Powerful customers and vulnerable instructors: the tyranny of “not nice enough”

Despite my affection for a long ago high school principal who, with a thick Oklahoma accent, urged us simply to “be nice,” it isn’t a term I have much use for any more. There’s often a suggestion that “nice” means something like “insipidly boring,” “smilingly false” and that it connotes some measure of cluelessness. There’s some awareness too, that nice has race and sex-specific associations such that people of color and white women are generally pressured to “smile and be nice” as white men are not. These sexist and racist implications are noxious, of course, and add weight to the conclusion that “nice” is perhaps irredeemable. Unfortunately, “nice,” and some of its stand-in cousins, still play a powerful underground role in shaping academic contexts.

One of the problems with “nice” is its near boundlessness. It often functions as a sweeping, catch-all adjective to be trotted out when we either aren’t able, or don’t wish, to be more specific about why we’re embracing or rejecting someone. This becomes clearer when we contrast “nice” to “polite” which usually suggests some specific perceived behavioral violation: he fails to reply to my quickly chirped “good mornings” or she ignores a special favor I did. While we might reasonably disagree about the various rules and appropriate fallout associated with politeness — and, of course, this can vary from culture to culture — at least there’s something concrete to point to when we praise or blame someone on this basis. This is probably true of judgements about behavior that is marked as “respectful” or “civil” though these terms too can be abused until they are as vacuous as “nice.”

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Many of the articles warning about biased student evaluations take issue with such vague, subjectively-based personality assessments. Significantly, professors of color, both women and men, and white women, are often judged according to racist and sexist stereotypes. Of course, these judgments may be expressed in general, supposedly innocuous terms: she wasn’t “approachable,” he was “too intense,” she wasn’t “warm.” But when it comes down to it, they might as well be accusing their professors of failing to be nice. And while every worthwhile instructor will value constructive student feedback, such mercilessly sweeping personality assessments are dangerous. This is especially so since college students have become “customers” and instructors are mostly part-time contract workers. In fact, it’s hard to overstate the power of student complaints in this era of blisteringly loud, instant communication combined with a shamefully vulnerable contingent faculty labor force.

What is determined to be “nice,” then, matters, can vary wildly, and can function as a locus of informal power because it is determined solely by the feelings of the judge(s). If the judge decides I am not nice, then it is my responsibility to shape up, to improve my performance. I am at her mercy and nothing would be stronger proof of my deficit of niceness than for me to insist that, in fact, I really am nice and it is she who is mistaken. If she feels that I am not “caring” or “warm,” then she may well proceed as if her assessment is infallible. The hideous double-bind here is clearly revealed when we consider that absolutely any defensive moves the accused makes may be taken as further proof of her gaping personality flaw. Surely, no truly nice person would argue with someone generous enough to provide feedback about how not-nice she is!

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The supposedly infallible and amorphous character of judgments about others’ niceness helps explain why they have been officially abolished in many professional contexts. That situationally or temporarily empowered others, such as students, may wield such capricious judgments to punish or shame teachers they do not like can produce a toxic, bottom-up bullying situation. There are, of course, all sorts of actual conduct violations an instructor may commit, but these should be describable as instances of unprofessional behavior which are, of course, the basis for serious and actionable allegations in most organizations. Ironically, fuzzy accusations that a professor is not nice, or warm, or caring enough can actually distract from actual behavioral violations, for example, that he fails to properly grade student assignments, replies only rarely to their emails, or exhibits clear signs of exasperation when responding to their reasonable questions.

But the fact that “niceness” has been so heavily critiqued does not keep it from creeping back into our lives, and our educational milieus risk reinscribing the same cliques and hierarchies many of us suffered in junior high school. A narrowly scripted, but not fully specified, set of behaviors is required to gain approval, and success is determined by some relatively, situationally empowered beholders. God help that studious teen-aged girl who is found to be “stuck up,” or lacking in niceness, for once that label has adhered she is probably doomed socially. And god help the professor whose students levy (and publicly share) a similarly damning judgement when she insists they earn their high grades rather than pandering to their desire for easy A’s.

