Dear online student: I know what you did last semester

One of the most useful, and creepiest, aspects of teaching online is the sheer quantity and variety of surveillance we teachers can exercise. Although the technology is imperfect, I am more or less privy to detailed facts about how much time, if any, students spend on each assignment, including quizzes and exams. It’s a touch of omniscience about which I have mixed feelings, partly because my students seem not to understand, or, perhaps, to care about, how closely they are being watched.

A student I’ll call Jeff, for example, recently sent me the usual “I have no idea why I’m doing so poorly” email, underscoring his mystification with, “I’m working far too hard in this class to be earning such a low grade.” When I looked at his stats, I could see that he’d only opened two of the seven links to access the material and that he’d spent a total of six minutes (out of the allotted 40) to complete the unit quiz. In other words, he had just barely sauntered in during this unit, but still felt empowered to trot out the righteous “sweat and suffering” trope.

3322FA5F-021A-4951-B69C-6E07098E92C3

When I relayed his stats to him, I assured him that, in my online classes, there is an almost perfect correlation between the amount of time students spend on it and the grades they earn. I asked him to reply confirming that he understood that succeeding would require consistent, sustained engagement with the material. I was sorry, but not surprised, that he didn’t respond, both because I want him to succeed and because my curiosity was piqued as it often is when folks make assertions that appear to be utterly contradicted by readily available facts.

It is, perhaps, naive of me to resist the obvious conclusion that Jeff was lying: Does he really believe that 16 minutes of effort in a two-week unit represents dedicated labor? That seems unlikely. But his was such a colossal, discoverable falsehood, I have to wonder. Is it possible that a present-day, traditional age college student could be so oblivious to the snooping power of technology? Have the fine arts of lying and excuse-making simply failed to keep pace with pedagogical spyware, or are some students’ expectations of what hard labor means really so different from those of previous generations?

33862E32-6E88-4AE5-A9E9-48FE8E0CE431

I’m far from the first to wonder if the online realm has shifted notions of academic honesty so sharply that, increasingly, we really aren’t all operating in the same ethical landscape. We see it with plagiarism in that the utter ubiquity of information, so easily redigested and pastiched, makes it exceedingly difficult to take seriously “authorial ownership.” Some students have always violated such norms of “intellectual property,” of course, but didn’t they used to seem to understand that they were breaking rules? Perhaps it’s not, then, that millennial students have less academic integrity than previous generations, but that the value of ideas, words and information has plummeted. Words seem now to exist like jellybeans in a community bowl, and it feels different to grab an extra handful now and then than to swipe a bag from the grocery store.

And similarly, the ease, isolation and anonymity of working and communicating online seems to be straining the norms of how students communicate with professors such that the boundaries between truth and falsity, and accuracy and exaggeration become blurrier. Of course, face-to-face students have also lied, slanted, and hyperbolied. Grandmas have been dying and dogs have been blithely munching on homework since the dawn of time. But half-truths and excuses take on an even more wiggly and pernicious quality in the online environment, I think, where words flow so freely and students may never meet their teachers’ eyes as they advance preposterously false claims.

112A543B-0BBF-4B7D-8342-94DBF55D84DF

I can’t simply say, though, that online students are lying more to their teachers. Rather, intellectual and communication norms seem to have stretched. For some students, merely clicking on a link to an assigned article and skimming the images means having read it. It’s an equivocation I am also frequently guilty of in this age of distraction. Some students are, then, sincerely stunned when they utterly fail my fairly basic reading comprehension quizzes. So too, what I think of as, at best, exaggerations of speech, and, at worst, bald lies — “I worked for hours….” or “I studied all night” — can, I suspect, feel like regular speech acts in a communication environment in which “LMAO,” “dying!” and exploding emojis punctuate so many messages.

And I can’t help but connect all this to the erosion of communication norms on the national scene. How can I possibly be surprised if electronic utterances are regarded as so ephemeral and ubiquitous that one need feel little responsibility for them? Why shouldn’t our students, like so many around them, lose the intimacy of connection between what they say and who they feel themselves to be? Perhaps it’s not all bad. Maybe my students will never know the sickening wave of shame of having accidentally sent an unfortunate email. But the silencing of such internal alarm bells also deprives us of our usual means of encouraging personal and academic integrity. Ironically, or perhaps predictably, our pedagogical surveillance tools may have reached full flower precisely when students no longer care about being fact-checked.

