Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Freshman Brain

This year, like last year, I find myself teaching a course comprised entirely of first year students. Twenty two students who come to me fresh out of high school. Students who are 17 or 18. Students who, as they told me today, were in seventh grade when the events of 9/11 occurred. Sweet Jesus.

This year, unlike last year, my class of first years is energetic and easy to get into a conversation. In fact, while last year I was pulling teeth trying to get the students to talk, this year I can't get them to shut up. I have a student who responds to everything I say as if I were only saying it to him. Ten minutes of class discussion is about the outside limit before I see students turn to their neighbors to chat. I meet in a classroom in which each seat has a computer; on the first day of class, the only way I could get them to stop logging into their MySpace and AIM accounts was to tell them to put both hands in the air, like it was some kind of stick-up.

All of this is making me think about the Freshman Brain. There is a small cohort of us working with all first year students, and we've talked a lot about how alienating and difficult coming to college can be. How Maslow's hierarchy of needs kicks in right away (e.g., knowing what time the caf closes is far more important than being able to summarize the reading for class). In the abstract, I have all kinds of sympathy, and it makes absolute sense to me. In daily practice, however, I'm constantly having to remind myself that these students are learning how to participate in college life. Or, as a colleague phrased it to me today: "They're not just learning the content; they're learning how to learn in a college setting. That's a whole lot to learn all at once."

For now, the only allegory that seems to be working is the one that compares coming to college to a semester abroad. They may have a vague handle on the language, but the habits and etiquette are foreign to them. And if we were all good natives, we'd understand that they're trying things out, and that if we want them to enjoy our country, then we should gently explain how things are done, not yell at them and treat them like foreigners.

So I'm trying, daily, to be explicit about the practices that underpin college life. As in "we're going to discuss the reading now, and what that means is that you speak, one at a time, and listen to one another, and think about what your classmates are saying and reflect on how your own ideas intersect with theirs." As in "you don't have to ask my permission to go to the bathroom." As in "please don't ask me repeatedly if we have homework for the next class and what it is, since it's printed in the syllabus and you can look it up whenever you want." Because when I go to a foreign country, I just want someone nice to tell me what to do and how to do it, rather than blundering about and acting like an asshole without knowing it.

I don't know how or when we learned how to be college natives, so it's a bit difficult to shape the experience for someone else. But I'm not buying the idea that students that don't know should be punished, or are stupid or worse, purposely behaving in ways to piss off professors and disrupt class.

That being said, when they packed up their stuff and walked toward the door at the end of class and I was in the middle of a sentence, I did say: "If you do this in any other professor's class, she will bitch slap you for sure. Sit down until I'm done."

Sometimes, the natives get restless.

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Blogger Beth said...

The bitch slap always works!

Good luck with the kiddies.

Friday, September 07, 2007 8:35:00 AM  
Blogger Single Sock said...

I bow my head in despair with the weight of trying to train these children. Did we act like this when we were freshman? I'm pretty sure I didn't. (Course, computers hadn't even been invented then, had they?)

Friday, September 07, 2007 9:21:00 AM  
Blogger Ashley said...

Oh wait, that last comment was me. That's my not-so-secret identity from a swap I'm organizing.

Friday, September 07, 2007 9:23:00 AM  
Blogger Sisyphus said...

Yeah, I don't remember any of us being that bad in my incoming class, even the ones who didn't make it out the other side.

But then again, I never had a class that was _all_ freshpeeps --- and I think we tended to watch the older students out of the corner of our eye to figure out what was going on. What did the cool kids do? Do they think this situation is normal? Ok, I'll follow their lead.

Friday, September 07, 2007 11:57:00 AM  

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