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.

Ghosts, burning houses, and the challenge of exhausted students

As we enter the desperate final weeks of the spring semester, I find myself acting like Patrick Swayze in Ghost as he negotiates the liminal space between earthly and ethereal existence. You may recall his frustration as he tries to force awareness of his presence on the oblivious humans around him, racing against the clock to save the woman he loves. As an online teacher, I too am basically chucking pennies, stage whispering, and madly waving my virtual arms to keep my students from fading away.

As many of us know, the true challenge of teaching, especially online, is helping students stay more or less connected for the entire fifteen weeks. Attention-span issues arise not just in the context of each reading but also from the sheer drudgery of week-in/week-out tasks. And so we clap our hands in front of their faces. We cajole. We praise. We warn. We entertain and amuse, just about anything to urge them to find just a little more oomph. These are mostly cheap teacher tricks, of course, and I’m not proud of them. At the beginning of the term, I promise myself only to appeal to the nobler side of students’ natures. “I try to help them connect to their own deepest motives for wanting to succeed,” I wrote in an earlier VP essay. And, sure, I do, and, sure, it works. Sort of. For a while.

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But that’s before the victuals start running low, before the snows come and they find themselves floundering just above tree line, no longer sure of the trail or their own feet. Exhausted, they long to burrow into the frigid earth and rest, just for a moment, only for a little while. But because I am the guide who knows that stopping now means certain death, I reach for the Buddha’s parable about “skillful means.” With children happily playing in a burning house, too distracted to notice or care as the flames leap from room to room, it is our obligation, he says, to do what works to lure them out. I can indulge in principled musing about how I must “respect that my students are adults,” that they “are fully capable of seeing and living with the consequences of their actions,” or I can focus on urging them to safety.

I am, then, never more pragmatist as a teacher than in the midst of this perennial, predictable crisis of persistence. And so, though I generally dislike the more manipulative aspects of pedagogical performativity — last ditch antics to grab students’ attention — I write my students these alternately cajoling, cautionary, and praise-filled notes. I ply them with tales of my own struggles with motivation and circumstance, and assure them with a confidence I do not always feel. I have been to the promised land, I preach, and, yes, safe arrival is assured if only they will push ahead just a few more miles.

This semester, I’m shamelessly trotting out a few new/old tricks, one that was suggested by a wise advisor colleague. “Tell them how much they’re paying for these credits,” he suggested. “Sometimes it works.” And so I (almost) shamelessly craft a message to my students that appeals to their pocketbooks, leveraging the very consumerist orientation to education that is so undermining to contemporary higher ed. “You’re handing over a hearty chunk-o-change for these credits,” I will write, “Is this money you’re prepared to squander?” And though I feel a little cheap as I wave my arms to grab their attention, at least I am in good company. There is the Buddha, after all, and, of course, the earnestly undead Patrick Swayze.

Am I Part of the Problem?

Probably most of us who love working in higher education are also critical of it. But the shifting intersections between universities and big business, public disinvestment, and the now common view of students as customers have all brought new urgency to our worries, guilt, and grievances.

With this in mind, the ambivalence many feel about online education may be obvious: Is online education merely enabling or exacerbating some of the worst trends in higher education? With the machinery of higher ed racing ever faster towards cheaper, interchangeable instruction, have I become part of the problem? For example, unlike most online teachers, my labor is not inexpensive — I have the increasingly rare luxury of being a tenured professor on a campus with a strong faculty union — but I am enabling an on-the-cheap infrastructure, one in which offices, classrooms and on campus amenities need not be calculated in at all.

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Asking tough questions about online education against this bleak backdrop seems like an ethical necessity, especially for those who, like me, have the privilege and relative security of tenure: How can I justify participating in, and benefitting from, a system that aims to cheaply reproduce educational credits? Isn’t higher ed reproducing a caste system in which privileged kids, mostly white, enjoy an enriched physical experience, complete with attentive professors, ivy covered walls, and intramural activities? Meanwhile our online students hustle to complete their discussion posts during breaks from their jobs at Chipotle and Walmart.

