Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Are the Difficulty Police coming for me?

This morning I made an offhand comment about low attendance in recent classes and a student said, "Maybe the problem is just in your classes," which got my attention, and then she added, "because your classes are so hard," which really didn't help.

Twice this week I've had to give different classes the "learning happens in the struggle" speech, reminding them that the students who persist in struggling with a challenging assignment learn far more than those who give up at the first sign of difficulty. "This assignment is supposed to be difficult," I tell them, "so if you find it easy, you may not understand the directions."

It's a hard sell, persuading students to value difficult tasks, but I've always assumed that my colleagues would understand. Alas, maybe not. The other day at a faculty meeting we were discussing a proposal (never mind the details) that evoked some discussion of the reasons students might want to transfer in an online course from another institution--money, scheduling difficulties, the desire to take an unofficial, unapproved overload--but the discussion kept coming back to the fact that some students take easier online equivalents of courses that they find too darned difficult, which inspired a colleague to quip, "Well, if students find some of our courses too difficult, maybe those courses need to be investigated."

It was a Zoom meeting with cameras muted so I don't know how many jaws dropped at that moment, but mine certainly did. First of all, who would be charged with "investigating" whether certain courses are "too difficult"? Too difficult for whom? I mean, if we want to "investigate" every course that any student ever finds challenging, wouldn't we eventually end up investigating everything?

I don't set out to make my courses difficult just to annoy students and I bend over backward to work with students who really want to succeed, but I notice that the group of students who recently dropped one of my classes had never once attended office hours or sought my help in any other way. The class is not that difficult--but it does require an effort, and that effort can't be entirely on my part.

Sometimes simply showing up requires effort, and I notice that in my general education literature classes, more "difficult" readings result in lower attendance. Wouldn't it make more sense to skip class when the material is easy to understand? Surely we can all make progress toward understanding if we struggle through the weeds together, right?

Well maybe not. Maybe my classes are too hard. Maybe someone ought to investigate whether I'm overworking the little darlings. But who is prepared to do that? Does anyone in academe have so much free time on their hands that they can police the difficulty levels of every class students find challenging?

The very prospect makes me want to pull the covers over my head and stay home. I could call in sick, cough into the phone to make it sound more authentic. Sometimes this job is just too hard.

And yet here I am, doing my best to struggle through the difficulties and eager to welcome anyone who wants to join me.    


Anonymous said...

Some students (an increasing number of them, actually) are just not very resilient. I feel bad for them.

A said...

Mostly I agree. And some difficulty is necessary. But then I see a few outlier classes where a third of the class fails, regularly, and my advisees with A averages pull Cs. And that seems to be something different.

Bev said...

Yes, that is a problem. Not sure what the answer is but it seems like it ought to be handled within the department.