Last week, I began my 8th semester of teaching college writing and composition courses. For the first time, I walked into the classroom feeling confident and ready. Maybe it’s because I’ll be teaching the course’s first topic for the third time, and have an ingrained sense of the material. Maybe it’s because this topic—visual argument—is one that I find compelling and relevant, and, dare I say it, fun to play with and discuss in class. Maybe it’s because I’m finding that talking about writing fuels my own work—dare I say it, my students, if they don’t teach me something new, at least force me to stop and think about what I’m saying. Maybe it’s because I’ve been teaching for four years now, minus one semester, and it’s about damn time I realize that I’m not exactly a novice.
One thing I don’t often stop to consider, though, is my student’s p.o.v. They shuffle in and out of my classrooms, girls in pony tails and pearls and boys in baseball caps, and I give them grades and (I hope) insights into how to write good essays. It’s not exactly that I see my students as all together homogenous—every class has its surprises, and I can still list the names and interests of kids I taught several semesters back. But the same themes seem to repeat themselves over and over: the students who fill out the crossword rather than take notes, the ones who tell jokes just loud enough to reach the six others around them, the ones who live in an inexplicable constant state of tragedy (Freshman English, my husband likes to joke, is fatal for some students’ families), the ones who stumble in hung over, the ones who can’t seem to follow what I think are very clear instructions. The past few semesters in particular, I’ve been on a mission to erase bad habits: every semester I add a new course policy meant to force them to pay more attention to ME. I’m like a two-year-old, only smarter about language.
This semester, there’s a small girl with cropped blond hair and dark-framed glasses who sits near the front of one of my afternoon classes. On the first day of class, I asked her class to get into small groups and create a visual argument. They had to answer questions about their design decisions, and define the context for the argument. I’d left that question about context deliberately vague, both to give them the freedom to be creative in their definition, and also to help me figure out how well they understood the concept.
The blond girl was the speaker for her group. She seemed more nervous than I would expect: as she spoke, she blushed and looked around the room between answers. While she spoke I focused on what I wanted to address—why they’d chosen the color red, how their font might work in other rhetorical situations. I almost missed her point about context.
“The context,” she explained, looking quickly at me and then at her fellow students, “is that this is the first assignment in this class, and we’re all kind of nervous. We don’t know what to expect.”
Because I do know what to expect—I know that within the next week, at least four of her classmates (maybe even she) will e-mail me & ask me to repeat something I’ve said in class. And I’ll get annoyed. I know that many of them will truly be confused about the first writing assignment, that few of those confused will ask questions, and so a large chunk of them will get the lowest grades they’ve ever gotten on a writing assignment. I know that they’ll try to argue those grades by explaining how their high school teacher gave them all “A”s. And I’ll get annoyed. I know that no matter how many times I go over the importance of formatting and provide them with examples, I’ll inevitably see papers in Comic Sans font, or with margins as wide as my hands, or without any proper heading. And I’ll get annoyed. Why haven’t they figured this out, I keep asking myself.
Because this for them is new, and that’s easy to forget when you’ve been encountering issues that never seem to change. It doesn’t matter that I’ve said this for eight semesters times who knows how many sections now, these kids haven’t been to college yet. For many of them, entering the college classroom is more akin to entering a foreign country. All the familiarity of high school—the teachers they knew, the kids they knew, the activities they knew—none of them are here. Everything that’s familiar may be hundreds of miles away. No wonder they can’t remember—hell, my freshman year is nothing but a foggy memory, and not because of alcohol. Beneath all of my excitement about finally getting out of my mother’s house and moving seven hours away from the kids that sang songs about my frizzy hair & mimicked my high-pitched high school giggle, I was scared shitless. Take care of myself? What was that about? Solve problems on my own? What? There are still problems to solve when you move away from a place you hate? College blew my eighteen-year-old mind.
I’m not saying I’m gonna go any easier on these kids—anyone who didn’t take notes in class last week just cashed in on lost quiz points—but maybe I’ll take a stab at being a bit more patient, and a bit less annoyed. For all my insistence that they consider me when evaluating the rhetorical situations for their papers, the least I might do is more deeply consider their context.