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.

Beyond despair: Being there for students when all we want to do is weep

My students, a disproportionate number of whom are LGBT, are reeling. Each day some new horror is unleashed upon them, people of color, immigrants, and anyone unfortunate enough to be standing in front of an angry white man playing Rambo. There is an incipient hollowness in the eyes of my students that I recognize because I have it too. How can I be there for them, I wonder, as we all watch already shaky footholds of tolerance being hacked away by a vengeful, petty tyrant and his many enablers?

I won’t slap pink wallpaper — in the form of positive thinking or dopey optimism — over the sorrow, fear and outrage that’s plain for all of us to see. There is no point in condescending to students by offering platitudes about how it will all be just fine. Such candy-coated bromides and lazy prayers would be especially unpersuasive coming from a professor like me whose work rests on the shifting sands of social justice. I routinely caution against naive historical narratives that assume the triumph of good over evil, so I couldn’t get my students to start believing in an inevitable “arc towards justice” even if I wanted to.

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But I don’t tell them my whole truth either, about bleak, sleepless nights or the sopping blanket of disillusionment I’ve carried since the U.S. (sort of) elected this oozing eyesore of a regime. Nor do I share the full measure of my grief at personal relationships drowned in the wake of this newly legitimated racism, xenophobia, and homophobia. Like many of my students, I am no more devastated by the overt displays of evil from our “leaders” (i.e., ringleaders) than by friends and acquaintances who stand by, pie-eyed and privileged, as my lovely students, and countless vulnerable others, fear for their lives.

Because, though my students are to be respected as adults, they are also relying on me to help hold back the tide of paralyzing despair. Whatever anyone else says, they are not my clients or my customers, but are in my care as developing intellectuals and citizens. I can see their need. They think I know something. They hear that these are unprecedented times and, because I am an activist professor from the good old days, want some kind of reassurance from me that we can handle it, that it will be all right. They bend toward me like flickering candles to borrow from my flame and it is my job to keep it lit.

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I take it on faith that sometimes the most political act is a refusal to give in to despair. In the wreck and ruin of the past two years, I feel a new tug of moral, political and pedagogical duty to resist the sickly sweet anesthesia of bleak pessimism, or whatever blithe indifference my privilege could buy me. I am not merely playacting optimism in order to inspire my students keep a stiff upper lip. Committing to be there for them as an example of pragmatic, energetic hope is also how I connect with my own will to fight. My responsibility to them pushes me to be better than I would otherwise be. Perhaps in these lurching, disjointed, heartbreaking times, the very best place to be is in the classroom, with students who have a right to expect that I rise to the occasion.

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.

Are online teachers lazy sellouts?

More than a few people who hear I’m teaching online think I’m a lazy sellout. No one says so directly, of course. Instead, they emit the same squealing “ohhhhh” I heard so often when I first got a super short haircut, a vaguely sympathetic noise meant to buy them time to formulate a more or less polite reply:

-“Really? Good for you! I teach x, so, of course, I can’t teach online, but great! Really.” Translation: Online ed may be fine for some lesser subjects, but not for very deep and important ones.

-“Oh? Do you just love being able to work in your pajamas whenever you feel like it?” No translation necessary.

-“Good for you. I’ll admit I’m a bit of a Luddite….still clinging to the old chalk!” Translation: Traditional is better. It denotes taste and quality in educational methods as surely as in vinyl records or heavy stainless steel toasters.

-“Hmmm, Wow! Well, we certainly are getting a lot of pressure from the top to shift to online, aren’t we?” Translation: The only compelling reasons to teach online are the institutional sticks and carrots which you, apparently, were not strong or principled enough to resist.

Because I know that some online classes really are inferior, cheaply-made products that instructors get lured or duped into peddling, I don’t get too defensive when such left handed comments are directed at me.
Too often, online courses are hawked by institutions for the wrong reasons, offered by the wrong instructors, and foisted onto the wrong students. And while there are obviously quality control issues with face-to-face classes as well, online education is more susceptible. It is right and healthy, then, that professors remain guarded about the insidious intrusion and seductive opportunity of online ed.

