Breaking Expectations

In reflecting moments of difficulty for students, Sherry Linkon says in her article, “Too often, final papers offer competent close readings that either rephrase what was said in class, suggesting that students have done little thinking on their own, or reflect course themes only minimally, suggesting that students are not applying what they’re learning to their own interpretations.” (p. 253) I wondered if this is related to the student’s expectation of reiterating points because the student believes it is what his or her teacher will accept as the “right answer.” As we discussed in class, usually when a teacher has an idea of an interpretation or what she intends to teach, if this is disrupted in some way, then it will be less likely accepted by the teacher. It makes sense then that students instead of taking the risk of furthering their thought process, will write on points their teachers have made. I too am guilty of this; especially in a merit-based educational system, unfortunately, grades are the measure of success and students are afraid of failure.

For a midterm last semester, I wrote an essay on Emily Dickinson’s poem “I heard a fly buzz.” In making an analysis on the last stanza, particularly the second to last line of the poem, “And then the windows failed, and I,” my interpretation was that this insinuates the speaker’s eyes closing and thus, the speaker dies. The problem with my analysis was that I was choosing an interpretation that I tried to remember from high school or undergraduate classes (with the death part). As far as the eyes closing theory, it made sense because I thought of the phrase “eyes are a window to the soul.” I chose this line of the poem as the pinnacle point of my interpretation. However, my professor, who is beyond familiar with prosody, shot my interpretation down, taking a more literal stance that indeed the windows were failing to let light inside. So, I take there to be two issues with this in terms of learning and teaching. 1) I was that student that Linkon speaks of rephrasing what I heard from somewhere else, and expecting my professor to want this already theorized interpretation. 2) This was not the interpretation my professor wanted or expected, so essentially it was a further thought process, and instead of opening up to it, my professor refused my interpretation.

I am also guilty of thinking I work best under pressure and should procrastinate (although Linkon stresses that this doesn’t work). Linkon also says, “No matter how early in the semester [teachers] give term paper assignments, most students will complete them quickly, in a week or two at most near the due date.” (p. 253) I agree that this happens often; I have also found that a lot of papers will be on a syllabus at the beginning of the year, but that teachers will not explain what the paper will involve until later on in the semester, closer to the time the paper is due. Perhaps, this is a teacher succumbing to his/her knowledge that students’ wait to the last minute? Not only do students have assumptions of what professors expect, but professors have assumptions of how students work (mostly not ahead of schedule). However, starting a research paper early is critical, as pointed out by the “inquiry project” in Linkon’s article. She says, “[students] need to learn to evaluate how well an approach works and adjust their thinking as they work—to reframe questions, to try another strategy for locating sources, to revise a conclusion in light of new ideas.” (p. 258) Most of the students participating in the research project in the article, revised their focus of their papers as they continued to do research, because their initial ideas just scratched the surface. In taking a week or two to write a paper, a student doesn’t allot herself enough time for such revision. While I think students would benefit from a capstone course or the inquiry project as Linkon outlines, most courses or schools do not have the time to focus on a semester long research project. So, how can this be done? When I eventually go into the classroom to teach, I would at least take the philosophy Linkon had about viewing teaching as an apprenticeship. I would also try to clearly outline my expectations (that I expect students to think critically on their own and take a step further than what we discuss in class). I would also not assume that students know how to approach a research paper or culturally critical texts, and would welcome tutorials on research and would discuss requirements for such papers earlier on. Basically, expectations on both sides (teacher and student) need to be revisited.