Dr. Crazy asks “Why take a class if you don’t expect to learn anything?,” in which she recounts a recent conversation with a bright, advanced undergrad major in another field who has put off fulfilling a requirement for a humanities course. (Dr. Crazy is an English professor, BTW):
But so. Back to my uncomfortable conversation. This student is very anxious about the upcoming paper assignment, and just more generally about hir abilities to engage with the literature of the course. Now look. I make students anxious. That is my lot in life. This isn’t what made the conversation uncomfortable. What made the conversation uncomfortable was that the student kept reiterating that the assignments in the course were making hir feel “stupid.” Ze kept returning to the theme of stupidity, that somehow because ze didn’t have total and complete mastery over the material after one quick read that this was evidence that ze is “stupid.” Further, ze kept comparing hir understanding of the texts in the course to that of other students, kept harping on the notion that even the texts themselves were somehow designed to make ze feel stupid, or that they were not for stupid people like ze. When ze veered from the “stupid” theme, it was only to talk about how boring and irritating the texts were.
. . . . . .
When I am feeling ungenerous, I think this sort of response is about the very real lack of respect that people in the world have for my discipline. I think that such people would never question feeling challenged or in over their heads in a science or math class – those are “real” disciplines don’t you know – but anybody who is moderately literate and has a library card is totally as qualified as a reader of literature as any Ph.D. Because that’s the thing: this student’s antipathy to the course material and to the course itself is about the fact that the student feels affronted by the fact that ze can’t just coast through. Ze can’t fathom that there are ways of thinking about literature that go beyond “I connect with this character” or “it’s a good story.” And so yeah, ze may be expressing that as “this stuff treats me like I’m stupid and hurts my feelings,” but I think that the underlying thing is a total lack of respect. Ugh.
I think a lot of us in the humanities run up against this frequently: the assumption that our classes and our research is ”easy” because they require mere literacy and a library card, instead of advanced mathematics, long lists of prerequisites, and multimillion-dollar labs with armies of grad students and postdocs to do our research for us. And, it’s usually the students from STEM fields who are the most resentful if they don’t bag easy A’s in our classes, because “everyone knows” that “anyone” can major in the humanities and succeed, so who the hell do we softheads think we are to stand in the way of their perfect G.P.A.s? (That said, some of my very best students are also STEM majors, who are on the whole very well organized and unusually dedicated students.)
The commenters at Dr. Crazy’s are coming down pretty hard on the student she describes, but I want to put in a word for mercy for this student because I was once hir. I remember being defensive in college, and in grad school too. I’m not proud of it. I wish I had been more open to new ways of thinking and learning at the time–but it was those classes that helped pry my self-satisfied little mind open. Yes–I was sometimes that student–I cried in a Professor’s office when I got a B on an English essay! I said obnoxious things in class and then took offense when no one agreed with me! I’m mortified to recall this, but I learned a lot in those classes. So there may be hope for this student yet. This student probably is chapping Dr. Crazy’s a$$ right now in her office hours, but sometimes defensiveness and even brattiness can beget real transformations.
*For those of you who didn’t spend your grad school daze immersed in Puritan history, Meat out of the Eater(1670) was a book by New England minister Michael Wigglesworth (1631-1705) whose subtitle is or, Meditations Concerning the Necessity, End, and Usefulness of Afflictions Unto Gods Children. (Well, it seemed appropriate to Maundy Thursday–although of course Wigglesworth never would have been caught dead calling it that–as well as for Dr. Crazy, who is sorely afflicted right now!)