I Get By With a Little Help

Around this time of year, I hear a number of professors begin complaining about their students and their excuses as major projects coming due.  I have to admit that I sometimes share in these complaints, as it seems as if students have not planned well and have procrastinated, which leads to their not having assignments finished on time.  Some professors pride themselves on being “tough,” but what they mean by that is inflexible.  They stick to their rules, no matter if the rules make sense in a situation or not.  They also refer to themselves as “fair,” as they argue that they apply the rules equally.  My least favorite is when they talk about “teaching the students a lesson” (it seems that phrase is an obsession of mine, as I’ve written about it here and here already).

I used to talk about how hard I worked to get where I am today, and, more importantly, about how I never asked a professor for a deadline extension, turned in an assignment late, nor pulled an all-nighter, all of which is true.  As is rather obvious, my comments were intended to convey to students that I, who worked 35-45 hours a week, managed my workload perfectly well, so they should be able to do the same (by the way, we don’t really know what’s going on in our students’ lives, as I wrote about last year).

However, when I think about my college career, I can point to three rather important events where faculty or staff helped me in a significant way, one of which probably made a difference in the course of my life.  Without these two people, my path would certainly have been more difficult.

The first two happened in or around the same semester: the fall of my sophomore year.  I’ve long since decided that the second or third semester of students’ careers are the most challenging, not because of the workload, necessarily, but because of an adjustment in attitude.  Most students come to college with some sort of healthy fear that it will be more challenging than what they experienced in high school.  Thus, they are much more dedicated to their classes in their first semester or year.  Once they get to the second semester or year, though, they believe they’ve got college figured out, and they often stumble.  I’ve seen it happen to many students, and it certainly happened to me.

I had an easy second semester, even landing on the Dean’s list for the only time in my college career.  My first semester of my sophomore year, though, ended with my having earned a 2.5, bringing my total GPA down to a 2.975.  One of the problems was a Humanities class I had that semester.  The professor was challenging, but, more importantly, the writing part of that class (which was separate, but connected–too long of an explanation to go into here, so just roll with it) hammered me.

I turned in a research paper on W.E.B. DuBois only to get a note telling me to come to the writing professor’s office.  At that time, the MLA was moving from the old footnote style to the in-text citation we still use.  Our professors were kind enough to allow us to use either system.  I chose the footnotes, not because I knew it better, but because I thought it would make my paper appear longer (this should tell you that the paper wasn’t going well).  When I went to her office, she handed me the paper and asked, “Kevin, what is this?”  I responded, as many students before and after me have, “I don’t know.”  She let me revise the paper, and I did, bringing my grade up to a D.

Also at the end of that semester, my car insurance was up for renewal, and I needed the Good Student Discount to make it much cheaper.  The problem was that I needed a 3.0 in order to receive that discount.  I went to see the Registrar, and I explained my situation, even pointing out that my overall GPA was 2.975.  She pointed out in return that that wasn’t a 3.0, and, more importantly, they went by the most recent semester.  And then she signed the form, saying simply, “I’m sure you’ll pull it back up next semester” (for the record, I still didn’t hit a 3.0 the next semester, but I did get a 2.95, so I was at least on the way back up).

The most important moment comes from a scholarship that enabled me to attend college at all.  I don’t know who made this decision, so I really have no idea who to thank, but this decision is the one that might have changed my life.  I took the ACT three times and the SAT once in order to get this scholarship.  I was one point away (on the ACT) from moving from a 10% off tuition scholarship to one that would give me 25% off.  I finally got there, and I’m not sure I would have been able to even attend if I wouldn’t have gotten it.  I was required to carry a 2.9 every semester, and I clearly had just missed that.  I wasn’t the most attentive student, if that’s not obvious yet, so I didn’t think about the effects of losing that scholarship.  I do know that I received a letter notifying me that I had not kept that GPA, but that the college would give me one semester to pull it back up.