In upcoming VP essays, I describe some of the tactics I’m using to shift the conversation with my students back to one in which more traditional parameters of reality and honesty operate. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below, on the VP Facebook site, or by email to virtualpedagogue@gmail.com: How much do you use the stats tool in your online platform to track students? Do you feel creepy doing it? What is your sense of how students are relating to notions like authorship and intellectual authority? Has something shifted in how students relate to notions like truth and falsity or am I just getting cranky?

Black Flies, Dragons, and Student Emails

img_3805

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.”

img_0498

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

859606BF-2EB1-4880-890E-11E002032962

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.

46774088-64F4-4F86-B551-530A86548397

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?

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!”

IMG_0740

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?

Fool’s empathy, spiritual posturing, and biting dogs

A new provost making the rounds once asked me to name what I might most hope to instill in students. My quick response was “empathy,” though I recognized just as quickly how cuddly and flaky that might sound. I knew I risked confirming biases about women professors, that we are more like mothers or counselors to our students than serious educators. What I failed to explain well was my sense that real understanding and critical thinking might ultimately boil down to something like empathy, which, as it turns out, is as razor sharp as it is soft and squishy.

In the debilitating wake of the presidential election, though, my confidence in empathy has been shaken. A steady barrage of scolding articles focused on the supposed liberal failure to empathize with the “working class” — which seems to mean small town white people — has nudged my relationship with empathy to the breaking point. After all, empathy’s kindred “feeling with” is a bitter pill when faced with folks who seem openly to want us, or our loved ones, dead, deported, jailed, or pregnant against our wills. Never mind the mundane narcissists and blowhards for whom we serve as mere ego fodder and whose abuse, though less dramatic, is cumulatively corrosive. Sadly, empathy has begun to sound like the self-satisfied, pseudo-spiritual aspirations of the pie-in-the-sky liberal, you know, the guy who doesn’t really have to worry about affordable birth control, being harassed by police, detained at the airport, or run over in a parking lot because he “looks gay.” This is the same guy whose privilege permits a life obsessed with his own comfort and petty grievances while the subjectivities of others never really come into view.

IMG_0823

Because I won’t abandon empathy, either in the classroom or life in general, I’ve been in couples therapy with it for some months now. And I’m beginning to see that this latest wave of willful, brutal, embarrassing national ignorance is another call to grow up. Though I thought I had already learned this, I newly see that there must be a yet more mature, less naive vision of empathy to guide and motivate dealings with difficult others. And it must be a species of empathy that does not assume that either they or I are more evolved than we actually are. It must not, then, be a fool’s empathy, but, rather, one that can flourish even in the harsh light and arid soil of the proudly stupid and unabashedly mean.

Because, of course, sometimes people are nasty, greedy, shortsighted and self-centered, some people chronically so. If we get too caught up in feel-good, kumbaya empathy we may well fast-forward right past our responsibility to hold others accountable. The quest to feel like, and show ourselves to be, compassionate, spiritually evolved beings can overpower our responsibility to discourage assholery. This is clearly a disastrous self-indulgence with respect to students, when, for example, we grant deadline extensions they will never fulfill or are more focused on providing a friendly ear than on being clear about the consequences of poor performance. But it is just as disastrous when we bend over backwards to prove our empathy to people who might actually benefit most from being reminded of the natural consequences of their appalling behavior.