At bottom “niceness” is so flexible and vague that it can function almost entirely as a kind of retrospective label to mark someone we just don’t like. As adults, of course, we can’t openly reject others on the grounds that they don’t gush over our cute puppy photos or that they fail to laugh loudly enough at our jokes. But even as, in our better moments, we critique professionally insipid personality evaluations such as “nice,” “warm,” or “caring,” they still get plenty of uptake. If I decide that the woman working as a cashier or nurse or letter carrier — or senator or judge or political candidate — isn’t nice, or warm, or friendly enough, I can quickly find great support for my judgment, even from folks who don’t know her at all. In fact, agreement about her vague, gender-specific personality failures can bond critics as quickly and surely as smoking an illicit joint together in the high school girls room. It should surprise none of us, then, that some students are eager to demolish their most vulnerable instructors with these same trusty swords.

Why I don’t promise my students “information” or “material”

Despite many of our longstanding efforts to discourage it, lots of students relate to their education in tangibly consumerist terms. If they’ve been absent, we might be requested to “please send me what I missed” with the expectation that we will be able to hand over the “material” as if it were dry cleaning or a chunk of Costco cheese.

As a liberal arts professor grounded in women’s studies and philosophy, I have never really been a purveyor of information. Of course there are facts to be learned: the historical eras of particular thinkers, the relative order of politically and intellectually critical events, and so on, but my classes are less informational than intellectual and aesthetic. As with most liberal arts courses, my overarching objectives are to understand, appreciate, contextualize, analyze and empathize. “Getting the information” is important, sure, but in the way that removing one’s clothes before showering is important.

Perhaps partly because of test-centric K-12 histories, though, many students struggle to make the leap to work that focuses more on the relationships between events and ideas than (merely) on the discrete data points that define them. In tried and true liberal arts fashion, I make efforts to model holistic thinking, for example, by demonstrating how a concept’s meaning depends on its relationship to other concepts. And, more generally, I give the process and values of thinking itself center stage sometimes, especially in upper level classes.

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Of course, at least some of this attachment to “getting the information” reflects a consumer mindset. Students want to get their money’s worth and “information” or “material” sounds like a quasi-tangible consumer good as the mere experiences I’m hawking probably do not. I confess that I loved leaving my college economics class each day with an increasingly hefty binder of tidy notes. It was a stark contrast to my philosophy or poetry class where we might spend 65 minutes wrestling with the notion of free will or the fear of death. Then my notes tended to be sparse, cryptic, and laced with doodles.

In online liberal arts courses, the challenge to move beyond the information dump expectation is especially acute partly because intense, freewheeling discussions can be hard to create virtually. Even well-constructed, well-facilitated online undergraduate discussions can turn out to be faint approximations of the “real thing,” though, of course, it’s important not to overestimate the quality of the face-to-face versions. So if students aren’t leaving the classroom, pulses raised, deep questions haunting them as they walk away, then what are they leaving with? What “goods” are they meant to be taking away from their online classes? If it is mere “information,” then can’t they get that on their own?

The temptation to think of online classes in more “informational” terms may be greater than in face-to-face courses precisely because “information” feels (sort of) objective, quantifiable and concrete. When we buy things, online or in brick and mortar stores, we are used to, well, getting things. We might not be as happy with them as we’d hoped, but at least we know what we’ve paid for. Contrast this with the purchase of an experience or service, say, admission to a baseball game or a massage, where we might be left with nothing more than a bad memory.

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This bias in favor of tangible purchases, combined with the ephemeral nature and ready access to online information, underscores why many online liberal arts classes should probably be explicitly and conscientiously connected to deeper, more ineffable educational and intellectual values. We might, for example, be especially diligent about:

  • modeling the thinking that brings us to conclusions, rather than merely emphasizing conclusions. For example, instead of a lecture, we might record or film a conversation with a colleague about a key point;
  • putting basic information and facts in a pre-module, emphasizing them as the raw materials to be worked with and not the real stuff of the unit;
  • replacing passive, consumer-oriented verbs such as “absorbing,” “taking in” or “assimilating” with active verbs like “digest,” “wrestle with,” engage with,” and the like.

