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.

Avoiding those two-star reviews: Teaching in the age of empowered consumer critics

Universities have evaluation forms for everything. The student evaluation process has taken on a life of its own and, at many campus events, we’re handed an evaluation form along with our program. Just the thing to set the mood to openly embrace the experience we’re about to have, isn’t it? It’s ironic that, even as the serious study of effective evaluation techniques has come into its own, we should be choking on a glut of superficial critique.

It’s not just the sheer quantity of evaluations that’s so noxious, but that the results are increasingly indistinguishable from cursory Amazon customer reviews. Whether we are students, moviegoers, product evaluators, voters, or disgruntled workers, more and more, we are framed and treated as consumers whose primary power resides in our, often petty, judgments. It used to be that whole sitcom episodes — our comedy standards were lower back then — could be built around the trope of the ruthlessly picky restaurant critic. The restaurant staff would scramble to prepare for his visit, triggering a slew of zany mishaps.

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But now most of us have endless opportunities to play the bit part of that unforgiving critic. A single consumer can now upend things for a seller, such that the most vulnerable businesses will, like Jack Tripper from Three’s Company, twist themselves into pretzels to appease. This was confirmed for me when a seller I’d purchased from called me ten minutes after I’d submitted my complaint, and then emailed me to follow up, and then emailed me yet again the following day just in case. His vulnerability to the whims of my keyboard resulted in customer service gyrations that were a caricature of “responsiveness.” Something analogous happens in the classroom, of course, in that instructors, especially the most vulnerable ones, but, these days, really, any of us, can be derailed by the tenacious complaints of a single student, however vague or superficial. We are constantly managing our reputations, desperate to avoid those one-star reviews.

Such consumer power is obviously to be celebrated, and some of those Amazon reviews are amazingly thoughtful and informative. In a nation (and world) largely at the mercy of big corporations, individuals need to embrace and use this power for good. But it has a real downside too. “Everyone’s a critic,” is another (not-very-funny) 20th century comedic trope, and it is true. We have been habituated to approach our experiences and other people through a myopic tunnel of petty judgement. Do I like her clothes? Her voice? Is there enough extra toilet paper in the bathroom of this restaurant? Did the museum attendant smile at me and make me feel welcome? Was the corner of my UPS box dented?

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We often seem to feel, not just entitled, but even required, to actually share our petty opinions with the teacher, the purveyor, the world! We are, after all, first and foremost, consumers, and isn’t this what consumers do? Don’t we, in the U.S at any rate, expect a kind of deference and subservience from those we are paying to provide goods and services? And hasn’t higher education largely become just another consumer purchase? When I first noticed that students were functioning as critics with readings they were asked to discuss — “It was dry and boring; I liked the other one better.” — I was thrown off. While it has always been a challenge to get students to engage substantively with texts, these students, in offering their “critic’s” opinion, thought that they were engaging critically.

And the worst consequence may well be that we cheat ourselves of rich experiences, the stuff that makes up our lives. When we approach the movie, the instructor, the restaurant server, or the coworker, primarily in consumer critic mode, we are primed to notice and pounce on flaws and mistakes, errors or quirks that need not have been seen as impacting the quality of the performance, or the work. It’s obnoxious, to be sure, and it also drains these experiences of their mutuality, their depth, and their integrity. Constantly in Amazon reviewer mode, we fail to meet people or experiences on their own terms, open to what they might mean and become to us, or to how we might be changed by them. We become, like the student who, when asked to provide feedback to his professor says, “I hate how she wears her hair.”

At Your (Customer) Service

A few weeks into teaching my first online class I had a disturbing realization. I’d begun to feel like I was working at a big box hardware store. Here’s how my thinking went: The tiling experts or carpenters who apply at Lowe’s are attracted to the job partly because they believe their expertise will be put to use. Sure,  some of it will be a grind — it’s retail after all — but part of the appeal, surely, is the prospect of putting one’s talents and hard-earned skills to use. Imagine the disappointment when it turns out that the workday’s human exchanges consist overwhelmingly of responding to generic customer service questions like: “Where’s the restroom?”

