Meat out of the Eater*, or, is our (annoying) children learning?

from The Spelling-book, and child's plaything. Calculated for the instruction and amusement of children, (New London, Conn., 1769)

Dr. Crazy asks “Why take a class if you don’t expect to learn anything?,” in which she recounts a recent conversation with a bright, advanced undergrad major in another field who has put off fulfilling a requirement for a humanities course.  (Dr. Crazy is an English professor, BTW):

But so. Back to my uncomfortable conversation. This student is very anxious about the upcoming paper assignment, and just more generally about hir abilities to engage with the literature of the course. Now look. I make students anxious. That is my lot in life. This isn’t what made the conversation uncomfortable. What made the conversation uncomfortable was that the student kept reiterating that the assignments in the course were making hir feel “stupid.” Ze kept returning to the theme of stupidity, that somehow because ze didn’t have total and complete mastery over the material after one quick read that this was evidence that ze is “stupid.” Further, ze kept comparing hir understanding of the texts in the course to that of other students, kept harping on the notion that even the texts themselves were somehow designed to make ze feel stupid, or that they were not for stupid people like ze. When ze veered from the “stupid” theme, it was only to talk about how boring and irritating the texts were.

.       .       .       .      .       .      

When I am feeling ungenerous, I think this sort of response is about the very real lack of respect that people in the world have for my discipline. I think that such people would never question feeling challenged or in over their heads in a science or math class – those are “real” disciplines don’t you know – but anybody who is moderately literate and has a library card is totally as qualified as a reader of literature as any Ph.D. Because that’s the thing: this student’s antipathy to the course material and to the course itself is about the fact that the student feels affronted by the fact that ze can’t just coast through. Ze can’t fathom that there are ways of thinking about literature that go beyond “I connect with this character” or “it’s a good story.” And so yeah, ze may be expressing that as “this stuff treats me like I’m stupid and hurts my feelings,” but I think that the underlying thing is a total lack of respect. Ugh.

I think a lot of us in the humanities run up against this frequently:  the assumption that our classes and our research is “easy” because they require mere literacy and a library card, instead of advanced mathematics, long lists of prerequisites, and multimillion-dollar labs with armies of grad students and postdocs to do our research for us.  And, it’s usually the students from STEM fields who are the most resentful if they don’t bag easy A’s in our classes, because “everyone knows” that “anyone” can major in the humanities and succeed, so who the hell do we softheads think we are to stand in the way of their perfect G.P.A.s?  (That said, some of my very best students are also STEM majors, who are on the whole very well organized and unusually dedicated students.)

The commenters at Dr. Crazy’s are coming down pretty hard on the student she describes, but I want to put in a word for mercy for this student because I was once hir.  I remember being defensive in college, and in grad school too.  I’m not proud of it.  I wish I had been more open to new ways of thinking and learning at the time–but it was those classes that helped pry my self-satisfied little mind open.  Yes–I was sometimes that student–I cried in a Professor’s office when I got a B on an English essay!  I said obnoxious things in class and then took offense when no one agreed with me!  I’m mortified to recall this, but I learned a lot in those classes.  So there may be hope for this student yet.  This student probably is chapping Dr. Crazy’s a$$ right now in her office hours, but sometimes defensiveness and even brattiness can beget real transformations.

*For those of you who didn’t spend your grad school daze immersed in Puritan history, Meat out of the Eater(1670) was a book by New England minister Michael Wigglesworth (1631-1705) whose subtitle is or, Meditations Concerning the Necessity, End, and Usefulness of Afflictions Unto Gods Children.  (Well, it seemed appropriate to Maundy Thursday–although of course Wigglesworth never would have been caught dead calling it that–as well as for Dr. Crazy, who is sorely afflicted right now!)

0 thoughts on “Meat out of the Eater*, or, is our (annoying) children learning?

  1. such people would never question feeling challenged or in over their heads in a science or math class

    I’d like to take a moment before I start class to disabuse folks of this notion. Plenty of non-science majors in a service class I teach are downright resentful of the fact that I expect them to engage with “science” and learn how to apply concepts to new material. There is a longer story here but must wait.


  2. I’m with truffula, even though I teach history (although I was a pre-med major as an undergrad). This even happens across the sciences. My colleagues complain bitterly about biology majors who hate chemistry and avoid taking organic for as long as possible. How they can do upper-level coursework in genetics and cell biology without first taking organic chemistry is incomprehensible.