At bottom, if we are too eager to cultivate the image of ourselves as kind, empathetic people, then we are likely to fail others and ourselves. The result may well be not only that we are victimized by rude, or even cruel behavior, but that we become martyrs to it. It’s a faux empathy that has us ceding ground to bullies and tolerating shirkers. Certainly, leaving my front door unlocked does nothing good for the opportunistic thief or for me, even if I persuade myself that I’m not really attached to my possessions after all because, you know, I’m more spiritually advanced than that.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Similarly, if we see empathy mainly as an instrument for getting others to do as we wish — to follow our lead and be nicer, for example — then we will often be disillusioned. Almost no one admits they are being so manipulative — much of it is probably unconscious — but I’ve certainly found myself surprised and irritated when, instead of following my supposedly magnanimous or equanimous lead, a nasty acquaintance has continued to be nasty. Only my surprise taught me that I had been implicitly trying to manipulate her into better behavior. While it may not be an abuse of empathy to employ it so instrumentally, it’s often a recipe for disappointment.

One of my great teachers warns of how the desire to be and be seen as “spiritual” people can lead us to tolerate and enable harmful others who seek mainly to satisfy the desires of their smallest, pettiest selves. These are the narcissists and bullies who bluster and steamroll, blithely, vengefully unaware of their own key role in the hideous dramas they create. Sure, we can understand that the damage they inflict arises from pain and ignorance, just as an injured dog’s pain may drive her to viciousness. But sometimes we still owe it to one another — and to our institutions, nation, and world — to reach into the deepest, most empathetic part of ourselves and say, “No. Absolutely not. You may not cross this line.” I mean, there’s nothing noble or spiritual in letting the dog bite me. And there’s nothing in it for the dog either.

Small town professors…..Zoo animals in the heartland?

Recent Republican money-grabs, which take such brutal aim at public K-12 schools and universities, are surely rooted in anti-intellectualism as well as greed. That this faux-populist fury, propagated by an extremist conservative minority against smarty-pants professor-types, also reeks of racism, sexism and xenophobia, is impossible to overlook. But at the same time, the college experience continues to be enshrined in the popular imagination — from movies to the dorm supply aisles at Walmart — as a proud rite of passage and rollicking good time.

Such mixed messages must, I think, shape how my students and I feel about college. What does higher education mean to a first-year student who has been steeped to believe both that college is a corrupt waste of money and a precious milestone of life? What should professors make of the contradictory messages of respect and ridicule we receive, assured that we’re noble preservers of truth and beauty, but also dismissed as smug parasites munching away on the ass of productive society?

The professor’s standard lament is that students and their families now relate to college as consumers, but this is only partly true. Rather, many students seem simultaneously to see themselves as entitled customers and as blessedly chosen to drink the sacred nectar of college. So-called elites are denigrated, sure, but envied and emulated too. Crass educational consumerism and ivy wall fantasies collide, creating a mash-up in which the professor emerges as both villain and hero. And aren’t many of us ambivalent too? Don’t we feel like proud stewards of timeless pomp and circumstance, but also tainted by our association with these increasingly corporatized behemoths?

A few months ago, I got a painstakingly detailed, self-flagellating email from a student about her absences. In that moment at least, she seemed to buy the notion that college included a special commitment to learning, and a respectful relationship to one’s professor. The very next week, though, she sent me a list of demands for special considerations that, as a paying customer, she made clear, she damn well expected. While her original mea culpa may have been a mere ploy, I think it’s just as likely that she felt the tug of both the consumerist, and the traditional, romantic narratives about college.

To be sure, I’m not endorsing the traditional patriarchal mythology in which professors are seen as gods or daddies. Such hierarchy gives rise to creepy authoritarianism and cults of personality that can reinforce arbitrary inequality and invite abuse. Would the horrific longterm sexual attacks on girls and young women at Michigan State have been possible without such sexist, elitist, patriarchal myths? Nor, of course, am I in favor of some crassly consumerist reversal in which professors are expected to placate petty students as if we were managers at Starbucks.

We are aware of the double-binds that both elevate and scapegoat K-12 teachers. They are, so often, like mothers, simultaneously revered and reviled. And while professors generally enjoy higher status and remuneration, we are similarly adored and despised, especially in the heartland where so many of us make our livelihoods. Many of us come to love the small college towns where we create our lives; we work and play with the vast majority of the locals in harmonies of shared purpose. But in a cowboy society in thrall to anti-intellectualist fantasies of waspy hyper-masculinity — real men aren’t gay, foreign, or Jewish, and they don’t read poetry or philosophy — the professoriate itself is othered. Certainly, the recent attacks by radical conservatives on departments of women’s and LGBT studies fit unremarkably into this broader narrative of hate and intolerance.

