Thursday, February 20, 2014

It’s not supposed to be (just) fun

In the last couple of years that I’ve been teaching the academic writing course at the university, I’ve learned to open my class by informing my students that the class is a difficult one. There are four major papers to complete by the end of the term, showcasing the various academic writing forms that the students will encounter throughout their college careers, as well as fine-tuning their research, writing, and editing skills. It’s like any freshman writing class in most universities: one that (hopefully) assumes that after the end of the course, everyone is on the same page when it comes to writing in the academe. 

During the same class, I also ask my students what their expectations are. The usual suspects come up: it will be a difficult class, it will be a heavy class in terms of requirements, their language skills will not be up to par with the standards. That’s okay, and I tell them up front -- it’s not my job to sugar coat things. I know that, inevitably, when they start butchering term papers and thesis proposals during the junior and senior years, their advisers will trace their training back to us, the ones working in the writing trenches, dotting I’s and crossing T’s, correcting run-on sentences and verb tenses with the precision of a trained sniper.  

But one thing that drives me absolutely nuts -- and it’s not just in this class, but it most classes that I’ve handled -- is the expectation that the class is supposed to be fun

When pressed further, the idea of fun translates to: a teacher who jokes around all the time, gives them a very short list of requirements, and allows them off the hook most of the time. Bonus points if the teacher can sing, dance, jump through flaming hoops, and play the ukelele all at once. Applause all around.

Look, when I first signed up for this job, I was aware that it was an exhausting, thankless job that will never make me rich (or even comfortably well-off), that will expose me to each and every craziness that a student might throw at me, and will oftentimes drive me nuts. Not to mention the fact that I take work home on a regular basis, work on weekends, read a mountain of writing that ranges from so-so to absolutely dismal, and that any semblance of a work-life balance was going to out of the window. 

What did not prepare me was the fact that my students expected me to be an entertainer as well as a teacher.

Here’s the thing, students: when you tell your teacher that you’re expecting the class to be fun, what you’re telling us is this -- you’re not interested in learning, you’re interested in being entertained. And I’d hate to burst your bubble, but if you’re just looking to be entertained, then maybe you might want to step out of class and watch a movie at the mall instead. When you tell us that you expect the class to be fun, you’re telling us that you don’t care about our expertise or our experience (which usually took years of work) and that you can’t be bothered to actually do the heavy lifting. What you want to do is to sit back, your arms folded across your cartoon character t-shirt, and wait for us to pull out a song-and-dance number for you. 

I can’t help but wonder if this is the kind of university students that we are creating: the ones who expect each teacher to don a coat and tie and pull a rabbit out of a hat. The ones who expect their teachers to tell them exactly what to do, when to do, and how to do it. Short of actually putting my fingers around theirs and showing them how to write their names on top of a piece of paper, the expectations of students have skyrocketed to the point where I don’t even understand where it’s coming from. Is it entitlement? Is it a sense that we owe you for attending the class? Is it privilege? I have no clue. But it still boggles my mind when, in a writing class, a student tells me, “I don’t want any limitations on my writing, I don’t want to be required to write.” 

Head, meet desk.

Sure, I know when I’m on the short end of the stick, or when I feel that I may not have explained a concept or an idea very well, or I wasn’t able to provide enough examples or illustrations. I try to do better -- teaching, much like studying, is a learning process. I constantly examine my materials, update them, or find new and better ways of conveying a certain skill, a certain idea, a certain way of thinking. I hope to the pantheon of imaginary gods that I am doing something right -- right, in the sense that they will be able to use what I am teaching them to navigate the crazy, senseless, amazing world we live in, that they are learning something of value. 

Learning is supposed to be fun for the sake of learning. Why must a class be described as “fun” in the first place? Isn’t it inherently supposed to be? Even the difficult ones, the ones that force us to think and rethink where we’ve gone wrong and how to make it right, the ones that force us out of our comfort zones and make us consider the world we live in in a different light, the ones that we stay up late for, that we make an effort to work for above and beyond the grade. Those are the classes that, in my mind, is worth the hassle and worth the sleepless nights and worth the grade. The fun is there if you look for it. If you enjoy what you’re doing and you find it worthwhile, despite the workload and the requirements and the ever-expanding list of things to do, then you’re doing something that you can consider as something fun.

Which isn’t to say that fun is always supposed to be frivolous and shallow and temporary. But we conflate having fun with being happy, and those are two entirely different things. Having fun is part of an experience; it’s suspended animation, a moment of free-floating in the air, a glow that suffuses everything and covers the world with a rose-tinted light. Being happy is much harder to attain, and much more difficult to keep. Happiness is the responsibility of the individual, not the teacher. After all, we can’t put a grade on that. Nobody can. 

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