  3. This post really resonated with my classroom experience this week… I had my students read some challenging material for my junior/senior level class. One of them really got his/her nose out of joint because the author used big words, and she/he thought that was pretentious. He/she went on to say that where she/he came from (smalltownville) anyone who used big words didn’t know what they were talking about. That went over like a lead balloon with the rest of the class.

    I tried to explain that sometimes, yes, people who use big words can write badly or pretentiously. But other times, a specialized vocabulary or a complicated writing styles were ways of trying to deal with complex problems in a direct way.

    Part of the problem is that there is a real class difference (and urban rural split) about what it means to be intelligent and educated. Out West, where I grew up it was a truism that “people who know the most, say the least.” Any show of eloquence is the sign of a Bull $h*t Artist.


  4. Truffula and Clio, I take your points, but I think you missed mine. Of COURSE there are a lot of students who resent having to take science courses, who avoid them, who don’t want to do the work in them for whatever reason. I would never dispute that. But I do think that’s a different thing than being shocked if the material is difficult for them or if they don’t do well. I suppose here’s the thing: a person avoids taking organic chemistry because it’s difficult. They expect that it will be difficult, and they respect it, even if they don’t want to do it. In contrast, a person avoids a lit class maybe because they “don’t like reading” but they nevertheless expect for it to be easy and they expect not to learn anything in taking it. So it’s not just resentment about being forced to take a class that they wouldn’t choose on their own – it’s a combination of resentment and entitlement, and that’s what is so frustrating.

    (These are also students who like to tell me what books I should have on the syllabus, what assignments I should give, and basically how I should do my job. Because, you know, they clearly could do my job better than I can.)


  5. Historiann — you make a great point. When I am feeling frustrated by this, I always remind myself that they are students, they are there to learn (including learning how to learn and how to engage with people). Then the question becomes what can I do to encourage them to move in the more open-minded, critical thinking, engaging, wanting to be challenged direction that I want them to move in — and I have not fully figured that out.


  6. I just had a conversation like this with my TAs yesterday. We pondered whether or not to give out a writing guide for my lower division survey. We ended up (i.e., I ended up) deciding to give out a guide with suggested tips (Avoid overly broad openings; how to avoid the passive voice; here’s what the conclusion should do.) It’s helpful, but not spoonfeeding. What we are not going to do is give out any kind of simplified rubric, in tabular form, where students can “check off” if they’ve accomplished a thesis, used evidence, etc. (Some of my colleagues do this, as does my wife in her job as a humanities prof.)

    Some of my TAs argued for a rubric, pointing out (from experience) that some students, even with instructions, and office hours, and guidance, still can’t write a paper. But my ultimate point was much like the discussion here: at the end of the day, being able to write well enough to put together a basic paper on an 18thc book is a *skill* Some students will be better at it than others, perhaps because of major (many of the students in this class aren’t history majors, they’re STEM students taking a gen ed)or experience (freshmen especially who’ve never taken any class where they’re required to write about a non-fiction piece of work).

    History majors *will* probably have a leg up on an engineer; chemistry majors will probably need to come to office hours for some assistance on the paper or perhaps for an explanation of their grade. (Not just as a complaint, mind you–just wanting to know how to improve for next time.) But, as I told my TA, that’s also life at a university. I found chemistry fascinating in college and did well till we reached the point where I needed to use multivariable calculus; limitations always kick in. Students can miss that.


  7. I wonder if the resistence we’re talking about here–of STEM students to humanities courses, and as Knitting Clio and truffula point out, of humanities students in STEM courses–is a manifestation of anti-intellectualism. At least in the U.S., I think there’s a big investment in seeing intelligence as innate, rather than something that can be developed and trained, so most people assume you’re either good at one skill or discipline or you’re not, and there’s no use in trying.

    I used to think this way, but now I see intelligence as just a facility in acquiring and manipulating knowledge. And like knowledge, intelligence is something you can get with hard work, diligence, and practice. It’s a skill like any other, and while most of us probably will operate within one range, we can try to devleop our intelligence to operate at the higher end of that range, if we try.

    But, I don’t think most of our students see it that way.


