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.

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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.

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.

Who Are We Here For?

I was talking to a colleague the other day, and we were reflecting on how student-centered our campus is.  We often joke that students have more power than we do, a statement that might not be that much of a joke.  We were talking about a controversial subject, and she said, “I guess we’ll see how student-centered we really are.”

This conversation reminded me of when I worked at a Kroger grocery store in high school.  We had signs on the doors that separated our areas of the store (the loading dock, our break room, and the area where we processed incoming shipments) from the shelves where the customers were.  I saw those signs so often I’ve never forgotten them:  “The Customer is the only reason we’re here.”

On a literal level, that’s true, of course.  If we hadn’t had customers, then we wouldn’t have been able to stay in business.  However, that’s not the way those signs were attended (I hope).  Instead, the conversations management had with us focused on meeting customers’ needs, interpreting the sign to mean that the customer is the end goal of our work, not the bottom line or even our own financial well-being, which is clearly why most, if not all, of us were there.

What I discovered, even as a teenager, though, is that the policies of the store didn’t back that up.  One rather silly example centers around name tags.  I would often get bored at work and try to think up ways to entertain myself.  When I found out that office workers could make us name tags, I decided to have some minor fun with them.  I ended up with three name tags, one that had my real name, two that had fake names: Clyde and Elvis.

The customers greatly enjoyed these name tags.  Even if the customers were not regulars and didn’t know my real name, they often read the names and chuckled, leading to a fun conversation while I was ringing up their groceries.  Management, however, didn’t find these name tags humorous.  Our front end manager pulled me into a hallway off the main area and said that I needed to use one that reflected my real name.  I tried to explain that customers liked them, but she didn’t listen.  Her argument was that the people in the office needed to know who customers were referring to if they called in with a complaint.  I tried to explain that, should a customer call in with a complaint about Clyde or Elvis, it would be easy to see that the complaint was about me, but she wouldn’t hear that line of argument.

Essentially, she was unhappy because I was breaking some unwritten rule, going against the order the company wanted from its employees.  What strikes me as really interesting is that her argument centered around complaints, as if they expected complaints about employees.  One could argue that she was thinking about the customers, and I’m sure she would have framed her argument that way, if pushed; however, I was the one who seemed to be making the customers happy, not her.  Several even complained when I went back to my normal name tag.

In the year when I went up for tenure, I wrote an essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Because it involved people who were working in our department at the time, I needed to publish it under a pen name.  I was proud, though, of having them publish one of my essays (my first one in that particular publication), so I asked my department chair to pass it up the line above her, which she did.  It turns out that the administration didn’t like my essay, mainly one paragraph, the paragraph they quoted back to me when they asked for clarification as they considered my tenure case.  Here’s the paragraph:

“If all goes well this academic year, I will be able to enjoy the long-term benefits of tenure. I look forward to the day when I can turn down a committee appointment that will take up way too much of my time and does not interest me in the least; when I can speak freely in meetings without fear that I’ll be looking for a new job next year; and when I can go for a period of time without feeling the pressure to write something new, and I can actually dig into a long-term project and savor the research process.”

Anybody who knew me then or knows me now will understand that I didn’t mean that I would begin coasting from that point on.  In fact, there is nothing here that says that I will not teach students as well as I had before.  The focus is on the work I will do outside of the classroom, not inside it.

I was asked to respond to the administration’s concerns, which I can, looking back, at least partially understand.  We’ve all seen examples of people who have largely stopped working after tenure, and they were concerned that I would become another one of those professors.  I wrote a letter in response, and my focus was clearly on the students.  I was quite purposeful not to pledge allegiance to the university, but to the students, a focus I still try to maintain.  If I had a copy of the letter, I would quote parts, but, unfortunately, I don’t.

Part of the problem is that I’m anti-institutional by nature, as are many of us in this profession.  Unfortunately, unless we want to begin teaching as Socrates did–which doesn’t offer great pay or any benefits–we need institutional higher education.  However, we can and should work to truly make our colleges and universities student-centered.  That doesn’t mean giving them what they want, but what they need.  That means that we do so even when the administration has other ideas in mind.  I still know where my allegiance lies.

Two Articles

I ran across two articles over the past few weeks that interested me, so I thought I’d talk about both of them in one post.  They’re not really related, save for the fact that they both strike me as rather positive (the first much more than the second).

The first, “The Small but Cool Moments of Faculty Life,” is exactly what the title promises.  Jennifer Burek Pierce goes through a variety of positive experiences those of us who teach get to have, whether that’s seeing their minds at work in their writing or helping a student find a library book.  For those Harry Potter fans, she even quotes Dumbledore:  “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”

I like her approach here, as it is easy to be overwhelmed by the demands of full-time teaching (and I say that after I spent most of the Friday of Easter break grading papers).  We go from one stack of papers to a committee meeting to writing letters of recommendation, and it often feels like teaching or having meaningful interactions with students is our last priority.  As we move toward the busy time that is April, this essay is a good reminder of why we do what we do and the joys that can be found along the way.

The second, “It’s Not About Hard or Easy Courses,” hits a theme that is near to my heart.  Maryellen Weimer talks about how we often think that a class needs to be difficult to be challenging or meaningful.  She talks about what makes classes difficult is often not the content, but poor instruction (she’s taking apart an argument that says better teaching causes students to learn less, as it makes the course easier).  She also comes back to the core of the matter, which is that we want students to perceive our classes as hard because we’re worried about our reputations.

