Powerful customers and vulnerable instructors: the tyranny of “not nice enough”

Despite my affection for a long ago high school principal who, with a thick Oklahoma accent, urged us simply to “be nice,” it isn’t a term I have much use for any more. There’s often a suggestion that “nice” means something like “insipidly boring,” “smilingly false” and that it connotes some measure of cluelessness. There’s some awareness too, that nice has race and sex-specific associations such that people of color and white women are generally pressured to “smile and be nice” as white men are not. These sexist and racist implications are noxious, of course, and add weight to the conclusion that “nice” is perhaps irredeemable. Unfortunately, “nice,” and some of its stand-in cousins, still play a powerful underground role in shaping academic contexts.

One of the problems with “nice” is its near boundlessness. It often functions as a sweeping, catch-all adjective to be trotted out when we either aren’t able, or don’t wish, to be more specific about why we’re embracing or rejecting someone. This becomes clearer when we contrast “nice” to “polite” which usually suggests some specific perceived behavioral violation: he fails to reply to my quickly chirped “good mornings” or she ignores a special favor I did. While we might reasonably disagree about the various rules and appropriate fallout associated with politeness — and, of course, this can vary from culture to culture — at least there’s something concrete to point to when we praise or blame someone on this basis. This is probably true of judgements about behavior that is marked as “respectful” or “civil” though these terms too can be abused until they are as vacuous as “nice.”

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Many of the articles warning about biased student evaluations take issue with such vague, subjectively-based personality assessments. Significantly, professors of color, both women and men, and white women, are often judged according to racist and sexist stereotypes. Of course, these judgments may be expressed in general, supposedly innocuous terms: she wasn’t “approachable,” he was “too intense,” she wasn’t “warm.” But when it comes down to it, they might as well be accusing their professors of failing to be nice. And while every worthwhile instructor will value constructive student feedback, such mercilessly sweeping personality assessments are dangerous. This is especially so since college students have become “customers” and instructors are mostly part-time contract workers. In fact, it’s hard to overstate the power of student complaints in this era of blisteringly loud, instant communication combined with a shamefully vulnerable contingent faculty labor force.

What is determined to be “nice,” then, matters, can vary wildly, and can function as a locus of informal power because it is determined solely by the feelings of the judge(s). If the judge decides I am not nice, then it is my responsibility to shape up, to improve my performance. I am at her mercy and nothing would be stronger proof of my deficit of niceness than for me to insist that, in fact, I really am nice and it is she who is mistaken. If she feels that I am not “caring” or “warm,” then she may well proceed as if her assessment is infallible. The hideous double-bind here is clearly revealed when we consider that absolutely any defensive moves the accused makes may be taken as further proof of her gaping personality flaw. Surely, no truly nice person would argue with someone generous enough to provide feedback about how not-nice she is!

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The supposedly infallible and amorphous character of judgments about others’ niceness helps explain why they have been officially abolished in many professional contexts. That situationally or temporarily empowered others, such as students, may wield such capricious judgments to punish or shame teachers they do not like can produce a toxic, bottom-up bullying situation. There are, of course, all sorts of actual conduct violations an instructor may commit, but these should be describable as instances of unprofessional behavior which are, of course, the basis for serious and actionable allegations in most organizations. Ironically, fuzzy accusations that a professor is not nice, or warm, or caring enough can actually distract from actual behavioral violations, for example, that he fails to properly grade student assignments, replies only rarely to their emails, or exhibits clear signs of exasperation when responding to their reasonable questions.

But the fact that “niceness” has been so heavily critiqued does not keep it from creeping back into our lives, and our educational milieus risk reinscribing the same cliques and hierarchies many of us suffered in junior high school. A narrowly scripted, but not fully specified, set of behaviors is required to gain approval, and success is determined by some relatively, situationally empowered beholders. God help that studious teen-aged girl who is found to be “stuck up,” or lacking in niceness, for once that label has adhered she is probably doomed socially. And god help the professor whose students levy (and publicly share) a similarly damning judgement when she insists they earn their high grades rather than pandering to their desire for easy A’s.

