Ghosts, burning houses, and the challenge of exhausted students

As we enter the desperate final weeks of the fall semester, I find myself acting like Patrick Swayze in Ghost as he negotiates the liminal space between earthly and ethereal existence. You may recall his frustration as he tries to force awareness of his presence on the oblivious humans around him, racing against the clock to save the woman he loves. As an online teacher, I too am basically chucking pennies, stage whispering, and madly waving my virtual arms to keep my students from fading away.

As many of us know, the true challenge of teaching, especially online, is helping students stay more or less connected for the entire fifteen weeks. Attention-span issues arise not just in the context of each reading but also from the sheer drudgery of week-in/week-out tasks. And so we clap our hands in front of their faces. We cajole. We praise. We warn. We entertain and amuse, just about anything to urge them to find just a little more oomph. These are mostly cheap teacher tricks, of course, and I’m not proud of them. At the beginning of the term, I promise myself only to appeal to the nobler side of students’ natures. “I try to help them connect to their own deepest motives for wanting to succeed,” I wrote in an earlier VP essay. And, sure, I do, and, sure, it works. Sort of. For a while.

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But that’s before the victuals start running low, before the snows come and they find themselves floundering just above tree line, no longer sure of the trail or their own feet. Exhausted, they long to burrow into the frigid earth and rest, just for a moment, only for a little while. But because I am the guide who knows that stopping now means certain death, I reach for the Buddha’s parable about “skillful means.” With children happily playing in a burning house, too distracted to notice or care as the flames leap from room to room, it is our obligation, he says, to do what works to lure them out. I can indulge in principled musing about how I must “respect that my students are adults,” that they “are fully capable of seeing and living with the consequences of their actions,” or I can focus on urging them to safety.

I am, then, never more pragmatist as a teacher than in the midst of this perennial, predictable crisis of persistence. And so, though I generally dislike the more manipulative aspects of pedagogical performativity — last ditch antics to grab students’ attention — I write my students these alternately cajoling, cautionary, and praise-filled notes. I ply them with tales of my own struggles with motivation and circumstance, and assure them with a confidence I do not always feel. I have been to the promised land, I preach, and, yes, safe arrival is assured if only they will push ahead just a few more miles.

This semester, I’m shamelessly trotting out a few new/old tricks, one that was suggested by a wise advisor colleague. “Tell them how much they’re paying for these credits,” he suggested. “Sometimes it works.” And so I (almost) shamelessly craft a message to my students that appeals to their pocketbooks, leveraging the very consumerist orientation to education that is so undermining to contemporary higher ed. “You’re handing over a hearty chunk-o-change for these credits,” I will write, “Is this money you’re prepared to squander?” And though I feel a little cheap as I wave my arms to grab their attention, at least I am in good company. There is the Buddha, after all, and, of course, the earnestly undead Patrick Swayze.

To the student who broke my heart

Dear Lenore,

When you pleaded to enroll in my already-full online general education course last year, I welcomed you and walked you through the late registration process. When I noticed a few days later that you still hadn’t done the required preliminary assignments — a syllabus quiz and a personal goals inventory — I sent you a concerned note, reiterating key policy about due dates and grades. Your reply came yet a few more days later, explaining how overwhelmed you were by work and school, but assuring me in the strongest terms that you had found a way forward.

It never happened. For the next month or so you occasionally posted to the discussion board or hurriedly completed a quiz. Your work was so sporadic and haphazard that you barely earned any points. When I reached out to you again, pointing out your poor record and encouraging you to talk to an undergrad advisor to determine a realistic path to graduation, you assured me you would. You said you would do everything possible to earn a passing grade in my class despite your admittedly ragged start. But you didn’t. You made a few more fly-by contributions and sent another pleading note just before the final project was due — there’s nothing I can do at this point, I replied — but still nothing changed. I was haunted by your name on my roster, like the odor from last night’s fish dinner, but you were gone.

I don’t write this letter to make you feel bad, Lenore. As I told you more than once, I know what it’s like to both work and be a full time student. And I meant it when I said there’s no shame in failure, and that the critical point is for you to meet your own goals and not my expectations. In most ways, you are not even that unusual. Every semester a couple of students almost immediately begin to fade away. It’s not even the apparent earnestness of each of your epiphanies, the passion of each new promise, that keeps you foremost in my mind. I’ve known plenty of other silver-tongued, well-intentioned students who failed almost before they began.