Similarly, once my online class got underway, I had the sickening, humbling realization that every single direct student question I had fielded had nothing whatsoever to do with the actual ideas, concepts, and arguments that made up the heart and soul of my painstakingly crafted course. There were questions about grades and dates, about how to navigate the learning platform — in my case, D2L — but nary a peep about race, gender or science in a course called “Race, Gender, and Science.” I was, evidently, a customer service employee, tasked with ensuring that my patrons had a smooth, pleasant journey through the semester, an imperative intensified by the university’s pressure on faculty to maintain enrollment at almost any cost.

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Of course my content expertise had been leveraged in the initial development of the lectures, introductions, exams and projects that make up my online class. And of course I drew on my years of experience with ideas and information about race, gender and science when I participated in the discussion boards and evaluated student work. But, by and large, and most certainly in my e-mail exchanges with students, my task was one of keeping the train moving along the tracks — removing rocks, lubing the wheels — with little attention to the actual cargo it contained.

While it may be that I’m doing this wrong — I could insert more of my expertise into casual exchanges with students, for example, whether they want it or not — I think the issue may be endemic to online education as it’s now conceived. When we teach in a physical classroom, we are usually not expected to clean the room, provide the chairs, or repair broken windows. When we do find ourselves burdened with such things, we feel put out; we are being asked to do what is not properly our job and does not draw upon our training and credentials.

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But in the virtual classroom, the line between our intellectual expertise and our technical abilities — Can you manage the learning platform? Can you help students successfully navigate the often Byzantine trails between various assignments, feedback, etc. — becomes utterly blurry. Sure, our universities have online learning help centers for both us and our students, but we all understand that our journey is, at bottom, a ruggedly individualist one. Both we and are students are expected, for the most part, to manage by ourselves. Our technical and practical skills are more tied up with our pedagogical success than ever before.

It is true, of course, that face-to-face professors are also expected to succeed at a number of rote, bureaucratic tasks, for example, entering grades. It’s also true that the customer service imperative has increasingly come to define many classroom instructors’ professional lives. But never is this more evident than when those emails start arriving from online students who are only interested in your ability to point out the quickest path to the restroom.

Hard-luck students and the professors who save them

It’s often in the earliest days of the semester that students share some of their greatest tales of woe with professors. Some want to add an already full class and so labor to persuade us of their dire plight. Others, pre-worried about their grades, aim to sock away some sympathy credit for a rainy day. I’ve always found such personal revelations — coming, as they do, from relative strangers — to be jarring. This is, perhaps, partly because I am not inclined to share so quickly, even when it may be in my practical self-interest to do so. But I also think this all-too-common practice of individual student pleading, and ad hoc professorial granting reinforces an unhealthy dynamic.

I appreciate and love that my students are whole people. They’ve got jobs, families and endearing quirks, as well as bad memories, financial trouble, and, often, mental health diagnoses. Perhaps it is not even accurate to identify them as students. They are, rather, richly textured individuals who have temporarily taken on this student role for complicated reasons unique to them. Partly because institutions’ one-size-fits all prescriptions and policies don’t address particularity very well, the power of dispensation and indulgence often falls on instructors and front-line staff colleagues. We surely must, then, take seriously the personal experiences of our students. But how can we do it in a way that routinely avoids the pitfalls of ad hoc favoritism? And how can we keep from being condescending, and ultimately undermining to the very students we seek to help?

For example, in a recent introductory level class, I assigned three small paperbacks to supplement material available online, which, all together, cost about twenty dollars. And, as is typical, I was approached by a student with a list of heart-tugging reasons why she couldn’t afford college text books. I reminded her that there were electronic copies of two of them available through the library and made sure she knew how to access the library website. She left unhappy, though, because, as she explained, “most of my other professors just loan me a copy.” I didn’t want to be insensitive to her life challenges — I have no reason to doubt her account of personal hardship — but nor did I want to support this, for me, increasingly icky, shadow economy in which students with the extroversion and eloquence to share experiences of suffering exchange it for textbooks and other favors.

