Some of my students are extremely serious, motivated, and smart. I frequently see the same hard-working students at lunch or dinner arguing over some physics problem, or doing some calculation while eating. I’m very impressed with these students, they are a pleasure to teach, and as one might expect, these are exactly the students who have been doing extremely well on their exams.
Even some of the students who arrived at Oxford with an educational deficit (perhaps having gone to a not-so-good high school) have a fair chance of catching up and doing well if they are smart and really work like crazy. Alas, in some cases, if a deficit is too large to begin with, it may be too great to overcome. Nonetheless, I’ve already seen some driven students come here with a philosophy of “succeed or die trying” (or as they said in Sparta "e tan e epitas", with your shield or on it!”). A few of them have pulled off what can only be described as exam miracles.
Then there are a few students of the opposite variety: those who are not working hard enough and are barely scraping by. My initial philosophy upon coming here was to treat them as adults: If they want to waste their education, they are fully entitled to do so. However, it soon became clear that this was not going to be an acceptable policy. To begin with, poorly performing students are considered a bad reflection on a college (and inevitably on the professors that teach them). Secondly, one must remember that much of the funding for education in the UK comes from the government (Oxford was essentially free to UK citizens until just a few years ago –-- now it is absurdly cheap [by US standards], but not free). As such, allowing students to waste their education, and hence UK taxpayer money, is frowned upon. Finally, academic competition between colleges is fierce (as measured by the famous “Norrington Table” – the subject of much discussion around here – I’ll save that for another post). The colleges that perform well by this measure are then able to recruit better students, and then perform even better in future years. At any rate, the upshot is that part of my job is to squeeze the best performance possible out of my students.
A few weeks ago, over a late night beer, I asked a few of my more experienced colleagues how they get their students to work harder. Although answers varied, at least one took a “no-holds-barred” approach: Students worked… or else. Basically this professor viewed it as his job to whip the students into shape, whether or not they appreciated him later for doing so. It turns out that most of his students do actually appreciate him for doing this (although I’m sure there will be a few who don’t like this kind of military approach to matters).
Somewhere along the line most students run into a strict but fair teacher who commands total respect and demands the impossible. In the end, students frequently like and remember fondly these demanding teachers for forcing them to learn. For me, perhaps, it was Mr. Fraction at Twelve Corners Middle School, who was not a math teacher, but an English teacher. He gave me detention every day for a month until I could improve my handwriting to the point where it was readable. I’m not going to say that my handwriting is now particularly legible, but without him, probably even I would not even be able to decipher my own scrawl.
I’m not sure if I have it in me to be one of these taskmasters, I find it difficult to chew out students even when they deserve it. But perhaps slowly, as I get more annoyed with students who are not performing as well as I know they could, I might morph into Mr. Fraction.
Comments encouraged from profs or other teachers who might be reading this…