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What Is It Like To Be a Student?
Imagining the college experience, badly
I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist and writer. This is Systematic Hatreds, my newsletter about my thoughts regarding politics and the study of politics. The newsletter takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.
Welcome to all the new readers, and thanks to all the long-time readers.
I’ve been thinking about what this newsletter should be, and I’ve decided it’s going to be about what political scientists do—or, specifically, what this political scientist and the researchers I know, like, and/or read do. And one of those things is teaching. So this edition is about teaching and the question I can’t answer: what is it like to be a student?
What Is It Like To Be a Student?
A famous philosophy paper asked “What is it like to be a bat?” It was an intervention into much more complicated topics regarding the relationship between material facts and subjective experiences, but for our purposes all we need is the motivation and the punchline.
The motivation was straightforward enough: if consciousness exists and is produced by an organism, then there has to be something regarding that consciousness that relates to the material properties of being that kind of organism: “the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism.” If you grant this, then one has to grapple with the question of whether humans can ever understand what it is like to be another kind of organism—especially one that has a very different relationship to the physical world despite sharing numerous commonalities, like a bat.
The punchline is pessimistic: “Even if I could by gradual degrees be transformed into a bat, nothing in my present constitution enables me to imagine what the experiences of such a future stage of myself thus metamorphosed would be like.” We can’t, in other words, find a way of really understanding what it’s like to be a bat—and thus we can’t fully understand consciousness, at least without a vast amount of empirical and theoretical work to resolve consciousness into something that could be described and studied objectively.
There’s a longstanding debate regarding whether this argument is useful to cognitive scientists and philosophers. For the purposes of this post, I don’t care. What I’m interested in, instead, is using the bat question to motivate a more immediate problem: can I understand what it’s like to be a student?
I’m a professor at a large public university, the kind where most of our students still fit the “traditional” mold: enrolling straight out of high school, living on campus at least part of the time, and devoting the predominant share of their time to campus pursuits. It happens to be the sort of environment where I did my own undergraduate studies, at least in category terms.
In principle, I should be able to understand what student life is, within broad enough parameters. And I should be able to use that knowledge to better plan my own courses—relating to students, intuiting what they want, judging what they need, discerning what they want and need.
But most of the time I have almost no clue what’s going on. Every now and then, I run into something that reminds me of this. Most recently, it was a newsletter by Maya Kosoff, which contained an evocative paragraph:
I went to college in 2010 and my professors were like, “social media is bad—whatever you tweet will live with you forever.” And then a year later they were like, “the Arab Spring shows us the importance and necessity of citizen journalism and Twitter.” And then a year after THAT they were like, “hm. Actually, having a personal brand is so important, so you MUST be on Twitter. Be yourself. But also, not too much.” I grew a modest following of a couple thousand people in college, despite most of my tweets being sent at 1:30 am, in the wee hours of a Saturday morning while I was in line to check out at the Kimmel food court Taco Bell. I used Twitter to follow journalists who had good tweets and also were good writers, people who I wanted to model an eventual journalism career after. I took a one-credit class on social media with a total hack of a professor who graded us based on our Klout scores and made us livetweet through all of our classes, including the class that had the unfortunate timing of occurring during the Boston Marathon bombing. I think he believed in the Science and Power of Klout and didn’t know you could game it like anything else online. After my Klout score overtook his during the course of the semester, I tweeted at him to let him know and he promptly unfollowed me. He believed Google+ was going to be the next big thing. He no longer teaches at my alma mater.
Why did this passage resonate with me? Because it’s an honest look at what students actually remember from college. It’s a glimpse of what it’s like to be a student. And it’s both nothing like what I think of my courses and a sudden reminder of my experiences when I was a student—a different kind of organism.
I no longer have any ambitions of being a Dead Poets Society or Dangerous Minds-level teacher—nor even the (rather better pedagogically) dirtbag inspiration of Jack Black in School of Rock. I do, modestly, hope that students retain a few concepts and skills from my courses. Mostly, I hope that the courses aren’t annoying or disorganized. As I wrote in The Chronicle, I think that changes in students’ expectations have made that harder to achieve lately.
But if no man can be a judge in his own case, no instructor can be the evaluator of their own course. At this point, do I really know what an undergrad would find confusing? Do I know what they would find clear? I’m long past the point that I have any idea what sorts of pop cultural references resonate, much less what sorts of historical references would illuminate rather than confuse an analytical lecture. (God willing, I still have enough self-awareness not to do something like require students to sign up for Klout.)
Of course, these days you can become a meme just for doing your job:
What’s really terrifying about Maya’s recollections, however, is how students see any one faculty member as part of a faculty. This is not how faculty members experience life—or at least this faculty member. I see my colleagues sporadically; they have almost no input on my courses, nor I on theirs. And yet students—entirely reasonably!—see us as a collective. What we say is perceived in the context of what our colleagues say, and I have no idea what my colleagues say. (I think I can say without endangering any relations in the department that there are colleagues I have not physically seen in years at this point.)
The deeper point is that for Maya and almost all of our students college is a phase, a stage. For me, working at university is (touch wood) a lifetime appointment. It’s hard to keep touch with what it’s like to be a student when so much of your work starts to revolve around the judgments of people who similarly have made study their life’s work.
Every once in a while, I remember some snippet of lecture or discussion from a professor of mine, back when I had no intention of being in the academy for life. I recall both being impressed with how much they knew—but also somewhat confused about why they knew things instead of doing things. What was it like to be a professor, anyway?
I couldn’t answer then. Despite all of the attention I received from my professors (a good deal more than my fair share), I never really quite understood what they were about until I was in my fourth or fifth year of graduate school. The whole thing just never clicked. It may still not have. I frequently wonder if it still has, given where I am in my career compared to where I’d like to be. It’s daunting to imagine how to convey what this life is about to someone on the other side of this gulf of comprehension.
I’ve been reading a little bit more recently, although I haven’t been finishing what I’ve started as much as I’d like. I did, however, finish Sea of Tranquility, which I thought was quite good. I’ve read (and taught) Mandel’s Station Eleven, which inspired an entire course of mine—I will, however, be replacing that book with Sea of Tranquility in the coming term, mostly to keep myself fresh. Sea of Tranquility isn’t transformational the way Station Eleven was, but it still counts as my Can-Con for this quarter. It’s also sweet, keen, and, oddly enough, Twilight Zone-style science fiction.