We tell ourselves, maybe, that we’re providing a special service to students who might otherwise have no access to college, and this is undoubtably true in some cases. Many of my students juggle jobs, family responsibilities and heavy class loads, a teetering balancing act that online convenience makes possible. But while it matters that some students benefit in exactly this way, their frenzied lives are are also partly caused by an ailing system. Why in the world is college so damn expensive? Why aren’t child and elder care more affordable? Why aren’t classes offered at times more convenient to working students with families? My point is the fairly obvious one that public higher ed is limping along within a social system that exemplifies values and priorities that aim to thwart it.

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Because the broader social context is part of what makes online education an attractive or necessary option, I wonder if we online teachers don’t have a special duty to question the role and value of online classes even as we provide such options to our harried students. It’s not that I think online education is inherently inferior to face-to-face, but surely working class students should not be forced into it. If we want to do our online work with integrity, then, we must not become defensive about online classes, but should actually encourage our colleagues and students to question it as well, even as we diligently serve our students within its limitations.

This is not a satisfying solution, but I’m not sure we can do much more than encourage and engage in higher ed activism. After all, the outsized emphasis on online education (which makes online ed an easy target), is merely one symptom of higher education’s decline. We also hear its gasps in the ever increasing number of courses taught by shamefully-compensated part-time instructors. It is not, then, as if our hands are somehow clean if we insist on teaching only in our physical classrooms.

Dear online student: I know what you did last semester

One of the most useful, and creepiest, aspects of teaching online is the sheer quantity and variety of surveillance we teachers can exercise. Although the technology is imperfect, I am more or less privy to detailed facts about how much time, if any, students spend on each assignment, including quizzes and exams. It’s a touch of omniscience about which I have mixed feelings, partly because my students seem not to understand, or, perhaps, to care about, how closely they are being watched.

A student I’ll call Jeff, for example, recently sent me the usual “I have no idea why I’m doing so poorly” email, underscoring his mystification with, “I’m working far too hard in this class to be earning such a low grade.” When I looked at his stats, I could see that he’d only opened two of the seven links to access the material and that he’d spent a total of six minutes (out of the allotted 40) to complete the unit quiz. In other words, he had just barely sauntered in during this unit, but still felt empowered to trot out the righteous “sweat and suffering” trope.

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When I relayed his stats to him, I assured him that, in my online classes, there is an almost perfect correlation between the amount of time students spend on it and the grades they earn. I asked him to reply confirming that he understood that succeeding would require consistent, sustained engagement with the material. I was sorry, but not surprised, that he didn’t respond, both because I want him to succeed and because my curiosity was piqued as it often is when folks make assertions that appear to be utterly contradicted by readily available facts.

It is, perhaps, naive of me to resist the obvious conclusion that Jeff was lying: Does he really believe that 16 minutes of effort in a two-week unit represents dedicated labor? That seems unlikely. But his was such a colossal, discoverable falsehood, I have to wonder. Is it possible that a present-day, traditional age college student could be so oblivious to the snooping power of technology? Have the fine arts of lying and excuse-making simply failed to keep pace with pedagogical spyware, or are some students’ expectations of what hard labor means really so different from those of previous generations?

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I’m far from the first to wonder if the online realm has shifted notions of academic honesty so sharply that, increasingly, we really aren’t all operating in the same ethical landscape. We see it with plagiarism in that the utter ubiquity of information, so easily redigested and pastiched, makes it exceedingly difficult to take seriously “authorial ownership.” Some students have always violated such norms of “intellectual property,” of course, but didn’t they used to seem to understand that they were breaking rules? Perhaps it’s not, then, that millennial students have less academic integrity than previous generations, but that the value of ideas, words and information has plummeted. Words seem now to exist like jellybeans in a community bowl, and it feels different to grab an extra handful now and then than to swipe a bag from the grocery store.

And similarly, the ease, isolation and anonymity of working and communicating online seems to be straining the norms of how students communicate with professors such that the boundaries between truth and falsity, and accuracy and exaggeration become blurrier. Of course, face-to-face students have also lied, slanted, and hyperbolied. Grandmas have been dying and dogs have been blithely munching on homework since the dawn of time. But half-truths and excuses take on an even more wiggly and pernicious quality in the online environment, I think, where words flow so freely and students may never meet their teachers’ eyes as they advance preposterously false claims.