The internet is busting at the seams with easy facts so mere information had better not be the primary value that online classes purport to add. What we are offer, then, must be explicitly, proudly and loudly marked as being of a different order altogether.

It kind of makes sense that many students initially regard college as if it were a trip to Target for Q-tips and laundry soap. After all, our institutions sneak in requests for money at every turn, and the national conversation about higher ed has been largely ceded to corporatist consumerism. In this milieu, a student’s emphasis on bang for the buck may even be healthy. But maybe we can shift the analogy just a bit, from, say, a big box shopping excursion to a (slightly less crassly consumerist) tour, artistic performance, or field trip. An emphasis on experiential value rather than the acquisition of more “material” is, at least, a step in the right direction. Otherwise we online teachers are likely to be seen as hucksters, trying to sell expensive glasses of sea water to people who are already happily wading in the ocean.

Gamification: Seductive gold stars and pats on the back

In the third grade, I was rewarded for being the fastest to complete a series of long division problems on the blackboard. My prize, a Flintstone’s eraser, wasn’t even a good likeness of Dino, but I carried it with me for weeks. These days the reward I crave is the happy jingle from my iPad when I’ve completed the daily New York Times crossword. My awareness that I’m only sort of joking when I admit it’s my favorite song helps explain my ambivalence at incorporating similarly trivial rewards into my own classes. Frankly, it’s a little embarrassing to be so eager for such superficial affirmations.

Gamification, using elements of reward and friendly competition to encourage effort and engagement, is both simple and intuitively appealing. That it effectively lights fires — at least in some learners — is clear enough. Nudged onward by the promise of leveling up or of earning a virtual ribbon, we do sometimes perform more diligently and enthusiastically with these dangling carrots in sight. And so I created a badge icon for students who improve their quiz scores, one that automatically pops up on these users’ home pages. I plan to add consistency and perseverance badges as I seek more ways to exploit these easily implemented gamification strategies.


I’ve become willing to experiment with such cheap tactics partly because of my own recent experience as an online student; I was surprised by the tiny thrills of satisfaction I came to anticipate as my badges appeared. And I suspect that gamification has a similarly primal effect, not only on millennial video gamers, but on many of us who earned prizes as children: for the number of books read, a class spelling bee, or a math club competition. But I also know that some experts caution against linking worthwhile activities to crass rewards, noting that, for example, children may no longer color for sheer enjoyment when prizes become part of the mix. While this consequence might not be so worrisome for straightforwardly “outcome-based” courses, it would be anathema for teachers intent on cultivating joyfully authentic life-practices such as close reading and thoughtful discussion.

So, even as I create the release conditions for my virtual badges, imagining my students’ pleasure at receiving them, I’m a little sheepish. Is this all just a tawdry gimmick? Am I trying to bribe these precious human companions with trivial ego boosts, coaxing them to learn material that, as it happens, actually has both intrinsic value and relevance to their lives? Am I reinforcing a consumerist, credentialist view of learning as merely extrinsically valuable, with grades and prizes to be collected in exchange for a diploma and job? They are urgent questions for me because I’ve never meant for my students merely, or even primarily, to learn “information” or discrete “skill sets” associated with my “content area.”

As I continue to explore using badges and other rewards, I remind myself that what I’m up to — leveraging behaviorist elements of learning without sacrificing the ethos of learning for its own sake — is a very old pedagogical conundrum. It certainly didn’t arise with online teaching, even if online modalities have made us more self-conscious about the perils and promises of gamification. In online classes, the affinity of gamification to electronic gaming becomes obvious. And, of course, we all know, or imagine we do, how addictive and empty that activity can be. But, again, some of my most enduring memories as an elementary school student in the 70’s, long before Super Mario or Minecraft, also involved “gamification.” And they are memories that, for better and worse, still bring me vibrations of shame and satisfaction.

As a child, I was motivated by the promise and fear of prizes awarded and withheld, but this probably also compromised my ability to take learning risks because I did not want to be a loser. Gamification, then, is complicated and fraught, and it occurs to me that I should use it more thoughtfully. What if, for example, I invited students to explicitly reflect upon their own perceived susceptibility or aversion to gold stars and pats on the back? Could gamification then become a tool for deeper self-reflection and whole-person development? After all, much of life occurs against a competitive backdrop, a humming swirl of conditional, often arbitrary, ego affirmations and insults. A little more awareness of what’s driving the quest for that promotion, that house, or that anti-wrinkle cream is probably not such a bad idea.

