What do students want?

With back-to-school timeliness, Slate posts an excerpt from the new book by William Deresiewicz, asking What do students want?  He concludes that they want a mommy and daddy.  Well, not exactly. More precisely, he offers that students “crave” mentorship, validation, and connection from “parental figures other than their parents.”  Elaborating:

…there are two things, above all, that students want from their pro­fessors. Not, as people commonly believe, to entertain them in class and hand out easy A’s. That’s what they retreat to, once they see that nothing better is on offer. What they really want is that their teach­ers challenge them and that they care about them. They don’t want fun and games; they want the real thing.  

(Whether this is because they have become to used to such excellent parenting, or because they have missed out on it, is not clear in the excerpt. But the question gives me an excuse to point you to today’s “Zits” comic in the Washington Post.)

Further down, he outlines the ideal relationship between student and mentor: timeless coffees in the lounge, or sunny spring mornings on the leafy quad, like the student isn’t working two jobs, volunteering somewhere, and playing a club sport.  But I have had those meetings with students – where they are not meetings but conversations; or where the student is talking, exploring, discovering on her own and she just needed a safe place to do it; or where you help a student think more deeply about what’s behind door number 1, but introduce that there are doors number 2-11 they also might consider.  They really are great moments, for which the student undertook decades of debt, and for which you earn slightly above the poverty level.

But I have to take considerable issue with one point:  his giant slap at adjunct faculty.

Between the long-term trend toward the use of adjuncts and other part-time faculty and the recent rush to online instruction, we seem to be deciding that we can do without teachers in college altogether, at least in any meaningful sense.

I’m not a teacher, in any meaningful sense?  This weekend alone – when I am not being paid by any university – I wrote a letter of recommendation for a Marshall Scholarship, another for an internship, and had a conversation with a third about his study abroad options.  From my house, on my dime, on a weekend, during the summer.  I do it happily, knowing and liking these students, and indebted to others who have done the same for me.

And that’s apart from the teaching slap.  I love teaching, and work hard at it, and so do all the other adjuncts I know.  My teaching evaluations for more than a decade have been consistently very good or excellent.  That doesn’t make me special – it makes me usual: a  2013 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research looked at Northwestern University and concluded:

We find consistent evidence that students learn relatively more from non-tenure line professors in their introductory courses. These differences are present across a wide variety of subject areas, and are particularly pronounced for Northwestern’s average students and less-qualified students.  (story in the Chronicle, here)

A Harvard study in 2010 had similar findings.

Based on the excerpt, and other things of his I’ve read, I bet Deresiewicz’s book is great.  The article is about students and student-teacher relationships.  Students want respect and interest and commitment, and they deserve it, and they get it from great teachers – whether they are adjuncts or not.



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