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I can’t simply say, though, that online students are lying more to their teachers. Rather, intellectual and communication norms seem to have stretched. For some students, merely clicking on a link to an assigned article and skimming the images means having read it. It’s an equivocation I am also frequently guilty of in this age of distraction. Some students are, then, sincerely stunned when they utterly fail my fairly basic reading comprehension quizzes. So too, what I think of as, at best, exaggerations of speech, and, at worst, bald lies — “I worked for hours….” or “I studied all night” — can, I suspect, feel like regular speech acts in a communication environment in which “LMAO,” “dying!” and exploding emojis punctuate so many messages.

And I can’t help but connect all this to the erosion of communication norms on the national scene. How can I possibly be surprised if electronic utterances are regarded as so ephemeral and ubiquitous that one need feel little responsibility for them? Why shouldn’t our students, like so many around them, lose the intimacy of connection between what they say and who they feel themselves to be? Perhaps it’s not all bad. Maybe my students will never know the sickening wave of shame of having accidentally sent an unfortunate email. But the silencing of such internal alarm bells also deprives us of our usual means of encouraging personal and academic integrity. Ironically, or perhaps predictably, our pedagogical surveillance tools may have reached full flower precisely when students no longer care about being fact-checked.

In upcoming VP essays, I describe some of the tactics I’m using to shift the conversation with my students back to one in which more traditional parameters of reality and honesty operate. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below, on the VP Facebook site, or by email to virtualpedagogue@gmail.com: How much do you use the stats tool in your online platform to track students? Do you feel creepy doing it? What is your sense of how students are relating to notions like authorship and intellectual authority? Has something shifted in how students relate to notions like truth and falsity or am I just getting cranky?

Black Flies, Dragons, and Student Emails

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Being able to connect with students through email is a godsend, but this magical medium can easily become abusive. While some students’ emails are unremarkable when taken individually, the impact of a string of them quickly becomes unbearable. Another type of unwelcome student email lands in one big nasty surprise, a stinkbomb of fully articulated negativity. While the potential agony of dealing with student emails isn’t new, the intensity of the problem is greater in the online world where this may be our only form of one-on-one communication.

The cumulative drip-drip-drip abuse of repetitious, trivial emails is as easy to underestimate as biting black flies. As pests go, they are pretty small, and they so closely resemble the mundane housefly that, at least in the first moments, it’s hard to work up much aversion. Then one perfect summer day you’re at Michigan’s north shore, blithely spreading out your Wonder Woman beach towel, and here they come. Tiny, dense vibrating bodies thud into your bare arms and neck, your exposed torso, as you realize they aren’t stinging you so much as absconding with bits of skin. It’s the doggedness of the collective that wears you down rather than any one fly.

Similarly there’s the student who sends a stream of individually innocuous messages sprinkled with anodyne queries, questions clearly answered in the syllabus and assignment instructions. When the first harmless question arrives — and it is often before the semester even begins — the teacher doesn’t recognize it as the portent of a plague. She replies quickly and thoughtfully to this motivated new student, eager to demonstrate her values as a committed, student-centered, generally awesome teacher and human being. But an occasional student will then fall happily into the habit of emailing repeatedly, both because it’s so easy — like using Siri or the Amazon Echo — and because their high school adviser assured them that asking their professors lots of questions was a great way of “demonstrating interest and engagement.”

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The student as dragon, by contrast, rouses at midterm with a L-O-N-G message that includes gruesome details about her recent stomach flu, and tales of travel woes associated with her cousin’s long distance wedding. Oh, and there’s a plea for special dispensation about an assignment. In quick sympathetic response, the teacher accommodates. A little extra time? Sure. When the student then confidently gallops past this extended deadline and sends yet another lengthy plea, the teacher gently declines, citing concerns of fair play for all, etc. The student’s reply, which arrives instantly and in flames, is peppered with ALL CAPS and exclamation points!!! She is outraged by your insensitivity and, besides, your class is terrible (other students think this too!!!) and she can’t believe the university hired you in the first place!!!

