The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another
McKnight, Heal, Community College Enterprise
The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another
Rebecca D. Cox
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011. 216 pages.
The First-Generation College Experience
Boston: Pearson Higher Ed., 201 I. 320 pages.
I think a lot about first-generation college students because a long time ago I was one myself. I remember trying to figure out what constituted "good work" in the college classroom. Unlike my previous schooling, it wasn't merely completing worksheets, or remembering and regurgitating what the teacher or the textbook had said. None of my college literature teachers, for instance, were going to just tell us the meaning of all those images of tin in that one Nathaniel Hawthorne story. We had to come up with "meaning" on our own. The other students seemed to understand that; they seemed to know how to have ideas, and how to talk about them with the professor. I spent my first semester quiet, waiting for worksheets that never materialized, wondering how I was really supposed to understand an assigned text when the professor never exactly told me how.
I think often about that semester as I listen to my colleagues talk.
"What's with these people?" they say. "Why do they wait for us to tell them every little step, and then resist? It's like teaching a bunch of stones."
Because I was once a "stone," I wonder whether the students who frustrate my colleagues are first-generation students, and I try to explain to them my own first-generation difficulties. I try to articulate the shifts in my thinking and speaking that took a long time to feel authentic; I try to explain the guilt I felt as the beliefs and patterns of my working-class home culture scuffed up against the identity and aspirations I cultivated on campus.
But my colleagues often seem unconvinced. These people, they say. They need to learn what college is.
I usually leave these conversations confounded by the gap between first-generation students and their not-first-generation professors. I've been looking for texts to help fill that gap-both for students, and for their professors. Rebecca Cox's The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another helps with that job, explaining the disconnect between students' expectations of college and how our classrooms actually are. Amy Baldwin's The First-Generation College Experience, on the other hand, just confounds me more.
Let's start with Cox's Fear Factor book, which is aimed at instructors and administrators. An Assistant Professor of Education at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, Cox focuses her scholarly work on students' transitions between high school and college, and on the dynamics of teaching and learning. Cox wrote this book after five years of interviewing students and observing them in composition classes at community colleges. She doesn't focus exclusively on first-generation students, but the student fears seem to me far more prevalent among first-generation students who are unsure what to expect from college.
Cox focuses on those silent students--the kind I was as I was trying to find my academic feet. She points to the ones who don't talk to the instructors, or who never turn in work, or who work against our inquiry-driven classroom climates by seemingly refusing to entertain our questions. Those students' responses, Cox asserts, are likely fanned by their own "fear factors"--deep doubts about whether they're college material at all. They've carried a certain vision of what "college" will feel like--it's something from the 19th century, or from movies like Legally Blonde, where learned professors recite knowledge. From Cox's point of view, students doubt they're capable of succeeding there, doubt they're able to think profoundly enough or write well enough to survive the course. They wait for the day they will, eventually, be found out--on the first exam, the first paper, or maybe even the first time they speak in class. Many begin their avoidance immediately, remaining quiet, not turning in work, and simply avoiding all forms of assessment.
Instructors, meanwhile, harbor very different (and equally idealized) visions of what college should be like: an environment of openness and voracity for learning (pretty much the opposite of what's happening for fearful students). Because we know the limits of the "Sage on the Stage" approach, we eschew those learned lectures. Instead, we create active, inquiry-based classrooms. We lead roundtables and peer-review sessions. We offer activities meant to apply and strengthen students' critical thinking skills. We do things.
According to Cox, the students who succeed in these classrooms are often the ones "familiar with what [college] requires, relatively confident from the start of their success as college students" (p. 41). But what about those quieter ones? And how are their 19th-century expectations of college undermining our noblest pedagogical efforts? Here's what they're thinking, according to Cox's field notes:
... In the few minutes before the professor arrives, Kelly introduced a comment about the previous class session, asking with undisguised sarcasm "Are we all ready for the roundtable? Honestly, I feel like I'm back in high school-this is so stupid. I don't feel like she is really teaching us anything" (p. 92).
In other words, "... the absence of a lecture is the absence of instruction" (p. 93, emphasis hers). This isn't what college is supposed to be, and students fear they're not getting any smarter from "pointless" roundtables. They fear this class is an expensive, high-stakes waste of their time, one that will be revealed when they get to the next class in the sequence. That discomfort, Cox asserts, explains the simmering silence, the opposition, the frustrating lack of engagement--and my colleagues' sensation that they're teaching a bunch of stones.
Amy Baldwin's The First-Generation College Experience speaks to a very different audience, the students themselves. Baldwin teaches composition at Pulaski Technical College in Arkansas, where she also coordinates the college's professional development program. Her book is a "college success skills" guidebook aimed at first-generation students: it sets out to illuminate college's expectations and habits through page after page of text, worksheets, and stories of successful students.
It walks the reader through basic life skills, like budgeting time and money and managing stress and health; it offers graphs and grids about terms used in college (like "critical reading" and "information literacy" and the difference between "do" and "due" when it comes to assignments); it demonstrates, in three pages, how to write a paper. Students are introduced to several first-generation peers, but I can't help wondering how much their images and quotes have been "brushed up." They look a lot like clip art. They wear a lot of sweater vests. They do not ever speak in contractions.
As I turn these pages, I feel deeply conflicted. Would this sort of text have helped me as a first-generation student? Would my own students work through it with gusto and relief, and would they feel respected and educated as they did?
I doubt it. This text is trying to explain college's secret hand--shakesthings I absolutely want students to understand better as well--but there's something in the delivery of these explanations that make the handshakes seem inscrutable. For instance:
Another way to start developing meaningful relationships with your professors is to appreciate the diversity of disciplines, personality types, and teaching styles among them. [...] When you take pleasure in the class and the instructor, enjoy every minute of it; when you don't, use the experience to keep focused on what you want: a college degree (p. 51).
Use the unpleasant experience to keep focused on what you want--how useful has this advice ever been to any of us? I've talked to many of my students in similarly discouraging situations, when they find themselves in classes that, for one reason or another, aren't illuminating anything for them. Instead, those classes make my students feel dumb, frustrated, fraudulent, and, as Cox reminds us in Fear Factor, like they fall short of being college material. The students in my office are in real pain, facing the exact challenges that lead so many of them to drop out. "Keep focused on what you want" might be the most alienating advice I could give them.
Is that what college is?
Students need support and sage guidance as they become confident, successful college students. Cox's work, while not directed at the students themselves, is written in this spirit--primarily, she seems to have a much more thorough respect for students' struggles in an inequitable world, encouraging professors not to offer one-size-fits-all "help," but to see the complexity at work in students' endeavors. The First-Generation College Experience, while directed at students, regretfully demonstrates how teachers continue to misunderstand them.
Ms. McKnight has taught composition, literature, and creative writing at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.…
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Publication information: Article title: The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another. Contributors: McKnight, Heal - Author. Journal title: Community College Enterprise. Volume: 18. Issue: 2 Publication date: Fall 2012. Page number: 112+. © 2008 Schoolcraft College. COPYRIGHT 2012 Gale Group.
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