When to break it to ’em

I’ve addressed “why you need this course” many times in my syllabi and first day spiels. The intention to “get the record straight” before the class commences is certainly understandable. We don’t want students to harbor skepticism that may inhibit their learning experience. Furthermore, we may also wish to prevent any undesirable comments on course evaluations and www.ratemyprofessor.com. We want the buy in immediately, so we turn to the selling mode on day one.

With this approach, however, the professor potentially risks one of the most important outcomes of higher education: critical thinking. Indoctrinating students before they have had an opportunity to engage with the material is denying them an environment where they can challenge the system. Do you want your students to speak their mind in class? Do you want students to develop thesis statements that creatively go against the majority? Do you want students to deconstruct long-standing theories? Of course you do!!! Well, then let them.

You cannot have is both ways. If you present students with your offer of value on the first day, then they will make their decision on whether to buy into it on the first day. Either they will accept the value because you told them to or they will tune out because your actions told them that you’re a phony. The semester will be a drag. However, if you want them to critically engage with course topics, you have to let them call you out from time to time. This is what an intellectual community does.

Breaking the news to them that your course will have long-term value is something that should come later in the semester and it should be initiated by the students. Everything will need to be thrown on the table when students begin to challenge what you’re doing and to question whether it’s worth their time. Your willingness to put your plan on hold when the time presents itself will convince students of your authenticity as an educator. Furthermore, all sides are now privy to course content and thus in a better position to discuss on equal grounds. It’s not fair to tell students they need the content of the course when you haven’t even shown it to them yet. If you can guide the discussion to allow students to formulate plausible connections between their learning experiences and future scenarios, the buy in will be far greater. And they will have arrived at this by exercising the inquisitive mindset we are trying to cultivate.

Not every student will see the connection, even after this conversation. It will be tempting to consider it shortsighted. However, if the class has the opportunity to challenge you and the encouragement to support that challenge with evidence, then they’re modeling something more valuable than you could over sell them with a lecture.

One response

  1. I really enjoyed reading this thoughtful critique of the purported need to sell students on the value of a given course. It is tempting to extend the analysis even further than you have suggested given our collective fondness for opining that students are incapable of discerning the value of what we offer until they have lived enough life beyond the undergraduate experience in order to somehow mature into a robust understanding of the impact of our courses. Of course, this begs the question as to why our offerings are so out-of-synch with the life worlds of our students that it somehow takes years for them to yield such understanding in the first place.

    Returning to your central argument I am tempted to ask a another question. What if one were to do as you suggest and truly engage students in an open, post-course dialogue regarding the value of a course only to learn that the now fully informed students have deemed the course to be of negligible value? Would we have the courage to take them at their word or would we frame their wisdom in the light of my foregoing comments regarding our supposition that they can only discern value down the proverbial road?

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