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This common practice of professors hearing and then reacting to individual students’ accounts of suffering reinforces precisely the very hierarchical power relation that many of us claim we want to challenge. It also risks letting our institutions off the hook at the very moment they should be bending over backwards to address the structural inequities that impact students’ lives. When I feel compelled to pick and choose students to whom I will grant special favors, I am “being responsive” — so far so good — but I am also singling them out for special treatment. This is not at all what compassionate instructors intend when they provide extra advantages — extra time, extra credit, free books, etc. — to a vocally hard luck student. But it seems to be only the students with the wherewithal and skill to recount their personal tribulations (to a virtual stranger, mind you) who receive such favors. It’s a bargain that strikes me as, well, a little creepy, as if instructors are rewarding students for performances of suffering.

With this in mind, I guess I still think the best plan is to focus on providing advance structure to our courses (and our universities) that makes reasonable room for the reality of human suffering and serendipity without routinely resorting to practices that are arbitrary and personal. This is, of course, a goal of offices such as disability services. If we really want to help, we must actively seek structural, systematic solutions to the structural, systematic problems that unfairly limit our students’ lives as individuals. With respect to the textbook example, we can, when possible, assign books with lower prices, put copies on library reserve, petition for lower prices from publishers, and advocate for a university-wide fund to assist needy students.

As so many professors now do, we can, when possible, build in extra time for assignments for all students to avoid having to make a special dispensation in response to a particular personal tragedy. Other mundane practices, such as having students drop their lowest quiz grades, also show respect for the fickle exigencies of everyday life. But given the ubiquity of such pedagogical flexibility these days, instructors may need to explicitly explain to students that these are, effectively, advance accommodations. We need to help sensitize students to the fact that these measures are meant to attend to their individual needs, but in a way that preserves equity.

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Of course, the habit of seeking personal favor and dispensation runs deep so we should not be surprised when students and, perhaps, some colleagues and administrators, resist. Higher education has, quite simply, evolved into an environment in which students have been encouraged to plead and professors have been primed to grant or withhold, often in lieu of the institution meeting its responsibility to address systematic disparities. Perhaps the dirtiest (open) secret is that some instructors enjoy the high of riding in on a white horse to rescue this or that student from the jaws of an otherwise unfeeling, impersonal, elitist institution. Certainly, I know instructors who are proud of being “responsive” to just about any request for dispensation. For them, no “favor” is too great and I get it.

In a university environment in which many professors feel angry and impotent on behalf of both our students and ourselves, it can be satisfying to be the socially conscious, compassionate professor who is “student centered” and pulls strings to advantage those we perceive as disadvantaged. And before professors will be willing to rethink our approach to hard luck students, we will need to tell the truth about this. That being able to ease the pain of individual students feels good, that it’s a rare reminder of our own power and status, regardless of its long-term consequences or viability with respect to our students and universities.

Three Resolutions for More Mindful Teaching

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Anyone who’s tried mindfulness strategies knows that, though though they are trendy, they aren’t very sexy or dramatic when actually practiced. Whatever benefits accrue are usually small and cumulative, revealing themselves like tree buds opening in an unusually cool spring. If life is a roller coaster ride, then mindfulness practices help us notice the feel of the cold steel safety bars across our laps, and the whiff of nervousness and cotton candy in the air. Through mindfulness practice we learn to pay non-judgmental attention to the buzz of expectation in the creaking, ratcheted climb, and to become as curious as we are terrified at the dropping sensation in our guts as the free fall begins.

When it comes to enhancing our lives, mindfulness turns out to be as useful as zippers, can openers, and sturdy boots. If we merely fetishize the idea of mindfulness, though — devouring articles about it and praising it from afar — it sits on the shelf like a curio. As a longtime student of mindfulness who is easily distracted by the abstract, I’ve resolved to more explicitly link basic mindfulness practices to my upcoming semester of teaching. More specifically, the three simple resolutions I describe below are meant to support my attention to some basic inputs and experiences — feelings, really — as they move through me, instead of fast forwarding to habitual conclusions and reactions. Introducing even this tiny gap of attention could lead to teaching that is a little wiser, more effective and creative. But, at the very least, I will be a a little more awake during the journey.

