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. …