On Student Responsibility

It is certainly an admirable goal to institute policies such that students are motivated to pursue the standards they will inevitably be submitted to – or even to learn by themselves – rather than just to be forced to sit in class and swallow, in quiet desperation or perhaps, at best, acceptance, what they are being presented by their teacher. ‘Presented’ being, of course, the operative word. Learner-oriented education, as Weimer does not hesitate to suggest, is first and foremost a matter of pedagogical skills; skills to present and apply; skills to foster and hone; skills to encourage and support. There are pieces of knowledge that need to be transmitted and, to an extent, passively be apprehended by the student. No historical class can dispense of dates of events; no economic class with the presentation of allocation curves and market horizons; no engineering class with the demonstration of machinery and foundational theory, to be applied. These parts do not lend themselves to creativity on the part of the student; they may lend themselves to creativity on the part of the teacher. Not necessarily, however: a stylized computer presentation, a worksheet, a Q&A session go only so far. University learning is work.

It is work. The students need to realize that first; otherwise all attempts at encouraging them are fruitless. Weimer is honest enough – more honest in this regard than most other readings pursued in this class – to spell out the conditions that are presented to the young and intrepid scholar, eager to transfer knowledge and engage in the admirable institution of the university; whose long, long era may perhaps now be drawing to a close. Interestingly enough, Weimer fails to mention that the student’s responsibility to make the fundamental decision, beyond which the teacher’s work begins – the decision to want to pass classes, or perhaps even to learn – is not primarily a decision that a student makes. Students can thrive to become intelligent, curious and passionate in an environment that beats them to submission. (An overly technologized humanities classroom counts among these environments just as much as a discussion-based engineering class. And then there is, of course, the actual beating into submission, which Weimer so adamantly, and so correctly criticizes: the uninterested or hostile teacher, the crushing red tape, the brutal standards, the poverty in endowment.) Students can fail to ever activate their inner curiosity in the most openly encouraging environment. The decision is theirs – to an extent. They are formed by social forces before they enter academia – parental, economic, schooling-related; mechanical, quantitative, repetitive. They are bored, and expect nothing but boredom, before they enter the university.

This does not remove my responsibility as a teacher. On the contrary: it makes it more challenging, because students expect – and rightfully so – that I entertain as I teach. That I remove their boredom. I must encourage and entertain – the latter perhaps more than the former -; I must grow as my students grow; I must show my best and be my brightest; I shoulder, I am glad to shoulder, the majority of the burden in any classroom. I must not leave behind. The question is, of course, under which conditions, within which institution, and in what society I must not leave behind. It is me, at the end, who must adapt to what society tells me I need to provide for the students. What is the university, after all, but a preparation of students for the environments they will face in their future?

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