I obviously did, and I was able to finish the rest of my time there with every semester my junior and senior years hitting above the 3.0 mark (even coming .01 away from the Dean’s list in the spring of my junior year).  More importantly, I encountered the professor who changed my major and my life the second semester of my sophomore year.  Without that scholarship, I would have had to switch schools, and I never would have taken his class.  I don’t know what would have happened, of course, but I do know what did happen, and I’m grateful someone somewhere gave me grace.

Last, along the same lines, I received a scholarship at the end of my sophomore year for Bible majors.  It was $1000, and I received the news while sitting in what we called honors chapel.  Over the summer, though, I changed my major from Bible to English (after that class that spring semester).  I hadn’t even thought about what that would do to the scholarship.  When I came back to campus that fall, the professor in charge of scholarships (also the writing professor, I should note) told me that I had lost the $1000 scholarship because of my change of major, but she found an $800 scholarship for general majors.  She didn’t have to do that for me, but she did.

That scholarship wouldn’t have changed my life, certainly, but it saved my parents $1600, and they certainly could use that money.  It was people like her making decisions like this one that helped me through college.  I chose to attend a private college instead of the state university that would have been free (or almost free), and that decision changed who I am in so many ways.  I couldn’t have done so without the help I received along the way.

It’s a hard decision we professors have to make when students come to us (or even when they don’t) as to whether to give some sort of grace or not.  There have been times I haven’t done so for a wide variety of reasons.  I hope, though, that when I make those decisions, I can at least honestly admit where I came from and who helped me along the way.

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Late Bloomers

We had what we call our Majors Fair this past week where every department on campus has a booth (of sorts), and students come around to learn about the various majors.  Out intro. to college class requires their students to come and talk to at least two different areas, just to find out what there is, as far as majors and minors go, on campus.

While I was there, I had a conversation with two of my colleagues about students in our first-year writing class.  One of them had a student who had already declared an English major come up and talk to us, which is what provoked the conversation.  I pointed out that, oddly enough, English majors in my first-year writing classes are usually not the strongest students, a trend that has puzzled me for years.  My other colleague responded that many students are simply late bloomers, that we need to give them time to develop.

She’s right, and her comment reminded me of my own path, as no one would have expected me to end up where I am today.  I came to college after not having worked very hard in high school, and my first two years in college illustrated that lack of preparation and work ethic.  I was a mediocre student, at best, in my freshman classes, often not completing the assigned reading, though I always went to class and turned in assignments, which is the only way I was able to keep my scholarship (also, my second semester was loaded with the easiest teachers, completely by chance, so I actually made the Dean’s list without much effort).

Sophomore year, though, is where everything fell apart.  Oddly enough, the year began with our matriculation service for first-year students.  That service was where the incoming students signed their name in the official roll (for lack of a better term) and became members in our community.  The faculty wore their regalia, and we all took the service rather seriously.  I was sitting next to my roommate, one of the strongest students in our class, as the faculty members walked in.  When he saw them in their regalia, he commented, “I’m going to wear those one day.”  I might have agreed; I’m not really sure.  Regardless, I didn’t have plans nearly as clear as his.

Our Sophomore humanities core was, as one of my professors put it, “designed to weed people out,” and it came quite close to doing so with me.  When we had to turn in our major paper, I was called into a meeting with the writing professor who asked me (honestly), “What is this?”  She let me revise the paper, and I did, moving my grade all the way up to a D.  That fall semester should have caused me to lose my scholarship (which would have led to my having to leave the school and go elsewhere), but the college gave me a semester to pull my grades back up, which I did.

In fact, it was only in that spring semester that I began making any real progress as far as my education was concerned.  That summer, I switched my major to English, and I began enjoying learning and participating in the discipline.  I still struggled due to my lack of any real preparation in English, often earning Bs and Cs on papers, only hitting As (or A-minuses, which I was pleased enough with) in one or two classes.  There were only a couple of moments in my senior year where I actually felt like I was really an English major.