The potential for such abuse has probably been heightened by the fact that many students have come of age understanding college education to be a consumer good. Their browser bookmark for my class is likely nested between tabs for Amazon and Zappos, and pounding out faceless customer complaints and reviews is second nature. Bad enough that many students and their families see us primarily in customer service terms, but many of us have, sometimes astutely, come to see ourselves this way too. It makes sense given how many university administrations — not to mention regional and national politicians — have nurtured the education-as-commodity view. An unhappy consequence is that we wind up encouraging unreasonable student expectations. It’s an especially brutal double bind for adjuncts whose livelihood hangs in the balance of what has become, in part, a salesperson of the month contest.

In my earliest online classes my mild case of guilt probably made the general email issues even worse. Because I was so deeply oriented toward face-to-face conversation, I struggled to accept that the normal online methods of connecting could be good enough, so I sometimes overcompensated. I’m sure there are still times that I contribute to a student’s inflated sense of entitlement. I grimace as he returns again and again to the complimentary snack bar when he may not even realize he’s taking more free peanuts than he should.

And though my very human desire for validation is only one tiny facet of this issue, I pay attention to its unintended impact, recognizing that it’s actually a little selfish. After all, how healthy is it for students to be confirmed in their expectation for lightening fast replies to trivial questions? And while I continue to offer compassionate, flexible responses to their tales of woe, I can be direct to a fault about the ultimate limits. I am also quick to decisively call out any rude or abusive replies from them. I make these efforts even when I really just want to envelop them in warm fuzzies during their crises, or when I would rather take the easier route of pretending that an abusive message wasn’t really that bad. But it serves no one’s best interest for me to give the flies and dragons further encouragement to feast on my meager flesh.

Schoolteachers, sexism, and the pedagogy of democracy

Although there may be no more graphic representation of misogyny than sexual violence, coercion and harassment, the endless attacks on K-12 education, and on the dignity and viability of the teaching profession comes pretty close. I am celebrating the recent organized protests by school teachers, then, including the recent victory in West Virginia, from my vantage point as citizen, public university professor, and feminist.

The growing hostility to public education by conservative extremists over the past decades appears to be grounded in some mixture of libertarianism: “Why should I pay taxes for your kid?”; fundamentalist Christianity: “Why should I be required to send my children to godless institutions?”; and racism and xenophobia: “Why should my white kids have to mingle with THEM?” All this combines with a sexism so pervasive and banal that it becomes inevitable and almost unremarkable that the feminized teaching profession will be ridiculed and neglected. That is, of course, when elementary school teachers are not being celebrated in treacly, vacuous Hallmark terms, alongside mothers and secretaries.

One hopes this misogynistic, elitist, racist and xenophobic posture towards public education has reached its apotheosis in the persona of so-called education secretary Betsy DeVos, an appointee that, like most of those made by this obscene administration openly desecrates the very institution she has been charged with stewarding. As newly elected President Andrew Jackson once welcomed “the people” into the White House to shatter heirlooms and piss on the carpets, the wave of faux populist white hooliganism unleashed by this White House, and underwritten by congress, includes a slash and burn orientation to public education at every level.

Again, then, I cheer the victory in West Virginia, and the labor protests by K-12 teachers in Oklahoma and other states. The future of my nation and world depends on the young people now making their way through crumbling schools in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Flint and Tulsa. And, as a professor at a non-selective public university, my ability to succeed hinges directly on how well my incoming students have been prepared to read, write, and think. The vast majority of public U.S. universities — many providing relatively open academic access even to underprepared students — need the K-12 profession to be respected and nourished, to be attractive to the brightest, most energetically compassionate young people on the job market.

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All of our talk about individual professors’ creative and responsible pedagogy, then, must keep sight of how the structural crisis in American public education has been manufactured from the weird priorities and noxious isms that hobble our nation more generally. Though it has surely been poisoned by racism, sexism, and nativism all along, broad access to education in the U.S. has been at the heart of our delicate experiment in democracy. It is no accident then, that current plutocrats have sided against K-12 teachers. The same rabid conservatives — and “conspiracy” we now see is not too strong a word — hell bent on starving public schools have also colluded to seize power through gerrymandering, partisan “cleansing” of voter rolls, and other brazen disenfranchisement tactics.

