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Genre, Learning, and Why Your Students Are So Tired

It’s a bit of a cliche right now, due to the pandemic, that we have to “relearn” how to do things that were normal. But it’s also, like many cliches, not wrong.

Learning is hard enough without a pandemic

And as teachers struggle to find a mode of instruction that meets ever-changing guidelines and protects themselves and their students but still preserves what they valued in traditional instructional modes, we’re all getting very creative. After all, humans are relentlessly creative in the face of adversity, really. This isn’t a bad thing; education was due for a shaking-up, and these creative solutions might help us rethink fundamentals and radically reform education.

It’s stressful on the teacher end because it’s scary to try new things and difficult to problem solve so many different variables at the same time. However, I think it’s worth considering the effect all this innovation is having on the students themselves, because while the teachers are able to innovate and get creative, the students often have little or no say over the modes of instruction they experience, because one thing the coronavirus hasn’t made us rethink completely, apparently, is power relationships in the classroom. If anything, Zoom class sessions (where the instructor is the “host” and has the ability to literally mute everyone) and face-to-face social distancing measures that put instructors behind a shield with a microphone, rather than being able to float around the room, actually make the power difference more pronounced and more autocratic.

But I’m not here to talk about power in the classroom (today). I’m here to talk about the cumulative effect of all these changes on students as students. To do that, I want to talk about course genres, for lack of a better word, which are sort of the opposite of classroom genres.

Pandemic note-taking

Classroom genres are well defined and understood. They’re all the different rhetorical actions and artifacts we generate in classrooms: syllabi, lectures, student essays, midterm and final exams, essay questions, multiple choice questions, etc. These are easily recognizable.

Course genres, as I’ll call it until I have a better term for it, are the different modes of instruction as they tend to cluster together into recognizable forms. This is the pairing of the lecture led by a professor with the lab session led by a TA; this is the small discussion class with 15-30 students; this is the studio course; this is the seminar; etc. We have names for all these things and know pretty much what it looks like across institutions and subjects.

The thing is, students know how to student. Or, at least, they did up until very recently. They understand both classroom genres in the class and course genres that govern the entire course structure, for the most part. They can’t necessarily name them, but as they move through the system they do learn to identify and classify them on sight. This is partly why teaching college freshmen is so different from teaching upperclassmen. Teaching freshmen means also teaching course genres (and discrete classroom genres, as needed); upperclassmen already recognize the course genres (and most of the classroom genres), so you get to focus more on content and refining.

That is, when we teach a subject in a classroom, we also teach what a classroom is, how it should be interacted with, and what to expect with other classrooms. We teach our course genre alongside everything else we are consciously teaching.

What’s happening to students right now is that they have, in many cases, a completely new and different course genre for each course. If a student has 4 classes in a semester, they might have previously split it between lecture/lab and discussion. Maybe an asynchronous online.

Now, that student probably has syncronous online, hyflex, asynchronous online, and socially distanced discussion or lecture.

It’s just harder now, ok?

One of the reasons that reading academic papers gets easier with time is that we learn the genre of the academic paper, so we can focus on the novel content rather than the form as well. This happens with every genre: interact with it enough, and it just gets easier with each iteration. Someone who has never played an RPG has a much steeper learning curve when encountering a new RPG than someone who has played a dozen RPGs, because the experienced RPG player knows the basic conventions of the genre, so they can focus on what’s new and special about this RPG.

Similarly, an experienced student can focus on the content of the course because they can recognize right away from the syllabus, size, location, and physical arrangement of the classroom space which mode of instruction is happening and how to best interact with the course. They aren’t having to learn how to be a student at the same time as mastering the content.

In this regard, freshmen might actually have an advantage, because they were going to have to learn new course genres anyway, but it’s only a slight advantage, because college students have over a decade of experience being students that helps them master college course genres. Now, freshmen and upperclassmen alike are having to learn new course genres, which come with new classroom genres, as well as new course material.

This is, frankly, exhausting. Learning is hard work, as we well know.

In short, your students are tired for a good reason. They have little say in these new course genres, so they’re suffering from a lack of agency (which makes learning harder) as well as having to master new ideas of what being a student entails. They’re rising to the occasion, by most accounts, and that’s to their credit, because what they’re being asked to do is hard. They must not only learn the content you are teaching, but also the entirety of what it means to be a student in your teaching mode.

As you interact with students and plan your course, please be mindful that they’re not only learning what you think you’re teaching, but also how to student all over again.

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