What makes you special, Lenore, is that you returned to my same class the very next semester and gave a repeat performance. The very same one. The late enrollment, the late work, the heartfelt apologies and promises. In each message, you were newly reformed. “This time will be different!” you actually said more than once. And I replied with the same urgent missives, expressing concern and restating policy — some emails actually recycled from the previous term — wincing when I saw your growing line of zeros in my grade book.

Understand, it’s not that I’m angry with you. I was, certainly, irritated at times, but also amused as one gets in the punch drunk hours of a very long flight. It’s not merely that I was disappointed in you either, though, of course, I was. Rather, you proved your power to buy your way into a pedagogical relationship with me — the university will apparently continue take your money — despite your repeatedly erratic, self-destructive performances. I may be the professor, but you remind me of how little control I really have. You may lie to me, string me along, and for some stretch that will always feel too long, I’ll come along for the ride. I’ll do it partly because it’s my job, but also because I still long to believe your pretty promises and to be part of the catalyst that leads you to change your ways.

Instead of saying goodbye, then, Lenore, which is what I’d planned when I began this letter, I’ll stop pretending. I’ll close my letter honestly, in a way that most likely reflects the reality that actually informs both our lives: See you next semester.

Sincerely,

Your professor

Re(learning) as a way of connecting with forgotten selves

My connection to my former selves is sometimes so tenuous that I feel compelled to reach across the years. I inspect old photos and journals, and even conduct tests, eager to discover if the me that I seem to be now can still do what previous versions of me learned to do. As a youngster, I played sports, and the trumpet. I wrote short stories, explored old libraries, and shot black and white film. Where did that person go? 

My first bout with this cheap, new-used trumpet, just a few months ago, was a little rough. I sputtered and panted, and my tone was so poor I wondered if the instrument was stuffed with spiders’ eggs. Even so, I was surprised to find that my lips and fingers slipped automatically into the chromatic scale. I moved up and down the rickety steps with difficulty, as if I’d just had a knee replacement, but I moved. And my improvement has been rapid. In fact, I think I’m already better than I was as a diffident junior high school band kid. 

On the one hand, there is nothing interesting about this. It’s just muscle memory and motivation, a simple case of never-forgetting-how-to-ride-a-bike. But my deeper question is still tangled up in there. How can it possibly be that this fifty-something version of me is still the same person that I used to call me? Back then I was, or so I now recall, intense, cynical, and more than a little nihilistic. I was also angry, arrogant, and injured. Today I am hopeful, energized, and as imbued with meaning as a poem spilling from the page. I simply do not feel like the young me who pushed through the world like a dull razor, constantly sorting, assessing, and finding lack.

So, yes, it is shocking to find out what these hands, wrapped around this cold brass instrument, can do. I study them with interest: an arthritic finger that I broke playing basketball, a barely concealed map of veins, and incipient age spots that I should probably just start calling “age spots.” Rarely out of my view, these hands are evidence of continuity between me and that young person from long ago, the one who peers at me from photographs. She who is innocent of all she will face and inflict in the decades to come, ignorant of the fact that one day she will turn out to be me.

My fingers, lungs, and lips are here to tell me what my eyes and intellect cannot always fully accept: “You are still her.” And in the wake of this announcement, the bleat of my humble trumpet seems suddenly appropriate. Because though I can sometimes accept that I am her, I refuse to fully do so, and the result feels delightfully queer. I can acknowledge that, in one sense, I am the baby in those pictures, but I was not born as the person who writes these words. She who sits here now is a practiced achievement and an accident, not fully comprehensible by the “nature/nurture” binary or by the stories I, and others, tell about who I am and have been. 

If I were more like my students and young friends, then, and more inclined to resist “labels” or claim “fluidity,” it would be because of the delightfully weird distance and proximity of who I am to who I’ve been, and the wide open window of who I might still practice becoming in middle age, in old age, and beyond. There is a thread connecting me back to who I was then, but it is like a line of musical notes on a page, merely the result of some dead composer’s whims, subject to revision and improvisation. 

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.