Who Works With The Smart Kids? Dr. Michaela A. Nowell Does!

Michaela NowellDr. Michaela A. Nowell received her Ph.D. in Sociology from Purdue University, and began as an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Fond du Lac in Fall 2012.  Her research focuses on the intersections of gender, sexuality, and body, as well as race and class, taking a critical lens regarding the sociology of fatness.  Below, Dr. Nowell dispels the myths about students at two-year colleges, and the faculty at these institutions.  She concludes with practical tips for teaching two-year college students.

Who Works With The Smart Kids?  I Do.

If I said I worked at a 2-year institution, would you assume my students are A) slackers B) unintelligent C) unmotivated or D) brilliant?

Bad, Elitist Advice In The Academy

In graduate school, a professor told us that (if we deigned to prioritize teaching over research) we wanted to teach at a prestigious, elite institution – one where we could teach the smart students. Teaching the “smart” students would be the most rewarding, and smart students were at good, prestigious universities.

As someone who went to community college, I couldn’t believe my ears. I was both too angry and too powerless to speak up. But I didn’t believe such an elitist, classist notion for one second. My own experience told me that was a lie. Smart kids are everywhere. Smart kids go to community college. I was a smart kid who went to community college. And although I may have been “exceptional” in some ways—many of which stem from my structurally supported privileges—I am not the exception to the rule.

Now I teach at a two-year, freshman-sophomore institution*…and my students are awesome. My students are plenty smart and seldom presumptuous, and it’s incredibly rewarding.

I know smart kids come from freshman-sophomore institutions.  In fact, I believe community college made me. I was a smart kid, but I had no idea what I could achieve. The opportunities, mentoring, and encouragement I received at community college changed the trajectory of my life. My experience at a Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio is why I became a professor—because I saw there the profound difference that professors can make, not only in students’ lives, but in the world at large. Also, because my first sociology professor, Katherine Rowell, believed in me more than I believed in myself, and I REALLY needed that. I know my students need that, too.

The Real Difference Isn’t Smarts (Or, no kidding, Structural Difference much?)

The main differences between my freshman-sophomore students and the students I taught at a prestigious 4-year university are that my current students are spread thinner in terms of time and resources, they are much less academically empowered, and (largely) they aren’t academically socialized.

My students have less resources and time, which means that the time they have to think about the ins-and-outs of being a successful student, let alone the time they have to enact those behaviors, is much less than most students at 4-year institutions. While they lack time and resources (one of my students has 2 jobs, a ridiculous commute, and is also a full-time student), they are fantastic at drawing on these real life experiences. If I’m teaching about role conflict and role strain, it’s not hard for them to imagine how that applies to real life. Instead of seeing their complicated lives as a drawback, I see it as an asset to accomplishing my teaching goals.

One of the biggest deficits I have observed is a lack of empowerment. Many, if not most, of my students don’t think they know the answers, and they are afraid to speak up and take the risk that someone will think they are stupid. They are not stupid, but most of the students I teach were in the middle of the pack and never received a lot of attention (or engagement) in their primary schooling. Further, they come from a system where they have been taught to be passive learners, to be bodies that are fed “knowledge” with the expectation that they memorize whatever the teacher or textbook says. They don’t see teachers as people who actually care about their learning and they don’t see teachers as accessible. Often, they think this is a failure on their part. I had a student struggling last semester who said to me, “I don’t know why I thought I could even go to college.” And this was a perfectly smart student! As a sociologist, I see this as a structural, systematic problem and not a problem of my students being unintelligent or lazy. When we say our students are underprepared we might instead say our institutions are underpreparing them…or, in fact, setting them up for failure.

Fifty-one percent of the students at my college are first generation college students, most of whom do not have the benefit of even cursory academic socialization.  Again, this doesn’t mean they aren’t smart. One of my colleagues put it this way, “The university students I taught were just better at eloquently restating the definitions, not better at understanding the material.” And yes, some freshman-sophomore students don’t have “the skills.” So what? I have found it more than rewarding to teach them. To help socialize them. To empower them. And to see how damn smart they are makes me proud in every moment.

For instance, I recently had an hour-long nerdfest with a student in which I taught her that she had access to journal articles and databases and encyclopedias and interlibrary loan, and we talked about literature reviews and the research process. I didn’t know this stuff when I started college either. You know what my freshman-sophomore student said? “Why isn’t this stuff available to the public? Why do we only have access to this through college? It doesn’t make sense. Would you want everyone to know this?” A questioning student is more important to me than an academically socialized one any day of the week.

And every day my students ask great questions, make brilliant points, nurture connections across course material, and think interdisciplinarily. They do this better than the students I encountered at the prestigious university where I taught before. The trick is getting them comfortable enough to be willing to engage with you, to ask those questions in the first place. They haven’t learned to breech the professor-student barrier, let alone understand the benefits of engaging with your professor.  Once you prove to them you’re accessible, you open up a floodgate…and they will amaze you.

