By Amanda Huminski
As academics, we’ve devoted years of our lives to the singular pursuit of knowledge around fairly obscure issues in fairly niche subfields in fairly thorny disciplines. Jokes about self-abnegation aside, the only thing that can explain such a single-minded commitment to these pursuits is that, on some level, we love reading and thinking and writing about our respective subjects. On some days this is truer for me than others, but in general, I’d have to agree.
However, as I was finishing coursework in my PhD program and well into my dissertation research, I realized that I had one core course requirement that I had yet to complete – a history course, outside of my area of specialization, on a topic I’d never spent much time thinking about, engaging with canonical texts that I’d managed to spend nearly a decade in academia avoiding. The course became, for me, a mere administrative hurdle that I had to overcome in order to get on with the business of doing my “real” work. As the semester came to a close, I was tasked with writing the final term paper for my final graduate class in my final year of coursework, and I found myself struggling to construct arguments, develop ideas, and just get words on the page in a way that I’d never struggled before.
In that same semester I was teaching an introduction-level Philosophy course to mostly freshmen and sophomores who were primarily enrolled as a means to meet a general Humanities requirement. In struggling to meet the deadline for my own term paper, I had a sudden empathetic revelation … is this how all of my students feel, all of the time? Surely not all of them, and not all of the time, but I was confronted with the obvious but somewhat heartbreaking possibility that my students probably don’t love reading and thinking and writing about Philosophy. As I was forced to relive the experience of grinding through an assignment on a topic I didn’t particularly enjoy, for purposes that, in the moment, felt completely arbitrary, my entire pedagogical mindset shifted.
The purpose of this anecdote is not to illustrate how, upon completing my term paper and my final graduate course, I felt a grand sense of accomplishment and was ultimately grateful for having gone through the experience. This isn’t that kind of redemption story. The purpose of this anecdote is to share the hard truth that sometimes our students don’t love the content of the courses we teach – and that’s fine. But thinking like an academic is different than thinking like an instructor. As an academic, I want to convince my students that Philosophy (or, insert your discipline here) is intrinsically fascinating and important and a worthwhile thing to study. As an instructor, I realize that even if I can’t convert my students into Philosophy devotees, there are important skills and concepts that I have an obligation to impart – and that I have to make it easy for my students to absorb them.
There are a number of ways to make courses more engaging and interesting to students, from presenting material for diverse learning styles to choosing appropriate examples and making connections to topics that are relevant to your student’s lives. All of that said, when it comes to the hard work of producing their own content, students often struggle, especially if it’s a subject they’re not otherwise in love with. And that’s fine. One way of setting your students up for success is to design assignments in such a way that guides and encourages them through the hard parts of the process. Writing a term paper or completing a cumulative assignment for a course you’re not in love with can be grueling (I speak from experience), but scaffolding, a basic tenet of the Writing Across the Curriculum approach, can help to ease these pains.
For more on scaffolding, see our previous workshop: Effective Assignment Design.
For more on developing an engaging environment in the classroom, come to our upcoming workshop: Creative Classroom.