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Resolution #1 expresses my plan to pay better attention to how particular teaching activities impact my mood. Over the years, I’ve tended to accept that certain tasks are intrinsically grueling and must simply be powered through. Grading online discussions falls into this category for me. In fact, my dread of it leads me to try to push through it as quickly and numbly as I responsibly can. This coming semester, though, I plan to pay precise attention to the negative feelings as they arise before my reactivity and avoidance kick in. Is it a bodily tightness? A sense of being trapped? Boredom?

The investigation might not lead me to make any changes, of course. I might simply conclude that grading discussions is a misery to be endured and keep trying to ease the pain; I’m fine taking a little Novocain if that’s the best I can do. But if I can rouse my curiosity about my animus toward this loathsome task, there may be something to discover. It occurs to me, for example, that the poor quality of many of these discussions makes me feel like a failure, a sensation I would definitely prefer to ignore.

Resolution #2 is to notice my feeling responses to informal student feedback, for example, in critical or affirming emails to me or asides made to other students during group work. For most of us much of the time, the leap from a perceived criticism to the arising of defensiveness can seem automatic. For example, I’m sometimes moved to what feels like instant irritation and the need to self-justify when students complain about the reading assignments. Can my feelings point to my implicit, perhaps false, assumptions about what their complaints mean? Am I taking them personally? Why? My goal isn’t to pander to students’ superficial gripes but to be open to real information that can help me either adjust or feel more confident about staying the course. In any case, clues are wasted if I zip blithely past them, supplying my own habitual rationalization as soon as I feel threatened by criticism or puffed up by praise.

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Resolution #3 involves reflecting on my feelings about my teaching work as a whole, about how it fits into my overall ethos, values and life goals. Because I’m a professor of gender and women’s studies, my work is explicitly tied to social justice. But for me too the risk of nihilism and complacency is real, and at times I’ve been unable to see my work making a dent or, alternatively, been a little smug about its significance. My commitment this semester is to better notice the sensations of excitement or flatness that arise when questions of larger purpose arise. For example, in recent months, I felt nervously hopeful at the media emphasis on fake news. Taking my incipient excitement seriously led me to explicitly connect some upcoming course activities to the critical skills our country is clamoring for. The changes, while not dramatic, have been motivated by my awareness and acknowledgement of my own feelings. Whether or not such awareness typically leads to visible changes, being honest about feelings of guilt, pride, and purpose in our work can certainly lead to greater sense of intentionality about it.

When I take the sometimes invisible step of noticing, then meaningful improvement and appreciation become possible. For busy teachers, offering the same classes over and over again, the entire semester can become as routinized as a morning commute. We’re suddenly at the destination without knowing quite how we arrived. And, of course, this isn’t the worst of it. The current hunger for all things mindfulness attests to our fear of passing through the whole of our lives on autopilot. As tempting as sexy, dramatic quick fixes are at the new year, what I describe is both more banal and important, a practice of being genuinely present to ourselves. When all is said and done, I will have piled up a startling number of hours grading student work. If this is how I am to use my life, then, at the very least, I want to take responsibility for having done so, even if I ultimately choose to sleep through some of the most tedious parts.

How mindfulness can help you procrastinate more!

As summer ends and deadlines close in, I, like lots of professors, am tempted to twist the basic principles of mindfulness out of shape, to use them not to come into greater contact with reality but as a trick to avoid it. It goes something like this: Though I really do know that it will not be too painful to complete once I get started on it, I push time sensitive work to the bottom of my list again and again. Eventually I come to dread even small tasks. The faux mindfulness dodge — which I’ve indulged in more than once — encourages me to analyze my feelings of aversion, to fan them into full visibility, to take them as seriously as the work itself that is waiting to be done.

IMG_4819But even when I frame my work aversion in high toned psychological or spiritual terms — as “taking my feelings seriously,” or somesuch — it is, at bottom, nothing more than a more palatable procrastination technique. As avoidance techniques go, it sounds more sophisticated than abandoning my work responsibilities in favor of shopping or of scrubbing the grout, but when I am more deeply mindful, when I am more honest, I see that it is the same thing. Forays into genuine mindfulness practices have left me with real tools and techniques to honestly face life, but they have also provided me with some high falutin’, New Age tinted scripts for more complicated forms of procrastination.

