Making students cry: being honest about substandard work

I was speaking with a friend recently, an instructor of Spanish from Argentina, as she bemoaned an American educational culture that she believes makes it difficult to correct students. “We are not supposed to tell them they’re wrong,” she said, “or to call really bad work ‘really bad.’” I shared that I too feel the pressure to “soften” that seems endemic to higher education. Instructors, perhaps people of color and white women in particular, feel they must be hyper vigilant about hurting students’ feelings.

I am, myself, from the U.S., from a childhood home that included, um…., direct and unequivocal feedback about my behavior and projects. My parents never soft-pedaled their assessments of my work when they noticed it, be it my performance at a softball game or an article for the school paper. They might have remained utterly silent about it, or cheered it on occasion, but I do not ever recall either my mother or father trying to make me feel better about what they saw as poor or unremarkable work. Due to some combination of nature and nurture, then, I’m deeply habituated to be non effusive and direct with others, a tendency that has served me poorly on many occasions, especially with students.

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My directness led to experiences with students that weren’t just memorably unpleasant, but also shocking; I have, on occasion, been unable to fully comprehend a students’s forceful reactions to my acknowledgement of what I have seen as quite obvious facts. For example, years ago I was speaking with an advanced undergraduate student about an essay she submitted that was just barely on the north side of literate. Having learned something about softening over the years, I began cautiously. “To what extent does this essay represent your best work?,” I asked. “Oh, I’m very proud of it,” she said. “Are you able to see that it contains lots of grammatical and proofreading errors?,” I continued. “Well, I guess there are a few,” she replied, and I could hear her flag of defensiveness begin to unfurl.

As our conversation continued, the student shared her plans to apply to a graduate program in English, shortly after which I euphemistically said that this essay did not, from my point of view, “fully qualify as college-level writing.” Before I could proceed to discuss strategies for developing this critical skill, the student erupted with the equivalent of “How dare you!” and, in a flood of tearful rage assured me that she knew damn well she was an excellent writer, that “no other professor has ever had any problem with my work.” I replied gently that if this was the quality of work she had been submitting without receiving critical feedback, she had been poorly served by her previous instructors.

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Of course, I didn’t really believe that no other instructor had ever pointed out her writing weakness, but I do believe that none had expressed it to her quite so directly. And looking at her transcript, I could see that she had earned satisfactory grades all along, including in some writing heavy disciplines. In other words, it was probably as reasonable for her to believe that she was talented and skilled as it is for those shriekingly off key talent show singers whose feelings have been spared by “supportive” others.

Obviously we shouldn’t aim to make students cry. Perhaps most of our energy should be put into overtly building the confidence of insecure students with sincere, warranted praise. But we shouldn’t be freaked out by the prospect of tears either. We are pressured to keep students happy, to soft pedal our feedback so that we won’t piss them off or “damage their self-esteem.” And I won’t lie. I kind of wish my parents had been a little gentler and more forthcoming with their praise of my childhood work. Maybe I would have gone on to become a virtuoso trumpet player or a great mathematician. But I’m also glad they didn’t overstate my brilliance. I don’t much enjoy critical feedback, but nor does it send me into a tailspin of denial, self-loathing and self-justification.

Let’s take those anti-college Republicans at their word

Maverick educator though he was, Plato’s Socrates fretted about a new fangled technology known as writing. Relying on quill and papyrus, he worried, could wreck men’s memories and send his beloved Athens into a spiral of dull-witted decline. His concerns seem quaint, even silly, until we consider the recent Pew Center Report suggesting that most Republicans now think that college is bad for society. Certainly, it captures something about the red-blue divide since, at the same time, 70ish percent of “liberals” still think higher ed is pretty nifty.

On the one hand, there’s nothing to see here. Conservatives, especially religious fundamentalists, have long made a hobby of vilifying education, aware enough of its radicalizing potential to pursue radical means to control it. After all, Socrates died for his supposed heresies, to say nothing of poor Tycho Brahe, the long house arrest of Galileo, and the beatings inflicted on enslaved Africans learning to read. There are, unfortunately, endless examples of outraged conservatives silencing intellectuals and creatives in the name of God and country. The current anti-intellectualism in the U.S. too is grounded in a values divide with unbearably high stakes, including attitudes and policies about climate change, the rights of people of color, women, and immigrants, and what it means to be a free citizen.

