Blaming the Students (or Reputation, part 2)

I wrote about professors’ reputations last week and what we can do about those reputations.  I’ve kept thinking about that idea over the past week, but in a different way.  We have reputations with students, true, but we also have reputations among ourselves, and those are a bit different, though they’re definitely related.  We can control these reputations, as well.

First, let me acknowledge that we all have classes that don’t work, not from anything we do or don’t do, but, sometimes, classes just don’t work.  Sometimes, we have classes that won’t talk, despite our trying every technique we know, and, sometimes, we have classes that talk way too much and are unable or unwilling to focus on the material.  Of course, we also have classes that just won’t do the work, no matter how their grades suffer accordingly, no matter how many carrots we can find to use.

However, some professors have classes like this on a regular basis.  Every semester, their classes seem to be bad, and, often, getting worse than when they were a younger professor or when they were students (we don’t have to be very old to believe in a golden age; it’s just closer for some of us).

Good professors work to try to change those situations rather than sitting around complaining about it.  They read books on teaching, talk to successful colleagues, keep trying different techniques, do whatever they need to do to improve.  They still have some classes that don’t work, but those become the exception, not the norm, and their reputations change, not surprisingly.

What I have noticed that other professors (the ones with the bad reputation among their peers) do, though, is blame the students.  They do the typical “Students today just don’t…” or “Students today aren’t like they were when I was a student.”  They spend all of their time and energy talking about all the things that are wrong with students, none of which are things they, the professor, can really change, rather than focusing on the parts of the class they can change.

We all know students have changed since we were students, and they’re going to continue to change.  That’s how life works.  That means that we have to find a way to teach those different students, as that’s our job.  If students don’t know how to behave in class, then we have to teach them.  If students don’t know how to study, then we have to teach them.  If they don’t know how to have a fifty-minute discussion, then we have to teach them.

Students have to do their part, certainly, but blaming their ignorance does no one any good.  Our job is to help them see what they don’t know and motivate (or force) them to fill in those gaps.  We can only do so, though, if we are willing to change what we can about our teaching to meet the goals of the class.

When I think about professors I’ve worked with who have bad reputations among the faculty, the ones we try to help students avoid when we are advising, I think about professors who blame their students instead of doing the work they need to improve.  We never like it when students blame us for their poor performance; I’m not sure why we don’t see when we do the same to them.

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Questions I’m Asked I Don’t Know Answers To

Now that I’ve been teaching for more than a decade, I get asked questions about pedagogy or the profession on a fairly regular basis.  For most of these questions, I’ve either developed an answer over the years or I can at least talk reasonably intelligently about them (I think).  However, there are a few that I get asked on a regular basis, by either professors or students, that I just can’t answer.  I thought I’d throw a few of those out this week, along with my thoughts on them.  If you have some good answers, let me know.

How do you generate/create class discussion?

I get asked about this by both professors and students who are planning to become teachers.  My classes center around discussion, and it often goes well.  Of course, being who I am, I’m never (well, maybe seldom) satisfied with the amount of discussion in my classes.  I always want more.  Whenever it does goes really well, though (and that’s happened more often in the past couple of semesters), I’m as surprised as anyone.  I honestly cannot think of anything I have done differently on those days.

My honest answer when people ask me this question is, “I don’t know.  I just ask questions, and they seem to talk.”

I can say that one thing that should exist for good class discussion is a trust between students and the professor (trust between the students also helps considerably, but I’m not sure professors have much control over that).  If students think I’m asking them questions to try to trick them or I’m just waiting to show them as stupid or I already know exactly what they should say, they are much less likely to talk.  If, however, I ask questions that will help promote/provoke discussion (even if I know where I’d like us to go), and they believe I honestly want to hear what they have to say, then they’re more likely to talk.

How do we get students to make better claims/arguments in their papers?

Perhaps I asked myself this question over the past couple of weeks, as I was meeting with students about their papers, then grading those papers.  It’s clear, then, that I don’t have any answer to this question.

