Every semester, we have a spectrum of students: the slacker, the clueless, the goal-oriented. There are those whose main priorities are the location of the next party–clearly not ready to transition into adulthood. There are those who are overworked, juggling life and the pursuit of a better-paying job. There are those who stare blankly into the room during discussion or not-so-slyly look through their cell-phones.
This semester in my Honors Freshman Composition class, I lucked out with several very involved students. One in particular, a non-traditional student, stands out as intensely enthusiastic about learning. His first paper, a Personal Narrative, was a fictionalized account of his itinerant days. He received an A. I encouraged him to submit to the undergraduate literary journal.
A group project/presentation that involved another student, with whom he had had numerous (ideologically-)combative discussions with during class, caused him some trouble. He wrote a freewrite/critique full of angst–“we SUCKED!”–and proceeded to explain in two pages what had happened.
[Paraphrase:] “I was slighted. She would not take into account my viewpoints or contact me about working on the project. I felt under-prepared because the PowerPoint was not how it was supposed to be. She changed it without my knowledge.”
He spoke to me after class. I assured him that it did not seem as if he was under-prepared, only seemingly exhausted. They received an A for the project.
In contrast, a few weeks later, he led a group of more passive students to create a splendid mock-promotional advertisement for high school students, encouraging them to major in the natural sciences. (The other groups created promotional ads for social sciences, applied sciences, and humanities.) The presentation involved a well-executed script, a recruitment flier, costume (a military-style jacket similar to the character in the flier), even.
The next paper, a Persuasive Essay, appeared to be going in a similar trajectory. He decided to pursue a theory he’d had as a child, regarding a supposed antagonist (Skeletor) of an 80s cartoon series (Masters of the Universe) being the true protagonist. He meant to expose the screwed-up ideologies of “civilization.” He spent some 30 hours reviewing the entire series again and writing his paper. It was full of brilliant ideas. He received a B+. (The class curve was typical–mostly C papers.)
He spent the rest of the hour fuming, writing responses to all of my suggestions. He requested to speak to me after class. In hindsight, I should have given him a day to process his anger. We had a 3-hour long consultation. We discussed mechanics–whether a comma was necessary or whether to use “who” or “that” for a demonic, animalistic character (an intentional, stylistic choice, he insisted). I assured him that these did not affect his grades. The larger issues–clarity, coherence, organization of his supporting materials–were more difficult to explain.
He’s very much against the mechanical approach of how essays are structured. (I agreed and had encouraged him to exercise some creativity in approach during his Personal Narrative.) Yet, he was adamant that his presentation of ideas was clear enough to the reader. His prose, though, was immensely detailed and complex that it detracted from his overall point, causing me, as an uninformed reader, to be confused, thus making his argument convoluted.
“I still don’t understand. What do I need to do to prevent another B+?”
He wanted concrete answers on how to make his B+ paper into an A paper, and I could only give him suggestions based on what’s expected out of him (to be aware of his audience), as a writer in an academic setting.
This then led to a conversation about general disdain for his college classes–because the system is constricting–possibly resulting in him dropping out after the semester is over. (How does one explain to a student to work within the system if he’s vehemently against it and does not value its conventions?)
“I miss sleeping in trees. I can work for $12 an hour and essentially play all day. Or I can drive an ice cream truck and make $100K a year, working only 5 months.”
“Why are you in college, then?”
“For security. When I get old and can no longer work, society will not take care of me.” (We had discussed in an earlier class about “taker” and “leaver” societies based on Daniel Quinn’s philosophical novel, Ishmael.) “If I get a degree in education, I can spend minimal time preparing and teaching, yet I’ll have security later on.”
“How do you feel about having to sacrifice your ideals to be part of the system?”
My phone rang. He apologized for taking up so much of my time. I encouraged him to come chat with me again.