Black Flies, Dragons, and Student Emails


Being able to connect with students through email is a godsend, but this magical medium can easily become abusive. While some students’ emails are unremarkable when taken individually, the impact of a string of them quickly becomes unbearable. Another type of unwelcome student email lands in one big nasty surprise, a stinkbomb of fully articulated negativity. While the potential agony of dealing with student emails isn’t new, the intensity of the problem is greater in the online world where this may be our only form of one-on-one communication.

The cumulative drip-drip-drip abuse of repetitious, trivial emails is as easy to underestimate as biting black flies. As pests go, they are pretty small, and they so closely resemble the mundane housefly that, at least in the first moments, it’s hard to work up much aversion. Then one perfect summer day you’re at Michigan’s north shore, blithely spreading out your Wonder Woman beach towel, and here they come. Tiny, dense vibrating bodies thud into your bare arms and neck, your exposed torso, as you realize they aren’t stinging you so much as absconding with bits of skin. It’s the doggedness of the collective that wears you down rather than any one fly.

Similarly there’s the student who sends a stream of individually innocuous messages sprinkled with anodyne queries, questions clearly answered in the syllabus and assignment instructions. When the first harmless question arrives — and it is often before the semester even begins — the teacher doesn’t recognize it as the portent of a plague. She replies quickly and thoughtfully to this motivated new student, eager to demonstrate her values as a committed, student-centered, generally awesome teacher and human being. But an occasional student will then fall happily into the habit of emailing repeatedly, both because it’s so easy — like using Siri or the Amazon Echo — and because their high school adviser assured them that asking their professors lots of questions was a great way of “demonstrating interest and engagement.”


The student as dragon, by contrast, rouses at midterm with a L-O-N-G message that includes gruesome details about her recent stomach flu, and tales of travel woes associated with her cousin’s long distance wedding. Oh, and there’s a plea for special dispensation about an assignment. In quick sympathetic response, the teacher accommodates. A little extra time? Sure. When the student then confidently gallops past this extended deadline and sends yet another lengthy plea, the teacher gently declines, citing concerns of fair play for all, etc. The student’s reply, which arrives instantly and in flames, is peppered with ALL CAPS and exclamation points!!! She is outraged by your insensitivity and, besides, your class is terrible (other students think this too!!!) and she can’t believe the university hired you in the first place!!!

The potential for such abuse has probably been heightened by the fact that many students have come of age understanding college education to be a consumer good. Their browser bookmark for my class is likely nested between tabs for Amazon and Zappos, and pounding out faceless customer complaints and reviews is second nature. Bad enough that many students and their families see us primarily in customer service terms, but many of us have, sometimes astutely, come to see ourselves this way too. It makes sense given how many university administrations — not to mention regional and national politicians — have nurtured the education-as-commodity view. An unhappy consequence is that we wind up encouraging unreasonable student expectations. It’s an especially brutal double bind for adjuncts whose livelihood hangs in the balance of what has become, in part, a salesperson of the month contest.

In my earliest online classes my mild case of guilt probably made the general email issues even worse. Because I was so deeply oriented toward face-to-face conversation, I struggled to accept that the normal online methods of connecting could be good enough, so I sometimes overcompensated. I’m sure there are still times that I contribute to a student’s inflated sense of entitlement. I grimace as he returns again and again to the complimentary snack bar when he may not even realize he’s taking more free peanuts than he should.

And though my very human desire for validation is only one tiny facet of this issue, I pay attention to its unintended impact, recognizing that it’s actually a little selfish. After all, how healthy is it for students to be confirmed in their expectation for lightening fast replies to trivial questions? And while I continue to offer compassionate, flexible responses to their tales of woe, I can be direct to a fault about the ultimate limits. I am also quick to decisively call out any rude or abusive replies from them. I make these efforts even when I really just want to envelop them in warm fuzzies during their crises, or when I would rather take the easier route of pretending that an abusive message wasn’t really that bad. But it serves no one’s best interest for me to give the flies and dragons further encouragement to feast on my meager flesh.

Schoolteachers, sexism, and the pedagogy of democracy

Although there may be no more graphic representation of misogyny than sexual violence, coercion and harassment, the endless attacks on K-12 education, and on the dignity and viability of the teaching profession comes pretty close. I am celebrating the recent organized protests by school teachers, then, including the recent victory in West Virginia, from my vantage point as citizen, public university professor, and feminist.

