Student Resistance: Why We Should Embrace It



I have just finished teaching an advanced writing class during the summer session.  In some ways, the class was magical.  I had four students, so the grading was a breeze.  I was able to give solid feedback to each student on all their assignments, big and small.  We had some lively discussions, and the students got to know each other well enough that they spoke more honestly and openly than they might have otherwise.

On the plus side, this comfort helped them talk productively about the writing process as they gave frequent feedback to each other on rough drafts.  They more readily engaged with the readings, talking back to the authors or admitting that they became energized by new ideas.  In the end, they all became more proficient writers and thinkers, as evidenced by their final revisions. The flip side is that, because they were more comfortable being open and honest about their experience with the course, they felt empowered to voice their disagreement and frustration with the readings, my grading scale, or the whole endeavor of the class itself.

It may sound like the pros and the cons are the same here, and to some extent they are.  I long ago realized that my teaching style encourages students to speak out and take risks, and I take care to establish a classroom of respect at the beginning of the semester.  As inevitably happens in many humanities classrooms, this means we accept the inevitable tangents and overly personal confessions or reactions to class topics.  Someone admits drinking too much over the weekend; someone else acknowledges she wrote the essay in the two hours before class; someone attacks the assigned reading because he disagrees with the author’s value system.

These moments of honesty are often generative.  They provide the professor with a way in to meaningful discussions about time management, revision, reading without bias, and viewing situations from multiple perspectives.  And many times, these honest confessions become moments of engaging with student resistance to the very ethos of the classroom.  They can feel like challenges to our authority … but that’s only because they are. And if we’re doing our job right, we should be encountering this kind of resistance frequently. Here’s why:

The educational process fundamentally changes the very identity of the learner. By being exposed to new ideas and new ways of thinking, students must let go of the person they were before, that version of self that is less informed, more naïve, and possibly more innocent and happier. Carolyn A. Martin, President of Amherst College, sees this process as fundamental to the purpose of higher education. College, she says, “is for the hard work of experimentation, failure, reflection, and growth. It is about the gains we make and the losses that come with them.” For traditional college students, aged somewhere between 18 and 25, they must let go of a smaller, more certain version of the world in which they live in order to gain an understanding of the complex realities that have been hiding in plain sight. For older (aka non-traditional) students, this letting-go process is especially hard because they’ve gotten pretty attached not only to the world but the sense of self they’ve been living with for a few decades.

Faced with the challenges of taking on a new worldview and a concomitant new identity, choosing resistance over transformation seems pretty understandable. As the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron succinctly puts it, “We have a lot of resistance to just being here.”  After all, Chodron explains, “This very moment actually does not provide us with that kind of certainty or predictability” – the kind we tend to find reassuring, that feels like home. Chodron and other practitioners of mindfulness emphasize the enormous challenge of remaining focused in the present moment, not only for students but for everyone. It is human nature to wiggle away from – or attack – perceived threats to oneself. Any perceived threat to one’s identity tends to provoke defensive behavior.

Writing about the composition classroom, Karen Kopelson confirms the logic behind this instinctive flight-or-fight response: “resistance serves to shield us from uncomfortable shifts or all-out upheavals in perception and understanding–shifts in perception which, if honored, force us to inhabit the world in fundamentally new and different ways.” (119). Faced with an authority figure asking the student to transform in this way, “‘[r]esistance’ in this context thus occurs when students are asked to shift not only their perspectives but also their subjectivities as they accept or reject assumptions that contribute to the pedagogical arguments being constructed.” (Seas 427).  From the front of the classroom, professors make numerous assumptions about the value of assigned readings and writings. Sometimes those assumptions get communicated to students, but often they do not.

While I do not think we can (or want to) get rid of student resistance, it is important to acknowledge it when it occurs and to allow everyone – students and professors – to inhabit that liminal space of not-yet-accepting. Learning is a process that evolves over time, and it requires patience and compassion. It also requires clearly communicating the assumptions that educators have about how they expect students to navigate the challenges they will encounter during the semester.

When I witness my students resisting some aspect of the educational process, it’s embarrassing how often I struggle to see it for what it is — a natural reaction to encountering something challenging or unfamiliar. The educational process requires trusting the authority figure who is asking the student to leap into the unknown. As enlightened as I might pretend to be, it’s hard for me not to take it personally when that resistance gets aimed at me directly. It still smarts a little when I walk into class the day after the first graded paper has been returned and one of my students feels comfortable enough to admit that they’ve all been talking about their grades, and they aren’t happy. The natives are restless, and they may be considering a coup.