At bottom “niceness” is so flexible and vague that it can function almost entirely as a kind of retrospective label to mark someone we just don’t like. As adults, of course, we can’t openly reject others on the grounds that they don’t gush over our cute puppy photos or that they fail to laugh loudly enough at our jokes. But even as, in our better moments, we critique professionally insipid personality evaluations such as “nice,” “warm,” or “caring,” they still get plenty of uptake. If I decide that the woman working as a cashier or nurse or letter carrier — or senator or judge or political candidate — isn’t nice, or warm, or friendly enough, I can quickly find great support for my judgment, even from folks who don’t know her at all. In fact, agreement about her vague, gender-specific personality failures can bond critics as quickly and surely as smoking an illicit joint together in the high school girls room. It should surprise none of us, then, that some students are eager to demolish their most vulnerable instructors with these same trusty swords.

REAL professors and the devaluation of online teaching

I routinely meet people who denigrate teaching online. Often, it takes the form of a dismissive boast about how easy such teaching work is and is expressed as casually as they might share how infrequently they vacuum. Their lives, I’m meant to understand, are overflowing with much more important activities. Such interlocutors, who may or may not know about my own interest in online teaching, typically express, in exaggeratedly cavalier fashion, that online courses pretty much teach themselves and are more of a nuisance chore than a vocation. It’s a measure of how far I’ve fallen into the online rabbit hole that I sometimes respond with unsubtle sarcasm. I say something like: “I guess most things are pretty easy if you don’t care about doing them well.” If I’m especially grumpy, I may even describe a few such activities:

  • lawn care. Super easy if you don’t mind tons of weeds, bare patches, and litter piled under the bushes
  • child rearing. Why do so many parents waste precious hours on dental visits, trips to the playground, and regular affection?
  • cooking and eating. Take a can of beans, add a microwave, and the food practically jumps into your mouth. Couldn’t be easier.

Of course, at a research-intensive university, openly poo-pooing teaching serves an important function. It signals one’s seriousness as a scholar and, as it happens, is tons easier than actually creating scholarly work. In the professorial food chain, then, teaching online is near the bottom, right beside ordering textbooks or serving on yet another strategic planning committee. Part of how insecure professors prove to others and to themselves that they’re SERIOUS SCHOLARS is by explicitly devaluing the parts of their job that don’t directly relate to that VERY IMPORTANT vocation. Hence, when someone with reasonable teaching loads waxes loudly about the “time-suck” of teaching, I simply hear them asserting their social and professional status as a REAL PROFESSOR.

Still, in a higher ed climate in which research-oriented professorships are the exception, it is pretty well impossible for most professors to pretend that teaching has little to do with their true professional identity. Enter online teaching which can now occupy the lowest rung on the teaching hierarchy. Because it is a supposedly inferior version of an already devalued activity, the REAL PROFESSOR may well feel compelled to malign online teaching even if he chooses to do it. He’ll make damn sure that everyone knows that, for him, teaching online is a lark, a sort of joke or scam that he is wise to or in on. In fact, if you want to quickly lose the respect of your fellow professors, profess a genuine interest in and sincere commitment to online teaching.

So, then, I’m left with a few requests for any professor types discussing online education, whether it’s your teaching work or mine:

  1. Please stop suggesting that it’s easy, i.e. “a quick buck,” or that it’s “self-teaching.” When you flippantly insist that it’s easy, I hear you boasting about how badly you’re doing it.
  2. Please don’t try to “help me out” by translating my genuine interest in online teaching into some activity that better fits into an elitist professorial worldview. Don’t, for example, explain away my interest as ironic, knowing or cynical as if you’re desperately groping for a way to redeem me as a REAL PROFESSOR like you.
  3. Please seek healthier ways to boost your professional confidence and satisfaction. You long to be a famous scholar at a top research institution and, instead, pour much time into undermotivated undergraduates. Though I’m sorry your career dreams haven’t (yet) fully blossomed, denigrating teaching makes you sound like an elitist crank. If you really don’t want to teach online, avoid it if you can. If you think it has corrosive elements, then lobby against them. In any case, please consider abandoning the chronic snarking, especially if, like lots of the loudest anti-onliners, you’ve never even taught an online course.

There are, of course, lots of factors that really do undermine university teaching — both online and face-to-face — for example, institutional reliance on contingent instructors and students who’ve learned to think of themselves only as customers. But the predictable consequence of REAL PROFESSORS who denigrate online teaching as they do a half-assed job at it is that their attitude becomes self-fulfilling. When otherwise good instructors make less effort in online classes or avoid teaching them altogether, yes, of course, the classes will be crappy. If online classes are treated as fast food education, then, like the meal prepared with a can opener and a plastic spoon, there can be no surprise about the quality.

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?

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.