But it is also almost certainly sensible and healthy for many institutions to responsibly develop online ed, with faculty leading the way, of course. Do we instructors who are critical of online education actually imagine a return to all face-to-face campuses? Of course, the online tail should not be wagging the academic dog. Online ed should be appreciated as a modality of education proper to be created primarily by, well, educators. But what if talented, experienced classroom instructors are unwilling to get first-hand online experience? How effectively can seasoned faculty guide our institutions if we are not, ourselves, hands on practitioners?

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When students began to routinely communicate with me by email, it seemed odd and even a little cheeky. I recall, too, being thrown off my game when they started to arrive in class with only electronic versions of the assigned readings. I didn’t adapt to these changes because I fell slowly in love with them, or even because I coolly learned to identify their advantages. I took to them the way I took to cilantro and new car styles. For better and worse, through some combination of repeated exposure and peer pressure, they gradually came to feel normal and necessary.

On a tv drama I watch set in the 1920s, a maid is horrified to learn that her new job requires her to use a telephone. The new technology intimidates her and, because she’s never really used it, it also strikes her as a silly luxury. So too with online ed, we are being pulled into a future that many of us did not ask for. And while it’s sensible for some instructors to avoid online classes altogether, and also critical that traditional education be properly nourished, none of us can avoid how online modalities are changing education as such. After all, even the lives of those who resisted the telephone to their dying day were ultimately transformed by the shiny new gadget, whether they liked it or not.

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?

Shouldn’t We Respect Students’ Right to Fail?

As usual, the vast majority of students in my recent online class did just fine. The grim news, though, is that the handful of them who earned low grades earned very low grades indeed, jawdroppingly low in some cases. It seems that no matter how much I assertively focus on “engagement and retention,” a handful of students fail spectacularly. Some struggle to gain purchase at all, like timid drivers entering a freeway traffic stream. Others exit the interstate after a few miles and then become so enchanted with the roadside attractions that they abandon their travel plans altogether.

The fact that some of the recent failures were such obviously capable students makes this familiar issue loom larger to me. It is a humbling reminder that, though my efforts to draw and hold students’ attention matter, they are not determinative. Choosing interesting, relevant material, sending reminders, and encouraging notes all help, I have no doubt, but they cannot “fix” things. I am far less a ship’s captain than an ice sweeper in a curling match. I can influence the trajectory of this massive object, but only sometimes and only subtly. The curling image is one I repeatedly draw upon largely because I can’t help but see student failures as, in part, my own. In an era in which teachers have been pretty explicitly charged with captivating, motivating, and entertaining students, isn’t this how I am supposed to feel?

And if I’m really honest, I can also see that it is not only in my teaching life that I have tended to assume others’ failures as my own. Like so many of us, my inclination has generally been towards activism, involvement, and control, to imagine that all would be well if only I did a better job, if only I were more passionate in my pleas and explanations. It will surprise no one that I have repeatedly had to face the sobering fact that other people, including student people, are aspects of a stubbornly objective reality that often cares little about the wishes and desires I have cooked up. Whether another’s chosen path has them careening towards prosperity or ruin, the critical point is that it belongs to them and not to me. For me, then, one of the great gifts of working with students is this poignant, ongoing reminder of the limits of my own power to change others’ lives.

I understand that this insight seems to run counter to the rhetoric that’s often used to paint such a romantic picture of teaching, with its emphasis on the magic of shaping young minds and futures. But recognizing the limits of such influence might also be understood as a teaching superpower, one that allows us to better relate to students as individuals with idiosyncrasies, whims, and urges that they have every right to express as they damn well please, even if, to me, their choices smell a lot like failure.

This isn’t, of course, an excuse to give up on my efforts to connect with and motivate students, but it does make it less likely that I will wallow in ruminations over lost student lambs, as if they were extensions or projections of me rather than individuals in their own right. Their failures are not necessarily my failures or, in some cases, really even any of my business. Certainly, being a caring teacher is not a good excuse for me to become a busybody in others’ lives, even if my judgments, regrets, and plans for them are expressed only in my own mind.

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 all 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