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In the article “These College Students Don’t Like the System They’re In,” New York Times journalists Patrick Healy and Adrian J. Rivera convened a panel of twelve college students from diverse locations, political opinions, and race and class backgrounds to discuss and “describe how it feels to be in college right now.” Three out of twelve students offered tentatively optimistic responses. The remaining nine students gave pessimistic responses. Four of the students used words that suggested they felt invisible. The breakdown looks like this:
- Just fine.
- Grateful but doubtful.
- Excited but new to this
Generally Pessimistic (Invisibility highlighted in cyan)
- I don’t really know another word to say it, but kind of “effed over,” I guess.
- Excessive stress.
- Unlooked at.
- Too necessary.
As a writing teacher, I find the students’ feelings of invisibility very concerning. Whether literal in virtual spaces, or figurative in face-to-face classrooms, feelings of invisibility expressed by students in the Times article seem to become an impediment to learning and growing, as seen in these statements:
Obstacle to Learning and Growing (specific learning issues highlighted in light red)
- “And no matter how much you say. …I need help [professors] don’t offer it.”
- “The administration said [offering new signage] was too much money, and they don’t want to do it.”
- “I’m taking so many useless classes that I’m paying for that have zero effect on what I want to do in life.”
- “We made it very evident that we were unhappy, uncomfortable [with the professor expressing his opinion]. And yet he continued.”
- If I say something that might disagree with [the professor], she would get offended and treat me differently.”
- “When somebody of a minority is standing right in front of your face and waiting for you to say something so you can actually have a conversation — let’s have a conversation about it — it’s crickets.”
- “You’re always kind of wary of what that open discussion might come up to be.”
- “Everyone just stuck with kind of the same idea. …no one really branched out.”
I want to suggest that these words, highlighted for impact, are not unique to this generation of students, and are not necessarily or completely caused by the learning conditions of the pandemic. As a struggling undergraduate student in a very different time and place, I remember those feelings of invisibility keenly and painfully. For example:
My Undergraduate Experiences of Invisibility (students’ contemporary voices in light red)
- “I need help.” As a humanities major, I did not understand why I was required to take introductory courses designed for science majors. Advanced preparation in math was assumed in these courses, and there was no help available for humanities majors like me who struggled with algebra and geometry, and were not required to take either calculus or chemistry in high school.
- “...something that might disagree with [the professor].” In English, for which I did have advanced preparation, it appeared that I did not have the appropriate preparation for respecting the (at the time) white, male literary canon. I was given permission to write a paper linking The Canterbury Tales to popular culture, and received, as a first-year student, a very low grade for not focusing on medieval texts.
- “...no one really branched out.” I felt frustrated when the professor’s grading system was so unclear that the professor, more than once, spent half a class period answering students’ questions. This discussion took place in a humanities class that was important for my major, a class that I had dearly wanted to take. But the extended discussion of grades left little time to focus on the course material, and I often felt bored and frustrated.
Decades later, I can now view these examples from a teacher’s perspective. Speaking to my younger self I would reply:
Students challenges–Professor responses
- “I need help.” Make better use of the professor’s office hours
- “...something that might disagree with [the professor].” Follow the instructions to the assignment
- “...no one really branched out.” Understand that other students needed information about grading to best complete the course materials
However, I recognize that none of these responses would have been satisfying. I was an undergraduate far from home accruing debt with every passing day. The explanations from an instructional perspective might have been helpful, but they would not have solved the immediate problem I was having–that learning in conventional college classrooms limited to lectures and assessments did not work for my hands-on learning processes. I could have withstood a healthy mixture of traditional and nontraditional learning, but that is not what I ended up paying for. In fact, I often felt invisible.
My hope as a teacher is to become mindful of how easy it can be for students to feel invisible, and to try to recalibrate my teaching as necessary. This is challenging and necessary work in difficult times. My ongoing goal, which is always in process, is to remain open to learning and growing with my students.
I came here to build the future. Inscription on a rectangular light-colored stone surrounded by red flagstones.
Tempe, Arizona, September 2014. Photo by Susan Bernstein
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