Harnessing the power of peer pressure

Many of us internalized the message about the danger of peer pressure early on. When we asked to get a particular brand of shoes or to go to a party because “everyone else” was, our parents snarked, “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?” The honest answer was probably yes, but the right answer, we knew, was “of course not.” Peer pressure, we learned, was this dark force that, like an evil hypnotist, could lead us to follow silly, self destructive trends, to do what our real selves would not do.

It has taken me many years, then, to recognize peer pressure as a potentially legitimate and useful aspect of classroom life. In fact, the loss of some simple forms of social pressure, including something like peer pressure, resulting from my shift to the online classroom has helped me appreciate its power and utility more profoundly.

First, a few mundane personal experiences that led to some elementary insights:

  • deciding I would shift to a solo yoga practice at home and being astonished at how rarely, and how lazily, I did yoga after that
  • living off the beaten path for a short time and being chagrined to discover how much longer it took me to retrieve my lonely trash and recycle bins from the isolated curb
  • noticing how much worse I would dress on days that online work freed me from having to go to campus or out in the world at all

I used to think of peer pressure — if I did at all — along the lines of the after school tv special. Remember the older kid in the leather jacket urging the middle-schooler to “try it, just one puff”? But it’s easy to find examples of productive social pressure where the threat or promise of others’ eyes pushes us to do better. And so I find myself trying to recreate some basic social accountability structures, especially as many of my students’ appear to ever less motivated by the lure of a good grade.

Studies show that it doesn’t take much social pressure to nudge our behavior. Apparently, even the simple printed and posted image of a pair of eyes results in more people paying for coffee offered to them on the honor system. Surely, then, I can better work positive peer pressure into my online classes?

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Some really simple strategies I already use:

  • requiring students to post some completed assignments to a special discussion board with their name included where others students will briefly comment on them
  • explicitly sharing and emphasizing an anonymous grade distribution after key assignments so that students are more likely to see where their falls
  • having a friendly, low stakes, early assignment that encourages students to include a still image or video of themselves
  • asking students to reflect explicitly on how they think social pressure influences their online performance as compared to their face-to-face classes

None of these rudimentary practices would be worth mentioning if not for the longstanding vilification of peer pressure. And it’s a negative reputation that has been earned, to some extent, given the damage that peer pressure can do, especially to already vulnerable students. But I think it is the potentially shaming aspect of peer pressure that is most noxious. And given that some basic forms of peer pressure are unavoidable, perhaps it is worthwhile to focus on nourishing a healthier version of such pressure while deemphasizing its more damaging aspects? After all, isn’t harnessing the noble power of social pressure part of the point of facilitating group experiences in the first place?

Of course, not all students will perform better against a backdrop of healthy, intentionally structured social pressure. But at least this is a tool that is consistent with the nearly unavoidable human propensity to run just a little farther and faster when we think someone is watching. We can wish it were otherwise, touting our allegiance to a lone wolf ethos that cares nothing for the opinions of others. But the more beautiful, complicated truth is probably that we are social creatures who, for better and worse, can be impelled by the gaze of others into acts of astonishing altruism, brilliance and cruelty.

Glitter and glue sticks: The playful pleasure of preparing new courses

One of the hardest things to explain to non-teachers is what’s involved in creating a new class. Non-teachers may only ever have seen teaching from the student side: lectures, activities and assignments that seem to appear magically, like an elaborate pancake breakfast prepared by Supermom on Sunday morning. Or, they may only recall the deflated professors who lectured from brittle yellow notepads and think that college teaching involves nothing more than cranking on the same rusty water spigot year after year. Given that some professors themselves underinvest in teaching, together with the popular societal view that professors’ jobs are easy, the stage is set to minimize the meaningfulness of our teaching preparation work.

This summer as I radically retool two upcoming Fall courses (one online and one face-to-face), I’m fully immersed in course prep and more aware than ever of its charms and challenges. Certainly, part of why I am so earnest and curious about course creation — from inception to design to implementation to assessment — is my recent rediscovery of online teaching. It has, in fact, pushed me to rethink the looser style of my face-to-face classes, just as my foray into backpacking — with its need for meticulous planning and minimalism — has affected how I regard and organize stuff in my home.

