Class Notes

Older Students

By Paula Marantz Cohen | October 18, 2011


Every once in a while, I look out on the first day of teaching a new class and see a face that doesn’t fit with the rest of the group: an older person, invariably an older woman. Older men take courses too, but in the undergraduate classroom, where the aim is not only to learn but also to graduate, older women seem to predominate. They are the ones who missed their chance earlier in life and are now determined to get their degree.

One of the hallmarks of the older student is focus and attentiveness. She usually sits in the front row, in marked contrast to many undergraduates who want to sit toward the back. (One undergraduate student who always sits in the back corner of the room explained to me that she likes feeling hugged by the back wall.) The older student doesn’t need a hug but an education; thus, she sits up front, her notebook open, her pencil sharpened and ready.

At first, her difference from the rest of the class is marked. She brings into relief how homogeneously young the college classroom usually is. While other kinds of difference—class, race, religion, sexual orientation—are represented in the name of diversity, older people are generally not in the mix, so when one crops up, it’s a novelty.

I often wonder at the beginning of the term how the rest of the class is going to respond to having such a person in its midst. Will she stunt discussion by being the age of their mothers and even, in some instances, their grandmothers? Will students feel annoyed that their classroom has been breached by someone so “other”? Invariably, this is not the case. The class hardly ever registers the difference and quickly assimilates the new member. The older student becomes simply another one of the class’ many facets; her age, another characteristic like that student’s corn rows or this one’s slight stammer. Age (or, I suppose you could say, wrinkles in the manner of other sorts of markings like piercings or tattoos) is no big deal, at least in the classroom context. Undergraduates are by nature enormously generous and enormously oblivious.

I like not being the oldest person in the room—or at least having competition for that distinction. I like having a link between the students’ experience and my own, a mediating presence who gets my allusions to seventies culture and nods when I refer to raising my children, but who is also in step with the class zeitgeist: who critiques the other students’ work with the same over-indulgence that they offer and I don’t. I like the way the class will listen to an older student. As neither parent nor teacher, she speaks to them without seeming to have an ulterior motive.

Finally, I like knowing that if I ask a question, at least one person will raise her hand.

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