The only thing I can say is that we need to have students work on their writing at every level in the major.  Too often, we assume that English majors just learn to write by taking English classes, even if we’re not intentionally teaching them how to write better.  Then, when students can’t write as well as we would like when they graduate, we blame the students (the same is true for all majors where there are skills that need to progress, of course).

Instead, we should give students repeated chances to write as they move up in their career in the major.  We should give them model papers and talk about what makes that paper so good (or papers that aren’t strong and talk about why).  Essentially, we should talk about writing with them, so they have chances to improve.  The papers I graded did end up better than when I first saw them, and I’ll see many of those students again before they graduate, so I’ll see if they learned anything along the way.

Why do professors who clearly don’t like students become professors/remain in the profession?

I get some variation of this almost every semester from students who encounter professors who clearly don’t want to deal with them (there’s another version of this question below).  I can’t imagine why someone would want to be a professor if he or she didn’t like students.  It’s probably not for the money, as most people could make more in the private sector.  It’s probably not for any kind of fame or glory, though it is easier to become known in a small corner of the academic world than in the private sector.

I only have two thoughts as to why/how this happens.  First, at some point, that person did like students, but something has happened over the years to change that.  Perhaps he has become burned out, as teaching is definitely a stressful job.  Perhaps she has had a number of negative experiences with students and wants to simply avoid caring about them now.  We don’t know people’s histories and the effects they can have.  Often, people can’t think of anything else they could do, given their skill set, so they remain in the profession, hoping for an early retirement.

The other reason is more cynical, but I’ve heard it too many times not to believe it of some people.  I have heard a number of professors say that they went into the field or stay in it because of the schedule.  When I was in graduate school, a friend of mine (who never finished, by the way) said that he wanted to be a professor, so he could skip out early or go in late whenever he wanted.  When I was first hired as a high school teacher, a colleague (who was quite a good teacher, by the way), asked, “What are the three best things about being a high school teacher?  June, July, and August.”

I enjoy my summers as much as anyone, but that’s not anywhere near the top of my list on why I became a professor.  I give up enough nights and weekends with grading and preparation (not to mention the events that take place on campus during that time) to trade out for my summers.  In fact, I worked as a high school librarian for a couple of years, and I had much more time then, even though I had a month less time off in the summer.

Why don’t professors want to help students?

I hear this question from students (and some professors) on a regular basis.  In fact, I saw it just this past week on a forum on The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s website (look at the second question).  This one just puzzles me, though it’s related to the question above.

I’ll give my most generous thoughts first.  Some professors believe that students need to learn how to function on their own, so they don’t do things that they say as holding students’ hands.  They argue that students won’t get that kind of help in the real world, so they shouldn’t get it in college.  It’s tough love, I suppose.

Along those lines, some professors judge their success by how difficult their classes are, which often means how low their grades are.  I’ve been trying to think of an analogy for this approach, and I just can’t come up with one I really like, but I’ll try.  This approach sounds like a coach who defines success as a season where her team doesn’t win a single game.  It sounds like an executive whose company loses every contract it goes after.  These situations make no sense, so I don’t understand why a professor defines success as having a class where few students do excellent work (i.e. make As).

Granted, there will always be students who can’t perform at that level.  But my job is to try to help students get to that level.  My job is to encourage students to attain that level, to provide them the opportunities to improve to that level.  The ideal class would be one where every student does earn an A because he or she is doing excellent work.  I have had classes where a large portion of the class made an A.  Those were great classes.  All (or almost all) of the students were doing everything I asked of them–completing all (or almost all) of the reading, writing draft after draft of their papers, contributing to class discussion–and I could see real improvement over the course of the semester.

If students want to improve, and many of them do, I should be there to help them do so.  The forum question comes from a place I don’t understand, as I would look at any student’s paper before they turn it in if it would help him or her write a better paper in the long run.  Again, not doing so sounds like a coach who turns down a basketball player who wants to stay after practice to work on his shot.  We would think that coach should be fired.