If you, as a professor, can’t seem to engage freshman-sophomore students, you may want to use your sociological imagination.  Sociologist Dalton Conley refers to the sociological imagination as “making the familiar strange.” In sociology we learn to question our assumptions and think about how social systems shape individuals. Are you expecting them to already be academically socialized? Are you expecting them to be empowered and excited about learning when they come from a system that teaches them to be passively unsatisfied with their learning environment? Are you expecting them to speak a language similar to the one you worked long and hard to speak correctly? If so, you have some unreasonable expectations that you might want to readjust. It may be easier to teach students who are already academically socialized, who take charge of their education on their own, and who have time to be dedicated to their status as a student, but that does not mean that those students are smarter and it does not equal a more rewarding job.

Practical Advice for Teaching Freshman-Sophomore Students

Here are some suggestions I think are especially important for teaching freshman-sophomore students, but they are also suggestions one might say are exemplary of a good teacher…and thus, they may be helpful for anyone teaching at any level.

  1. Address the realities and help prepare students to do better. Let them know that you know that X problem is going to occur and tell them the answer. I know some of my students will fade away. On the first day we talk about why this happens—something happens in their lives, they miss one or two classes, and then they are anxious or embarrassed or overwhelmed and they don’t come back—and why they should come back anyway. And letting them know that you know lays the groundwork for a common understanding.
  2. Reveal (some of) your secrets and get them on board with your methods. I tell them that I know they’ve been taught to memorize, but that memorizing doesn’t equal understanding and memorizing won’t do them a damn bit of good in my class. I systematically show them they can understand and remember concepts without memorizing them and I demonstrate methods they can use to foster connections in their brains. I socialize them to take charge of their learning…but I have to teach them how to learn from me. When I first started doing exercises where students have to teach each other part of the material, students were reluctant and some of them thought I was just being lazy. So I address these concerns when I do something like that for the first time. When students can see that 1) they did this and didn’t die and that 2) they learned and retained a lot of information and 3) that it was actually fun, they are no longer so skeptical.
  3. If you want them to talk, reveal that you know their secrets. They are insecure. They don’t want to look dumb. They get nervous. They know the answer but speaking up will draw attention to them and someone might judge them. They are confused and they aren’t “supposed” to be. Tell them you get it. Then tell them and show them you care more about their understanding than a right answer.
  4. Make it very clear that you care about their actual learning and comprehension and what they have to say. Do not just give lip service to this. I don’t know about your students, but my students want to learn from someone that gives a damn about them. I tell them we’re going to talk in this class. I also tell them I’m going to value what they have to say. And I honor that. Remember that in order to actually show them you value what they are saying, you have to sometimes cede the point you were “trying” to make and build upon the one they are trying to make. Professors too often fail to answer a question or address a comment because they have a preconceived notion of where the conversation should be going.
  5. Teach them that they are smart and that they can figure things out. More than anything, they are reluctant. I tell them I know they know the damn answers or have ideas and just won’t say anything. I get at their fears of not being smart in my speech about plagiarism where I tell them that, in my experience, people plagiarize when they are scared they aren’t smart enough to write whatever it is they are supposed to be writing. And I tell them that I want to hear what they have to say, not some academic gobbledygook.
  6. Treat them like human beings and let them know you are human, too. If the class isn’t prohibitively large, learn their names…and use them. You can learn their names if you set your mind to it. When they know that you know their name, they are no longer invisible in class (or outside of class). For most of their lives they have learned to love and hate their invisibility in the classroom. It protects them from speaking up and looking stupid, but it also allows them to be terribly disengaged and depersonalized. Knowing their names means you identify them as people and helps to break down the barriers that stifle student engagement.

Freshman-sophomore students deserve great professors—as do all students, really. They deserve the positive impact that will have on their lives. They deserve to hear how smart they are. They deserve professors who believe in them. And they deserve to hear how rewarding it is to work with them.

The smart kids are everywhere. As a grad school friend of mine says, “Teach ‘em good.”



* Freshman-sophomore is a designation that is broader and less stigmatizing, acknowledging students at these levels are similar across different kinds of institutions. After all, we don’t typically mark students at universities as “4-year” students…they are “students.”

One thought on “Who Works With The Smart Kids? Dr. Michaela A. Nowell Does!

  1. LOVE! I totally and completely identify with this article (even though I teach at a 4 year rather than a 2 year school)! I teach in the CSU and we are often treated like the stupid stepchildren of the glamorous UC system. I love my students. I think one of my favorite things is seeing their growth. They are often middle of the pack high school students and have been neglected in so many ways (structural factors like poverty, macro factors like being looked over by K-12 teachers for not being the best and brightest, micro factors like not doing well on standardized tests), and when put into my teaching environment where I tell them they all can succeed and I will help them all succeed and helping them find their voice through critical discussions and dialogue, they blossom. There is nothing better than that for me. I wouldn’t trade my students for any of the students at “better” institutions for anything.


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