This essay touches on something I had to learn early in my career (and still have to remind myself of), as most of us do.  If we care about teaching, then we want students and colleagues to see our classes as challenging and meaningful.  However, we often make those two words mean “difficult” or simply “hard,” and they’re not the same at all.  A quiz can be difficult because it’s poorly designed or it covers material the instructor didn’t cover (or cover well); an assignment can be hard because it’s unclear or the requirements keep changing or the students aren’t prepared for it.  While such situations might help students learn to learn on their own, that’s not the kind of learning we’re aiming for.

A class should be challenging because the professor has high standards and refuses to let students slide by with sub-par work.  However, the professor should also make sure that he or she clearly communicates those standards (and that they are clear).  Those standards should be realistic, given the level of the class and of the students.  Most importantly, though, the professor should be working to make sure those students have the preparation to reach those standards.  That doesn’t mean that the professor has simply talked through what they are or given a detailed handout.  Instead, the professor should design the entire class to give students practice with clear instructor feedback.  Good instruction should make the class more challenging, but only because it gives students the support they need to reach a level they didn’t know was possible when they started taking the course.

In my mind, Weimer’s essay is positive because it reminds us that good teaching matters.  Most of us have had those moments where we did push students beyond what they thought possible because we created a challenging, yet supportive, environment.  That’s yet another cool moment, as Pierce would say.  I hope you have many of those to come in the remainder of this academic year.

Another Anecdote About Dr. Sharp

In the fall of my second year of graduate school, I was taking an American Fiction class with Dr. Ches Sharp, the third class I had taken with him in my first year of graduate school. I had come to know him rather well by then, so it was no surprise that he threatened to throw me off the mini-dome, East Tennessee State’s athletic complex, near the beginning of one of our classes. He had good cause, as I had provoked him. He came into class, and he began talking about repetition in courses. He had been talking with someone about the fact that professors assign students the same works of literature throughout their academic career, so the students end up reading The Scarlet Letter several times over the course of a few years instead of being exposed to other works. He argued that this repetition was fine, as students developed over their career, so they saw the works differently at different points, and professors come to those works with different approaches, so the students receive that benefit, as well.

After he finished, I asked, “So, Dr. Sharp, you’re saying that repetition is OK?” He responded that it was, and I immediately asked another question: “So what you’re saying is that it’s OK to do the same things multiple times, but in slightly different ways?” Again, he commented that he was making that argument, and I jumped in again, “So, let me make sure I understand. You’re pointing out that saying the same thing in different ways is perfectly acceptable?” At that point, he realized what I was doing and threatened to throw off the mini-dome. I have repeated similar threats to students who are as annoying as I was.

A Different Way

My wife picks on me whenever we have students over, and the conversation moves from talking about school to talking about other interests, especially movies.  Inevitably, I will ask about some new movie that I want to see, and I will be met with blank stares.  I’ll then ask, “Have you heard of that movie?” and they almost never have (there’s occasionally an exception, some student who really enjoys movies).

I would say I don’t purposefully watch obscure movies, but that’s not completely true.  I do seek out some foreign language films because I want to expose myself to a world beyond Hollywood.  However, I also watch many of the blockbuster movies, like the new Star Wars or many of the superhero movies.  I’m essentially a mutt when it comes to movie interests.

Some might suggest (and my wife is kind of hinting at this in her picking on me) that I should only talk to my students about the movies that they realistically might have seen.  They would explain to me that I should be trying to make connections with my students, to use examples (when I’m mentioning movies in class) that resonate with them.  That’s true to an extent, though I’ve found that the media landscape is so fragmented these days that there’s no way I could find a movie or song or show that even more than half of them have seen (something like Star Wars might be an exception, but I know I have a number of students who didn’t see the new one and haven’t seen any of the previous six films).

However, if I only have the interests my students have or only reference what they already know, they don’t see a different way of living.  If everyone they encounter, including their professors, watch what they watch or read what they read, then they continue to believe everyone in the world lives they way they do, which implies that they think the way they do.  If I show them a different set of interests, then they can see that there are other ways of living, which is part of what college should be about.

Let me quickly add that my way isn’t better; it’s simply different.  I don’t believe they should all stop watching the latest blockbuster or romantic comedy and start watching Norwegian films.  There are benefits to be found in a wide variety of stories.  By showing them something that is different, what I’m hoping to do is give them options to choose from.  They should watch blockbusters because that’s what they really love after they’ve given other types of movies a chance.  If they’ve seen a different way of living, then they can choose from among them.

I’ve been talking about movies because that’s how this idea comes up most frequently, but it applies to anything.  In my teaching, it comes up almost as often with books.  Many of my students come into the English major because they loved reading the Harry Potter or Hunger Games books.  Some of them are fans of the classics, such as Dickens and Fitzgerald and Shakespeare.  As with movies, there’s nothing wrong with reading those books, but I want to show them that there are writers living today who are just as great, then let them choose among them.  If they read Zadie Smith or Jonathan Safran Foer or Chimamanda Adichie or Cormac McCarthy, then still choose Shakespeare or Woolf, then they do so because they’ve chosen to do so.

College is partly about exposing students to a wider world, through the curriculum and through their encounters with people who are different than they are.  While we should certainly try to find ways to connect with students, we should also find ways to show them how our lives are different.  More choices mean a broader view of the world, and that’s what education is all about.