The growing hostility to public education by conservative extremists over the past decades appears to be grounded in some mixture of libertarianism: “Why should I pay taxes for your kid?”; fundamentalist Christianity: “Why should I be required to send my children to godless institutions?”; and racism and xenophobia: “Why should my white kids have to mingle with THEM?” All this combines with a sexism so pervasive and banal that it becomes inevitable and almost unremarkable that the feminized teaching profession will be ridiculed and neglected. That is, of course, when elementary school teachers are not being celebrated in treacly, vacuous Hallmark terms, alongside mothers and secretaries.

One hopes this misogynistic, elitist, racist and xenophobic posture towards public education has reached its apotheosis in the persona of so-called education secretary Betsy DeVos, an appointee that, like most of those made by this obscene administration openly desecrates the very institution she has been charged with stewarding. As newly elected President Andrew Jackson once welcomed “the people” into the White House to shatter heirlooms and piss on the carpets, the wave of faux populist white hooliganism unleashed by this White House, and underwritten by congress, includes a slash and burn orientation to public education at every level.

Again, then, I cheer the victory in West Virginia, and the labor protests by K-12 teachers in Oklahoma and other states. The future of my nation and world depends on the young people now making their way through crumbling schools in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Flint and Tulsa. And, as a professor at a non-selective public university, my ability to succeed hinges directly on how well my incoming students have been prepared to read, write, and think. The vast majority of public U.S. universities — many providing relatively open academic access even to underprepared students — need the K-12 profession to be respected and nourished, to be attractive to the brightest, most energetically compassionate young people on the job market.

Processed with Snapseed.

All of our talk about individual professors’ creative and responsible pedagogy, then, must keep sight of how the structural crisis in American public education has been manufactured from the weird priorities and noxious isms that hobble our nation more generally. Though it has surely been poisoned by racism, sexism, and nativism all along, broad access to education in the U.S. has been at the heart of our delicate experiment in democracy. It is no accident then, that current plutocrats have sided against K-12 teachers. The same rabid conservatives — and “conspiracy” we now see is not too strong a word — hell bent on starving public schools have also colluded to seize power through gerrymandering, partisan “cleansing” of voter rolls, and other brazen disenfranchisement tactics.

Probably no one is better situated to promote the values of democracy, freedom and civic responsibility than K-12 school teachers, so it should give us pause that this group, the overwhelming majority of whom are women, is so maligned and undervalued. And it should not surprise us that we public university professors too have fallen under increasing suspicion and attack by these same extremist, kleptocratic forces. A win for K-12 educators, then, is a victory for “the people,” for women, and for the professoriate. As our democratic scaffolding creaks and groans, burdened by greed, corruption, and scapegoating, there is nothing more patriotic and intelligently self-interested than to support public education.

“Everyone gets an ‘A’!”: Grading as ethics, activism and style

Though we do it a lot, the practice of assigning grades is fraught for many college instructors. Whether it’s because we dislike its hierarchical underpinnings or the fact that some students seem to be systematically disadvantaged by it, the practice of grading can be pedagogically and ethically complicated. After wrestling for decades with my own misgivings about its meaning and role, I’m newly interested in the complicated role that grading can play in instructors’ deepest sense of ourselves, as teachers, and as ethical and political agents.

It’s widely known that some professors invest heavily in the notion of themselves as “hard graders,” a label associated with seriousness, hard work, and uncompromisingly high standards. They are as proud when students complain about their grades as elitist restauranteurs are delighted with complaints about their tiny portions. And it’s surely no accident that these loud and proud “hard graders” are often crusaders for higher education, eager to protect its supposed traditional dignity and integrity. The “hard grader” rhetoric, then, can function both to establish and support the professor’s self-concept and to promote a meritocratic pedagogy and conservative vision of higher education.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Processed with Snapseed.

On the other extreme are the professors who are just as proud of being cavalierly dismissive of grades. In fact, you may learn how little they value grading from how very much they talk about it. It’s not that they don’t engage closely with student work, they will be sure to explain, but they have no use for grades and so assign A’s to just about everyone. Here again there are reasonable pedagogical, political and ethical justifications. After all, aren’t grading systems just one more cog in a sexist, racist capitalist heteropatriarchy that reproduces and celebrates inequities and social division? Aren’t grades an expression of ill-gotten and ill-conceived institutional power that oppresses the vulnerable, the dispossessed, the creative? And don’t they ultimately distract students from engaging authentically with the actual course content and so taint learning as it’s meant to be?

Many professors fall somewhere in the middle, ambivalent about the “system,” perhaps, but working with it as we do many other troubling aspects of institutional life. In the scheme of things, after all, grades may well be one of the less offensive practices in higher education. How many professors who highmindedly reject the hierarchy of grades, I wonder, also reject the hierarchy that has them better paid than adjunct instructors by orders of magnitude? At any rate, expressing one’s social activism by rejecting traditional grading is a very particular choice, and not at all the most obviously effective way to rebel against our unabashedly inequitable institutions of higher learning.