If this weighs especially heavy on my mind, it is partly because I am a professor from a red town in a red state in a flamingly red region. I am, ostensibly, a veritable case study of the kid who went off to college and emerged unrepentantly and permanently dangerous to society. For anyone who thought I should have married a local boy, become a P.E. teacher (my mother’s early vision for me), and raised a few blond kids, college did, in fact wreck me. From the moment I arrived on campus — supported and encouraged by my father and step mother — worlds opened, intellectually, creatively and socially. Although I avoided the freshman weight gain, college helped me expand in every other respect. New paths led to new roads of experience and perspective that made me and my hometown ever stranger to one another. There was never much chance I would return to it or that it would welcome me if I did.

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The narrative of the Republican far right — with much help from the kajillionairre Koch brothers and their ilk — is that colleges are left-wing cults, inculcating young people into extreme political liberalism and libertine lifestyles. And I guess the supposed divide between the values of small town America and the dangerous “college type” is perfectly realized in me, a lesbian in a Subaru who eats organic, reads a ton — I am a philosopher — and hasn’t set foot in a church since MC Hammer rocked those iconic pants. As a professor who teaches such “politically charged” courses as LGBT Studies and Queer Theory, I am the poster child of what conservatives object to about higher ed today, a threat to their very way of life.

Except that, as an independent-minded critic of unearned social and economic privilege, my hard working father helped radicalize me long before I went off to college. And my uneducated mother’s eclectic and open-minded approach to friends, food and books set me up to embrace the ideological and aesthetic challenges I encountered on campus. Anyone who blames college for ruining me has no idea how annoyingly philosophical and incipiently political I already was before college had its way with me. It’s probably just as fair to say that college made me a more mature version of myself than that it fundamentally changed me. I suspect this is true for most college students though, of course, I can’t say. But it does seem that those extreme, anti-college Republicans both underestimate and overestimate the influence that the experience has on actual young people.

Anyone truly surprised by this “new” anti-college stance underestimates the power and tenacity of America’s grand tradition of anti-intellectualism, its ties to religious fundamentalism, and the impact of economic disparity and the public disinvestment in higher ed (which is, of course, partly a product of anti-intellectualism). When one adds in the concerted anti-college media campaigns of college-educated fat cats, it is a miracle that all of red America is not disgusted by professors like me. And, no surprise, it turns out that it’s mostly the non-college educated Republicans who are so vehemently against it, like those home-bound Americans who insist with great authority that Europe is overrated. The way to get more popular support for college, as for most worthwhile experiences, is almost certainly to make it more available which is, perhaps, partly why so many Republican fundamentalists fight to make it inaccessible.

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At any rate, this current flare of anti-intellectualist religious fundamentalism does us professors and society great harm. It can result in our being harassed, fired, and much, much worse. But what it cannot do is compel us to reason with it, or, in hand-wringing fashion, to psychologize it in some pseudo compassionate attempt to understand those benighted red-staters. We need not debase ourselves or our critics by second guessing or applying deeper motives to such proud ignorance. There is nothing shameful about ignorance, of course, but I can say with perfect ease that the proudly ignorant should damn well be ashamed of themselves. Though I can strive to understand the climate deniers, conspiracy theorists, and the new crop of flat-earthers as a sort of sociologist or anthropologist might, it is not as one citizen respectfully engaging with another in healthy, authentic dialogue.

The fundamentalists burned Tycho Brahe at the stake, but they could not compel him to make apologies for their murderous behavior. If the Republican fundamentalists wish to scapegoat higher ed, then let’s college types respect them enough to take them at their word. We do them no favors by talking about them or to them as if they were children or fools to be placated. Such pious “understanding,” of course, is the very bleeding heart liberal strategy that they despise. Instead of trying to argue with them about how awesome we are, we should continue to do our jobs well and focus on higher ed accessibility. Those who go to college may not fall in love with the ivory towers and ivy-covered walls, but very few will leave concluding it is professors, or knowledge itself, that is responsible for the rising tide of greed, nastiness and national insecurity.

Ghosts, burning houses, and the challenge of exhausted students

As we enter the desperate final weeks of the fall 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.

