Thursday, August 26, 2004


Betty's class was taught, brilliantly, by "Doug." Doug arranged a meeting with me after the students took their first exam. It wasn't what I had expected. We covered the usual grading policies, and then he handed me a very large diet coke. "Mizz Lemming," he said, while opening one for himself, "why are you studying history?" I burbled out a quick version of 'how I came to apply to grad school' and he chuckled. "Yes, I thought it might be something like that."

I froze. A love of history and a passionate need to teach made this phenom in the classroom chuckle? "You are about to encounter the best and the worst part of this job," said Doug. "The students in this class are mostly freshmen and sophomores. They took some history in high school; some loved it and many probably hated it. Now, they're in this class for a variety of reasons: it fit their schedule, they needed a 100 level class to fulfill a graduation requirement - and a few of them may even like history. Even if they like history, they will probably not be particualrly good at it, because if they were, they would have found some way of getting credit for this class and taken one of the more advanced classes."

None of this had ever occured to me, and some of it seemed awfully cold. "Very few of them will ever take another history class at this university. Educational studies have shown that, within six months, they will have forgotten 80% of what they learned in here. 10-20% of the students who are admitted fail out within the first two years, and most of them will do so thanks to classes like this." He stopped, and took a long look at me. "I know what you're thinking; I thought that when I looked at my first stack of blue books. We love history. We can't imagine anyone not taking a history class seriously. That's why we're in this field."

Another long look followed. I still hadn't sipped my drink. " Mizz Lemming, do you know the old story of the sower and the seeds? The sower throws out seeds on the ground at planting time, not worrying about where they fall. They will land on all sorts of ground, grow or not grow, late or early, but they will only grow if the sower throws them with everything he - or in your case, she - has. These exams may depress or baffle you, and more than a few will make you laugh. Take all of them seriously. It is up to us to see that the 20% is worthwhile, and might get the student to purchase a history book for a long plane flight twenty years from now, preferably one of mine," he laughed. "If we do our job right, they will enjoy the class, do reasonably well, and take more, and possibly turn into history majors in spite of having me around."

I've been thinking a lot about Doug lately. I've had a string of really awful, terrible, garbage-level lessons cross my desk, written by people who needed a history class for their degree, and thought that mine would be easy. They're not interested in the causes of the Civil War, or the religious complications of the seventeenth century, and a few are angry that I expect them to understand opposing points of view. One complained that I corrected his grammar and punctuation. ("Consider yourself lucky; my aunt, who is a high school English teacher, would have failed you.") Yet I notice that all of them, even the ones who cannot use the apostrophe correctly, have still learned from this class. They comment that a particular battle took place near their hometown or mention something from today's headlines that reminds them of a situation in the textbook. A few of them even send me postcards, c/o the university, from vacations to historic places. Is this the 20%? I hope so.

Maybe I'd better have a diet coke.

Words Written: zero
Lessons Graded: forty-one

1 comment:

Joe said...

That sounds amazingly familiar. I desperately want every person I see to know what a wonderful place a library is. Collecting books. Organizing the whole sphere of human knowledge. "Preserving the graphic record of society"... back in grad school, I even knew who said that.

Sadly, most of the people I meet just want to know how to get enough reading to do the homework that's due tomorrow. If I'm lucky. Not just undergrads, either... I recently had a major fight with a tenured faculty member over what boils down to major philosophical differences about what a library is for.

Ah, but Lemming, that 20%...

And as Bobby Burns says, giftie gi'e us to see oursel' as other' see us.