I don’t know what my professors thought when I asked them for letters of recommendation for graduate school, especially given that I was so clueless about the process that I applied to Duke and Emory, with the University of Tennessee as my backup school (needless to say, I didn’t get in any of them).  I assume they thought that the system would work itself out, that I wouldn’t get in to the programs and I would figure out something else to do with my life.  Maybe, though, they saw me as a late bloomer; maybe they believed that I was hitting my stride and that graduate school would be just the right place for me.

If they did believe that, they would have been right.  I ended up in just the right graduate school for me, and I thrived over the next couple of years.  Of course, I also ended up in a doctoral program where I didn’t, but I managed through it, despite never really learning how to write an academic paper on that level.  I wouldn’t learn that until I was actually teaching at the college level.  I truly was a late bloomer.

I have to remind myself of my story on a regular basis, especially when I see students in my first-year writing classes or even in a sophomore-level survey I teach.  I have no idea who will end up going to graduate school or becoming doctors or lawyers or engineers or screenwriters or whatever else they want to do.  I might not believe they have what it takes to get to that level, whether in ability or in work ethic.  I should remember that my roommate (who wanted to wear the regalia) never graduated college and I ended up teaching it, something no one would have predicted, certainly not either one of us.  We never know how our students are going to turn out, so perhaps we should treat them all as if they could achieve whatever dreams they have, pushing them to get there, supporting them along the way.

Survey Results

Faculty Focus (the blog run by The Teaching Professor) does an annual survey of faculty asking what our biggest day-to-day challenges are.  I was rather surprised to see the results, as I would have guessed that grading would have topped the list or that more institutional concerns would have dominated (you can see that institutional budget cuts did make the top three).  Instead, some version of student preparation made up three of the top four responses.

The first challenge was students who come to class unprepared.  This response surprised me the most, mainly because, by this point in my career, it seldom happens.  Not that it doesn’t happen in every course in almost every class meeting, but there are few unprepared students in each individual course.  I’ve built in enough ways for that not to happen that they can’t do very well in my courses if they come unprepared.

For example, in my first-year writing class, they have to do a short quiz at the beginning of class (some professors do an online quiz, which saves class time).  It’s not a challenging quiz for students who have read, and I assign readings, which are largely impossible to find online.  I also have them answer one or two questions I’ll use to guide class discussion, taking them up as soon as they walk in the door.  Both of those count for quiz/daily work grades, so missing both of them regularly will start to have a serious impact on their grade, even if they’re doing fairly well on the essays they’re writing.

I do something similar in my sophomore-level survey, though I’ve given the students more flexibility there, but also demand more thought from them.  Rather than a basic, factual quiz that I once gave, I now ask them only one question, asking them to apply an idea from the reading to something outside of the reading.  Thus, even if they’ve tried to read an online survey of the assigned reading, they tend to struggle with the quiz (one example had them look at Magritte’s Treachery of Images and read a couple of brief paragraphs about it before class; the quiz asked them to talk about how that painting compared to Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author).

I also do online posts in upper-division classes, where students have to respond to a prompt or critical article a few hours before that day’s class meeting.  These not only encourage students to do the reading ahead of time, they give me a quick snapshot of what students already understand and what they’re struggling with.  I then use them to guide discussion in class, which gives me a way to call on students without cold calling on them.

Now, I know that, in a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to think about this issue, as students would be so motivated to learn, they would read or view or write whatever we suggested to them (note that student motivation hits number four).  I could defend students a bit here by talking about how busy they are (sometimes because we ask them to do so much for their letters of recommendation or sometimes because they work a lot or have families or something along those lines) or remind professors that just because they were that type of student (though, honestly, most of us weren’t; we just like to think we were), but I’m not going to take the time to do so.  We live in a world where many students don’t have intrinsic motivation for whatever reason, so we have to find ways to give them extrinsic motivation with the hope that the intrinsic ultimately comes.

I’m generally frustrated by professors’ refusal to see the reality of the world we live in (the academic world here).  If students aren’t doing the reading or the homework, then devise a grading system that makes them do the work or do quite poorly in class.  It has always seemed that simple to me.  I know there are professors who claim that doing so will lead to poor evaluations, but the research shows that students want to be challenged, they just want those challenges to be fair and for there to be support when they struggle.

