Academic journal article Honors in Practice

Rebels in the Classroom: Creativity and Risk-Taking in Honors Pedagogy

Academic journal article Honors in Practice

Rebels in the Classroom: Creativity and Risk-Taking in Honors Pedagogy

Article excerpt


As teachers in the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Honors College, we face semester after semester a familiar classroom scenario. There they are, our students, arranged around the room, eyeing us with some degree of suspicion mixed with a healthy amount of good will and desire to please. They want to do well; they want to work hard, but they also might be just a little bit bored, a little bit restless. They would love to try something new but are too afraid to do so. They grow terrified when pushed out of their comfort zones and faced with new challenges that might threaten their GPAs and hopes of medical or law school.

We find this grade obsession and risk-aversion frustrating, but we think we understand. Richard Badenhausen reminds us that many honors students have learned to define themselves by their ability to perform in a system that rewards them "for uncovering and then delivering 'what the teacher wants'" (28). Removing the opportunity to meet well-defined academic expectations threatens students' "self-esteem and self-image. Who am I if not the person who writes the best paper or earns the highest score in the class?" (Guzy 30). Repeatedly, honors students have been told they are models of excellence in an academic culture that relies on testing and emphasizes "rote learning," so they are afraid to fall off the pedestal (Badenhausen 28). Exercising creativity and risk-taking demands that students challenge academic norms, standards, and sometimes individuals. Our students do not want to disappoint anyone, including themselves.

This student anxiety may only be intensified by well-meaning parents. William Deresiewicz, professor-turned-essayist, writes that students from "elite schools" have "been driven their whole lives by a fear of failure--often, in the first instance, by their parents' fear of failure" (par. 19). Madeline Levine, a clinical psychologist, helps us to complicate this assertion. She argues that parents of high-achieving students are often eager to provide their children with opportunities and to shelter them "from either challenge or disappointment" (6). As a result, these parents expect good grades, reduce "family responsibilities," and "are typically in a frenzy of worry and overinvolvement" (6). Their children, who become "overly dependent on the opinions" of others, "aren't particularly creative or interesting" (Levine 5, 6).

Carl Honore also targets unprecedented parental over-involvement (4). While he believes that our culture's celebrity-worship adversely influences many children along the social spectrum, "the burden falls most heavily on children higher up the social ladder, where the pressure to compete is more intense" (9). He states that this "modern approach to children is backfiring" (8), for today's affluent, pampered children are suffering physically (both due to a sedentary lifestyle as well as to athletic overtraining) and mentally ("[d]epression ... and stress-induced illnesses").

Then the culture clash. These stressed-out students who are highly dependent on the approval of others enter our classrooms, and we want them "to think for themselves." We want them to think and work outside the proverbial box, but they feel that their previous success has depended on their not doing so. How then can we blame them if they balk? When we consider how crippling these conflicting demands must be, it is difficult not to give in, not to bow to their silent exhortation, "Just let us do what we know how to do."

At this specific historical moment, though, it has becoming increasingly obvious to us, their teachers, that we cannot afford to let them endlessly repeat familiar patterns. Humans have always lived in uncertain times, but the particular cast of our uncertainty in this second decade of the twenty-first century--forged by the forces of globalization and the resulting economic challenges--demands that we re-examine our teaching methods and that students add to their repertoire new ways of being students. …

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