A Response to “Message to My Freshman Students”

I just read an article entitled “Message to My Freshman Students,” in which author Keith Parsons expounds upon the tribulations of teaching college freshmen. As a teacher of freshmen myself, I thought his article bore some discussion.

A Professor of Philosophy at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, Parsons delineated the difference between high school teachers and professors, saying, “I am your professor, not your teacher.”  He stressed that “teachers are evaluated on the basis of learning outcomes, generally as measured by standardized tests. If you don’t learn, then your teacher is blamed.” He then added, “It is no part of my job to make you learn. At university, learning is your job—and yours alone. My job is to lead you to the fountain of knowledge. Whether you drink deeply or only gargle is entirely up to you.”

While I agree with his argument that public school teachers are unduly burdened with test-preparation instruction, I disagree that instructors aren’t teachers.  Students come to the university, no matter what their area of study, to learn. Yes, it is the student’s job to get the most out of instruction, but it is the job of the instructor to teach the students how to absorb the material in a way that will benefit them in the future.

I just had a conversation with my students about their learning outcomes, which are published in the front of their main textbook for my First Year Rhetoric and Writing class. Of course none of my students had read the objectives, even though they are also in the syllabus and I mentioned them on the first day of class. With a couple of weeks left in the semester I reiterated the outcomes, and asked students if they thought they would reach them, because I hold myself responsible for students’ ability to actually do the things listed there: things like critical thinking, rhetorical analysis, persistent inquiry, and strong writing skills. Most students indicated a fairly high level of confidence that they would be able to meet the outcomes of the class when it ends. If so, I’ve done my job well.

Mr. Parsons says, “I am not held responsible for your failures. On the contrary, I get paid the same whether you get an ‘F’ or an ‘A.’” This sort of thinking doesn’t allow much room for the instructor’s personal growth. I care what grades my students get not only because I want them to be successful, but also because I want to know that what I am teaching is working for them. I want them to leave my class with a skillset they can actually use. I ask my students frequently if they want more or less of something, or if there’s anything I missed that they feel like they need. I constantly re-evaluate my content and delivery so I can get better the next time. It sounds like once his students leave for the semester, Mr. Parsons just shuts the door and begins preparing for the next semester, uncaring of whether his freshmen have learned real, applicable things in his class or whether he taught his material in a way that was accessible to them.

One of my freshmen told me last week how refreshing it was to know I cared about him. It was a thought that, although alien to the student, is a part of my style. As a long-time public school teacher, I know that student engagement is essential to retention of information, and showing students that I care by meeting with them, helping them with course material, unblocking their writer’s block, getting to know their learning styles and knowing who they are as people are necessary things in my classroom. I am not a mindless robot marking time until the semester is over, nor are my students. I want them to feel that they got their money’s worth in me.

Mr. Parsons indicates that lecture as a teaching tool is being invalidated by higher education reformers. He says lecture has come “under attack” as an “ineffective strategy,” but that these ideas are “hogwash.” He thinks that instead of modifying teaching styles to include more problem-solving and less lecture, students just need to suck it up and “learn to listen.” He is right about that; students need critical listening skills as much as they need critical reading and writing skills. But not so they can make it through a boring lecture; they will have to develop that strategy on their own. I teach freshmen to value the complexity of arguments, and to actively engage with a text so that when they read, they avoid binary, right/wrong, is/isn’t thinking—to value multiple perspectives and search for new answers. I tell students that when they leave my class, I hope they view everything they encounter with a wider lens, and that they avoid taking controversy at face value. I think becoming more critical of other people’s viewpoints (in the analytical sense, not the judgmental sense) makes for an enriching conversation and a wider worldview.

I found the article as a whole, although it does make some good observations about freshman behavior, rather condescending. According to Parsons, his freshmen should learn to listen to his lectures; he should not have to make the effort to engage them. “They are free to leave if they are not interested.” This, I think, is the crux of the problem. If university professors put the burden of education on the students, what is there for the professor to do, lecture to an empty room?

Mr. Parsons finishes his article by telling students, “You see university as a place where you get a credential….Your professor still harbors the traditional view that universities are about education. If your aim is to get a credential, then for you courses will be an obstacle in your path. For your professor, a course is an opportunity for you to make your world richer and yourself stronger.” He’s right about that part, too. But professors need to meet the freshmen where they are, not expect their students to reach up to them on their high university pedestals. To ask for this does a disservice to students, to the university, and ultimately, to the professors themselves.

Photo By: Le Zadig