Monday, May 23, 2011

But on the other hand….

After working through my previous post in which I vent my own spleen about a lazy honors college student’s bashing me on in the context of that student’s mediocre performance in class, it would be tempting to dismiss all honors students as slackers with an inordinate sense of entitlement. Such a dismissal might seem readily apparent in the wake of this past very trying semester with a class I inherited from a colleague the day before the term began whose members largely embodied that assessment.

But as the cynical pundit H.L. Mencken is famous for noting,

“For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat….and wrong.”

This fall I will have the privilege of once again teaching another student at the honors college in one of my courses in the humanities. This will be the third course in which I have taught this student and I am greatly looking forward to renewing our mutual love affair with higher education.

Drawing Presumptions into Question

This is a student who was homeschooled. Unlike the narrowly tailored products of homeschooling I so frequently encounter - students whose strengths are in their parents’ areas of strengths and whose unexamined prejudices and presumptions about the world mirror their parents’ as well - this student is intellectually curious, willing to explore areas of thought and experience outside the background out of which the student emerges.

While the truth is that most homeschooling is religiously and/or politically fundamentalist in its inception, seeking to create clones of narcissistic parents fearful that their children might actually become their own persons, this student has caused me to think twice about homeschooling. As it turns out, this student was homeschooled by a graduate educated parent out of fear for the child’s safety at the local public school. Smart kids often become targeted when they draw the mediocrity of their classmates to consciousness, often by their mere presence among them. As in so many other ways, the example of this student reminds me of Mencken’s caveat: one size simply does not fit all.

I originally became aware of this student in an intro Humanities course at the honors college a year ago. This science major/math minor produced some excellent presentations as a part of the group projects required by the course. I observed a natural teacher at work. I questioned whether science was this student’s real calling. As it turns out, it was. This freshman now turned sophomore is attending college on several competitive grants usually reserved for upperclassmen and graduate chemistry students and produced a presentation on an obscure chemical process for this spring’s Showcase of Undergraduate Research that was truly amazing. Even more amazing was the student's ability to explain the research in terms that even a non-science person could comprehend.

But what was even more amazing is that the initial contact with the humanities created a spark in this student which resulted in a burning desire to become the well-rounded product of a liberal arts university education. By the end of the fall semester, this student had become a double major, dropping the math minor and adding humanities to the degree program in one of the hard sciences, this all the while taking non-credit courses like swing dancing and attending a rally for the DREAM Act downtown to support one of the guest speakers in a class.

Perhaps the greatest joy in knowing this student is their engagement during office hours outside class. This student inevitably comes by with a question or something that they have been thinking about and wants to run it by me. I have learned a great deal from this student and this is one of the few students whose opinions I actually trust, not because they inevitably reflect my own but more often because they prompt me to reexamine why I think what I do.

Hothouses of Entitlement

I recognize there are some differences between this honors student and the ones mentioned in the previous post. The honors college houses their students in some pretty fancy digs over by the stadium along with the university’s other sacred cows, the jocks. Their quarters resemble private apartments more than dormitories and only honors students live in their section. On the one hand this provides an atmosphere where study could, in theory, actually take place (though from student self-reporting in my classes, it rarely comes close to the Carnegie Unit of two hours for every hour of class in any of their courses). It could also be the locus for some very interesting discussions with a wide range of critically considered perspectives prompting examination of the generally unexamined belief systems with which virtually all students enter the university. In theory, this is an excellent place for honors students.

But on the other hand, it tends to create a hothouse culture in which there are no disaffirming others to call group attitudes and understandings into question making the “common sense” of the body both self-evident and beyond question. I suspect it is precisely this closed circle in which values such as entitlement and seeing a less than average work load in a class as “outrageous” are forged and sustained. Again, one wonders what could be seen as honorable about this dynamic.

One of the things that became apparent to me last semester was that the students at the honors college I most enjoyed teaching shared something in common: they were almost to the student those who lived outside that hothouse. The student discussed here is a rather classic example of this, continuing to live and commute from home while embracing as much of university life as possible while here on campus each day. The groupthink of the honors dorm does not dominate this student’s understandings and I suspect that this honors college peer might readily draw that groupthink into question when they encounter it.

This student is constantly reminding me that there is a difference between students at the honors college and the honors program Again, one size does not fit all. There are few defenders of the honors college as devoted in their apologia for this program as this student. This is a student who readily admits to seeing the honors program as a privilege with enormous potential for developing the many aspects of the individual student. As opposed to the minimalist whining of this student’s honors college peer noted in my previous post, this is a student who sings the praises of a program that demands engagement, hard work, critical thought and creative, effective exposition.

I once asked this student whether they had ever used The blank look I got in response told me all I needed to know. This is a student who seeks out challenging classes, confident that they will probably make an A because they know that they will work hard enough to merit one. Indeed, this is precisely the kind of student honors colleges are made for. And the humble but eager manner in which this student takes advantage of this opportunity often reveals this student’s classmates for the self-focused and often lazy strivers that they far too frequently embody.

The Exception and the Default Role Model

I realize that every student will not be an instructor’s dream nor would they be appreciated if they were. One needs a little darkness to fully appreciate the light. I also realize that most honors students fall somewhere between the extremes of the whining slacker who used as a vehicle to vent the spleen and this student who consistently reads the assigned material, thinks it over critically and punctually attends class ready to discuss the ideas at hand.

What troubles me, however, is that it is the former who more often seems to be the default role model for this population than the latter. Indeed, out of the class just completed in which my character assassin was enrolled, only three of the 15 students came close to being even above average in their work ethic and performance in the class. That’s a lot of dead weight for any instructor to carry.

A friend of mine in higher education would point to this student as the student for whom she teaches. I suppose that is true for me as well. I would do anything in my power to help this student succeed though I suspect this student’s record will ultimately speak for itself without my help.

I am grateful for students like this and for an honors program which enticed this student to attend the university where I teach. Though the handful of students who are actual students don’t overcome the mass of credentials-seeking mediocrity we so often encounter today, even in the confines of self-proclaimed honors colleges, they do make carrying that weight a little more bearable. And in a day when teachers are more likely to be thanked for their devotion and hard work with bashings on anonymous websites than with genuine, heartfelt appreciation, I never, ever take for granted that handful of students who remind me of the joy of teaching that drew me and ever so tentatively keeps me in the world’s most noble profession.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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