In the pragmatic plains and rolling hills of middle America, we may be noticed and admired, but too often it will be as if we were expensive zoo animals: odd, interesting, and expendable. This is especially true if our accents, skin tones, or gender presentations ensure that we will be noticed at the grocery store, movie theater or gas station. When times feel tough, won’t some folks begin to seethe in fury at the resources this exotic animal requires? And if the mob’s rage is stoked and directed by just the right petty tyrant, can we be surprised when, one day someone attacks this strange, transplanted creature? It is frighteningly easy for me to imagine: They will shoot and skin and roast it, and then complain loudly about what a pathetic, skin-and-bones meal it made.

Fake News, Willful Ignorance and Critical Thinking

Against the much maligned backdrop of contemporary higher education a bright light has been trained on the problem of fake news. Critical thinking is hot right now, suddenly spoken of as an urgent necessity rather than an abstract or faraway good. Those of us who’ve long been worried about folks’ capacity for basic reasoning and factual discrimination are justified in feeling newly energized. It has been confirmed, we are told, that many Americans cannot tell the difference between fact and fiction. Democracy is in danger and we must commit to developing students’ critical thinking skills with renewed vigor.

A philosopher by training, I’m grumpier than many about the ubiquity of poor thinking skills. In fact, some years ago my grief over anti-intellectualism and the disregard of science, facts and common sense drove me to a crisis of faith that impacted my scholarship, teaching, and sense of place in the world. The persistence of racism, embarrassingly literal strains of religious fundamentalism, and climate change denial were among the bullies that pushed me to reappraise my naive confidence in reason, facts and intellectual self-scrutiny. Shortly after 9/11, during a period of sorrow and brittle fury, several tentative conclusions took shape in the jingoistic, anti-Muslim, anti-gay miasma that surrounded me.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

For one thing, I noticed that many who failed to distinguish between this or that fact also couldn’t appreciate the more general differences between fact and fiction. Addressing the problem, then, wouldn’t merely require adding information so as to improve a discrete skill — like teaching someone to identify a Bobolink, say — but would require the awareness and development of at least a few basic points about the stubbornness of reality and of our accountability to it. I also had to accept that many who systematically blurred fact with fiction, and logic with wishful thinking, did so quite happily. They were, then, unmoved by arguments that assumed that they did or should care about being accurate or reasonable. Their blithe disregard makes sense given how often we are rewarded for the size of our enthusiasm rather than the defensibility of our positions. One’s football team wins and one’s political candidate comes to power in the midst of a righteous, passionate, confirming din.

When it comes to sports teams and rock stars it’s easy enough to appreciate that emotional forces will be more determinative than rational ones. But what if our beliefs about most things are determined to some extent by how holding those beliefs makes us feel? To paraphrase William James, what if we are inclined to believe that which makes us feel good? And what if this isn’t so much an individual failure — people going astray — but reflects something of our nature? If we are such deeply affective creatures, then emotions must be front and center as we address the problem of fake news and critical thinking.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

If students’ orientation to reason and facts is nested so intimately into their psychological and social selves, then it’s not enough to think of critical thinking as a mere skill. In fact, I’ve come to think of it as like learning a new language. It is open ended, often tentative and halting, and progresses in fits and starts. Further, the greatest strides occur through immersion into a culture where the contextual relevance, including concrete rewards and penalties associated with mastering it, emerge. Of course, most native English-speaking U.S. students who study another language in school never really learn it, just as they may never really learn critical thinking, even from courses focused on precisely that.

The capacity for critical thinking is also like second language fluency in that many who claim to value it do not, not really, and may not even know that they don’t. There’s an unfortunate circularity here in that being able to identify the bad consequences of poor thinking relies on the very reasoning skill and ethos that is missing in the first place. The problem, then, isn’t just a lack of critical thinking skills, but a lack of sufficient critical thinking skills to even recognize the initial lack. Similarly, poor language speakers often overestimate their ability precisely because their poor skills blind them to their missteps. Adding more lessons in logic, or new lists of vocabulary words, important as this may be, is unlikely to effectively combat this vortex of ignorance, especially since its swirls are invisible to many who are drowning in it.

