Don’t do it for me: encouraging student agency and power

In these first weeks of the summer semester, I’ve begun the familiar dance with students who insist they are committed to succeeding even as they blow past deadlines or submit last-minute scribbling. It goes like this: I email a student, noting a missed assignment and request a reply indicating that they understand where they’re headed gradewise. Alternatively, I add, please let me know if you’ve determined this course isn’t a good fit for you and have decided to drop. My note is polite, straightforwardly reminding them of the circumstances facing them as it reinforces their own motive power: “YOUR actions,” “YOUR decision,” and “YOUR future.”

It’s interesting, then, that the replies I get are often full of either exaggerated self-flagellation — “I’m such a loser!” — or complaints about my “unreasonable” expectations. Such replies may also express an outsized devotion to my class and, perhaps, to the student’s own educational values, despite, ahem, their current poor performance. It’s the sort of passionate reassurance a teenager might provide in a drunken three a.m. call to his worried mother. In such emails, then, it’s my perceived feelings and judgments students are attending to — suddenly desperate to appease or placate me — rather than the uncomplicated situation at hand. Only occasionally does a student simply acknowledge the lapse in performance and share with me her intention to drop or to recommit.

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When faltering students shower me with elaborate reassurance — Yes, they really DO like my class! Oh my, yes, they really ARE learning a lot! And do I know I’m an AMAZING teacher? — it’s like when I run into students on campus the very day they’ve missed a face-to-face class meeting. There’s often a whiff of shame about them as if they’ve just been caught two-timing me. It’s sometimes amusing to watch them scramble and sweat because, of course, I don’t really care as they imagine I do. I certainly don’t care with the fervor of a jilted lover or distraught mother. Nor do I care as an employer being cheated out of sick leave might care.

I do care about my students, of course, and I wish them happiness and success. I don’t, though, walk around with hurt feelings when a student blows off my class, even if she forgets she signed up for it in the first place. Nor do I judge faltering students as having some fatal character flaw, as, say, being fundamentally lazy or stupid. I’m not especially damaged by students who snub my professorial efforts nor do I feel compelled to condemn them. Like a surgeon who performs operations on patients who are both surly and sweet, my teaching motives aren’t usually overwhelmingly personal.

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My real aim in reaching out to poor performers early isn’t to shame or coddle them, but to help them better focus on their own agency, power, and self-worth. Can they notice and embrace the causal relationship between their actions and the ensuing results? Can they better acknowledge their responsibility to themselves, rather than getting mired down in some manufactured sense of obligation to me or their parents or God? If it can become clearer to them how success and self-esteem are often connected to their choices and actions, then it’s probably just fine if they decide to fail or drop. If, though, I permit myself to get tangled up with them in some personalized drama of anger, judgment and resentment, then my failure is even greater than theirs.

Of course, students don’t learn to initiate these tragi-comic performances on their own. Years of socialization nurtures their sense that it’s the personal judgement and reaction of particular authorities that they must manage to earn rewards and avoid penalties. And given how well the approval system often works in the short term, it’s understandable that teachers leverage students’ desire for a pat on the head to get them to learn. But at some point in the maturation process, I think we’ve got to aspire to greater authenticity and integrity. A few weeks from now, I won’t give that flailing, failing student another thought, but if she ignominiously sputters out and peels away, then she may carry the failure of my class with her as a financial and logistical albatross, and as an unnecessary drag on her self-confidence. If, though, she acts out of duty to herself rather than to me, then whether she decides to drop out or buckle down, maybe she can feel the pride and power of steering her own ship.

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