  8. I definitely think this is a broader, more universal experience than you history/english people are crediting. The sources may be slightly different, but I face this very often in my general chemistry course every semester. In my case I think this is usually a student who sailed through high school without having to work hard or study outside of class. They get to chemistry and discover that it isn’t easy and there is no way to memorize your way into an A in the class. Many each semester are downright offended by this. It must be the instructor’s fault, the book’s fault, anyone but their own fault that this isn’t as easy as their high school science back in their small town.

    Some of them adjust and I figure I have done them a favor for making them adjust early in their academic career. Others are doomed to move through college without understanding that learning (not good grades) is the point of an education.


  9. Sultan, As Great as a Pope…. I think I’ve got my make-up question for the students who dodged through the H1N1 minefield all through the February of Storms and then came down with something and missed a midterm yesterday just as we grazed the low 80s. Thanks, Historiann! All that’s coming into my head otherwise is Jim Morrison’s late grate rant: YOU CANNOT PETITION THE LORD WITH PRAYER!!! I guess I’ll have to take the makeup myself.


  10. I also question whether students always are there to learn. As Dr. C points out, some of the resentment comes from having to enroll in required classes they they really do *not* want to take. Ergo, by definition they do not want to learn that particular material. In such cases, the student may have a very healthy curiosity about hir own field, maybe even several fields, but not *every* field. And I happen to think that’s legit., actually. I experience a pretty broad spectrum of curiosity about different disciplines and areas of knowledge as well.

    Moreover, I think students are much more pre-professional than they used to be. Many of them are in college, not because of any particular intellectual curiosity they must slake, but because they have a goal in life: to be a doctor, engineer, lawyer, &c. They see college as a path to pre-professionalism, not necessarily as four years of unfettered intellectual inquiry; and they obsess more than they ought about grades and credentials. For these students, Dr. C’s class likely is bringing down their GPA, and they fear their life goals, which may require a postgraduate degree, are being endangered because of a class that doesn’t really relate to their goals. So, yes, Dr. C’s title is exactly apropos: they don’t particularly want to learn in classes, they want to do well in college and move on to the next step.

    Of course, not all students feel this way, but many do.


  11. Regarding the material in “science” classes: They expect that it will be difficult, and they respect it,

    Well, that’s what I’m trying to get at, they don’t respect it. I take the point about what students perceive as “easy.” In my example, it’s what students expect to be easy. We’re not science majors, therefore this class designed for us should be easy for us. It’s a weird logic. It’s okay for a course to be challenging, but only if it is taught to people who really care about the content.


  12. I see what you’re saying, truffula: it’s a resentment that intro classes require work, too, even though few if any of the students will major in the subject. That appears to be a cross-disciplinary issue!


  13. Squadro – I actually think that it’s legit not to be curious about every field, too, and for students’ main reason to take a class to be about getting to goals that have nothing to do with the class itself. What I found so troubling about that conversation with the student was that no matter what I said about how much I value that students contributions, no matter how much help I offered, etc., the student kept returning to the “stupid” stuff and refusing to see that while on the one hand I completely respect and understand the student’s frustration, on the other I really don’t want to just give up at that point, nor do I want the student to give up.

    What’s funny about this particular student and this particular course is that it actually *does* connect to the student’s non-humanities major in really important ways and does speak to issues that are going to come up in the student’s professional life after graduation. And yet, the resistance, and the student’s self-loathing continue. It may be in this case that this is just a super-negative student (and I think this is likely) and there is also the issue that the student is a non-trad and is older than I am, and I think this is also influencing the way the student interacts with me and with the other students in the course. There’s a lot going on besides the issue of this being a requirement that the student wasn’t jazzed about meeting, in other words.

    And Historiann, I DO think that this is a manifestation of anti-intellectualism, in both directions. I also think that in the case of humanities courses it is also a problem of what our culture values, and that for many students who aren’t humanities types, taking a humanities course seems just too squishy or too rooted in the subjective. They’ve taken to heart the cultural commonplace that the humanities are purposeless (“What are you going to do with an English degree after graduation? Work at a coffee shop.”) and for dilettantes. In the case of science/math requirements for humanities students, I think the reasons for their distaste are less charged – it’s not that they think that science/math are totally valueless, but rather that they think they are “boring” or that they don’t have the innate abilities that those courses require (and I think something similar is the case for how students respond to language requirements).


