“This is too hard”: Some Reflections on Student Anxiety and Course Content

Today, I want to ramble a little. Apologies to those not in the mood…

The other day a student came up to me and boldly declared: this course is too hard! It wasn’t the first time that I’ve heard that statement, nor will it be the last. In some measure, this student – like all the others who’ve uttered that phrase – was right. I do tend to pitch things too high, and I’ve never been one to search for the golden mean or just say, “to hell with it,” and aim for the bottom. I do horrible, nasty things like introduce my first-year students to at least one post-colonial reading per year; or, in this case, introduce my CEGEP students to Kant.

Predictably, said students lament the horribly complex syntax and abundance of technical terminology. They look at me in exasperation and say: “I just don’t understand.” Hell, even my TA once said that he thought that the post-colonial reading which I’d assigned was a “little much.” But by assigning these readings I force my students to give it a try – and they do try. Whether it’s 5 minutes or an hour, students in my class struggle through a piece of text that they would otherwise never have even dreamt of reading. And the really impressive part is that some of them, some of the time, get it! When they do, it can change the way they think for the rest of their lives. And even if, ultimately, students don’t understand what Bhabha or Prakash have to say, they now have the advantage of knowing that there is an entire field of scholarship out there that they don’t yet understand.

If I’m being entirely honest, I don’t particularly like slogging through Kant, Heidegger, or any other abstract philosopher either. And I’m far from enamored with the  post-colonial tendency to rely on jargon (as an aside, I’ve threatened many times to have some sort of public meltdown if I ever have to read the word “interstitial” again.. no really… not OK). So why force myself to deal with this type of text, and torture my students at the same time? And why not listen to my students when they tell me that the material is too hard? After all, I pride myself on being receptive to student needs, and students definitely need to be able to understand the lesson.

First and foremost, I’ve come to understand that the phrase “it’s too hard” can actually mean several things. True, it can just mean that at the most basic level, the course is too hard and students don’t understand. More often, however, what it actually means is: “this is terrifying because it’s really complicated, which probably means the test will be really complicated, and I’m worried about my grade.” Now, on the one hand, this is frustrating because people shouldn’t be intentionally closing themselves off to knowledge, and not everything is about tests, etc… But, on the other hand, there is reason to sympathize.

Maybe it’s because I was a scholarship kid with big dreams and ridiculous standards when it came to my own transcript (yes, I know, getting a PhD was far less glamorous in reality than it was in my mind’s eye oh so many years ago). Maybe it’s because my own employment situation is precarious and I understand why these kids worry – they need to be better than the best, they have been told, or they don’t stand a chance in the modern economy. Or maybe it’s because I’m not really sure what the value of a test is anyway sometimes, at least when it comes to the humanities, so I figure that I would be stressed out by them too. Whatever the reason, something about the version of “it’s too hard” which really means “I’m worried about my grades” always gives me pause.

The result is that I spend a lot of time telling my students that I expect a lot from them, but that I will always give them to tools to be able to do it. I also repeat the fact that just because I ask them to do something, doesn’t mean I expect them to do it right, and I do so until I’m blue in the face. “I know you’re new to this,” I say, “and the idea is to introduce you to a concept or task, so that next time, you do it right – the idea is to give you a leg up, not create a handicap.” But no matter how many times I say this, there is constant anxiety that I will still be looking for perfection, and a persistent notion that a teacher shouldn’t ever push the bounds beyond that which a student can master with ease. Students are afraid to stop thinking about what they need to know for the test, and to just think instead – to challenge themselves, experiment with knowledge, and dabble with being wrong.

Regardless of the fact that my students do just fine, and my tests are hardly as horrible as they imagine, I am haunted by thoughts that I need to do more to explain the value of pushing the limits and making mistakes. That somehow, their anxiety reflects a professional inability to communicate a central humanistic tenet: that we need to ask hard questions, even when we can’t answer them. And so, I can’t help but feel like my students’ concern is tied to the need for scholars to better articulate the value of the humanities more generally. That if we could only convince our students to see past the test, then maybe the next generation would see the value of what we have taught them – unlike the current elite who seem to think that the humanities are antiquated and frivolous. That if we could just articulate what we are doing a little bit better, that students would come not just to defend the humanities, but to celebrate them. Then again, maybe I’m just over-thinking things and my course really is just too hard. Only time will tell.

grumpy cat

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2 thoughts on ““This is too hard”: Some Reflections on Student Anxiety and Course Content

  1. GREAT post. And the critical idea here for me is: “And so, I can’t help but feel like my students’ concern is tied to the need for scholars to better articulate the value of the humanities more generally.” Their fear is tied to the unknown. They don’t actually understand the goal of the humanities, nor can they value what they don’t yet realize. I hope at the end of your course they have a better appreciation. You’re doing the right thing to challenge, aid, support and teach.

    • Thanks Justin. I’m glad others out there feel the same. I will report back in a few weeks after I do an unofficial survey about what they like, dislike, and want to change in the course — and probably after the course is over too.

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