Given the exigencies of creating new classes or overhauling old ones, it surprises me a little that I find it so invigorating. But I notice right away that, because I’ve decided on a radical overhaul, I’m back in a student role, in this case a sort of intense, self-curated LGBT Studies summer camp. The exhilaration of reconnecting with the traditional course subject matter, while diving into the latest developments, is intrinsically pleasurable and will also be a catalyst for infectiously enthusiastic teaching. I’m actually eager to share this with students! Teachers who are unable to fall newly in love with the subject they teach, as I have often been, are surely cheated out of one of the deepest pleasures our jobs have to offer.

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Next, I discover that, for me, there is also satisfaction in the almost tactile process of laying out and executing such a complex creative project, from mere idea to concrete realization. The satisfaction of making my ideas come to life by expressing an abstract learning goal through various sorts of well-placed assignments and assessments, is perhaps like crafting a dress or a house. And maybe because I’m independent and intellectually-oriented, there’s something especially gratifying about the rare prospect of helping ideas live and breathe in shared, intersubjective space. That I think of creating a class as a sort of craft, then, is meant to express that, through this activity, I sometimes feel my most abstract ideas sprout legs, don shoes and take off running through the tangible world.

I think the comparison with crafts may be especially apt. On the one hand, part of why the richness and burdens of this creative work are often overlooked by professors is that intellectuals tend not to prize merely technical, practical or instrumental proficiency as we do intellectual insight. Secretly, perhaps, we may envy the skill of the plumber or electrician, even as we not-so-secretly believe we move in higher, more ethereal realms. Course design experts, I am told, often feel devalued by old school profs who are suspicious of what they see as window dressing and gimmicks. After all, for many college profs, including me, learning to teach meant nothing more than learning our discipline. In fact, we implicitly distinguished ourselves from K-12 teachers partly and precisely because we never focused on teaching in that way.

In addition to the elitist elements at play here, I wonder if it’s not also about sexism. When the quintessential educational course creator comes to my mind, it’s the female elementary school teacher. Earnest and bright eyed, she spends her own money and weekends at the crafts store, buying felt strips and foil stars. While most people can talk a good game about how important her work is — forming the next generation and whatnot — by and large, she is regarded as a glorified babysitter. This image stands in deliberately sharp contrast to the (serious, muscular, hard-hitting, deep) university professor. As I prepare for the new Fall semester, then, I wonder if professors’ (understandable) need to affirm our own specialness and status might not keep us from truly enjoying course preparation. As for me, I am discovering that, as I play with the glitter and glue sticks, as well as the big ideas, they are not really so different after all.

The loneliness of the online teacher

One of the most appealing aspects of the discussions and workshops I’ve facilitated with other online teachers is the sheer power of that face-to-face time. For example, a recent discussion I led called, “Online education, on purpose,” was gratifying as a way to share some tricks and strategies, but even more so for the chance to actually lock eyes with others who spend so much time bobbing around in single-person boats like mine. I like the self-reliance and serenity of online teaching — and know many of my online colleagues do too — but as human animals, we are also nourished by our physical, creaturely time together.

Predictably, one of the great selling points of online teaching — independence and solitude — is also one of its greatest traps. It isn’t just that we may not actually see much of our departmental colleagues, but that even when we do, they are likely not as invested in the online world as we are. In many of our disciplines, teaching online is pretty much a niche affair. This is not, then, just a question of physical isolation for many of us, but of a psychological isolation resulting from this modality still being regarded as specialized. Of course, lots of faculty members already experience some isolation as a department’s sole expert in a content area, but in such cases, face-to-face teaching itself often serves as a source of bonding with otherwise dissimilar colleagues.

In a previous post I noted that some solely brick and mortar professors think I’m a lazy sellout because of my foray into online ed. Meeting up in person with other online teachers, then, is a bit like an AA meeting or a coming out circle. When we connect, it is not just a social nicety but an implicit acknowledgement of one another’s existence and worth. We can freely express our fascination with and commitment to online teaching as Trekkies at their convention can celebrate a passion for the Clingon language. Similarly, we can be honest about our doubts and misgivings — even the deep ones — without fear that this will be used to discredit our future online teaching work or against online ed altogether.

That my analogy combines elements of a coming out circle, a support group, and a fan community is apropos. Too often when online teachers’ need for community is acknowledged, it is oversimplified, with a narrow focus on the straightforward loneliness of laboring by oneself. But it isn’t just any sort of company that will nourish us and ease the ache. Many online professors are pioneers in an endeavor with a still shaky reputation, hovering like tin-foil satellites at the far periphery of their ivy and brick universities. The community we need, then, will provide solace and support, but also help us challenge the very identities we are in the process of establishing.