.

I wonder whether or not the hyper-bureaucratic systems that produce students-who-student bear the brunt of the responsibility for this unfortunate phenomenon. I mean, have you looked into what it takes to register for classes these days? What students may or may not want to "learn" plays a very small part in the courses they choose-- it's all about time slots, requirements, and savvy selection of professors. That is, it's all about learning... but learning how to student.


Kirsten said...

I've been waiting to respond until I can remember where I've read a pertinent example for this very issue. But, alas, I can't remember, so I'll just tell you, and perhaps you'll know. Some philosopher (it seems so likely that it's Sartre) offers a good and familiar example of this, when he or she describes the way a person can work so hard at being be an active listener that he or she ceases listening. The bright eyes, the erect posture, notes being dutifully taken...and yet all energy is lost on these actions rather than on hearing what's being said...

petya said...

when i was teaching at penn state there was this one girl who acted just like kirsten describes: always very diligent, on time, focused. she would never participate in class though and i always wondered why. one day she waited until everyone had left the classroom and came up to me. i was so excited because i thought she had finally worked up the courage to talk to me and ask a question she did not feel comfortable saying in front of the whole class. want to know what the questions was? could you PLEASE tell me where you got your jeans? about NO.

Doctor J said...

You're right, Kirsten, that it's Sartre... but it's not a "student." It's the cafe waiter.

The difference that I see in these two characters is that Sartre's cafe waiter (acc. to Sartre) is reducing himself to the "fact" of being a waiter, thus "fleeing his freedom." That is, the waiter thinks that he can be a waiter in the same way that an inkwell is an inkwell. He's objectifying himself, thus in bad faith.

The student-who-students, on the other hand, doesn't seem to be "fleeing" his/her freedom at all. Rather, part of what it means to student is to constantly be exercising just such freedom. Students don't view themselves as "objects"... in fact, their error (such that it is) is in the opposite direction. They view themselves as being ablt to transcend almost *any* limitation.

Doctor J said...

Well, Petya, you ARE fabulous in jeans!

anotherpanacea said...

I don't have an internal account of this problem at all; it seems to me that I've always preferred to learn than to fake it, and had a tremendous amount of trouble when even a little faking was required. But I do see it a lot. It's basically a lack of imagination: a large crop of our students have ends in mind, but have failed to work out the relationship between those ends and the means available. If you're right about studenting, then perhaps they've worked out a shortest-line answer, but along the way they mistake some means (professional success) for the end (happiness, etc.)

Perhaps our institutions have also failed to work out that relationship, because if they really understood the role the liberal arts should play in the education of future businesswomen and scientists and turf grass engineers, they wouldn't give these students so many choices, and they wouldn't convert every one of the humanities into an arm of the composition department. They also wouldn't have us teaching 35 students at a time. To a bureaucrat, our classes are only useful insofar as they teach writing skills, so the classroom time is basically irrelevant.

I've always found that some large portion of my time in the classroom is spent justifying the fact that my students are being coerced to read these texts, to ask these questions. I have to make it fit into their world where the hour they spend with me three times a week is just an obstacle to be overcome. But I'm also more willing than some of my colleagues to put each of my students on the spot, to demand that they give an account of the course's texts and themes, and ultimately of themselves, beyond their attentive demeanor. I don't think they like it, but I don't know how else to get through to them.

extravagantbastard said...

I remember studenting quite well because I did it not only as a successful undergraduate but as a graduate student as well. The way grad students "student" is By aping commentary, aping professors, aping whatever dogma is dominating the discourse of the field into which a grad student is trying to emerge. I also remember doing this in order to avoid classes that, even though they would have been interesting and challenging, might have asked me to work harder than I wanted to at the time or be taught by professors who might not give the kinds of grades I wanted. I believed I needed to get stellar grades to get into grad school since my liberal arts college in the northwest was not exactly big-name. So there are “smart student” ways to student as well as “mediocre student” ways to student.

On the one hand, mastering institutional contexts is like mastering living in a certain neighborhood. It’s a valuable skill. On the other hand, if you teach in the humanities, your are trying to teach something like Sartre’s authenticity, which if practiced puts both you and the institution in jeopardy, because it calls into question the validity of the closure any context—a neighborhood, a religious community, a university—depends upon for its existence as that entity.

Anotherpanacea is right to wonder if “studenting” is some kind of paradox caused not by a lack of desire to learn but confusion about how to get to study what it is you think you need to learn to achieve your goals. But again, if the humanities are taught effectively, the downsides and tragic outcomes of most goals people have set and continue to set for themselves are what we are confronted with in whatever texts arrest us--texts Gadamer somewhat ironically calls “classics.” At the point in their biological lives most students show up for college, their brian is literally at its lowest capacity for critical reflection that it will have for their entire adult lives. Basically the brain is at its most pragmatic: how to enjoy as much as possible, right now, and to seek to maximize whatever utilities are involved in that pursuit. Studenting comes much more easily and naturally than learning.

The upshot of this is that I don’t think trying to convince students to “learn better” is ever really going to improve classroom situations. I agree that it’s necessary to take the bull by the horns, at least in introductory level classes packed with non-majors (the classes most of us teach because that’s all most state schools or non-liberal arts schools will genuinely support). You have to pull the rug out from under studenting by making the institutional context of your classroom different. Use terror. Use tricks. Last I checked this is what Socrates was doing.

Doctor J said...

Josh (anotherpanacea): I wonder whether or not "learning" and "studenting" have to be mutually exclusive. I mean, just because you've always been more interested to learn than to "fake it" might not necessarily mean that you don't still have an "internal account" of studenting.. that is, you probably still had to student in other ways that our current institutions require.

Josh (extravagantbastard): Nice point about better and worse versions of studenting. And I share your conviction that a LOT of studenting goes on in grad school, though of a slightly different sort than in undergraduate.

anotherpanacea said...

well, I'm sure i've failed the Sartre test of authenticity a number of times, not least of all as a teacher, but I don't really find the Sartrean model of authenticty persuasive. I don't begrudge the students their instrumental relation to knowledge so much as I'm seeking an escape from that instrumentalism myself. The studenting students aren't waiters, they're patrons who aren't enjoying their meals. As the waiters in this equation, it falls to us to trick or tempt our clients into recognizing a sublime culinary experience when it's on the table.

But the real question is : what's so bad about inauthenticity? It's not like food service is an existence worth embracing with one's whole being!