Make your own bed! Faux helplessness and student passivity

I remember tv sit coms and commercials in which otherwise authoritative white men would be reduced to bumbling idiots when briefly called upon to do laundry, cook, or care for their own children. Eventually, the woman (their wife, the maid, Aunt Bea, etc.) would sweep in (literally), efficiently restoring both the domestic and natural order. It’s a scenario I often recall during interactions with students whose apparent helplessness arises in the most scripted fashion and opportune moments.

Some such instances are especially relevant to online education, for example, when tech savvy millennials morph into butterfingered Luddites just before a drop box deadline. But I’m especially fascinated by the more subtle helplessness students demonstrate in relational, communicative contexts, say, when they reach out to me to “discuss my grade.” What dawned on me only after decades of innocently responding according to script, is that these exchanges can be leveraged to help nurture a more mature, robust sense of student agency, instead of unwittingly enabling or reinforcing a learned, but ultimately faux, helplessness.

Here’s how a typical dialogue might proceed with a previously incommunicado, failing student who emails me between the midterm and final exam periods:

Student: “I need to discuss my grade with you. When’s a good time?”

Me: “Good to hear from you, Andy. First, please help me better understand your goals for the meeting so we can make the best possible use of our time. As you know, your detailed grade information is all readily available to you online, as is all information about the weights of each assignment. What is it about this that you wish to discuss?”

Student: “I have no idea why I’m doing so bad. I don’t know what you’re looking for.”

Me: “Again, please review the detailed breakdown of your grade so far. You will see, for example, that you have failed to submit one-third of the assignments. What other patterns do you find that would help you better understand the grade you are earning? On other assignments in which you scored very low, you either skipped whole sections, or responded only partially to questions. Please find an example of an assignment that you believe you did well, compare it to the instructions for completing it, and then share your remaining questions with me.”

Student: “I’m graduating in May and I just really need to pass this class.”

In other words, almost always, that failing student who wants to “discuss my grade” or has “no idea why I’m getting such a low grade” really means something else. And so I often simply ask: “Is it that you don’t understand your grade or that you do not like it? Please clarify.” As it happens, “Let’s discuss my grade” is a vague catch-all like “Let’s have coffee.” These days, then, I call the student’s bluff to get her to take some responsibility in advance for the conversation she actually wishes to have with me, including some of its expected outcomes. Often students must be encouraged repeatedly to respond to my questions, so eager are they to hand the screaming baby back to me.

I nudge them into claiming some ownership of the scenario, writing: “your grade,” “the grade you’re earning.” And I give them little jobs to do — Why should the entire burden fall on me?: “review the information,” analyze the situation and then provide me with more specific questions. Often, the student’s apparently earnest attempt to set up a meeting — and aren’t they often self-satisfied when they finally take this step!? — is actually a desperate, and sometimes smarmy, attempt to establish and dramatize their own helplessness. Like the apron-clad Mad Man husband surveying a pile of dirty dishes next to a charred pot roast, they are desperate to pass off their mess. “Fix it. Make it better. You’re the professor!”

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And, of course, it’s a disservice to students to make it too easy for them shift their burden onto us. They wish to “discuss my grade” and we diligently make calculations and offer more “feedback” that is already in front of their faces. And we are especially susceptible to this trap partly because, like cleaning a small child’s room, it’s just easier to just do it oneself. But it’s also because we are under great pressure to be “available” and “responsive” to students. They, correspondingly, are encouraged by advisors and others “to connect with professors in person” and too often see setting up THE MEETING as a magic eraser. Not surprisingly, then, some students exhibit far more tenacity and follow through in planning THE MEETING — though they may not actually show up — than is ever apparent in their class work.

And like June Cleaver reveling in her competence as she rushes in to save Ward and the boys from themselves, this is a performance with casualties beyond the warping of the rescuer’s character. Just as June’s “guys” never learn to work the stove, our students may not learn to gauge their own progress or consult criteria to provide feedback to themselves. Worse, they may not even understand that it’s their responsibility and within their power to do so. The university — like the city or the government or the church — looms paternalistically such that they learn to see themselves less as thoughtful agents than as passively entitled consumers. Is it any wonder so many are more likely to stamp their feet than to reflect upon, analyze and proactively seek solutions to problems they’ve helped create?

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