The online teacher as Wizard of Oz: embodiment and social justice

Women have fought hard to get their corporeal lives recognized in the workplace. Whether it’s been about maternity leave, decent bathrooms, or breastfeeding rooms, progress has been frustratingly slow and limited. It’s a sad irony, then, that so many feminists now find ourselves working in the virtual realm. Where do questions about women’s embodied realities go when workers may only rarely visit the institutions that employ them? And what about the other implications of disembodied teaching? Are online teachers exempt from the usual varieties of bias — e.g., racism and sexism — given that students and colleagues may never even see them? Is there a place in online ed for instructors who care about their corporeal identities and responsibilities?

Sure, there all sorts of little ways to inject a semblance of physical presence into online classes, for example, video material and still images of instructors and students. And we can assign work that requires real life engagement so that students must brush up against other bodies and objects at museums, lectures, or one-on-one interviews. Such fixes may soften the edge of unreality that online classes can have. But disembodiment in online ed is, nonetheless, a real and incalculable loss for individuals and institutions, as it is with online shopping and dating. It’s part of the very steep price we pay for this convenient modality.

Isn’t it a shame, for example, that workplaces may be feeling less pressure to increase equity in physical surroundings when there is still so much work to be done? When I helped create a gender neutral bathroom in a science building, I got a clear view of the barriers to basic access that still exist. With students and teachers increasingly shifting to online, will institutions feel such pressure ease? If I didn’t spend lots of time at my university, how quickly would I forget the disparity in facilities across disciplines and colleges — luxury on one side and crumbling stairways on the other? Is the much vaunted universal access provided by online ed to be coupled with less attention to access and equity on our physical campuses?

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And what about the impact our mundane physical presence has on one another? As the only woman professor in my department in the mid 90s, I viscerally understood that the sheer fact of my being there affected students, colleagues and the institution’s ethical self-perception. Of course this proximity wasn’t an unmitigated love fest — there were predictable slights and struggles that left scars — but what if I’d been teaching invisibly?

Of course, in the online realm some symptoms of racism, sexism, xenophobia can be mitigated. Without casual hallway conversations, one is less likely to be looked up and down by a student and told “you’re smarter than you look,” or to be asked for a date by a senior colleague who will oversee one’s tenure case. On the other hand, when one appears only in the virtual world, casual prejudice need not be reckoned with either, not by our colleagues, our institutions or ourselves.

But how disembodied are we really, even in the virtual classroom? Do students do much reading between the lines based on our pictures, language use, and even the disciplines we represent? What assumptions do they make about their teachers’ race, sex, age, nationality, etc., when such characteristics are not obvious? How do students interpret teachers’ embodiment clues in the online environment? How do they fill in the yawning embodiment gaps left by our constructed online presence?

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I’ve considered adding more still images of and details about myself to provide a greater sense of physical presence, but I’ve got mixed feelings. Students would, I guess, develop a clearer picture of me as (probably) a white, cisgender, middle-aged, able-bodied female. But while this might deepen the connection some students feel to me, it is complicated. Wouldn’t I, for example, be capitalizing on an implicit bond with white students? I don’t want to unwittingly reproduce white privilege, but I don’t want to misrepresent myself either, or leave my students utterly at sea about who I am.

The insidiousness of this is brought home to me when I pay attention to the assumptions I make about others’ embodied existence. I’ve been surprised more than once, for example, — and startled by the fact of my surprise — when a student’s apparently white face did not match what I had interpreted to be a black-sounding name. And I was recently jarred to see a Japanese-American face on a podcaster I’ve listened to for years. Only the mismatch I felt at seeing his face forced me to acknowledge my initial expectation that he was a white Californian.

In short, this erosion of embodied presence has consequences for social justice, as well as for individual experiences of difference, prejudice and privilege. This loss is a really big deal that mustn’t be prettied up and glossed over. But nor should we imagine the online environment as totally beyond the usual influences of embodiment. Even if a teacher were to aim for a purely disembodied persona — and what a bad idea! — would students just fill in the blanks with stereotypes? Could it be that, paradoxically, we bloodless online teachers are at an even greater risk of tolerating or reinforcing such pernicious biases?

To the student who broke my heart

Dear Lenore,

When you pleaded to enroll in my already-full online general education course last year, I welcomed you and walked you through the late registration process. When I noticed a few days later that you still hadn’t done the required preliminary assignments — a syllabus quiz and a personal goals inventory — I sent you a concerned note, reiterating key policy about due dates and grades. Your reply came yet a few more days later, explaining how overwhelmed you were by work and school, but assuring me in the strongest terms that you had found a way forward.

