I've been conferencing with students from my various classes about research projects and papers of various sorts this week.
Mostly, the students have been really good; they've got good ideas and they've begun to figure out how to find answers to their questions. My job is to help them push a bit further, prompt deeper questioning, and teach them how to find resources. Sometimes, my job is also to cheerlead and send them on their way to continue the good work.
These are the students who teach me interesting stuff, and with whom I get to have engaging, challenging conversations. I love when students tell me that they're learning a lot about something, that they've "always" wanted to learn about what they're researching, and they're really getting into it.
Sometimes, though, things aren't that easy.
My student comes in and says, for example, "Lincoln was a good president." So I ask, what do you mean by that? Blank look. I try again. What makes him a good president?
See, it's not that I disagree or even have an opinion about the goodness of Lincoln as a president. It's that "goodness" isn't necesarily self-evident or something we'd all agree about. But it's my job to try to get students to question those easy middle-school statements that they haven't necessarily thought about further.
(Speaking of presidents: do you ever wonder if Bush senior doesn't sometimes just shake his head and wonder how he--a relatively intelligent guy--raised a son stupider than Quail?)
Another student comes in and tells me that "last night, I looked on the web for resources." Err, I ask, do you really think the web is going to help you find good resources? The student gives me that look of incredulity.
I explain that I could make up a web page that talked about unicorns and the history of unicorns. I could probably even provide a bibliography of texts that talk about unicorns. But, that still wouldn't mean there's really evidence that unicorns actually exist. Anyone can put up anything on the web (because, case in point: really, I'm not a prof! I'm a ... something way more sexy and exciting, yeah. Someone think of something. I'm coming up blank on what could be sexier or more exciting than what I do, especially the committee work and grading. Mmmmm.).
But I also give these students a heads up about my expectations; most of us faculty folks figure students need to spend 2-3 hours working outside of class for each class hour for college level work. So if it's a five hour a week class, and I've cancelled class meetings to hold individual conferences with all of them, then they have 15 hours minimum this week to work on their research for our class. And I expect them to put in that time. (The best students, of course, do more by this time because they've chosen a research question that really fascinates them.)
Most worrisome at this point is the student who emails after his appointment to tell me he's changed his topic. The late topic change is a red alert in a couple ways: first, it's late to change a topic, so the research is going to be rushed. OR, there's always the chance that the student's frat brother wrote a paper about topic X last year for some class, and suddenly, topic X is looking awfully appealing.
I enjoy conferencing. The fun students are just fun, engaging, interesting, and a pleasure. But even the less fun students give me a chance to do real teaching, to try to get them to think more deeply and start researching now rather than three weeks from now.