About that fundamentalist student hiding behind her bible

Some years ago I worked with a capable philosophy of science student who one day revealed his devotion to “creation science.” His was the fully blown variety in which the earth is declared to be six thousand — rather than billions — of years old. It’s the one that has God manufacturing and hiding dinosaur bones as a trick to test man’s fealty to His Word. I’ve lived and worked in the Midwest nearly all my life, so I’m used to the confidentially Bibled up, but this young man actually expected me to help him shore up his Bible pseudoscience. Even though we’d been learning to carefully distinguish mythological and magical thinking from empirical science, he assumed that my commitment to religious tolerance could be leveraged to help him remain in the cocoon of his childhood Bible world.

The situation is similar in any class that may challenge students’ religiously tinged, politicized moral views, for example, about abortion or gay marriage. Few things are more frustrating for instructors than a student’s assumption that a conservative belief’s religious cloak should exempt it from challenge or commentary, like a safe zone in a child’s game of tag. Such students may even equate their ideological positions with their identities: “That’s how I was raised. It’s the kind of person I am.” In my classrooms, each semester fundamentalist Christianity is offered by some students as both an explanation and justification for unscientific claims about reality, or for reactionary moral and political views. The message I get is that “for the Bible tells me so” is a buck-stops-here line that I cross only if I am willing to be vilified as a religious bigot.

Indeed, one of the greatest harms to eduction from politically active fundamentalist Christian zealots is that they have commandeered the very discourse of religious tolerance such that any defense of reason, evidence and secular ethical principles may be quickly repackaged as an attack on religious freedom. With their quivers stuffed full of supposedly “religious” beliefs about nature, culture and values, they are primed to become epistemological bullies, effectively declaring themselves utterly unaccountable to evidence and mature good sense. Tying a belief to fundamentalist Christianity — even if it actually has little to do with religion — is supposed to mark it as exceptional, as beyond the intellectual scrutiny of we mere mortals in the college classroom.

With loathsome MAGA extremists having seized control of key national offices, the power such students and their families wield in classrooms is genuinely threatening to academic freedom and to our very jobs. But, of course, for us to fail entirely to challenge claims that the world was poofed into existence the day before yesterday, or that the gays should burn in hell because Pastor Ricky said so, would be to fail at our jobs. And, yes, Pastor Ricky’s say-so really was offered by one of my students as a refutation of a reputable social science study about same-sex parents.

I wouldn’t raise this issue if I were not, at least sometimes, influenced by this push to privatize and personalize reason and evidence. But I feel myself being swayed sometimes by these attempts to frame belief as a mere matter of personal choice and individual conscience. Though the very spirit and purpose of education is perverted when reason and evidence are desecrated this way, I have become, like Galileo and Descartes and Kant, ever more willing to hold my tongue as the forces of ignorance threaten violence and exile. And how much greater this temptation must be for more tenuously employed instructors!

Usually, I rely on pragmatism to navigate these waters, but it’s tricky. I may begin by reminding my students of their right to believe whatever they want at church, but insist that, in the classroom, our currency is reason and evidence. I explain that we can challenge aspects of rationality and empiricism, to be sure, but only with inquiry that is itself grounded in more reason and evidence. I also point them to the venerable intellectual and scientific luminaries present in the history of each of the world’s major religions, including Christianity. And I may carefully explain how the fringe beliefs that they find to be so normal — because in their fundamentalist homes and churches they are — can come to marginalize them as they try to advance in their professions. In other words, I try to help them appreciate that a grown ass adult who refers to Noah’s ark as a historical fact will, in many contemporary milieus, be regarded, at best, as a curiosity and, at worst, as a goofball.

But, of course, since some fundamentalists delight in seeing themselves as martyrs to beliefs that have become “unpopular” — recall that this is a crowd in which crucifixion has its romantic appeal — I must be careful not to nourish that drama. If I take the bait and get drawn into playing the role of Pilate, I can hardly be surprised if the passion play ends badly for me. It may, then, generally be more skillful to give Noah, Jonah and the transmutation of beverages a wide berth in our classrooms, focusing instead on the nature of critical thinking itself. We must surely be flexible about how we handle such moments and not be too discouraged even when a student chooses to crawl under her Bible and fall into a deep sleep that lasts all semester long.

