Saturday, January 31, 2009


This term I'm teaching five classes: Public Speaking, Intercultural Communication, Rhetoric, Nonverbal, and Interpersonal. It's a good, meat-and-potatoes lineup of core classes in the Communication field. The first four are daytime classes, with mostly traditional undergrads and an occasional nontraditional, which the locals call an OWL, for Older and Wiser Learner. Cute, but I can't seem to get used to it.

That fifth class, Interpersonal, is nothing but OWLs, because it's an entirely online class. It's being offered through the Professional Studies Program, the PSP, which is designed for older adults with full-time jobs and family responsibilities, who want to finish their bachelor's degree. The classes have much longer meetings, are scheduled at night, and are delivered in eight-week terms instead of fifteen. For me, teaching at night is a peek through the gates of hell, so I teach online instead. And my experience with this online class is overhauling one of my major age-linked schemata.

What I now think is, there is no such thing as childish behavior: there is only overwhelmed behavior.

For all these years, I've mentally sorted my students into two categories: children and adults. The children are the ones that put everything off, don't follow instructions, don't stay caught up on the reading, and put more effort into complaining and arguing over class policies than they do into completing the work. And just as I had a knack for keeping two-year-olds in line with a mix of affection and firmness, I've had a lot of success teaching students who displayed those behaviors: I catch them being good, I spot opportunities to be playful and to affirm them, and then whenever they're irresponsible, I act decisively and firmly and make the consequences too serious to take in stride. Just lopping off ten points is a stray raindrop: a zero, and the prospect of additional zeros, is more like a bone-rattling thunderclap.

But through my career, almost every time I've had a student old enough that they'd held a full-time job past the entry level, or married and raised kids past infancy, I never had to resort to that latter repertoire of teaching tools, because it seemed as though they got it. They were adults. They worked ahead and kept up. Sometimes I'd have younger students who practiced all those behaviors, and I decided either they had exceptional parents, or were exceptionally mature. But year after year, I made my snap judgments and sized up students either as children or adults.

This online class is challenging that.

Nearly all the students are displaying some of the behaviors I listed above as "childish." But at the same time, from their writing, and from some of their other behaviors, I can see that they aren't children at all: they do grasp, as a core truth, that they have responsibilities, that consequences aren't a game whose object is outplaying the teacher. Many of them pile up evidence of being sober, settled, functional adults, and yet they still do this incredibly scattershot job of following directions, keeping up with deadlines, being thorough with their proofreading, and other competencies I've always thought of as the hallmarks of adulthood.

This morning, the real difference popped into my head. One second before it did, I was mystified. One second later, it was so obvious that I kicked myself for not seeing it before. The dividing line isn't maturity. The dividing line is between being challenged and being overwhelmed.

Most of my OWLs are devoting their daylight hours to getting their degree. Some of them work, but the work is scheduled around college. They tell me about deals they've hammered out with their spouses to reallot household and child care duties. College has its footprint in their schedule, and even though they find it challenging, they at least have a chronemic architecture that they can adjust this way and that to try to improve the situation.

The PSP students, I firmly believe, have an invisible college career underway, which looks to me like a recipe for disaster.

My class is online. They work on it only when they log into the computer. They don't ever have to set foot on campus. The other classes are night classes. It's not clear to onlookers that they're any different from a PTA meeting or a night out with friends. The whole enterprise doesn't have a footprint in their schedule. I'm not sure anyone's counseled them that it needs to have one, that they need to carve out X number of hours in the day and say "This is school-time, and I am unavailable." As a matter of fact, I think our admissions counselors tell them that this isn't necessary, that they can handle finishing college without letting anything else slip. And I suspect the counselors frame it as, "It's a challenge, but you can rise to the challenge."

But I think that's an important difference: when you plan for it and give it space in your week, it is a challenge. When you simply stuff it into any available cracks, piecemeal, then it goes from challenging to overwhelming.

The puzzle is, I'm not sure what I do about it. I have limited opportunities to advise these students. They have assigned advisors through the PSP program. I can give them tips for scheduling their studying, their classwork, but the few times I've ventured into that territory, it seems as though they don't take me very seriously. I encounter an attitude of, "That sounds nifty, but you have no idea what it's like to work forty hours, and then shoehorn in your kids' need for attention." True, but they have no idea what it's like to successfully complete a degree. Not only did I complete three, but I've been a mentor to dozens upon dozens of students who've made it happen, many of whom did have jobs and kids.

Well, any time I'm at a loss for what to do, there's one surefire place to start: pray about it. Pray for them. And while I do, occasionally, I need to do so a lot more, and a lot more often.

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