This frustration goes beyond the individual assignments, though.  I hear professors complain that students don’t take this class or that class that they believe is vital for a student’s education.  Those professors should work to adjust the curriculum to require that class, then.  They complain that students haven’t read a particular book, but then they don’t assign that book.

Essentially, we have a good deal of control over what students do or don’t do.  In the end, we can’t make them do anything, but we can make their choices have consequences in a variety of ways.  If we’re going to say we want something to happen, then we have to make it happen.  We don’t live in an ideal world, but we can make this one better.

Students as Commodities

We received a number of pieces of good news at a meeting this past week, one of which was about enrollment for the fall.  At a time when schools like ours (very tuition-driven) are struggling to recruit students, our numbers continue to increase at a small, sustainable level.  The downside of that increase is that the numbers of faculty members haven’t kept up, so some of our classes can get rather large.

We’ve made jokes about this issue over the past few weeks, talking about job security and how the lack of classroom spaces large enough to hold those classes is a good problem to have.  Beyond the pedagogical challenges we would normally think of, there’s another, greater problem that comes from the high numbers of students, especially as many of them are first-year students.

Let me tell a story from around a decade ago.  I was teaching a literature survey class that many students take during their sophomore year.  At the time, it was focused exclusively on non-majors, though we now require our English majors to take it, as well.  Earlier in the semester, I was joking with the students about what goes through my mind when students come to drop my class.  They’re often trying to be nice when they do so, and they start explaining why they need to drop the class, insisting that the problem is neither me nor the class.

I told them that I usually cut students off, as I there’s no need for them to apologize to me, in any way.  I said (and say) that I know students have lives we know nothing about and that I’m sure they have a very good reason for dropping it.  I never encourage them to stay in a course, as they have to live with the workload, if they do.  I then said, off-handedly, explaining my thought process:  “It’s one less paper for me to grade.”

Within the next week or so, a student from that class came by to see me, and she needed to drop the class.  As I was signing the paper and handing it back to her, I was saying what I normally say about how I understand they have life issues I don’t know about.  She just chuckled and said, “Yeah, it’s one less paper for you to grade, right?”  My guess is that she meant this comment as a joke, as she didn’t sound like she was attacking me, but she still clearly was showing me how that comment sounded.

When we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we often think of students in this way.  Though we hate for students not to turn in assignments, we often feel relieved when our two composition classes totaling 55 students only has 45 students who turned in their essays for us to grade.  We know 10 of those students will fail the class (or a few will turn them in late), and we might even feel guilty about our relief, but we still feel it.

At our church, we’ve been reading a book by Walter Brueggemann called Sabbath as Resistance: Saying NO to the CULTURE OF NOW.  One of the ideas he raises is that our society, with its focus on productivity, has the tendency to turn people into commodities.  Our teaching and grading loads (at least at colleges and universities like mine) often lead us to do the same to students; professors at research universities can do the same, allowing their research to drive their thought process.  We can stop seeing students as individuals and only see them as papers or exams to grade or even interruptions to whatever it is we’re working on in our office.

What’s ironic about this approach is that we professors are often the most vocal critics of administrators who make the university more corporate.  They talk about market share and overheard and retention as if they were the CEO of a company, not the leaders of an institution of higher education.  We professors, though, unthinking commodify students, turning them into a product we put out instead of seeing them as real people with honest struggles and successes.  We view them as papers to grade.

It’s difficult to see past that workload, especially in November and April.  In order to fully teach them, though, we need to see our students as more than exams and papers.  We need to try to remember what it was like when we were eighteen and nineteen years old, away from home for the first time, in wonder and awe at this thing called college, but as scared of our success as of our failures.  I’ve never made that comment again, and I hope I never get to the point where I do so again.