Is online teaching a path to enlightenment?

My greatest challenge with online teaching has had little do with the obvious difficulty of adapting to the technology. Sure, the first couple of times I bushwhacked my way through, wrestling with features like the maddening grade book set up, drop box restrictions, and feedback release conditions. There are, to be sure, a million and one logistical curve balls to be negotiated, complicated workflows that must be etched into one’s brain because they will never make intuitive sense. But, by far, online teaching’s greatest challenge and opportunity for me has been as a venue for self-scrutiny and reinvention. Perhaps this is just a long way of reiterating that I’m fascinated enough by the link between mindfulness and online teaching to write a blog about it.

So, while my posts are rooted in my practical experience as an online instructor, they are not primarily about online teaching as such. As I explained to a reader recently: “My interests come down mainly to three things: self-reflection, intentionality, and conscious transformation.” Far from being a grueling slog, then, I find online teaching to be tinged with pleasurably narcissistic introspection, like the indulgence of taking a personality quiz in Psych 101. And I’ve learned I must cultivate this kind of curiosity about teaching work if I am to continue to be good at it year after year. Studying my experience of teaching through the lens — microscope, telescope, and kaleidoscope — of mindful self reflection keeps it alive, authentic and interesting to me. This apparently practical business of teaching online, then, is, is, for me, a wormhole into a realm that is satisfyingly and sometimes unnervingly psychological and spiritual.

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I’m Buddhist (and existentialist) enough to see that the bare facts of impermanence and death both sculpt and contort our lives. I accept that, in large measure, we carefully construct our ultimately rickety professional and personal identities to serve as bulwarks against angst and despair. No wonder, then, that the seismic changes in higher education have often felt like assaults against the professor’s very sense of self. Whatever the societal devastation being wreaked by the ongoing devaluation of higher education — and it is catastrophic — it has also deeply rattled those of us who have formed our identities within its walls. It took me ages to develop the expertise and poise of a compelling, effective classroom professor. What an insult to have this stripped from me in the name of progress! Teaching online, then, isn’t just a tech heavy, but otherwise benign, modality shift. For many of us — teachers and students — it can radically displace our basic sense of competence, worth, and purpose.

It’s an open secret, of course, that losing the plush or dreary comfort of one’s identity can become a doorway to richly transformative, previously unimaginable futures. I write these posts, then, not primarily as an online teacher offering practical pedagogical advice, but as a professor leveraging the changes in my profession to nurture personal growth. Online teaching is, after all, merely one potential vehicle to where most of us really want to go, a place of service, sure, but one that also satisfies a deeper hunger. If there are a thousand ways to kiss the earth, then here in this futuristic, sometimes dystopic, present, teaching online is surely one of them. If we overlook this invitation, though, then we are like the guests at a great banquet who, having eaten their fill of appetizers in the foyer, never make it to the feast at all.

Enduring the assault of shallow student discussions

At some point in the endless process of revising my online discussion guidelines, I’ve had to concede that I am particularly fetishy about this activity. I once thought that my reverence/obsessiveness was merely pedagogical, but it turns out that I’m a little weird all around when it comes to discussion. This quality might be endearingly quirky if it didn’t frequently make both me and some of my general education students miserable.

I typically blame my nuttiness about discussion on my PhD in philosophy, since the sprawling edifice of Western philosophy is largely built upon dialogue. And it’s true enough. Thanks to Socrates, passionate human exchange has long animated philosophy, transforming a mere collection of dusty notions into a pulsing organism. For philosophers, then, discussion is not a merely casual vehicle for bandying about thoughts or sharing feelings, but a fulcrum for authentic intellectual growth and movement. It is regarded as the very basis of the meaningful, examined life.

