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Adjusting Assumptions and Reevaluating Opportunities for Students

Ryan Fowler

Franklin and Marshall College

Because I was trying something quite new a few years ago in a newly-created third-semester Latin course, I made time for nearly eight hours of office hours each week in order to account for what I sensed was going to be a very challenging and demanding course. My intent was to motivate students to come into the office in order to go through both the syntax and rhetorical techniques used in the upcoming Latin readings, to discuss “post-mortem” the most recent exam, and to feel more comfortable with the new material so that they might also receive better grades in the upcoming exam. In effect, the level of the course created a situation in which nearly every student had to come to office hours to fully understand the material. To my mind, at least, this could be seen by these students as a benefit, one that would also allow for extra, individualized instruction that would be catered to the students’ needs—very nearly a tutorial, in addition to regular class-time.

What I found out in the end of the term evaluations was that, instead of an opportunity, many students found this requirement to be an extra burden. This realization emerged rather starkly from a number of course evaluations: one students pointed out that this role that office hours took on “disproportionately benefits students of privilege or those with a lighter work-load”; another pointed out that she, “has to work 30 hours to pay for school, so I can’t be as available as someone who doesn’t have to work”; and a third that “[n]ot all students are the same. And this hurts non-privileged students most.” The students on the campus where I teach are very busy, and often work one, sometimes two jobs. Their experience of being more or less required to take extra, unplanned time—while appreciated to some extent according to evaluations, and was taken advantage of by some portion of the students in the course—brought to the surface my own assumptions about free time, opportunity, and privilege (as the quotations above articulate well).

Ever since this sobering experience, I have slowed down the pace and the sheer quantity of work required of almost all of my courses (we still do not have enough time to discuss everything in class). But more to the point, all of my courses have benefitted from this shift: in essence, we have more time together in regularly scheduled class-time to go through the material, and all students can benefit from each other’s experiences and questions. In short, what I now work to always keep in mind is that there may be a striking, invisible gap between what I intend and what students experience, and that making extra time outside the classroom to meet with them, despite intending only to offer help, is not experienced that same way by all students who are already feeling constraints of time, resource, and energy.

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On Being Calmly Wrong: Learning from Teaching Mistakes

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