Perhaps underlying all these questions is one my wife and I often talk about.  We hear teachers or professors talk about not doing something because it’s hard or doing something because it is easy.  Teaching is hard, when it’s done well.  Most professions are, actually.  I don’t know where it comes from, but we have this idea that work isn’t supposed to be difficult, even when we love it.  We all need to balance our lives and make sure we are not burning out, but we also need to step up and do the work required to be excellent professors.  If we want our students to be excellent, then we need to work towards that goal, as well.

Content Where One Is

I’m in my thirteenth year at my current institution, and I taught and worked as a librarian at private high schools for four years before that, so I’m nearing the mid-career mark.  When I was younger, I spent a lot of time thinking about taking on certain roles or even moving up the ranks.  It wasn’t that I was unhappy with the people who were already in those positions; I simply thought that I wanted to be there, as well.

For example, when I was a librarian at a private school in Washington state, I was at a conference where someone talked about accreditation.  I knew about that from my work in higher education, so I was intrigued at how it worked at a lower level.  When I learned about how it worked, I wanted to get involved, to be a part of those teams that did accreditation.  Note that I had three years of high school experience at that point.  I remember going to the headmaster of my school, who was quite encouraging, to talk about this opportunity.  I never pursued it, though, as I left the school to return to higher education.

Even when I came back to the university level, I kept thinking about moving up the ranks.  Thankfully, our department chair has been in her position for a long time, and she does a great job, so I never thought about serving in that role.  However, there were other opportunities.  Because our department is so large (relative to our school; we have about 20 faculty members, which I know is quite small for many colleges and universities), we have people who coordinate parts of it.

A few years after I came back, I worked with those coordinators on a project or two, and I began to think I was being groomed to take a role at that level.  That didn’t happen.  Then, a few years later, our department chair clearly included two more of us in that group, so I was sure I would be taking on more of a leadership role.  That didn’t happen, either.  Both times, not surprisingly, I was disappointed, as I wanted to be seen as a leader in the department and the university, at large.

Now, several years later, I’m glad that neither of those situations worked out.  In fact, I now have no desire at all to ever serve at that role, and I certainly don’t want to ever serve as an administrator (I know that could change in ten to twenty years, but I’ll deal with that change if it comes).  I was recently in a meeting about undergraduate research, which we’re trying to improve on campus.  The woman who put us together said that we need a chair and that that person will probably get a class release time, if not now, soon.  I thought about volunteering, but then I realized that I would be shifting my emphasis from the classroom, which I love, to meetings, which I hate.

Similarly, last year, a friend of mine who just moved to a new university told me that there was an opening for a Dean there.  I’ll admit that I took a couple of days and looked at the school and the job description.  I even did some research on the town to see if it’s a place I might want to live.  What I realized, though, was that I kept looking at the English curriculum, as if that’s where my focus would be.  As with the meeting early this year, it dawned on me that I would be spending much more of my time in meetings, not the classroom, which would be an awful trade for me.

For some reason, we seem to believe that we need to move up the ranks.  Some people have that gift (often not the people who pursue it, by the way), but some people are better suited to the classroom.  Allison Vaillancourt writes about this idea in a post for The Chronicle of Higher Education, which is what inspired my post.  Since she’s the type of person to want to take on higher positions, she has trouble understanding those who don’t.

What I’ve ultimately decided is that I love the classroom way too much to ever want to make a trade, even for one class, to take on more leadership.  I’ll serve where I’m needed, but I will not seek out such positions.  Instead, I’ll spend my energy and time trying to be the best teacher I can be.  That’s stood me in good stead so far, so I’ll stay right where I am for the time being and, possibly, for the rest of my career.

As with article (https://chroniclevitae.com/news/848-does-there-need-to-be-a-next), I’m now content to be where I am doing what I’m doing, and I’ll probably be so for the rest of my days