Thursday, July 5, 2012

No sympathy for those devils?

Like all of us, science professor Steven Dutch can get cranky when he hears the lines students use for which he has no sympathy. It's a roster of the fairly usual suspects: this course covered too much material, "but I studied for hours," I should get a B for coming to class, etc.

But two of the student lines he listed —Do I need to know this? and This course wasn't relevant —don't strike me as just 'making excuses'. I'm even a bit sympathetic to them!

Dutch makes some fair points about these student lines: that students focused on the now often don't know what will prove relevant, that there's not much you absolutely have to know if you're simply trying to survive but a whole lot you need to know if you're trying to flourish, and so on.

But Do I need to know this? and This course wasn't relevant are 'hot button' because they offend us as instructors. And you can see why. Do they make you launch into this interior monologue?
What does some inexperienced kid know about what's relevant? That's what they're being educated for — to learn what's important, what's worth knowing. And here I am, an expert in my field — I know damn well that what I teach is 'relevant' and worth knowing.
The charge of irrelevance or insignificance cuts deep for us academic types. But I think we need to get less prickly about student requests to show why what we're trying to help them learn matters or benefits them. Doubtless some students use these lines as a form of sour grapes, to dismiss what they do not understand or have not mastered. But it's not an unreasonable question for students to ask: You want me to learn this, but what for?

And like too many, Dutch appears to not recognize that learning is an act suffused with emotional flavor: that it's not a purely cognitive exercise where success or failure depend purely on what you do with your intellect. Your motivation to learn, take risks, circumvent adversity, etc., depend on your emotional relationship to what you're being taught. Plenty of research supports the claim that illustrating to students the relevance of what's being taught motivates them to learn and to learn more effectively. Yes, Do I need to know this? and This course wasn't relevant are sometimes nothing more than 'lines' students use. But we should not let this obscure the fact that they are also requests that we should not disregard if we actually care about helping them as learners.


  1. 'This wasn't relevant' strikes me as a bizarre objection. Relevant to what?

    Is a given bit of content relevant to the course as a whole? Presumably yes, since the instructor designs the course and sets the exam I take it.

    Is the course relevant to a wider degree? Again, presumably because it's been judged as meeting requirements for said degree. Perhaps it's not a compulsory part of it, so maybe you could have a Philosophy degree without studying that particular course, but nonetheless if that course meets certain requirements it is by definition relevant.

    So is the complaint that a Philosophy degree in general isn't relevant? That surely invites the question why the student signed up for one in the first place...

  2. Ben: I often see this sort of comment on course evaluations, under the question, "Rate this course [emphasis on course, not instructor performance], and provide comments that explain your rating." Students will say, "I gave it a C because it's not relevant to my major." I agree, of course, that some students seem simply to assume this from the start, take a narrow view of what "relevant" means, and navigate the course with that attitude.

    Mike: I agree with your overall point. Focusing on the "relevance" complaint, I think that a general strategy for addressing this is developing assignments and projects that require the students to take greater ownership of the material. (Topic for a post/discussion?) Getting the students to see something at stake in the course other than the final grade is, I think, the hill that has to be climbed here. And this is probably related to the "do I have to know this?" question.

    Maybe in some cases there's not a lot to be done--some students will come in with their guard up and their instrumentalist outlook on high. But I think perhaps that's why one of the most satisfying comments I find on evaluations is when a student writes something to the effect that he or she came in with low expectations (because "philosophy is boring" or "isn't my thing") and was pleased to find that he or she enjoyed and got something out of the class.

  3. Matthew: Ah, presumably that's a result of the US liberal arts system, where you're teaching a lot of students who aren't reading for a philosophy degree. But I still find it surprising that they pick a course outside of their major and then expect it to be 'relevant' to that major...

    Are these comments actually heeded by Deans etc or just (and probably justly) ignored?


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