Still, I admit that I’m attracted to the prospect of eschewing grades. What could be more appealing than the promise of self-motivated, sufficiently resourced students, eager to learn for learning’s sake, with self-esteem unencumbered by nasty, reductionistic grading schemes? I offer some ungraded (or very low stakes) assignments precisely because they provide a rich opportunity to develop skills and content knowledge without the sometimes absurd pressure that assessment can exert. But given that our overarching system is built on values and practices associated with letter grades and percentages, what is accomplished by giving everyone an A? Given that grades actually do sometimes matter, and everyone knows this, what is a student supposed to glean from an isolated experience in which they’re offered a critique of grading and then awarded an automatic A?

Short of a revolution that topples the more fundamental hierarchies of higher ed, and some of the larger systems it is nested in, I’m a fan neither of HARD GRADING or of A’s-for-all. In fact, I wonder if some of the problems associated with grading aren’t exacerbated by instructors who regard grades as a prize to bestow or withhold. Grading then becomes, not a more or less natural consequence of student performance, but an expression of the instructor’s individual style and power. And even if the instructor deigns to give everyone A’s, there is a capriciousness to this that may well further erode a student’s sense of agency and responsibility. It may make the instructor feel better, but I can’t see that it does much to challenge the overarching myths of individualism and meritocracy that gave birth to grading in the first place.

Teachers haven’t been waiting for young activists; we’ve been developing them

“We have been waiting for you,” President Obama recently told the newest wave of young people who are protesting gun violence, but, of course, it isn’t true. We teachers and professors have been working with them all along, helping them harness the power of their intellects and hearts to better understand and become good stewards of our troubled world. We teach classes about tolerance, the prison industrial complex, and the myths that perpetuate sexual violence. Together with our students we read queer memoirs, articles on women in science, and essays decrying environmental racism. We invite guest speakers from local government, facilitate internships at the food bank, the rape crisis center, and the floor of the state capitol. And our students have gone on to become policy makers, journalists, and, yes, K-12 teachers, who continue the cycle of forging engaged citizens.

But it is probably true that something special has been happening recently in terms of how young people are showing up, with much of the credit surely belonging to the young Black Lives Matter activists. They harnessed the ideology and outrage of centuries to organize a movement to end the casual, state-sanctioned killing of African-Americans. The BLM analysis seems to be echoed in this newest youth wave of anti-gun violence activism in in that here too, young people are calling foul on the government complicity that keeps them perpetually at the mercy of pissed off white guys with guns. For good reason, then, I have been increasingly impressed and hopeful since the first young BLM activists finessed control of my Twitter feed.


And speaking from the trenches of my college classrooms — classes focused on racism, sexism, homophobia and other social justice issues — I can confirm one especially banal way that young people are newly showing up: They are doing their school work. They are coming to class and staying awake. Even my online students are clicking in, reading the articles, and more consistently completing their assignments. After some years of declining participation and enthusiasm as, I suppose, the career value of a college education became less clear and, perhaps, as expanded tolerance was taken for granted during the Obama years, I became almost accustomed to students who would sort of stroll by and wander in as the mood struck them.

But this academic year they are in a low smolder, I can hear them from down the hall before I walk in, irrepressible in their need to critique, compare and share. And though I may be imagining it, they also seem far less focused on the ticking clock as our time together ends. While my students are not a representative cross section — I teach social justice themed courses at a non-selective public university — the contrast between my current and former students is palpable. I need only recall the malaise and lethargy I felt from them as recently as a year and a half ago when I found myself practically begging them to get to the polls. Many sighed with world weary indifference. “It doesn’t really matter,” some actually said.


It mattered then and it matters now. And more of them seem to know it. Better still, they seem to know what to do. Rusty, brittle politicians have prattled and prayed and proclaimed on social media, routinely crossing the lines of their own supposed norms of “decency” to shock, titillate and enrage. Young people have taken notes as hate mongerers have exploited the decorum and seriousness of practiced progressives, many of whom have stood preciously and politely by while unrepentant loudmouths have commandeered world attention. But my students, and those graduating from high school next year and the year after, have lightning fast Twitter thumbs and no compunction whatsoever about meeting these humdrum devils in their tacky fire-orange pits of hell. In this battle of brains and bravado, in this struggle for the souls and good sense of our nation, my money is on the students.

But will they vote?

Guns in schools: The worst best argument for online education?