At a discussion on campus a while back, an audience member asked the panel to share favorite tools and techniques for completing tasks efficiently. A doctoral student, she was surprised at how consistently her dissertation could slip to the bottom of her priorities. I shared my experience with what I’ve come to think of as The Package, a small box that I had been charged with delivering to the post office some years ago. It sat there day after day, I described, for weeks, taunting me with its unmet need and my own incipient failure. Though my car and legs worked fine, and though I had the six dollars for postage, The Package became my nemesis, and led me both to elaborate self-examination and self-recrimination. My problem was instantly solved, though, I explained, when I invested the seven minutes necessary to get off my ass and mail the damn box.

The graduate student chuckled gamely at my little story and then repeated her request for anti-procrastination tools and techniques. The conversation veered to subjects such as how to better sync calendars and what time to get out of bed each day. It was, I thought, like when I read books about quitting smoking rather than quitting smoking. I used the very tools meant to overcome my addictive bad habit as delay tactics to permit me to continue doing it. Apparently, as reasonable creatures, we humans are also rationalizing creatures, shamelessly willing to put even the most noble spiritual practices into the service of our immediate whims and cravings. Because let’s face it, elaborate calendars and organizing systems have served at least as much to help postpone work as to facilitate it.

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Talking about IT: privilege and politics in the classroom

Lots of college instructors feel the urgency and difficulty of talking to our students during especially troubling social and political times. On the one hand, we are taught that our classrooms, like good newspapers, are supposed to be fair, balanced and apolitical. It’s supposed to be our job to teach students how to think better without becoming overly normative about the particulars. But when we are faced with raging ignorance, gross injustice, and threats to our most basic values, the pressure and responsibility to speak in more clearly values-based terms grows.

The narrow space we occupy is revealed to be even tighter when we consider that our students, primed by gun fever and a white supremacist president, may use weapons or cars to mow us down in the parking lot if they don’t like us. And we must add to the mix that those same angry students may well have parents who have the ear of the provost, the president, or a university regent with the power to strip us of our very livelihoods. We want to do the right thing — to create a space for authentic discussion in the face of evil — and we also want to keep ourselves safe and secure.

Except that, as it happens, safety and security comes only through the embrace of and identification with privilege. For ostensibly white, middle-class, heteronormative instructors, the “politics” question arises in the midst of unavoidably huge, newsworthy events such as “race riots,” anti-immigrant policies, or heedless wars. But for everyone else — for example, the visibly black, brown, foreign, Jewish, Muslim or queer — “political considerations” shape nearly every gesture and choice. When Black Lives Matter was finally deemed worthy of mainstream media attention, many white professors began to wonder earnestly about how to discuss it with students. But, of course, black people had been dying all along at the hands of police officers. It took mainstream media interest to make it classroom worthy because that was when it began to matter to most of us who are white.

It is a tribute to the victims of highly publicized hate crimes that we are moved by their stories to address social issues in the classroom. It would only deepen the tragedy were business to proceed as usual in the wake of their murders. But such pedagogical tributes also threaten to devolve into a one-off performance of social penance by otherwise apolitical instructors. The suddenly concerned professor leverages this dramatically political news cycle to bravely initiate a discussion — understanding full well that silence equals complicity — and then breathes a sigh of relief when the news changes and it’s time to return to the “real” curriculum.

It is a reflection of a professor’s privilege when this turns out to be a temporary, almost seasonal pedagogical question. Our students and colleagues of color, or those who appear to be foreign or queer, never enjoy the escape into apolitical repose from which they can emerge at will. For them, existence itself, as a person, a citizen, and a professor, is always already highly charged. In the eyes of students, parents, and administrators they are, by and large, deemed guilty of political advocacy — and this is treated as a sort of failing to be indulged or monitored — simply because they exist.

Bravely socially conscious instructors have been here all along, maneuvering around perceptions and accusations that they lack objectivity or are mired in “identity politics” — as shameful as being called a feminist or a liberal — fighting for dignity and fairness. It’s just that they are generally too far behind the sexy headlines for the more privileged among us to notice or care. Anyone who wants to be a genuine ally in the struggle for social justice must risk “talking about it” well before and long after Dan Rather has decided it is time to care.