As a more straightforward academic strategy, I assign readings about current and past pressures on scientists by fundamentalist Christian extremists. Unfortunately, I find many students — even those who aren’t especially religious — to be so cowed by the fundamentalist cooptation of religious tolerance, that such discussions are difficult. And it’s when I see that lots of reasonable folks have ceded this ground out of sheer exhaustion, fear or habit that I really worry. As fundamentalist forces continue to claim our public spaces, our political and judicial policy, and our classrooms, we cannot permit children’s Bible stories to stand in for mature good thinking. We must not agree to the terms that they have laid out: that whether our current configuration of fauna owes its existence to Noah’s trusty hammer or to evolution by natural selection shall be decided by one’s particular upbringing and personal conscience. Talk about sucking the light right out of the Enlightenment….

About that relentlessly sunny colleague with the perfectly darling students

When I hear another instructor announce at every turn how utterly terrific her students are, how brilliant that last batch of essays was, how very splendidly the semester is going, I wince. Over time, such announcements begin to sound less like a celebration of students and more like proclamations of how fabulous the instructor herself is. And it quickly begins to seem like a thinly veiled rebuke to we teachers who sometimes struggle with student performance; the problem is with us, we are reminded, and not these awesome students.

Instructors who are chronic complainers are at least as hard to take, those who carp and grouse endlessly. These instructors delight in cranky generalizations about this generation’s poor work ethic, attention spans, reading skills, etc. They may gripe nonstop about international students, commuters, students in the military, and on and on, taking little responsibility either for the impact of their own negativity or for the imperative to meet their students partway. Instructors who seem to delight in churning out grinding complaints about whole categories of students — with, perhaps a few beloved, exceptional protégés sprinkled in to prove the general rule of crappiness — are exhausting and depressing.

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But complainers are a well acknowledged occupational hazard as hyper positive teachers are not, despite the fact that such optimists may paint teaching so brightly, treacly pink that it can hurt everyone’s eyes. It’s kind of like a cancer support group member with such an assertively single-minded commitment to positivity that others can feel shamed that they, themselves, continue to suffer. “Am I doing cancer wrong?” they may ask themselves. So too, chronically affirmative accounts of teaching can contribute to a competitive environment in which any admission of difficulty makes one feel like a whopping failure.

Of course, different instructors have different temperaments. It’s fine that some of us are more inclined to vocalize our optimism (or pessimism) than others, and surely some of these tendencies are powered by social and cultural forces. Such style differences are not an intrinsic problem, I am certain. But to what extent are over-the-top expressions about our amazing or crummy students actually meant to establish or firm up our own identities and reputations as this rather than that kind of instructor, both in others’ eyes and our own? How much of this habitual Pollyannaism (or Mr. Crabbypants) is a performative schtick we indulge rather than an authentic response to a complicated reality?

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Even in the best of times, of course, our experience with students is not all prancing unicorns in clouds of fairy dust. Other people — and this is one of the things that students are — can be difficult, as can we ourselves. But nor can college teaching be fairly represented as a steaming pile of doo-doo that must be carried by hand across red hot coals in bare feet. The truth of this human endeavor, like most of those we are invited to undertake, is some messy mix of pleasant and repugnant, stuff we love and shit we don’t. Reflections about one’s teaching life that fail to reflect this ambivalent reality will ultimately fail to ring true.

If I had to choose, I guess I would prefer to endure instructors who celebrate themselves (in the guise of celebrating their students) than to suffer through complainers’ endless litanies about all that is wrong with “young people today.” But in my book, exaggerated optimism only beats out suffocating negativity by a nose. This is probably because I can’t help but see these as two sides of the same (performative) coin. And I am reminded that when professional or spiritual hubris tempts me to present myself as smilingly above it all, as impervious to the crap that gets those other, er…, less evolved folks down, I should close my pie hole. The “Song of Myself as Teacher of the Millennium” quickly transmutes into a parody of optimistic confidence that reeks of desperation and denial, a schtick that others can often see through even when we ourselves cannot.

The Joy of Tedious Planning

Backpackers know that the trip begins long before the hike starts. Depending on factors like a trail’s length, popularity, and degree of isolation, planning may begin weeks, or even months, before the big day. Casual campers make fun of those whose fetish for low pack weight impels them to saw off toothbrushes and leave luxuries, like deodorant and clean underwear, behind. As a partially brainwashed lightweight backpacker, I’m immune to such ridicule. For me, the pleasure of intricately planning my precious load is part of the point.