Most of my current students, I realize, have never ever attended school without the background fear of being summarily mowed down. While they finger painted, practiced their clarinets, or stood at white boards working through math problems, they did so having internalized the entirely plausible threat of being maimed or murdered where they stood. It takes the discourse of trigger warnings to an absurd new level when classrooms themselves have become symbols of PTSD.

It isn’t as if U.S. schools have ever been uniformly safe, of course. For marginalized students in forgotten communities, there is a long history of violence, danger, and uncertainty. And even privileged students at well funded schools may deal with sexual violence and bullying. But this is different, both because of the scale of its impersonal ferocity, and because this murderous fad is so explicitly enabled by our own government. It has, effectively, been open season on schoolchildren for as long as my current students have been alive.

It’s a tragic context that lends a perverted twist to my musings about the power and appeal of online education: Will the heightened fear of campuses on lockdown make students grab even more eagerly for course credits they can earn from the relative safety of their homes? Will concerns about gun-toting classmates further dampen classroom conversations about social injustice, politics, or ethics, making it less and less important to address one another face-to-face?

How many of our students, already destabilized by financial and mental health issues, not to mention nagging worries like climate change, the rollback of LGBT rights, and a potential war with Korea, will lean more towards online classes as a way to hold some anxiety at bay? And how many parents, having wearily sent their kids into potential killing fields for years now, will encourage their adult children to attend college from their bedrooms? It is certainly easy enough to imagine online education increasingly becoming a refuge from intolerably unsafe campuses.

Such a possibility points to the true size of the horror because, of course, it is not just schools that have become government sponsored abattoirs, but also public gathering spaces as such. We are murdered at gay nightclubs, outdoor concerts, peaceful protests, and in churches while we pray. We die in parking lots, theaters, and on softball fields. The precipitous erosion of safety in public schools, then, is merely part of a broader trend in which public spaces are desecrated, made uninhabitable by white male violence so banal it is rarely even identified as such.

How shameful that the burden to create change has been left to children who are fed up with being murdered and mutilated at their desks. And how glorious if, under their fierce leadership, we might begin to reclaim not just our schools, but the vitality and intimacy of our shared public lives.

Make your own bed! Faux helplessness and student passivity

I remember tv sit coms and commercials in which otherwise authoritative white men would be reduced to bumbling idiots when briefly called upon to do laundry, cook, or care for their own children. Eventually, the woman (their wife, the maid, Aunt Bea, etc.) would sweep in (literally), efficiently restoring both the domestic and natural order. It’s a scenario I often recall during interactions with students whose apparent helplessness arises in the most scripted fashion and opportune moments.

Some such instances are especially relevant to online education, for example, when tech savvy millennials morph into butterfingered Luddites just before a drop box deadline. But I’m especially fascinated by the more subtle helplessness students demonstrate in relational, communicative contexts, say, when they reach out to me to “discuss my grade.” What dawned on me only after decades of innocently responding according to script, is that these exchanges can be leveraged to help nurture a more mature, robust sense of student agency, instead of unwittingly enabling or reinforcing a learned, but ultimately faux, helplessness.

Here’s how a typical dialogue might proceed with a previously incommunicado, failing student who emails me between the midterm and final exam periods:

Student: “I need to discuss my grade with you. When’s a good time?”

Me: “Good to hear from you, Andy. First, please help me better understand your goals for the meeting so we can make the best possible use of our time. As you know, your detailed grade information is all readily available to you online, as is all information about the weights of each assignment. What is it about this that you wish to discuss?”

Student: “I have no idea why I’m doing so bad. I don’t know what you’re looking for.”

Me: “Again, please review the detailed breakdown of your grade so far. You will see, for example, that you have failed to submit one-third of the assignments. What other patterns do you find that would help you better understand the grade you are earning? On other assignments in which you scored very low, you either skipped whole sections, or responded only partially to questions. Please find an example of an assignment that you believe you did well, compare it to the instructions for completing it, and then share your remaining questions with me.”

Student: “I’m graduating in May and I just really need to pass this class.”

In other words, almost always, that failing student who wants to “discuss my grade” or has “no idea why I’m getting such a low grade” really means something else. And so I often simply ask: “Is it that you don’t understand your grade or that you do not like it? Please clarify.” As it happens, “Let’s discuss my grade” is a vague catch-all like “Let’s have coffee.” These days, then, I call the student’s bluff to get her to take some responsibility in advance for the conversation she actually wishes to have with me, including some of its expected outcomes. Often students must be encouraged repeatedly to respond to my questions, so eager are they to hand the screaming baby back to me.