And, for better and worse, it is this ethos that has informed how I facilitate and assess student discussions. It has always felt urgent to me that they approximate a dialogue that at least dimly reflects the dignity of passionate, rational human creatures engaged in genuine meaning-making. In other words, the stakes of some of my discussions tend to be a little high. And while some undergrad students thrive in this milieu — seasoned online students routinely single out my discussion forums for praise — others peel away, intimidated or, perhaps, simply flummoxed. And, increasingly, I acknowledge that it isn’t just that they don’t feel confident enough in their content knowledge, but that they don’t feel capable or willing to have a focused, attentive, genuinely dialectic interchange as such.

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Because I’ve had the good fortune of working with a talented online course designer and some helpful departmental colleagues — thanks especially to Amber and Katrina — I’ve had company in my wrestling match with the discussion component. Although I’ve felt impatient with students at times, I’ve also remained curious about my own frustration. This has motivated me to experiment with discussion strategies that might better reflect the fact that some students have no aptitude for, experience with, or interest in what I think of and treasure as genuine discussion. Typically, I still explicitly teach basic discussion skills and values, but in some units of my general education classes, I abandon the discussion ship altogether and offer a less fraught, more affable exercise.

This may sound like nothing more than a condescending, cranky reflex on my part, as if I’m merely gathering up my precious pearls from the muddy pig sty and going home. And, yes, I have, in some circumstances, sort of given up. But I see this partly as a reasonable compromise born of my own self-reflective maturity: I’ve finally begun to truly accept that my mania to intellectually connect deeply and reciprocally with others reflects a particular aptitude that most people, including most general education students, don’t have. While I can model this way of engaging and offer the opportunity to dabble — some will fall in love with it! — it is foolish to expect that most will come around to it with any real enthusiasm or commitment.

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When I need to reinforce this lesson in humility, I eavesdrop: at coffee shops, in classroom hallways, waiting rooms, parties, anyplace really. Then I am reminded that people generally thrive on lighthearted ping pong exchanges, with no apparent craving for line drives to deep center field. Fortunately, I am socially evolved enough to appreciate that discussion, even pedagogically significant discussion, serves lots of meaningful functions and need not always revolve around DEEP QUESTIONS. I am, then, learning to let go of my very focused notion of discussion and create a greater variety of intellectually stimulating discussion-like experiences with which more undergraduate students can gain traction. And, happily, I can now do this with less self-flagellation and resentment toward them.

I remember the first time someone told me that my sense of humor was “very particular.” Until then it had not really occurred to me that there was anything remarkable about my expressive or cognitive style. The comment jarred me into recognizing my own basic oddness — there is a reason I was attracted to philosophy in the first place! So, though I still aim to encourage and train students in/through discussion, I do well to remember that my own penchant for it runs inexplicably deep. In fact, I was attracted to philosophy and higher education largely because I was already so hungry for deep discussion. In this academic world, with its broad smattering of students, faculty and staff — a motley mish-mash of motives, resources and inclinations — it is the fire-eyed gadflies who are the outliers. If we wish to teach well, then this is the distance we must reach across, and we must do so with grace, respect, and reasonably good humor.

Harnessing the power of peer pressure

Many of us internalized the message about the danger of peer pressure early on. When we asked to get a particular brand of shoes or to go to a party because “everyone else” was, our parents snarked, “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?” The honest answer was probably yes, but the right answer, we knew, was “of course not.” Peer pressure, we learned, was this dark force that, like an evil hypnotist, could lead us to follow silly, self destructive trends, to do what our real selves would not do.

It has taken me many years, then, to recognize peer pressure as a potentially legitimate and useful aspect of classroom life. In fact, the loss of some simple forms of social pressure, including something like peer pressure, resulting from my shift to the online classroom has helped me appreciate its power and utility more profoundly.

First, a few mundane personal experiences that led to some elementary insights:

  • deciding I would shift to a solo yoga practice at home and being astonished at how rarely, and how lazily, I did yoga after that
  • living off the beaten path for a short time and being chagrined to discover how much longer it took me to retrieve my lonely trash and recycle bins from the isolated curb
  • noticing how much worse I would dress on days that online work freed me from having to go to campus or out in the world at all

I used to think of peer pressure — if I did at all — along the lines of the after school tv special. Remember the older kid in the leather jacket urging the middle-schooler to “try it, just one puff”? But it’s easy to find examples of productive social pressure where the threat or promise of others’ eyes pushes us to do better. And so I find myself trying to recreate some basic social accountability structures, especially as many of my students’ appear to ever less motivated by the lure of a good grade.

