Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Weed Out Classes and the Nature of the Student/Teacher Relationship

Scott Aiken, over at The NonSequitor, has an interesting discussion of the appeal to students not to plagiarize. It has led me to think about how odd the student/teacher relationship is.

Carol Gilligan distinguishes between those relationships that are based on contract and those based upon care. A contractual relation is one in which the terms are clearly delimited and by acting, I am freeing myself from the relationship. "I did my part, now you do yours." This is a relationship based on the marketplace. I hire you, you do what we've agreed to -- nothing more, nothing less -- and in return I pay you the agreed upon price -- nothing more, nothing less. If we choose to contract again, fine, if not, nice knowing you. See ya. In care-based relationships, your goal in acting is other-directed, you act not for your own negotiated benefit, but for the good of the other person. You think about what the other person needs to make him/herself better and you work to give it to him/her. Acting, in this context, does not free you from the relationship, but rather only makes you more involved in it. Think of a parent/child or lover/beloved relationship. By being there you are letting the other person know that you will be there for him/her.

The student/teacher relation is a mixed on on Gilligan's picture. On one hand, teaching is just a job. I get paid to show up, talk, and grade. I didn't contract with my students, but with my school and I owe the school a well-thought out set of learning goals, lectures, group exercises, assignments, and grades that reflect student success in meeting the goals. The students are just the moving parts. End of semester, class, have a nice life.

But, of course, that isn't really how it goes. It is a classroom full of humans and my job is to improve them -- to introduce them to ideas they never had, to teach them how to think about those ideas, to challenge their presuppositions, to show them subtle and rigorous, but creative thought. You do emerge changed from a good class, deeper, smarter, more interesting, and hopefully more thoughtful about the world around you. It is the teacher's job to be a partner in that growth. in that way, it is more like a parent's place. I'm not trying to milk maximum self-interested results from them, I'm trying to help them. They are my students and I need to be attentive to their needs and give them encouragement, a stiff kick in the butt, extra study guides, extensions on papers in certain circumstances, and whatever else I can identify in order to help them learn what it is I am trying to teach.

But in doing this, am I going beyond what is required in the class? Some students take the class to take a class with me. That seems to indicate a relationship of the sort Gilligan labels "care." But in other cases it is more contractual; they take the class because they need the class to fill some requirement and I just happen to be the one teaching it. But even in an arranged marriage, there are spousal expectations. And it is, in a sense contractual in that I provide a syllabus and it sets out expectations of what they will do for a passing grade. You don't do it, forget you, you don't get the passing mark you need. No reason to feel guilty on my part, you didn't live up to your side of the bargain.

Is the teacher/student relationship one that makes sense in terms of Gilligan's care/contract distinction? Is it a hybrid, or a different sort altogether? Does it differ by discipline or level? Introductory classes in the sciences, for example, often tend to be too large to have any sort of relationship and are often seen by departments as "weed out" courses. In that case, the idea is not to give the majority of students what they need to thrive, only give the few, the proud, the future physics/chem/bio/econ students what they need to survive, and at the end of the semester identify those who made it through the academic hazing ritual and deem them worthy of either another round or entrance into the major's club with all the rights and privileges there attached.

I understand that everyone comes to college thinking they are going to be doctors, physicists, or the next Warren Buffet and that these department could not do what they do with so many majors, especially those with insufficient quantitative reasoning skills. But there does still seem something wrong, something unteacherly about the weed out course. Is this a mushy, bleeding-heart misreading of the student/teacher relationship on my part? Is there a difference in the relationship a teacher should have with a student depending upon whether it is a naive freshman who happened to wander into your class for reasons nobody can figure out or whether it is a senior major who is your advisee? what is the nature of the student/teacher relation?