It never happened. For the next month or so you occasionally posted to the discussion board or hurriedly completed a quiz. Your work was so sporadic and haphazard that you barely earned any points. When I reached out to you again, pointing out your poor record and encouraging you to talk to an undergrad advisor to determine a realistic path to graduation, you assured me you would. You said you would do everything possible to earn a passing grade in my class despite your admittedly ragged start. But you didn’t. You made a few more fly-by contributions and sent another pleading note just before the final project was due — there’s nothing I can do at this point, I replied — but still nothing changed. I was haunted by your name on my roster, like the odor from last night’s fish dinner, but you were gone.

I don’t write this letter to make you feel bad, Lenore. As I told you more than once, I know what it’s like to both work and be a full time student. And I meant it when I said there’s no shame in failure, and that the critical point is for you to meet your own goals and not my expectations. In most ways, you are not even that unusual. Every semester a couple of students almost immediately begin to fade away. It’s not even the apparent earnestness of each of your epiphanies, the passion of each new promise, that keeps you foremost in my mind. I’ve known plenty of other silver-tongued, well-intentioned students who failed almost before they began.

What makes you special, Lenore, is that you returned to my same class the very next semester and gave a repeat performance. The very same one. The late enrollment, the late work, the heartfelt apologies and promises. In each message, you were newly reformed. “This time will be different!” you actually said more than once. And I replied with the same urgent missives, expressing concern and restating policy — some emails actually recycled from the previous term — wincing when I saw your growing line of zeros in my grade book.

Understand, it’s not that I’m angry with you. I was, certainly, irritated at times, but also amused as one gets in the punch drunk hours of a very long flight. It’s not merely that I was disappointed in you either, though, of course, I was. Rather, you proved your power to buy your way into a pedagogical relationship with me — the university will apparently continue take your money — despite your repeatedly erratic, self-destructive performances. I may be the professor, but you remind me of how little control I really have. You may lie to me, string me along, and for some stretch that will always feel too long, I’ll come along for the ride. I’ll do it partly because it’s my job, but also because I still long to believe your pretty promises and to be part of the catalyst that leads you to change your ways.

Instead of saying goodbye, then, Lenore, which is what I’d planned when I began this letter, I’ll stop pretending. I’ll close my letter honestly, in a way that most likely reflects the reality that actually informs both our lives: See you next semester.

Sincerely,

Your professor

Re(learning) as a way of connecting with forgotten selves

My connection to my former selves is sometimes so tenuous that I feel compelled to reach across the years. I inspect old photos and journals, and even conduct tests, eager to discover if the me that I seem to be now can still do what previous versions of me learned to do. As a youngster, I played sports, and the trumpet. I wrote short stories, explored old libraries, and shot black and white film. Where did that person go? 

My first bout with this cheap, new-used trumpet, just a few months ago, was a little rough. I sputtered and panted, and my tone was so poor I wondered if the instrument was stuffed with spiders’ eggs. Even so, I was surprised to find that my lips and fingers slipped automatically into the chromatic scale. I moved up and down the rickety steps with difficulty, as if I’d just had a knee replacement, but I moved. And my improvement has been rapid. In fact, I think I’m already better than I was as a diffident junior high school band kid. 

On the one hand, there is nothing interesting about this. It’s just muscle memory and motivation, a simple case of never-forgetting-how-to-ride-a-bike. But my deeper question is still tangled up in there. How can it possibly be that this fifty-something version of me is still the same person that I used to call me? Back then I was, or so I now recall, intense, cynical, and more than a little nihilistic. I was also angry, arrogant, and injured. Today I am hopeful, energized, and as imbued with meaning as a poem spilling from the page. I simply do not feel like the young me who pushed through the world like a dull razor, constantly sorting, assessing, and finding lack.

So, yes, it is shocking to find out what these hands, wrapped around this cold brass instrument, can do. I study them with interest: an arthritic finger that I broke playing basketball, a barely concealed map of veins, and incipient age spots that I should probably just start calling “age spots.” Rarely out of my view, these hands are evidence of continuity between me and that young person from long ago, the one who peers at me from photographs. She who is innocent of all she will face and inflict in the decades to come, ignorant of the fact that one day she will turn out to be me.

