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.

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