World View: Students speak Franklin

November 24, 2000

A bit of r-e-s-p-e-c-t is on the wish list of every student, but what exactly does that mean? Harvey Kaye asks.

Ever wondered what students want and expect of their professors? We regularly read about surveys regarding students' educational goals, career ambitions, political opinions and social attitudes. Yet I do not recall encountering research on student aspirations regarding their teachers and the relationships they hope to establish with us. At semester's end we run student evaluations of our performances. But how often do we ask our students beforehand what they expect of us and what they think we are entitled to expect of them?

For some years, I have been asking my students these questions in my introductory course. I have no intention of pandering to them. I simply figure that knowing "where they are coming from" will enable me to engage them more effectively. And I imagine that compelling them to think about such matters will make them more reflective about their learning experiences.

I get diverse answers - and I have seen changes in their expectations. Back in the 1980s, a fair number of students said they expected professors to be "entertaining". I appreciated such sentiments. But, with a big grin on my face, I would say: "You have it all wrong. You're supposed to entertain me." After they giggled, I would state, quite seriously, but still grinning: "No, really, your job is to entertain me."

Nowadays, students more often say either that professors should keep them awake (registering just how low their expectations have gotten), or that we should teach with "passion" in order to "excite", "arouse", and "stimulate" them (revealing the deeply sensual character of education).

Sexual metaphors aside, I welcome the latter demand. It encourages me that at least certain students are eager to involve themselves in our intellectual enterprise (plus, I have long hoped that my demonstrated enthusiasm for history, politics and social study would make up for gaps in my knowledge and lapses of my wisdom). Though it may sound silly, I find it thrilling when a student says: "I want you to make me think."

In general, however, students talk about "responsibility, respect, and recognition" (another set of 3R's). Speaking of responsibility, they have in mind the fundamentals: "Professors should arrive at class on time and prepared to teach. They should make their expectations and assignments clear and relevant. They should grade papers in a timely manner. They should be accessible. Students should attend class ready to learn and contribute. They should make sure they understand the material and ask questions if they do not. They should hand in their assignments on time."

In such terms, the professor-student relationship is reduced to a formal contract. But most students want more. Once they have rattled off our respective responsibilities, my students then speak earnestly about the need for - as Aretha Franklin so eloquently put it - "r-e-s-p-e-c-t". They say they want to establish relationships of "mutual respect" with their professors. At first it seems respect entails simply acting courteously. But it goes well beyond that. For example, a few express disappointment that some professors treat students differently based on "age, sex, race, or whatever", and bemoan the fact that fellow students still express reactionary prejudices. Those who speak up want and expect the university to reject and transcend such things. They do not reduce it to "political correctness" or "civility". It has to do with what we once called "enlightenment".

Respect requires that we "take each other seriously". They recognise and admire the "learnedness" of their professors, but they do not appreciate it when we talk over their heads. While they want to be impressed by our knowledge and wisdom, they do not want to feel scorned for their lack of it. They feel professors should be patient with them and that we should make every effort to communicate with them at their level (without speaking down to them). In every group there are students who insist that professors should make them feel comfortable in class. Here, I offer a note of dissent. I explain to them that if I do my job well I will afford them many moments of anxiety, if not disequilibria - not because they will find me terribly intimidating or find the work too daunting, but because good, critical historical and social study should challenge our assumptions and illusions, and make us think twice about what we think and know.

Moreover, I "warn" them that, as a New York Jewish boy, I practise a more provocative, if not argumentative, pedagogy than the relaxed, mild-mannered, Midwestern kind they encountered in high school. At the same time, I try to reassure them that critical thinking also affords many pleasures and if I challenge them directly it actually shows how much I truly care about them.

It often seems that most students want to remain anonymous. But our conversations reveal a desire for professorial recognition (by which they do not mean "awards"). They do not necessarily want to be "called upon" in big lectures, but they do want us to know who they are. Many want to "connect". They aspire to find mentors who will guide them intellectually, counsel them, and propel them into careers and postgraduate endeavours.

I find it especially heartening when students appreciate the dialectical character of our relationship, that is, when they recognise that we should grow together and that the greatest pedagogical high comes when "the students become the teachers and the teachers become the students".

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of Are We Good Citizens? (Teachers College Press, 2001).

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