I’m Batman

I was listening to Fresh Air this past week, and Terry Gross was interviewing Julie Klausner, a comedian who writes and directs that show Difficult People.  I’ve never heard of the show or Klausner, but it was an interesting interview.  One question Gross asked was about when Klausner thinks it’s okay to make a joke, about how Klausner makes that decision.  Here’s Klausner’s response:

It’s tough, because I want to be a good guy. … I want to be loved by absolutely everyone, even though it’s shocking to me that I’m loved by anyone — that’s something I discuss at length with my therapist. But the truth of it is that I want to be the person that knows when it’s OK to make fun of someone because they’re more powerful than you, and that’s where I thought I was coming from, and I learned that that is not necessarily how people see it. I have no problem with the insult or the attack. I don’t want to be a bully. I want to be a vigilante, I guess.

I like that ending about being a vigilante, not a bully.  I was thinking about that with teaching as I’ve been in opening meetings as we start a new school year.  It’s especially on my mind as we talk about how we treat LGBTQ students and create safe spaces for a variety of students who don’t fit the norm where I teach.  I heard people are caring and compassionate and want to give everyone the room to find out who they are.  I also heard people who want to use what they see to be the truth to beat other people down, to be bullies, essentially.

I’ve argued rather consistently that the point of literature and teaching literature is subversion.  Literature calls into questions the dominant narratives of its time and our time, and I not only don’t resist those questions, I seek them out and encourage students to do the same.  Essentially, as a teacher, I want to be a vigilante.  I want to speak for those characters and authors and students who aren’t able, for a wide variety of reasons, to speak up for themselves.  I want to speak against the bullies.

One of my colleagues was talking about a professor he had (I think; it might have been a co-worker or a department chair, but I think it was a professor) who said, “You’re not doing your job is twenty percent of your class doesn’t think you’re a son of a bitch.”  I understand the sentiment, in that we should challenge our students, but I don’t agree with the idea that students should perceive me as a son of a bitch.  I can be challenging and supportive at the same, and I should be.  A son of a bitch makes me think of being a bully, someone who exercises his or her power simply because he or she can.

Professors should want their students to succeed, should be on their side, helping them to improve.  We should be vigilantes, going after the power and privilege that keeps students from succeeding.  When students don’t do the work or don’t have the ability to perform at the level we should expect and demand, they should not pass our classes.  That’s justice, though, as it’s simply our allowing students to receive the consequences of their actions or the realities of the world.

Bullies don’t seek justice; they seek to abuse those beneath them, to make them suffer for no good reason, not for a just reason.  They attack the powerless, not those who can defend themselves.  Every year, I take students to the Sigma Tau Delta (English honor society) convention, where students present their critical and creative works.  One year, a student had written a paper on Don DeLillo’s White Noise, using Jacques Derrida’s theories about language.  The professor moderating the session started grilling the student on his understanding of Derrida.  After a few minutes, he must have realized what he was doing and said, “I wrote on my dissertation on Derrida.  I shouldn’t expect you to have that same level of understanding.”  He was on the verge of being a bully before he realized what he was doing.  He didn’t expect the student to rise to the level of an excellent student, at first; he expected the student to be on his level, a level the student had no chance of reading at that point in his academic career.  Thankfully, he caught himself and resolved the situation in a respectful manner.

Those of us who are professors are in positions of power; we have to admit that.  The question, then, becomes whether or not we’ll use that power for good or ill.  We can be bullies and cause our students to fear us and everything we hold dear, or we can be vigilantes, fighting for our students and their learning, teaching them to push back against the power and privilege that pushes them down.  I know which one I’m choosing.

Tackling Tough Topics

The director of our Center for Teaching Excellence recently wrote a blog post about creating safe spaces.  While she definitely didn’t raise such a concern, it’s easy for me to see how someone could take her post and then decide it’s simply easier to shy away from subjects that could lead to conflict.  There’s also the ever-popular complaint that we shouldn’t have to be “politically correct” (which, for the record, has to be one of the dumbest phrases, linguistically-speaking, ever created).

