What We Don’t Know About Our Students’ Lives

I was reading the latest issue of The Sun this Thanksgiving week (a magazine you should check out, should you have the time), and I came across part of an essay that relates to teaching in a way that interests me a good deal.  In Rose Whitmore’s “Swarm,” she talks about her father’s death and bees, which he raised.  About halfway through, she writes,

“I went to college.  I wondered at the people around me, their constant striving.  I tried, but grief lived within me, speaking to me through my days, muting the din of college.  I became aware of the lengths to which we go to stay sane, comfortable, safe; how we gloss over pain for the same reason we pave roads: to smooth our way.  The men and women who lived with me in my co-ed dorm had never met my father.  They’d never seen the sun wrap itself along the horizon of our ranch or collected the honey from a hive of bees.  But still they advised me on how to handle the memories in my bones.  A friend kindly told me to ‘let the dead bury the dead.’  One day I walked into the common room of my dorm and saw everyone’s name on the dry-erase board.  As a pseudo-intellectual joke, someone had invited others to write each resident’s Freudian ‘issue’ beside his or her name.  Next to mine an anonymous hand had written, ‘Daddy.'”

Whitmore goes on to talk about abdominal pain she developed when she was there, which was never clearly diagnosed, but which she sees as a physical manfiestation of her grief.  The pain increased whenever stressful times of the semester came around.

I’ve been talking to a number of alumni over the past month or so, and I’ve found out more about them than I ever knew when they were students.  They were going through a wide variety of personal issues that I never knew about.  At least in my classes, these concerns never caused their grades to suffer.  They might have kept them from doing better work than they did, but none of us will ever know that.

I’m not trying to argue here that we need to know everything that goes on in our students’ lives.  That’s simply not possible, nor is it advisable.  What I will say, though, is that we should always remember that we have no idea what students are suffering with and through.  We shouldn’t take it personally or take it out on them when they miss a week of our class with no explanations.  If they turn in a paper a week late, we shouldn’t do anything other than treat it as a paper turned in a week late.  If we’re honest, we often want to “teach them a lesson” by grading it more harshly, as if they have turned it in late simply to spite us.

What I’m arguing for is humility and empathy.  We must remember that we don’t know what students’ lives are really like and that they are quite often nothing like our lives when we were students.  Also, unless we’re given reason to distrust them, we should give them the benefit of the doubt.  Until we know they are simply not doing the work because they are lazy or making poor choices or whatever other reasons we use for why they don’t prioritize our classes, we should assume they have a good reason for not doing the work we’ve assigned.  Whenever students try to bring me doctor’s notes, I explain to them that they’re adults, and I assume they have a good reason for missing my class, and I let them keep the doctor’s notes.

I know students try to mislead us, but I also know that students suffer in ways we don’t see.  I’d rather spend my career being duped by a few students than bring more suffering on those who are already enduring more than I can imagine trying to deal with at twenty years old.  I’ll continue to have late policies and give students zeroes for not turning work in, certainly, but I won’t take their absences personally, and I’ll try to convey that they should come and talk to me if they have something serious they’re dealing with.  That’s a fair trade for me.

Dead Poets Society

I was reading something online this past week, and I saw a reference to Dead Poets Society, which led me to watch the trailer.  I was a year away from becoming an English major when that movie came out, and it had a rather large impact on me, as I’m sure it did for most people remotely interested in teaching or English.  It still does, given the way my students talk about the movie, even though it’s 26 years old now.

Now that I’m around the middle of my career and the middle of life, I view the movie differently.  I still enjoy it as a movie, certainly, but, as a teacher and as a teacher of teachers, it bothers me greatly.  Spoiler alert: I’m going to give away very important plot points, so don’t read this if you haven’t seen the movie.  And, if you haven’t seen the movie, why not?  Go do so now. Continue reading

Habit of Mind

From time to time, I get concerned about teaching students to write about literature, especially in core classes.  Writing about short stories or novels or poems is not a skill they’re going to need to get a job at some point, and they will never do it again in their lives (as they complain about math classes).  I’m teaching students who will become nurses and ministers and business owners, as well as psychiatrists and speech pathologists and botanists, and they will never have the need to write an analytical paper about a work of literature.

Of course, one could make the same argument about reading literature, which helps explain K-12 schools’ push toward reading nonfiction.  However, most people can easily see a transfer that occurs in skills from reading literature to reading anything.  Reading literature makes people improve at reading, in general, as it slows them down and makes them look past a surface level of reading.  Writing about literature doesn’t have that obvious transfer, so I become a bit bothered when I feel I’m not helping students learn skills that will help them in college and in life. Continue reading

Homecoming, Again

I wrote about our department Homecoming breakfast last year, but I like the event so much I wanted to talk about it again.  I’m not sure who on the campus came up with the idea, but it’s a great one.  Too often, Homecoming is this large event with alumni all over the place, and it’s difficult to get to see who one wants to see.  By gathering all of the alumni associated with a department in one place, we get to see who we want to see (and they get to see some of who they want to see, I assume).

As with last year, there wasn’t enough time to talk to everyone, as there simply never is.  Now that I’m in my fourteenth year, I’ve taught enough people that it’s difficult to keep up with everyone, especially now that I’m much less active on social media than I was a year or two ago.  Given that most people think everyone is keeping up with them on said social media, they are less likely to keep in touch and let us know what they’re up to.

Actually, that gets to one of my main points, and this is directed to alumni more than professors.  We really do want to know what our students are up to, both professionally and personally.  At a school like the one where we teach, we get to know our students fairly well.  They often know how to get to our houses without directions, and we have seen more of their lives than just what happens in the classroom.  We’ve been to their weddings, gone out to dinner with them, sometimes even taken trips with them. Continue reading

Celebrating Successes

Whenever professors get together, whether that’s informally in the copier room or in a more organized fashion, such as lunch, we tend to complain.  Sometimes, those complaints are aimed at the administration, but, more often, they’re related to students.  We complain about the students who didn’t turn in an assignment or those who did, but didn’t do it well (or right).  We then complain about the amount of grading we have to do, as we’re not every satisfied, of course.  If fewer students turned the assignment in, we’d have less grading.  We want students to do well, so we want them to turn the assignment in, but then we have more grading.  We’ll complain either way.  Perhaps what we want is for all the students to turn in flawless assignments, as we once did, I’m sure.

If we’re not complaining about that aspect of students, we’re griping about how they’re not as smart as they once were or as motivated.  We compare them to students from the past (or ourselves), and they almost always end up on the poor end of that comparison.  We talk about all they don’t know or aren’t doing (usually the reading, at least in Humanities courses).  I could go on and on here, but you get the point.  You have these conversations.

Granted, we all need to decompress and vent, from time to time.  While our job is great in so many ways, during the hectic times of the semester, it can be overwhelming.  Also, it’s often a lonely job, as we go into our classrooms or offices, and we don’t see other professors as much as we would like.  We need to know we’re not alone in the struggles we have in this job.

However, Continue reading