I have had a number of conversations recently with students that got me to thinking about my profession. Some of these conversations were face-to-face dialogues, others I must admit, were voyeuristic intrusions into students’ conversations before and after class.
My listening to students lead me to recognize that although students and faculty often share common objectives and expectations, at times, we diverge in our judgments and preferences, sometimes significantly. For example, while students expect faculty to fully explain the details of course material—arithmetic procedures, processes of chemical analysis, explanation of an author’s unstated meaning—faculty expect students to demonstrate independent scholarship and initiative—studying and memorizing procedures, reading how processes are controlled, and researching the biographical data and literary criticism of authors during the course of explication.
In these cases, the students’ expectations say that they want to be taught. The faculty’s expectations say that they want the students to demonstrate independent scholarship. How can these seemingly disparate sets of expectations be resolved? How can the students learn course material and, at the same time, learn to be scholars?
Faculty can help to bridge the distinctions in perception and preference by writing clear, descriptive assignments. The syllabi should be more than a list of assignments and due dates. Syllabi must convey the course learning objectives and the faculty’s personal expectations of the students. I am often distraught when I read others’ syllabi. I have a difficult time finding the order and reason of assignments. I suggest that faculty make use of white space (it is perfectly acceptable to compose a syllabus that extends beyond six pages). Faculty should write each academic week’s assignments on a separate page; describe the learning objectives and weekly topics, not just present a list of the assignment due dates. Faculty should think of syllabi as personal communication medium between themselves and their students.
Students can work to bridge the distinctions in perception and preference by asking questions that lead them to meet the faculty’s expectations. Students can demonstrate their academic development by joining the class conversation: participate in class. Students can join the learning process. Scholarship requires demonstration of critical thinking and cognitive and analytic command of the course materials. Show your faculty that you are prepared (have carefully read the assigned material), understand the readings, and can place a value on having a command of the material. Ask yourself why this material is important to you? What value does—or will—it have for you? Ask yourself how you can best use this material in your life. Then, find an answer to these questions without taking the easiest route (don’t ask your faculty; figure out the answer yourself). Remember, your faculty want you to develop your academic skills so that you become independent of them.