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What about The Middle?

It seems that I only ever have time to post to this blog, that is supposed to be all about teaching, when I am finished with a semester. Once again, I am finished with a semester, and I find myself thinking over my immediate past experiences with my students.

What I am thinking about the most now, two days after graduating the Class of 2016 at McDaniel College, are all the students that I was most excited about seeing graduate. I won't post their names, but some of them (if they see this post) will know who they are. They are the students who did not get awards. They didn't write the best papers. They didn't have high GPAs; as a matter of fact in a few instances, I'm betting that they just squeaked by with a high enough GPA to graduate.

But these are the students that speak to me. They move me and inspire me. These are the students that I love to teach.

Right now I am pondering, why? Why is this the group that makes me want to be a better professor? Why is it not the top students? We have some stellar students who are very high-achieving. I had the privilege of teaching one of the students who won the top writing award at graduation and one of the students who won the award for the highest GPA is in my major, and we're very proud of her.

And yet. I kept thinking of my middle of the road students: my baseball players from my FYS.  The student in my class this semester whose friend died and who stepped up with her friends to make sure requirements were met so her departed friend would be awarded her degree, albeit posthumously.

I wonder if my focus on the middle is because the way we set up graduation and even education is so hierarchical. Of course I want to commend the very best students. But sometimes I worry that doing so gives the middle students a feeling of futility. I wonder if they feel that since they likely are never going to reach those lofty heights of a 4.0 GPA, they just disengage. Do our expectations of precision in citations (something that is probably anathema to admit but  drives me crazy as a scholar in the field), drive students to just give up? The top students master it, sure. But what about the vast majority of the others? Where are they?

All of this has led me to embrace active learning pedagogies in my classes. They debate, read, discuss, analyze, write, meet, present, and lead. I would love to hear from them through this post. Because I want to know:

Did this make you want to learn? Do you think you learned? More? The same? Did it "stick"?

What about my colleagues? What say you? Are the middle of the pack students worthy of some love? If so, in what form?

14 thoughts on “What about The Middle?

  1. Lucia Belivakici-Clever

    This almost made me cry! I did not have a low GPA and I worked hard, but I have always felt like I was a lower grade of a student. I have atrousious grammar and cannot spell anything correctly to save my life.
    I used to get so frustrated when I did not do as well as the top students in my class. I may have never achieved as great of a grade but I worked my butt off trying. I would stay up past midnight just to perfect a paper that I had spent hours on, all while I was working a full time job, and still get an OK grade.
    I loved when teachers appreciated my love for learning. I never may have been the best or even close but I was passionate about my studies. It was the classes in which I was able to shine with my participation and engagement that I felt happy to attend!

    Reply
    1. Gretchen McKayGretchen McKay

      Lucia - your passion and interest always showed, which I commented on in my recommendation for you today!

      Reply
  2. Erin Giles

    "They debate, read, discuss, analyze, write, meet, present, and lead."

    Yes, yes, and YES - from the student's perspective, your Reacting classes were the most fun and the most challenging. Active learning combined the traditional aspects of "homework" (doing research, reading the materials, and analyzing them) with letting us take charge in the classroom. In your classes, we connected with our peers, strategized with allies, and lead persuasive discussions. It always felt like the classes went by too quickly - even if they were an hour and a half!

    So in answer to the questions you posed: yes, it made us learn, and yes, the material "stuck"! For anyone interested, I can let you know all about budding democracy in Athens in 403 BC, or the tumultuous scheming throughout the planning of the Second Crusades.

    Reply
      1. Lucia Belivakici-Clever

        I agree! I took Romanticism and Impressionism my first semester after I transferred to McDaniel. I became an Art History major by the end of the course. I never experienced a class that was so fun and challenging. I enjoyed this class more than a 'traditional' course because I was not just learning (memorizing) material to take a test. I was actively participating and challenging myself all while I was taking in information.

        Reply
        1. Gretchen McKayGretchen McKay

          Lucia, would you say that you learned less, more or the same by not memorizing and doing all the stuff we did instead of a traditional exam?

          Reply
          1. Lucia Belivakici-Clever

            When I studied for traditional exams I always felt like most of the information was gone by the end of the semester. I only retained what I found particularly interesting or if there was a great lecture by the professor. I remember so much for the reacting games and the Byzantium course I took with you because I was so much more involved. Now I will say it was ALOT more work but it was worth it!

  3. Linsey T.

    As a former student of Dr. McKay (class of '12), I was really fascinated by this post. A tremendous point made about middle of the road students and the attention that they deserve. Before I get into the weeds, let me provide a little background. I did well as an undergrad; I received honors in my major (history), completed internships, presented original research, and participated in designing a new course (with Dr. McKay!). I didn't plan to get into art history. In fact, I was intimidated by the subject ever since I was in high school and my friends told me about the really intense AP Art History teacher. I remember starting with Survey because I had some friends in the department, and wanted to expand my thinking a bit more (college, right?). Well, I can attest that Dr. McKay's class structure and teaching is what pulled me over to what I fondly refer to as the 'dark side'. Now, it is simple fact that you learn about history chronologically, otherwise you have no concept of how the past has led us to where we are today. Dr. McKay has done something here that I believe is invaluable to educating students and helping them develop appreciation for the subject matter; her use of the Reacting to the Past art game really affected me as a blossoming student of art history. In my role, I was encouraged to be passionate in my debates, to really get inside the mind of the artist. I think most of my class at the time really got into it and we had a blast arguing and bargaining, and "showing off" our works of art at the 1889 Paris salon. All of a sudden, it was no longer just class--it was an experience. Digressing from that example, I also feel that having a professor with great passion for their niche makes the most impact of all. I am confident enough to say that I was very lucky to have three amazing professors at McDaniel who I continue to look up to and learn from. I believe that a student of any level of learning or comprehension should be able to decipher from an educator's presence whether or not this person is really about what they preach, or if they are just "here for another semester". Once the student establishes the teacher's "game", I believe that they choose right then and there how their semester is going to shape up. And this could just be me talking, but I think if the professor is interested (and interesting!), the students will be too. Dr. McKay's impact has helped me determine the next step of my journey--pursuing a Master's degree in the History of Decorative Arts, aiming to work with collections or curation in a museum setting. Along with the influence of two other educators I mentioned previously, I have been able to take the skills and the content that I learned in college and forge a new path towards success and happiness. It is without a doubt, educators make all the difference.

    Reply
    1. Gretchen McKayGretchen McKay

      Great comment, Linsey. Thank you so much for taking the time. I am glad that you found the game so engaging and I know you learned from it. Have you started the courses yet for the grad degree?

      Reply
  4. Cheryl Knauer

    First, just the fact that you recognize and care about the middle-of-the-road students shows that you are a fabulous professor! I was one of those students in college and as a first-generation college student, it was enough for me to just graduate (while holding down two or three jobs at any given time, plus internships and schoolwork). I didn't need awards or honors and, to be honest, I didn't expect to receive any. I never strived to graduate with Latin Honors or any other recognition. I don't feel like that made me learn less in my classes. I still worked hard for my degree and am proud that I achieved it.

    Reply
    1. Gretchen McKayGretchen McKay

      You sound as though you were self-motivated. Some students aren't fully that way - or at least they are not sure where they are going. I think reaching them to get them on a goal for the future is part of what is on my mind. I want to grab them in class to make sure that they see that they can learn - and do great things and then implement those things for the rest of their time in college to lay a foundation for afterwards. Thank you so much for commenting!

      Reply
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