I nudge them into claiming some ownership of the scenario, writing: “your grade,” “the grade you’re earning.” And I give them little jobs to do — Why should the entire burden fall on me?: “review the information,” analyze the situation and then provide me with more specific questions. Often, the student’s apparently earnest attempt to set up a meeting — and aren’t they often self-satisfied when they finally take this step!? — is actually a desperate, and sometimes smarmy, attempt to establish and dramatize their own helplessness. Like the apron-clad Mad Man husband surveying a pile of dirty dishes next to a charred pot roast, they are desperate to pass off their mess. “Fix it. Make it better. You’re the professor!”


And, of course, it’s a disservice to students to make it too easy for them shift their burden onto us. They wish to “discuss my grade” and we diligently make calculations and offer more “feedback” that is already in front of their faces. And we are especially susceptible to this trap partly because, like cleaning a small child’s room, it’s just easier to just do it oneself. But it’s also because we are under great pressure to be “available” and “responsive” to students. They, correspondingly, are encouraged by advisors and others “to connect with professors in person” and too often see setting up THE MEETING as a magic eraser. Not surprisingly, then, some students exhibit far more tenacity and follow through in planning THE MEETING — though they may not actually show up — than is ever apparent in their class work.

And like June Cleaver reveling in her competence as she rushes in to save Ward and the boys from themselves, this is a performance with casualties beyond the warping of the rescuer’s character. Just as June’s “guys” never learn to work the stove, our students may not learn to gauge their own progress or consult criteria to provide feedback to themselves. Worse, they may not even understand that it’s their responsibility and within their power to do so. The university — like the city or the government or the church — looms paternalistically such that they learn to see themselves less as thoughtful agents than as passively entitled consumers. Is it any wonder so many are more likely to stamp their feet than to reflect upon, analyze and proactively seek solutions to problems they’ve helped create?

Is class Discussion Overrated?

It’s a near-truism of education that giving students ample opportunity to discuss, primarily with each other, is important. This sharing of perspectives is supposed to both solidify their understanding and develop a sense of community. I confess, though, that I’ve long been skeptical about the boosterism for discussion. From what I can tell, many discussions are so poor that the time might be better spent being lectured to, reading, or just napping.

Most of what I hear from colleagues who are discussion fans is based on students’ enthusiasm. “They really get into it!. Everyone talks!” What I usually think, but don’t often say, is “but what were they talking about? How, if at all, did that talking facilitate real learning?” In other words, I’ve long suspected that ebullient classroom chatter, such a feel-good boon to both students and teachers, gets confused with genuine, pedagogically valuable dialogue. Though my worry is about discussion in general, I think its problems are amplified in the online environment for reasons I explore in an upcoming post.


It’s worth pausing to consider what’s supposed to make discussion so important to learning in the first place. Because I’m a philosopher by training, I have been more conditioned to think of dialogue as pedagogically sacred than most. And though I am a recovering philosopher, I think there are good reasons why the Socratic method is the paradigmatic dialectical learning process. A skilled, passionate, knowledgeable interlocutor can nurture students’ intellectual development. Disciplined, professor-led discussions are often effective precisely because the teacher has traveled this road many times. She has a map and a destination in mind. Although there are lots of legitimate critiques of this approach — the hierarchical power relationship comes to mind — lots of students become better thinkers by way of it.

There’s another, more common, sort of discussion that gets confused with the Socratic version. It is more flexible and open-ended, and more closely related to consciousness-raising practices than to Socrates, even though many teachers who practice it almost exclusively claim that their method is “Socratic.” This looser sort of discussion prioritizes students’ experience, aiming to empower them personally and intellectually. It’s an especially good practice for teachers who value, as I do, the development of marginalized voices. For some of our students (though not at all for others), a barely-bounded classroom discussion becomes a precious opportunity to give voice to fears about sexuality or experiences of persecution. Because education is both personal and political, such discussions are important.


That said, I think we do damage when we lazily conflate these two kinds of discussion. When we speak of discussion — people talking at and to one another — as an unqualified good, we forget that only some kinds of discussion work for some purposes. It is all too easy to be fooled by the volume of students’ chatter into believing that something meaningful is occurring. We are probably especially susceptible to this delusion because of how hard it can sometimes be to get students to pipe up at all.

There are, of course, lots of strategies to facilitate effective discussion of all sorts, both face-to-face and online, but my focus here is much more basic: What if, in brutally honest fashion, we question the value of discussion as we have been practicing it? Though students would often prefer to talk to each other than to us — and we would often prefer that they do so as well — how much of it has really mattered?

One thing I know for sure: The fact that I and my students may feel great when they proclaim their feelings, experiences and preferences — and this is usually what they are most passionate about sharing — doesn’t mean I haven’t just wasted their time.