Parallels between backpacking and online teaching became clear to me early on. As I began to design an online gen ed course fully seven months in advance, there was a level of choreography and previsualization I had not experienced with my teaching before. It was as if I were preparing to lead 25 inexperienced, trusting companions through a dark and remote wood, to facilitate adventure, sacrifice no one’s safety, and to complete the mission on time. By contrast, teaching face-to-face was often more like car camping, with its cushy sleep pads and five pound cook stove, all sorts of just-in-case luxuries tossed into the trunk at the last minute.

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Backpacking demands that each necessity and comfort be accounted for in advance, including each meal, each liter of water, each layer of clothing and each bandaid. How well spaced are the streams and creeks? Do I have rain gear, a plan for storing food safely at night, backup battery power for the smartphone that will also serve as GPS? Have I accurately estimated each day’s distance, or will altitude or sandy soil slow me down? Backpacking invites the imagination into the future, to previsualize the faulty lighter, the leaky water pouch, the angry blister as it emerges on the left big toe.

With online classes, too, the journey must be meticulously planned and paced, with assignments and topics nesting neatly into larger course objectives and goals. There’s little room for excess, spontaneous tangents or last minute route changes, since our students — some of whom are a few steps ahead or behind — utterly depend on our map or trail of crumbs. Even the opportunities for spontaneity must be coordinated — not so spontaneous after all — and must obey the established course rhythms. It’s not impossible to find one’s way after straying from the syllabus, but the process for doing so — the burst of ad hoc communications, special dispensations and improvisations — can make for grueling backtracks and, worse, shake students’ confidence.

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It’s easy enough to feel oppressed by all this regimented planning and to want to rush through it to get to the good stuff. In the traditional classroom, the promise of face-to-face magic often becomes the motivating carrot for the tedium of planning. But, obviously, there’s no such dessert waiting at the end of the online buffet. In fact, in online classes, the good stuff must often be coaxed into removing its disguise. It is often overlooked altogether.

I sidestep the misery of online preparation only when I manage to embrace the puzzle of it enough so that its creative character begins to emerge. As with crosswords, learning the ukulele, or backpacking preparation, whether the process is experienced as a satisfying challenge or as torture depends on one’s point of view. For those who crave the high of a spontaneous face-to-face romp — and this describes some of my most memorable traditional classes — I doubt that the grind of online class prep will be worth it. For such teachers, camping beside a car chock full of equipment, food and beer is probably a better choice. On the other hand, tasting the trials and rewards of backpacking makes the delights of car camping even more apparent.

The wisdom of being a hopeless professor

Sometimes we professors feel as if we are dumping the precious contents of our life force into a gaping void. We do our research, prepare diligently for classes and spend hours hashing out difficult concepts with just one of our many students. A professor’s lament, and it is perhaps as old as the profession itself, is that we are usually left without a very full picture of how our work impacts students or our disciplines over the long haul. Some professors respond by orienting to the future with plucky optimism, adopting faith that their efforts will surely leave tangible results down the line. I prefer, instead, to embrace the insecurity of not-knowing, to teach and write without hope, not nihilistically, but radically rooted in present reality as much and as often as I can manage.

In the U.S., to question the desirability or wisdom of hope is tantamount to outing oneself as un-American. Hope is the great motivator, we are assured, without which we cannot possibly expect to act with vigor and deep purpose. As a ray of light breaks through the clouds, or the comatose patient finally blinks her eyes, hope is held up as the answer for everything from cancer to climate change. That Barack Obama embraced and leveraged the trope of hope so successfully in his campaigns is to the point. A presidential candidate whose very existence challenged a reactionary, racist status quo cloaked himself in the innocuously appealing, downright patriotic trappings of optimism, and it worked. The loathsome MAGA slogan is a reminder, though, that hope can also be rallied to harm and exclude.

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And it is some of the very facets of hope that make it work in slogans — its potentially insipid, numbing, soothing quality — that also make it worrisome. Hope is right up there with thoughts and prayers on the efficacy test, and it is often what one cleaves to during moments of greatest quietism. It is, perhaps, not the worst attitude in the world if one has a loved one (hopelessly) lost at sea, but far less appropriate in situations that invite, or admit of, intervention from us in the here and now. At its most innocuous, then, hope is nothing more than an expression of one’s preferences about the future. But when hope takes on a quasi magical status, as it so often does in conversations influenced by fundamentalist Christianity, it risks becoming a childish distraction from reality, one that, like Santa Claus, is created and maintained to make us feel better as we, perhaps, do nothing to reevaluate or adjust course.