That exact scenario played out this summer. If I were to travel back in time, my response would have been a simple acknowledgement: “okay.” Instead, I tried to turn it into a teaching moment. That’s not true: I went on the defensive, even though it was only four against one. I said, “Good. That means you have things to learn; you need this class.” The student wasn’t having it; she wanted her A. And perhaps more importantly, she wanted the version of herself that she prefers: being an A student.

How do we professional educators negotiate these moments?  Despite my own instinctual defensiveness, I want my students to think and advocate for themselves, to practice taking on their own authority, something that has been denied them in many academic settings.  In my composition classes, I emphasize that I’m teaching standard American English, which is one dialect among many, and not necessarily superior to whatever they speak at home.  I encourage them to find their voice, a mixture of academic-ese and their native language.  I teach them to annotate texts by marking points of agreement and disagreement, reminding them that critical readers employ a healthy dose of skepticism.

But they are new at many of these ways of thinking, so their version of skepticism often looks more like vigorous disagreement and resistance, evidence that we have hit up against some deeply entrenched belief that the student is unwilling to modify or relinquish. They are experiencing a profound moment of cognitive dissonance, another concept I lecture about at some point in the first few weeks of class.  Every day, I tell my students, you are being exposed to some new fact or idea that doesn’t fit into your worldview.  You have two options: do you enlarge your worldview to make room for this new way of thinking? Or do you hold onto the current size and shape of your worldview and refuse to process those things that don’t fit into it?  Those are the two options. Allow your world to get bigger, I tell them. Allow yourself to grow.

By acknowledging this moment of psychological distress, it is possible for educators to take a mindful approach and inhabit that uncomfortable moment with them, as non-judgmentally as possible. To do so, consider a useful process taken from the theory of transformative learning, which defines learning as a shift in perspective. This theory was developed by Jack Mezirow in response to his study of challenges particular to adult learners in the 1970s who, as discussed above, have compelling reasons for holding on to their established beliefs and identities.

Referring to Mezirow’s theory, Patricia Cranton lists the ten phases involved in the student’s transformation of perspective:

  • Experiencing a disorienting dilemma
  • Undergoing self-examination
  • Conducting a critical assessment of internalized assumptions and feeling a sense of alienation from traditional social expectations
  • Relating discontent to the similar experiences of others — recognizing that the problem is shared
  • Exploring options for new ways of acting
  • Building competence and self-confidence in new roles
  • Planning a course of action
  • Acquiring the knowledge and skills for implementing a new course of action
  • Trying out new roles and assessing them
  • Reintegrating into society with the other perspective.   (Cranton 23)

This process highlights the transformation in identity that comes from true learning, and provides a clear end goal. If educators are expecting students to let go of a previous version of self, they need to provide them with a compelling vision of what their new role or identity will look like. Getting there requires a great deal of intentionality, opportunity for critical self-reflection, and space for experimentation. It requires getting comfortable with lots of moments that we might prefer to wiggle away from.

I am at the beginning stages of creating a vision for what that looks like in my classroom, although I’m pretty sure I know what I want my students to look like when they emerge from one of my courses: thoughtful, confident, respectful, and the kind of people who value well-reasoned arguments over ungrounded or fallacious theories, and who value meaningful, complicated human communication over just about anything else.  So far, one of the techniques that has worked for me has been mindfulness, as I’ve discussed in previous posts. Staying in the present moment with feelings of discomfort is the first step to being able to reflect critically and then move forward — true for the students, and true for those of us who educate them. I am working on acknowledging my instinctive reactions before acting on them – saying “okay” and letting it go at that. If I can model a little more patience and acceptance for my students, I am optimistic that they will become more skilled at those qualities as well. And those are the first steps to transformation.

My goal for this semester is to keep in mind the need to give my students a vision of who they are becoming. For now, I plan to emphasize the process itself and tie it in to the easy analogy – just like the writing process, the learning process is recursive and never-ending. And that’s a good thing.

How about you? What new roles do you expect your students to play as they work through their natural resistance to change?

-Michelle Veenstra, PhD
Assistant Professor of English
Francis Marion University

Works Cited

Cranton, Patricia. Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning: A Guide for Educators of Adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994. Print.

Kopelson, Karen. “Rhetoric on the Edge of Cunning; Or, The Performance of Neutrality (Re)Considered As a Composition Pedagogy for Student Resistance.” College Composition and Communication 55:1 (September 2003): 115-146. Web.

Martin, Carolyn A. “What Is College For?” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 22 April 2013. Web.

Seas, Kristen. “Enthymematic Rhetoric and Student Resistance to Critical Pedagogies.” Rhetoric Review 25.4 (2006): 427-43. Web.


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