  14. Truffula, that does make sense regarding intro science classes – the idea that if it’s general studies that it should be easy, or geared to the lowest common denominator.

    You know, I had three required science courses for my undergrad degree. The first I took to “get out of the way” and I chose a course that was supposed to be “easy” for non-science people. I *loathed* it, and I barely squeaked through with a C. But I didn’t tell the instructor that he should use different books, require different things from the students in it, and blame the instructor for me feeling “stupid.” On the other hand, the other two science courses that I took I chose based on the fact that they might be interesting – one a course in geology, the other a course in oceanography. They fulfilled the requirements, but they were not in the list of “easy” courses that students in my discipline were “advised” to take. Now, I took both of these in my final year, so I think I had grown up a bit by that point, but I also think that it helped that I selected courses that spoke to my interests. I didn’t do stellar in either – Bs in both if I recall – but I also didn’t resent them in the same way. Maybe part of the problem here is the way that students are advised?


  15. I think squadratomagico’s point about pre-professional goals is right on but I’d extend it to suggest that attending college has become the rite of passage into adulthood across a broad spectrum of students. They are here to obtain their certification of employability.


  16. I agree with squadratomagico and truffula about how students tend to see college as more professional training/rite of passage/certificate of employability, rather than general learning opportunity. In a sense, they are correct, since a college degree or two has become a necessary step for so many types of professional work (at least if you want to rise above the lowest-paid levels). From that perspective, any course that is both difficult and not directly related to their ultimate goals is a big burden and roadblock that they might resent.


  17. This post is near to my heart because I teach humanities classes to both STEM undergraduates and medical students (and have taught law students as well). The notions that STEM students can comprise some of the most impressive undergraduates and in general display some of the resentment Dr. Crazy mentions above do not strike me as mutually exclusive. The doctor’s experience resonates with mine.

    But also, the students with whom I have to work hardest to explain that the humanities are, in fact, difficult, are medical students and ethics. Here I’ve found it helpful to invoke Tony Grafton’s point about humanities being ‘slow food.’ It may be qualitatively distinct in important ways from basic and applied sciences, and there is no more reason to think ethics is any easier than physics or bioengineering. The contrary view is scientism, as far as I am concerned, and is something I work to disabuse.


  18. Historiann, your comment about anti-intellectualism is an interesting take on the problem. Some things do come easier than others, but I suspect the combination of K-12 rote learning (for NCLB high-stakes tests) and various aspects of popular culture lead students to think that they can’t possibly learn X just because it doesn’t come to them “easily”.

    My own view (voiced in a comment on Dr. Crazy’s first article) is that fear of literature could go back to the same middle-school origins as some instances of math anxiety. But it could also be what truffula writes about gen-ed science. K-12 courses are so watered down, with extra credit designed to pass the bottom 10% that will likely drop out anyway, that students expect “required” courses to be really easy. They expect to be challenged in their major, but not outside of it. I spend most of my effort in a gen-ed class on creating some sense of curiosity about what science has to tell us about life and encouraging them to discover that they can learn this material.


  19. I agree with the general tenor and thrust of both the post and most or all of the comments here. But, on the other side of the ledger, by no means all of the menu items found on our various general education or liberal studies curricula are there for the sake of intellectual curiosity, the life of the mind, or even the development of lifelong critical thinking habits. Some plainly serve the structural needs of the various disciplines gathered around the very finite tuition oasis. We’re flying a piece of 1980s space junk that should have been dropped into the Pacific Ocean about the same time they de-orbited the MIR space station. But, thanks to the curricular bayonet and the magic of academic mercantilism, we’re sending out every widebody we can get our hands on filled from the jump seats to the galley seats. Who can or will walk away from market share like that? You can’t; the dean would have a
    sh!tfit. This kind of cynicism breeds counter-cynicism in student circles, if often articulated a lot less eloquently than we’ve learned to express these things.


  20. Undergrads have the same attitude towards requirements in their major too.

    It’s anti-intellectualism colliding with entitlement and pre-professionalism.

    There are now unprecedented numbers of undergrads enrolled in college, including people who would never have attempted it if this had been 20 or 30 years ago. Many of them reject the purpose of college and instead try, sometimes aggressively, to imprint their own agenda onto it. And some campuses (and individual instructors) are letting it happen.


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