JBFC: How hard is too hard?

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We're three weeks into the course, and the material is starting to get noticeably harder. I've done this deliberately, of course, but I worry whether I've calibrated correctly.  I want my students to be puzzled—even deeply puzzled—by what they meet in my class, but I don't want them to be defeated by it.  Is the material too hard?  Sure, they're smart and all, but am I nevertheless expecting too much of them?

The worry is not merely, as they say, academic.  Ask too little of them, and they're bound to get bored.  But, as psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi argues (and as I've mentioned before), provide challenges that dwarf the current skill levels of students and you trigger anxiety, which is no more productive than boredom.  The ideal, in other words, is to ladder them up to the really hard stuff by first giving them skills—recognizing and analyzing an argument in an approachable reading, say—and then by providing opportunities to exercise those skills in slightly tougher contexts, and then by helping them develop further skills, and so on.  A very strong argument could be made, I think, that this laddering up simply is what learning is.

Okay, so that's the ideal.  But this calibration problem has been somewhat tough to deal with given the nature of the course.  Since this is a Freshman Seminar, I've only got 14 students and their various skill levels to consider instead of 50 or 75 or 175, which makes settling on a level of difficulty a little easier.  But since this is a Freshman Seminar, I've got a classroom full of people still working out what it is to be in a Princeton classroom and part of this discourse community, which means I've got a lot of skill work to do.  Accordingly, I've tended to spend more time talking than I would in an upper-level seminar while still trying to have discussion drive the in-class work we do.  I've also been trying to model skills that I want them to use and then just plain telling them what skill we were just using.

But I've recently been reminded of one thing that I don't think I've done well or enough of yet this semester.  Like many spring semesters here at the McGraw Center, we're putting on what we call the Master Class in Lecturing.  The short course consists of a series of talks about lecturing given by some of Princeton's best lecturers, and then those who sign up for the course present mini lectures and receive feedback from their audience, including the faculty "master."  During a recent session, the invited lecturer emphasized the importance of communicating your love for the discipline, for what you're teaching.  As he so nicely put it (more or less):

"Students arrive with adolescent loves—they don't know what importance is, what depth is.  Their lives need to be changed, and if I'm not aiming to change their lives, then what's the point?"

Giving my students a clear reason to love what we're doing will no doubt encourage them to stick with what's hard, to find love in the work itself and therefore the desire to work at it.  In many ways, I suppose, that's what defines philosophy—the love of the puzzle itself and not so much the solution.

Next week, then, I will work harder at getting them to feel the love (as it were).  The week after that:  Changing their lives.

For those keeping track at home:  I again welcomed students to come to lunch with me.  Takers?  Still nobody.


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This page contains a single entry by Roblin Meeks published on February 19, 2009 7:07 PM.

JBFC: The other (student) minds problem was the previous entry in this blog.

JBFC: Why. is the next entry in this blog.

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