Students Ask: What’s the Point? And We All Shrug Our Shoulders

Students enjoy challenging their professors. There is nothing wrong with this practice, and it should be encouraged.  If students didn’t ask deep questions, professors would not prep themselves for these questions and, most likely, most professors would just read the text book aloud the whole time and then give out a True/False test. Some students would be just fine with this, but the ones that raise their hands during a lecture, ask a tough question, and require that the Professor come up with an answer on the spot, these are the students that keep a Professor up late a night, reading and re-reading the material to make sure they, me, don’t look like an idiot during lecture.

One of the hardest questions I  was asked this year was, “Why should I write a research paper?”  It was a good student who asked it, and he received an “A” for the course (But that’s not a proper metric for a good student. That’s another post).  I was standing in front of the class, giving a lecture on picking a topic and formulating a thesis.  He asked, honestly and without malice, why he should drag his ass to a library, sit down, look through books, find information, and write a paper about it.  I told him, because people need to know that information, and you’re giving it to them.  He rebutted, asking why he should write a paper on, say, Stem cell research, when someone else has already written a paper on Stem cell research.

It took me a second.

“Because,” I said.  And I left it hanging there for a few moments and then I moved on.

It’s a valid question. Why should he?  Why should I teach him something that he’s never going to use?  The futility, he’s asking.  Why? What’s the point?  If you break down what he says, though, it might make more sense.  Here is what it sounds like to him when he says the statement.

“Why (what’s the point) should I (me, and not someone else) write (I hate writing) a research paper (some bullshit I don’t care about)?

Here is what it sounds like to me.

“Why (What are the reasons) should I (a student) write (practice and learn about a skill that a professor finds valuable) a research paper (a paper that uses research but that, most likely, won’t use research very well)?

When I was in college, this was a non-issue. I wanted to learn how to write because that was why I went to college. I thought I was a good writer and I was proven, again and again, that I was a horrible writer. It took me years to get to a point where I could write a paragraph that didn’t sound like gibberish, and it took me a decade to find my voice, to write in a way that sounded like me and no one else.  As a Professor, I value the professors that taught me this and my sole dream is to give this knowledge to my students.

But what if they don’t want to learn it?

It’s the consistent problem facing every student. There are things they need to learn, but they have no desire to learn it. Worse, society does not re-enforce the learning, and gazes a skeptical eye on learning in general.  Why do you need to know this, many people say?  What kind of job can you get with that? Writing?  Who writes anymore?

Reading?  Who reads anymore?  Unless it puts instantaneous amounts of money in a person’s pocket, there is no reason to learn anything, those with jobs and fortunes tell our youth.  While those in academia, the teachers, the experts, those charged with teaching, have the tiring job of defending ourselves.  Our jobs are two-fold difficult because those that say, “I don’t need to learn to write” have the strongest of weapons against us: a valid point.

If a person doesn’t want to write, they can and will reach a point where they don’t have to.  And they never will again.

I could say this is horrible, that writing is amazing and that those who don’t write are missing a fundamental part of existence and blah, blah, blah, but that’s crap, right?  When I think this, I go to the mirror and look at myself and ask myself the last time I used a theorem. If someone put a geometry equation in front of me, I would vomit on them and it. Math makes my skin flake and I have a small shake of pleasure when I think back to 10th grade with Mrs. Bumgardner, or whatever her name was, and I said, boldly and frankly that, after I graduated High School, I would never, ever use this crap again.  It’s true. I never have.  That doesn’t make me any less of a jerk for saying it, though, or thinking it.

Students don’t understand that my job, our job as teachers, isn’t to infuse young people with passion.  It is to help them find passion. They have no idea what they like, and it is up to us to show them, introduce them to it.  It’s conceptional, a theory that, if you experiment and taste and look and touch, you’ll find what you like.  General Studies are mandatory for that reason.  If it wasn’t required, no one would write anything, especially the young one who doesn’t know, yet, that they actually like to write.  I originally went to school with a love of writing but a desire to learn history, to be a historian.  I changed my mind once I learned that historians don’t debate history as much as observe it, don’t write about history as much as simply re-record it. And even those, my assumptions about history studies, are flawed because I didn’t finish it.  I only had a taste, and that was enough to make me avoid it as much as possible.

But, try telling that to someone in the allotted time, without starting a conversation about education, knowledge, personal initiative and ethics.  Teaching Freshmen is enough like herding cats. No need to make it worse. And, thus, whenever a student asks, What’s the point, I have faith that they will have their own, “Road to Damascus” moment, see the light that shined from me to them, and understand that the Research paper that’s due next week is futile and useful, needed and unneeded, a pain and a lesson, bundled on 8.5 x 11 paper, MLA format, 1 inch margins on all sides, Times New Roman Font, 12point Font size.  Double spaced, please.