All this to say that, while learning discrete critical thinking skills is important — just as learning to conjugate verbs is helpful — genuine leaps of ability probably can’t occur without serious attention to underlying emotional and social motivations. Apparently, we are creatures who must sometimes be jolted into noticing and caring about the size and shape of our own ignorance. I am reminded that those yanked from Plato’s cave did not rejoice in the harsh daylight, but were initially pained. The fundamental danger of fake news, then, may not result primarily from a deficit of intellectual skill — though, of course, this matters — but a lack of will. With this hypothesis in mind, I try to focus as much on helping students want to think better as on improving thinking skills. As I explore in an upcoming post, I’m trying to work with them to more viscerally connect intellectual mastery with their personal and professional goals. Though, as we know, thinking patiently and well can bring its own satisfaction, its pleasures and rewards can be lost — to all of us — in the bright lights and deafening roar of a self-satisfied crowd.

Extra credit as expiation and discount

In these last frenzied weeks of the semester, undergrads everywhere begin genuflecting madly at the feet of the extra credit god. In this end-of-term ritual, instructors usher these harried students into our office-cum-confessional and bear witness as they perform rites of self-flagellation and earnest piety. “If only I could do some extra credit,” they muse with exaggerated innocence, eyes tilted skyward like an El Greco Jesus. “Isn’t there anything I could do to improve my grade?”

My response to this desperate query is usually an unsatisfyingly simple: “Would you be willing to study for the final exam? Could you attend the remaining class periods so that you don’t continue to miss out on precious participation and quiz points?” My unglamorous reply disappoints, because this student is here to talk about extra credit and often has no real interest in mastering the material or doing better on the remaining class assignments. It is, rather, the indulgence and favor associated with the special opportunity of extra credit that has drawn her to my door.

If you’ve ever watched an enthusiastic, practiced buyer wrangle with a car salesman, you’ll know what I mean. Such a buyer gets a thrill from feeling that, by dint of his own personal initiative, charm, and force of character, he has earned a special deal. Those other chumps might take the dealership’s offer at face value, but not this especially empowered, skillful consumer. And whether the actual price he pays for his new vehicle is better than what most purchasers end up paying becomes almost beside the point. What matters most to him is the heady satisfaction of feeling that he has played the game and won. It is similar with some students in that their negotiation for extra credit is often only obliquely related to the goal of improving their grade. And to many of them, too, our course syllabus is to be taken about as seriously as a new car’s window sticker.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This scenario would be more manageable if it were not that this competitive consumerist impulse converges with a quasi-moral one. Humble, but firm, requests for extra credit are also meant to demonstrate one’s deep earnestness, as a person and as a student. But that this is primarily a mere performance of diligence and responsibility is often belied by the fact that the student may ignore the obvious, unsexy, built-in paths to success, say, to actually learn the material and excel on the remaining assignments. “Extra credit” functions as an incantation, one that, like a priest’s blessing, is meant to erase twelve weeks’ of distraction or sloth. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that I meet few students as impassioned about working with me to excel on final projects as they are they are about concocting opportunities for extra credit.

I am prepared, as I write this, to hear from colleagues with objections to my flippancy about, and suspicion of, extra credit. There are lots of good reasons to encourage it, they will assure me. Perhaps so. In a complicated higher education economy nourished and impelled by some combination of desperation and dispensation, extra credit may well be one of the best games in town. And, certainly, each instructor must negotiate her own way in this imperfect, contradictory pedagogical environment, one in which student-consumers are unevenly, and unpredictably, empowered.

For now, though, I think I will continue to play the extra credit gadfly. I’ll still include flexibility in my syllabus, in the form of dropped quiz scores and allowances for reasonable absences, but I will explicitly exclude extra credit. And I will almost certainly continue to look just a little puzzled when students plead in week twelve or thirteen, “Isn’t there anything I can do, anything at all, to earn more points?” I’ll reply, as I do now, “Could you, perhaps, come to class and study for the final exam?”