This is not an objection to optimism, then, but, rather, to the pie-eyed version of it that has one teleporting into the future by way of magical thinking, usually leveraging assumptions about the inevitability of moral or intellectual progress. In such cases it strikes me as a quintessentially immature orientation that can lead us to make excuses for present failures or mediocrities. The comforting trope that, as a scholar and teacher, I plant seeds that will eventually come to fruition is one that I have certainly relied on in dark times, but I don’t regard these as my finest, most authentic moments. I am far more proud of the times I have confronted the existential bleakness — “What if nothing I ever do ultimately makes one iota of difference to the planet or to humanity?” — and still found a way to continue my work with enthusiasm.

In my best moments, I find optimism in the present, a sturdy-booted, minimalist version that emerges from facing the reality that is rather than one created by my fears and solipsistic fantasies. And with respect to teaching and researching from the current moment, whatever future outcomes I may wish to manipulate from engagements with students or ideas is secondary. The paradox is, of course, that very often it is only from this commitment to the present, with its lack of emphasis on consequences, that quality future results can emerge. It’s no wonder that such radical presence is difficult to achieve; we are creatures of time, after all, and in some ways the present itself only makes sense to us by reference to past and future.

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Though hope may be useful as a stopgap measure in desperate times, then, it is ultimately a shallow basis on which to build one’s ethical or professional platform. I avoid those Hollywood movies about charismatic, brilliant professors, then, in part, because I find the romanticism of hope they are premised on to cheapen the slogging, consistent labor that actually propels mature teaching and research. The fact that we must choose to make meaning, moment by moment, and do not find it waiting at the end of a rainbow is, for me, the most meaningful aspect of the work that we do.

I no longer imagine, then, that, as a teacher, I toss bottles containing precious messages into the sea that one day, someday, will be plucked from the rocky shoals by receptive hands. Instead, I see myself standing in the desert, pouring all that I have into the arid night, knowing full well that it will almost certainly evaporate before it hits the sand. Because creating meaning in full awareness of my part in this Sisyphean drama strikes me as essential to being a human being, a human professor. If I can manage to do my work in the full knowledge that it will all come to dust, as it surely will, then, by my own reckoning, I will have achieved a greatness worth celebrating.

The delicious minimalism of teaching summer school

Like lots of women in my demographic, I’ve been swept up in the minimalist lifestyle craze. At my house, the term “KonMari” — a reference to decluttering guru Marie Kondo — flows naturally as a verb and we speak of “sparking joy” — a key Kondo notion — with barely a hint of facetiousness. Teaching online, as it turns out, provides yet another platform to enact the various guilty pleasure associated with organizing and purging. Teaching online in summer — with its sharply defined time constraints and austere, tight spaces — is an even more concentrated version of this oddly addictive bourgeois challenge.

Almost everyone is tempted to whine about summer school because 15-weeks worth of class may be stuffed into seven, or even five, with the first and last weeks further compromised by add/drops, final exams or the Fourth of July. It’s intensified, too, by the fact that our summer students are often a little more highly strung — working full time, and sometimes needing just this one last class to graduate. All in all, almost everything about summer academic term feels different. It can be grueling and surreal, with nearly every aspect sculpted or distorted by having been slenderized, condensed and sanded down.

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And since summer students earn the same credit as regular-term students, they must be able to expect the full package and not some half-assed, watered-down shadow class, which puts even more pressure on instructors. It’s also why the analogy to minimalism feels apt. Transforming a full-semester online class into a short, summer version is something like moving from a standard-sized house into a tiny one in that:

  • Ideally, the experience of moving from more to less should feel chosen; anyone who feels forced by circumstances — a lost job, a fire, whatever — into radical downsizing will resist and resent it, and likely make themselves and others miserable. Anyone who is truly bummed out by the prospect of cutting their precious class in half should run for the hills if at all possible. For minimalism to be a joyful, constructive experience, its apparent constrictions must be freely embraced or it will just feel like deprivation. This aspect of choosing to go without is, of course, part of what marks lifestyle minimalism a bourgeois (pre)occupation!
  • It helps to reframe the shift from more to less, from, perhaps, excess to necessity, in converse terms. So, for example, those who downsize to a “capsule wardrobe” (a carefully curated, small number of well-loved clothing combinations) discover that the loss of options may actually register as an increase, with less time wasted on pieces that are ill-fitting, worn, or that one no longer likes. Paradoxically, the discipline of a restrictive framework may bring greater freedom. And it may help us better distinguish between the essential and the superfluous in pedagogical contexts as well when we push the just-okay, or merely habitual, assignments aside so that the critical work has more space to shine.
  • Whatever sense of loss remains from the culling process should be honestly faced. Most North Americans who embrace minimalism — and, not surprisingly it is wildly popular with we consumption-oriented North Americans — will have to chuck a lot. Through some combination of donating and discarding, we will shed layers, mounds, and boxfuls of stuff, some of which probably once provided a sense of comfort and security. The idea, then, is to embrace the delicious lightness of downsizing without minimizing whatever grief emerges for what is left behind. Similarly, though we may find satisfaction in the new, spare, clean lines of our summer classes, the amputations leading to this streamlining can hurt a lot.

Ultimately, the comparison between summer school and minimalism is meaningful because re-relating to the stuff of our lives, whether in the form of our homes, our intellectual creations, or our collectible spoons, is a major existential theme. When I’m radically redesigning my courses, I might as well make use of the opportunity to learn some pretty deep things about myself: What am I especially attached to and, why, really and truly, am I holding on so hard? Whether it’s those spendy red boots that never fit right, or that apparently clever assignment that never gained traction with students, it’s worth examining one’s sticky points. When it comes down to it, after all, it will all be about learning to let go, right?

On being a feminist, pragmatist professor who embraces labels

My students hate labels, or so they tell me: “Why do we have to put everything in boxes?” they ask. It’s one of the points about which they seem to all agree, right up there with individual freedom, color blindness, and cute puppies. I often like labels, though. In fact, I have a label maker. And I began to indulge my penchant for labels about the same time that my students agreed labels were bad. I am, then, for now at any rate, quite content to label myself as a feminist, pragmatist, Buddhish professor.

My students — almost to a person — profess to hate labels because they see them as constricting, and, of course, they can be. Being labeled by others as a slut or a jock in the ninth grade can come to define a kid to the exclusion of deeper, more nuanced identities, affinities, and aptitudes. And it’s surely no accident that it’s this oppressive definition of “labeling” that students focus on and then (sort of) reject.

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They have learned that tolerance (in which we all just “get along” in a melting pot of insipid bliss) depends upon a rejection of labels. And reactionary conservative extremism reinforces this misunderstanding through its shallow critiques of “identity politics,” according to which I am an entitled whiner if I insist on living as a self-identified “lesbian.” In short, the very idea of labels has gotten a bad rap and been willfully misused.

But labels are indispensable and can serve liberatory and expressive aims. As I sit here, I see them all around, dials on my stove that denote high and low flame, and a Sharpie squiggle on a repurposed peanut butter jar marked “half-caff” (very important). They help create temporary order and can often be altered at will for either playful or serious purposes. I can peel off and restick labels, change my canister of oats to quinoa just like that. From this point of view, labels are not essentialist identifiers of fixed natures, but practical, shifting markers that can make life both easier and more fun.

It is in this spirit that I’m quite happy to say “I’m a feminist, pragmatist, Buddhish professor.” The words point to features of my aptitudes and inclinations that connect to social justice, and ethical and metaphysical minimalism. Once can infer quite a bit about the sort of teacher, scholar, and interlocutor I will be with only these labels to go on. But, of course, it is part of the point that the labels I have taken up, at least in the classroom, are open-ended, leaving much to the imagination, both of others and of myself. Other labels, by contrast, that also accurately apply to me, limit me in the minds of others which is, of course, precisely why it can be so powerful sometimes to announce ourselves too as gay, or agnostic, or socialist or vegetarian or some other label that might challenge the preconceptions of those around us.

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But labeling myself isn’t something I do only, or even primarily, for the sake of others. Naming myself as a feminist, pragmatist, Buddhish professor is a shorthand way of reminding myself of some of the basic, sometimes aspirational, values that guide my professional practice. When I stick these labels on my forehead, neatly printed from my Epson machine, I am announcing a commitment that I have to certain pedagogical, intellectual, and ethical values that both I and my students can hold me to. And, importantly, such labels can encourage students to be curious; “What exactly does it mean to be a pragmatist anyway?” I can feel them wonder as they look at me.