Studies show that it doesn’t take much social pressure to nudge our behavior. Apparently, even the simple printed and posted image of a pair of eyes results in more people paying for coffee offered to them on the honor system. Surely, then, I can better work positive peer pressure into my online classes?

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Some really simple strategies I already use:

  • requiring students to post some completed assignments to a special discussion board with their name included where others students will briefly comment on them
  • explicitly sharing and emphasizing an anonymous grade distribution after key assignments so that students are more likely to see where their falls
  • having a friendly, low stakes, early assignment that encourages students to include a still image or video of themselves
  • asking students to reflect explicitly on how they think social pressure influences their online performance as compared to their face-to-face classes

None of these rudimentary practices would be worth mentioning if not for the longstanding vilification of peer pressure. And it’s a negative reputation that has been earned, to some extent, given the damage that peer pressure can do, especially to already vulnerable students. But I think it is the potentially shaming aspect of peer pressure that is most noxious. And given that some basic forms of peer pressure are unavoidable, perhaps it is worthwhile to focus on nourishing a healthier version of such pressure while deemphasizing its more damaging aspects? After all, isn’t harnessing the noble power of social pressure part of the point of facilitating group experiences in the first place?

Of course, not all students will perform better against a backdrop of healthy, intentionally structured social pressure. But at least this is a tool that is consistent with the nearly unavoidable human propensity to run just a little farther and faster when we think someone is watching. We can wish it were otherwise, touting our allegiance to a lone wolf ethos that cares nothing for the opinions of others. But the more beautiful, complicated truth is probably that we are social creatures who, for better and worse, can be impelled by the gaze of others into acts of astonishing altruism, brilliance and cruelty.

The loneliness of the online teacher

One of the most appealing aspects of the discussions and workshops I’ve facilitated with other online teachers is the sheer power of that face-to-face time. For example, a recent discussion I led called, “Online education, on purpose,” was gratifying as a way to share some tricks and strategies, but even more so for the chance to actually lock eyes with others who spend so much time bobbing around in single-person boats like mine. I like the self-reliance and serenity of online teaching — and know many of my online colleagues do too — but as human animals, we are also nourished by our physical, creaturely time together.

Predictably, one of the great selling points of online teaching — independence and solitude — is also one of its greatest traps. It isn’t just that we may not actually see much of our departmental colleagues, but that even when we do, they are likely not as invested in the online world as we are. In many of our disciplines, teaching online is pretty much a niche affair. This is not, then, just a question of physical isolation for many of us, but of a psychological isolation resulting from this modality still being regarded as specialized. Of course, lots of faculty members already experience some isolation as a department’s sole expert in a content area, but in such cases, face-to-face teaching itself often serves as a source of bonding with otherwise dissimilar colleagues.

In a previous post I noted that some solely brick and mortar professors think I’m a lazy sellout because of my foray into online ed. Meeting up in person with other online teachers, then, is a bit like an AA meeting or a coming out circle. When we connect, it is not just a social nicety but an implicit acknowledgement of one another’s existence and worth. We can freely express our fascination with and commitment to online teaching as Trekkies at their convention can celebrate a passion for the Clingon language. Similarly, we can be honest about our doubts and misgivings — even the deep ones — without fear that this will be used to discredit our future online teaching work or against online ed altogether.

That my analogy combines elements of a coming out circle, a support group, and a fan community is apropos. Too often when online teachers’ need for community is acknowledged, it is oversimplified, with a narrow focus on the straightforward loneliness of laboring by oneself. But it isn’t just any sort of company that will nourish us and ease the ache. Many online professors are pioneers in an endeavor with a still shaky reputation, hovering like tin-foil satellites at the far periphery of their ivy and brick universities. The community we need, then, will provide solace and support, but also help us challenge the very identities we are in the process of establishing.