My fingers, lungs, and lips are here to tell me what my eyes and intellect cannot always fully accept: “You are still her.” And in the wake of this announcement, the bleat of my humble trumpet seems suddenly appropriate. Because though I can sometimes accept that I am her, I refuse to fully do so, and the result feels delightfully queer. I can acknowledge that, in one sense, I am the baby in those pictures, but I was not born as the person who writes these words. She who sits here now is a practiced achievement and an accident, not fully comprehensible by the “nature/nurture” binary or by the stories I, and others, tell about who I am and have been. 

If I were more like my students and young friends, then, and more inclined to resist “labels” or claim “fluidity,” it would be because of the delightfully weird distance and proximity of who I am to who I’ve been, and the wide open window of who I might still practice becoming in middle age, in old age, and beyond. There is a thread connecting me back to who I was then, but it is like a line of musical notes on a page, merely the result of some dead composer’s whims, subject to revision and improvisation. 

Obliger students and questioner professors: The four tendencies in the college classroom

According to popular self help author, Gretchen Rubin, most people have far more trouble meeting inner expectations than the expectations of others. For most of us, she says, climbing out of bed at five a.m. to hit the gym is much more doable when there’s a buddy or a trainer waiting for us than when it’s “merely” a promise we’ve made to ourselves. This “obliger” tendency is not a problem, explains Rubin, so long as one works with the tendency, exploiting its strengths, rather than against it. So, an obliger is far more likely to commit to a gym routine if she arranges to go with a friend, gets a personal trainer, or takes a class in which others will be disappointed by her vacant spin cycle.

I focus on obligers here precisely because I am not one. As a “questioner,” I can generally meet both inner and outer expectations so long as I believe I have good reasons for doing so. I have, then, been baffled for years by students, colleagues, and friends unable to complete tasks or meet goals they seem to sincerely want to achieve. Like lots of questioners, according to Rubin, I have been less sympathetic and less effective than I might have been in dealing with these folks. It is, apparently, a downside of questioners that we do not have tons of patience for those who fail to be compelled to action simply by the force of what they themselves perceive to be good reasons and powerful evidence.

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“They know how important this is. Why don’t they just do it?” Whether it’s about quitting smoking, completing a thesis, or simply showing up to class, arrogance and ignorance about what motivates people — and not just what motivates oneself — can mean missed opportunities to support others’ success. This is especially obvious when it comes to online students.

I’ve known for some time that online classes are the kiss of death for students who are not good self-motivators. They enroll, poke around a bit, and then seem to forget that they signed up. Guided by my own intuition, as well as experts’ advice, I have transformed myself into a cheerleader for my online students. This morning, for example, I will send out yet another message with deadline reminders and carefully worded messages of sincere confidence and expectation. On their graded work, I will state how eagerly I will be awaiting more of their perspective the following week. I’ve been emphasizing such “outer expectations” for a while and now have a clearer sense of why it helps.

If Rubin is correct, most of my students are not like me. Having a bucket full of “good reasons” for doing the work — it’s expensive, they need the course to graduate, they’ll feel crummy if they fail — motivates some, but not most of them. As a questioner, I too am happy when my work gratifies others, but, for me, this is icing on the cake. In fact, I find that getting lots of deadline reminders or out-of-the-blue encouragement can feel condescending. But to the students who will most struggle with online education, those who flail because of the lack of immediate accountability to real others, concrete strategies to motivate them, to replicate social ties and accountability, may well be critical. And, of course, such outer expectations can take on all sorts of forms, e.g., structured group projects, scheduled discussions posts, etc. Pedagogues of online education have outlined various strategies to do just this.

My point here is less about pedagogical practice than about highlighting how a lack of mindful self-reflection can lead one to be less skillful with others, including one’s own students. I am, surely, not the only professor whose questioner tendency has made student procrastination and failure to persist so incomprehensible. Of course, the systemic causes for this are complicated and no one is suggesting it can all be solved by a simple personality quiz. But what I’m finding is that focusing a little more on accountability structures and motivation is paying off handsomely in both my online and face-to-face classrooms. Paradoxically, being more responsive to my obliger students has required greater awareness of my own questioner nature: Now that I have good reasons for adapting my teaching style, I am eager and willing to do it.