Thus, the trick is how to talk about challenging issues honestly while creating safe spaces.  Here are a few ideas/approaches that work well for me (there’s also an essay on embracing tension in the August/September issue of The Teaching Professor that’s worth reading).

First, just talking about such issues helps tremendously.  When I talk to students who fall into at least one minority category, their main complaint is that they feel invisible, that no one is talking about issues that matter to them.  Whenever controversial subjects have come up in my classes or on our campus, most students respond simply by saying “I’m just glad we’re talking about this.”  As long as we avoid the issues or avoid talking about them in the complexity we deserve, we continue to propagate this invisibility our students feel. Continue reading

Knowing Who You Are

As we’re coming to the end of the semester and year (we had graduation Saturday, for example), I’ve been reflecting on what makes an average professor good or a good professor great.  At our university, we give out a few faculty awards around this time, which always leads me to think about how and why some people not only succeed, but thrive, and why others merely exist and sometimes seem to prevent learning from taking place.

One characteristic we don’t talk much about is self-knowledge or simply knowing one’s self (to go back to the ancient Greeks).  It’s one of those things that we can’t measure, so it doesn’t get any real focus in our time of assessment worship.  However, it’s at least one marker of a difference between those who succeed and those who don’t.

Let me quickly say, though, that self-knowledge doesn’t prevent professors from taking feedback or continuing to grow or learn as a teacher.  In fact, the opposite is true.  If professors know who they are, they are more comfortable accepting constructive feedback (whether from peers or students) because they can see where those suggestions do or don’t fit with who they are.

For example, my classes are centered around discussion; one of my main strengths in the classroom is in creating an environment where people feel comfortable teaching.  When I lead a semester study abroad program for the university a few years ago, I wasn’t able to really build those relationships, a fact several students commented on.  On the one hand, some of those students had an idea of what our relationship would be that isn’t me; they wanted me to be their friend, not their professor.  Because I’m comfortable in my role, I knew that approach wouldn’t work for me.  However, what I did learn is that I do much better building relationships with students in class first, then moving to know them better outside of the classroom.  Their criticisms were partly valid, but I had to know who I am in order to hear what I could improve upon.

Professors who don’t really know who they are, though, suffer from two problems, sometimes simultaneously.  First, they take ideas from a wide variety of people and places, even though those ideas will clearly not work for who they are.  Because they see those people as successful, they will then try to force them into their classes (or even onto their personalities).  I remember an episode of Welcome Back, Kotter (yes, I know how old that reference is, but it stuck with me, so perhaps there’s some truth in it) where Mr. Kotter has a student teacher, and she is not doing well.  She comes in one day and tries to be just like Mr. Kotter, complete with his type of humor.  Needless to say, it doesn’t go well.  It’s only when she starts developing her own approach to teaching that she becomes successful.

Quick side note: when we start out teaching, almost all of us are little more than an amalgamation of our favorite teachers and professors.  We steal from any and all of them to try to put together our first few classes because we don’t know who we are yet as teachers.  The good/great professors work through those various masks (essentially) to ultimately find who they are (think Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence here).  There’s nothing wrong with imitation in the early days; staying there is the problem.

The second problem for professors who don’t know who they are is a refusal to take feedback or ideas from anyone or anywhere.  These professors say there is nothing they can learn from student course evaluations, yet they also don’t seem to welcome peer or administrative observations.  They stick to their teaching approach without deviation for years and years, often not only not changing their pedagogy, but not changing their classes in any way.

What’s really odd is when one sees a professor veer between these two extremes, sometime in the same week.  They complain about how their classes are going, so they run from one person to another asking for ideas on how to improve their pedagogy and classes.  Then, they end up not making any of those changes and continue to teach as they always have.

Professors often tell their students that the point of education is not career preparation; rather, it is the search for self-knowledge.  That’s definitely true for students, but it’s also true for professors.  We need to spend time exploring who we want to be in the classroom and work toward becoming those people, in the same way we want our students to do so.  If we know who we are, we can better help students find out who they want to become, as well.