In “Message to My Freshman Students,” Keith M. Parsons outlines how he’ll address the incoming first year students in his Introduction to Philosophy class. Having taught first year students “for the first time in many years” in spring 2015, Parsons found many of his students to be woefully unprepared for his course and the academic experience as a whole. Parsons sees the big deficiencies as result of high school teachers who were forced to focus on test prep and coddling students, rather than teaching students to think critically. Instead of catering to current students through flipped classrooms and the like, Parsons argues students need to learn to listen and learn from lectures, his preferred method of instruction. Parsons concludes his article by pointing what he feels is the biggest difference between professors and their students: their mindsets. According to Parsons, first year students see college as a way to earn a degree, while professors see college as a way to broaden minds and make the “world richer.”
Though Parsons is right about the fact that students arrive on many college campuses unprepared for the academic rigor of their next four years, I take issue with his characterization of students and faculty in this piece. Parsons depicts first year students, “freshman” as he calls them throughout his piece, as a monolith. A group that is a product of their unsuccessful schooling and uninventive, uncaring teachers. A group that passively accepted the test prep of their youth and will now have attentions spans “measured in nanoseconds.” According to Parsons, they come to college for credentials and want nothing more. His understanding of first year students is as uninformed as his use of “freshman” is dated.
Unlike Parsons, I teach primarily first year students...
In addition to his misunderstanding of first year students, Parsons also really misrepresents faculty in his “Message to My Freshman Students.” Parsons lectures. That’s fine by me. Some faculty are great lecturers and reach many students that way. I have not attended one of his classes or spoken to his students, so I can’t and don’t want to speak on his success as a lecturer. What I can say is that statements like “My job is to lead you to the fountain of knowledge,” “I get paid the same whether you get an “F” or an “A,” and “Hogwash. You need to learn to listen,” are probably not the best ways to grab and hold the attention of his first year student audience. Hopefully these messages are held to the first day only… Even so, I worry Parsons wouldn’t get a second day with many of the students who received this message.
But then again, according to Parsons, I am one of those “higher-education reformers” who believe in the flipped classroom.
Contrary to what Parsons suggests about the rationale behind flipping, I flip my classroom because it helps me effectively use my classroom time while also teaching my students how to read, think, and listen critically outside the classroom. This emphasis on critical thinking is something Parsons and I have in common. Flipping helps me and my students work on that very thing. Flipping a classroom for the sole purpose of “cater[ing] to their conditioned craving for constant stimulation” would be a fool’s errand. No matter how much time and energy I put into a video, it won’t hold a candle to the billions of far more entertaining options online. Students still have to want to learn.
Luckily, for me and Parsons, our students do.
The fact that they’ve shown up in our classrooms on day one suggests that. I believe, as does Parsons, that how we approach them on the first day will have a big impact on how they continue that semester and maybe for the next few years. My intention, though my students will be able to tell you if I succeed or not, is to inspire and challenge them.
On my next first day, I will address my first year students as I have tried to do for the last few years. I will start by learning their names. Then we’ll have a discussion of expectations: mine, theirs, the university’s. And based on our discussion, we’ll move through the semester in the way that makes the most sense for my pedagogy, their needs, and our goals. I’m much more comfortable with the uncertainty of what a new class of students will bring and need than I am determining all that for them before they arrive.
What about you? What do you do on the first day of class?
Amanda J. Hedrick
Story collector, recipe enthusiast, educator, striving for a constant input and output of all things art and learning.