Probably no one is better situated to promote the values of democracy, freedom and civic responsibility than K-12 school teachers, so it should give us pause that this group, the overwhelming majority of whom are women, is so maligned and undervalued. And it should not surprise us that we public university professors too have fallen under increasing suspicion and attack by these same extremist, kleptocratic forces. A win for K-12 educators, then, is a victory for “the people,” for women, and for the professoriate. As our democratic scaffolding creaks and groans, burdened by greed, corruption, and scapegoating, there is nothing more patriotic and intelligently self-interested than to support public education.

“Everyone gets an ‘A’!”: Grading as ethics, activism and style

Though we do it a lot, the practice of assigning grades is fraught for many college instructors. Whether it’s because we dislike its hierarchical underpinnings or the fact that some students seem to be systematically disadvantaged by it, the practice of grading can be pedagogically and ethically complicated. After wrestling for decades with my own misgivings about its meaning and role, I’m newly interested in the complicated role that grading can play in instructors’ deepest sense of ourselves, as teachers, and as ethical and political agents.

It’s widely known that some professors invest heavily in the notion of themselves as “hard graders,” a label associated with seriousness, hard work, and uncompromisingly high standards. They are as proud when students complain about their grades as elitist restauranteurs are delighted with complaints about their tiny portions. And it’s surely no accident that these loud and proud “hard graders” are often crusaders for higher education, eager to protect its supposed traditional dignity and integrity. The “hard grader” rhetoric, then, can function both to establish and support the professor’s self-concept and to promote a meritocratic pedagogy and conservative vision of higher education.

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On the other extreme are the professors who are just as proud of being cavalierly dismissive of grades. In fact, you may learn how little they value grading from how very much they talk about it. It’s not that they don’t engage closely with student work, they will be sure to explain, but they have no use for grades and so assign A’s to just about everyone. Here again there are reasonable pedagogical, political and ethical justifications. After all, aren’t grading systems just one more cog in a sexist, racist capitalist heteropatriarchy that reproduces and celebrates inequities and social division? Aren’t grades an expression of ill-gotten and ill-conceived institutional power that oppresses the vulnerable, the dispossessed, the creative? And don’t they ultimately distract students from engaging authentically with the actual course content and so taint learning as it’s meant to be?

Many professors fall somewhere in the middle, ambivalent about the “system,” perhaps, but working with it as we do many other troubling aspects of institutional life. In the scheme of things, after all, grades may well be one of the less offensive practices in higher education. How many professors who highmindedly reject the hierarchy of grades, I wonder, also reject the hierarchy that has them better paid than adjunct instructors by orders of magnitude? At any rate, expressing one’s social activism by rejecting traditional grading is a very particular choice, and not at all the most obviously effective way to rebel against our unabashedly inequitable institutions of higher learning.

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Still, I admit that I’m attracted to the prospect of eschewing grades. What could be more appealing than the promise of self-motivated, sufficiently resourced students, eager to learn for learning’s sake, with self-esteem unencumbered by nasty, reductionistic grading schemes? I offer some ungraded (or very low stakes) assignments precisely because they provide a rich opportunity to develop skills and content knowledge without the sometimes absurd pressure that assessment can exert. But given that our overarching system is built on values and practices associated with letter grades and percentages, what is accomplished by giving everyone an A? Given that grades actually do sometimes matter, and everyone knows this, what is a student supposed to glean from an isolated experience in which they’re offered a critique of grading and then awarded an automatic A?

Short of a revolution that topples the more fundamental hierarchies of higher ed, and some of the larger systems it is nested in, I’m a fan neither of HARD GRADING or of A’s-for-all. In fact, I wonder if some of the problems associated with grading aren’t exacerbated by instructors who regard grades as a prize to bestow or withhold. Grading then becomes, not a more or less natural consequence of student performance, but an expression of the instructor’s individual style and power. And even if the instructor deigns to give everyone A’s, there is a capriciousness to this that may well further erode a student’s sense of agency and responsibility. It may make the instructor feel better, but I can’t see that it does much to challenge the overarching myths of individualism and meritocracy that gave birth to grading in the first place.