I am, then, in favor of reclaiming labels, of embracing the undeniably useful and even playful quality of them. The trick, of course, is to move away from the Judeo-Christian image of God-the-Labeler supplying identity to objects and beings as he names each one “in the beginning.” I am, then, offering a pragmatist, feminist approach to labels to explain why I am comfortable calling myself a pragmatist feminist. When it comes right down to it, in any case, I have noticed that most students are still quite committed to labels even as they decry them. Many still declare themselves as Christian, as tolerant, and, increasingly, as gender fluid. And there is perhaps no label to which contemporary students are likely to be more attached than that of being beyond labels.

When students wreck my fantasy of how awesome I am

A wise teacher once told me that when we get frustrated or irritated with others it is often because “they have failed to fulfill the function we have assigned to them.” In these waning weeks of the semester, as pressure escalates and tensions rise, I have ample occasion to ponder my own irritation. As the meager weeks tick by, and possibility once again morphs into constriction, it is almost irresistible to blame others and myself for whatever failures have begun to take shape.

Enter an email to me from a struggling student the other day expressing an anger so barely contained, it landed just on this side of civility. So viscously did it boil with muted rage that I began searching for the previous, more measured, expressions of frustration (or cries for help) that, surely, must have preceded it. But no. Though her message suggested she had been vainly beating her head against my door for weeks, this was her first missive. She had not, in fact, responded even perfunctorily to the multiple concerned emails I’d sent her in the first weeks of the term. Frankly, I found her irritation, both the scale and timing of it, irritating.

In the service of my campaign to avoid empty loops of guilt, defensiveness and resentment, I seek value in moments like this. Can I move past mere venting to something constructive? My approach is both to try to be curious about what is happening and to avoid taking it too personally. It’s a deceptively simple strategy because it first requires that I find breathing room between myself and whatever sparks of emotion are pouring from my ears. If I can’t find at least a little distance between others’ insults and who I think myself to be, then all is lost.

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When I am able to step back, the student’s irritation is easy enough to conjure up and understand. From day one she has found my class to demand more consistent attention than her other online classes, and for weeks now she has been getting grades she does not like. Though its difficulty is carefully calibrated with terms laid out explicitly in the syllabus, she expected my class to be more casual, self-paced and rote than it is. She expected to succeed doing what she’d previously done in similar classes. My class was supposed to further bolster her self-image as a good student for whom learning comes easily. Her irate message to me was actually the latest installment in an internal conversation of deepening frustration she’s been having with me for weeks. What names has she been calling me in her head? I don’t want to know.

But, of course, I imagine that I do know, and it stokes my own internal rant about these struggling students who seem to blame me as they ignore almost every bit of advice or instruction. They add insult to injury, or so I persuade myself, by waiting until the last weeks of the semester to reach out to me. My indignation reveals my own implicit expectations: My students should be polite and appreciative of the opportunity to learn with me, responsible enough to read and follow basic instructions, and willing to take some responsibility for failure. They should make me feel better, not worse, about myself as a teacher. Though most students most semesters meet these expectations, each and every semester — for 30 years now, mind you! — some students never have. Why, then, do I persist in holding them?

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To clarify, there are two senses of “expectation” at play here, one of which expresses something like gentle hope or preference. It’s what I mean, for example, when I say I expect students to address me by something resembling my actual title. But a more pernicious, rigid sort of expectation rises up when we actually come to rely on an unfolding reality to match our already established mental picture of it. Consider the naive picture many of us form at the beginning of the semester: Students will arrive on time and we will complete our grading with clockwork regularity, the scent of newly sharpened pencils filling the air. Often, hapless students and professors do not merely feel disappointed, but duped and disillusioned by a present reality that does not match the previously painted picture of it.

Of course, such fantasy-based expectation all but guarantees that we will assign roles to others that they will inevitably fail to fulfill. Our disappointment, then, will be palpable and deep, for we will not merely have unpleasant situations to deal with but must repeatedly countenance these willful others who wreck our dream of who we are and what our professional lives are supposed to mean. In failing to fulfill the roles I have assigned to them — some of which they did not actually agree to and may not even know they have — students really wreck things for me as I do for them. Small wonder we get angry and irritated with one another out of all proportion to what’s actually happening here and now.