Image: I am Surrounded by Idiots
There are times when even the calmest of us want to shout out behind our closed office doors, “I am surrounded by idiots.”
On any given day, it might be our attitudes toward students who are being annoying through their actions or because we did not have a good night’s sleep. It might be the structural constraints at the college or society that make it impossible for them to perform at the level they desire. It might be administrators who do not support faculty members or who enforce foolish mandates that stifle innovation and good pedagogy. It might be bitter colleagues. And, if we are honest, we must admit that, on some days, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”1
To avoid pervasive dissatisfaction with teaching, I might need to make changes in myself both in terms of actions and attitudes. This includes changing my expectations of others including students, administrators, and colleagues. At other times, I need to take on the responsibility of helping students make better choices even when I personally believe that they should have already learned certain life lessons. Sadly, there are times when I need to accept the fact that I cannot force a student to succeed if they don’t have the interest or background to be successful. When coming to this acceptance, I need to make sure that the problem is not a failing on the part of the student. Too often, systemic problems are the root of “shortcomings” I see in a student.
As we consider the issue of student “choice,” we need to be careful that we are not using the concept of choice as a blanket statement to cover all behaviors that we find problematic. Students—especially those at community college colleges and commuter schools— have structural constraints that prevent them from making the “choices” they would prefer. I had an online student whose car died. She began to fall behind in the class because she did not have the money to pay for an Uber to take her to/from work as well as to the library where she used computers to do her coursework. Did she really have a “choice” to prioritize work over class?
Sometimes, an “irresponsible” student is not able to communicate their needs with us immediately. As I was working on the edits for this book, I had a student who had been very responsible in a previous semester begin skipping class and not doing his work. Had I not worked with him in a previous semester, it would have been too easy to write him off as a student making bad choices. However, it turns out that was having some serious health issues which he had not been able to communicate to me. Nor had he communicated that his partner for a project was a good friend of his who was keeping him caught up for the classes he was missing. He was struggling and making some excellent choices to deal with his situation. I just didn’t know it until I approached him.
Part of avoiding pervasive dissatisfaction is not to jump too quickly to the conclusion that students are “choosing” to be irresponsible when systemic or personal issues are actually interfering, forcing them to make the best choices they can under the circumstances. If you don’t have a certain level of income, you can’t pay for car repairs or daily Ubers. And if you are seriously ill, you might not be able to make it to class consistently.
I am a firm believer in venting behind closed office doors. As I was revising this introduction, a colleague came into my office, closed the door, and began expounding about people who are thwarting her teaching. Part of the reason that she picked my office was because she knew that she was venting to a sympathetic ear. But, more importantly, she knew that I would not repeat the justifiable criticism she was articulating in fairly blunt terms. After a few minutes, we turned our attention to some silly stories before she returned to her office. She felt better and no harm was done.
We all need a safe space to vent about students, administrators, colleagues, and ourselves. The venting is an important part of a process that can lead to positive change. My colleague will be fine because her venting was brief, temporary, and she will keep a realistic perspective on her situation. What she will not do is become a complainer who only listens to other complainers; a process that would only magnify the negative aspects of our jobs and lead her to live in a pervasive dissatisfaction.
The next time I saw my colleague was when we were both working with incredible students in the library. We might still be surrounded by the “idiots” she had complained about earlier, but neither of us had lost our perspectives. We were focused on students.
It can be argued that this chapter is venting with open doors, something that I find counterproductive to creating a safe and generative learning environment. For me, the difference between what goes on behind closed doors and acknowledging problems in public is one of degree. Venting is not meant to come to a solution. Public discussion—done properly—has a focus on solutions. Yet, we must realize that socio-political structures do not allow all members of the educational community the same safety with which to address issues in the public sphere.
I have the privilege of being a white, male, tenured professor, who is a union member. As long as I am not writing about LGBTQ+ issues, people generally ignore my sexuality on a public level. While I have a large degree of safety, the same cannot be said of contingent faculty member, people of color, non-tenured faculty, women, certain religious groups, and others. We need to be cognizant of whose voices are not being heard because they are ignored or are not being voiced.
The college infrastructure can also impact how quickly professors can fall into despair. When I reported to a Dean who was inappropriately changing student grades, it was difficult to keep my perspective; especially after the Dean was promoted to Vice-President of Instruction even after an outside investigator documented the corrupt behavior. Why try to effect change in such an environment? My answer is that our students and colleagues are worth the effort.
The essays in this chapter provide insights on how not to forget that most of our students are wonderful as are most of the administrators and colleagues with whom we work. As long as we can remember that, we are less likely to fall into the pits of despair.
Image: Tea Under the Yuzu Tree
Trimming the Yuzu Tree #1: Reflection on Our Inability to Help Some Students
Watching Dominic trim the Yuzu tree in my cousin’s yard, I heard him express his concern that the tree will likely not bear much fruit. This is because the area where it was planted does not provide enough light. As Dominic explained, “It is not where you want it to be. It’s where it wants to be.”
Dominic’s words provide an insight regarding our inability to reach some students, even though we care deeply about their success.
While I do my best to encourage the success of all of my students, I have had to accept that not all of them are reachable. Some students lack a basic foundational background to be successful without assistance. Some of these students might not have had access to a thriving K-12 educational system. Others might be first generation. And others might be recent high school graduates or returning students who are experiencing college for the first time. We need to implement strategies on a classroom level (as well as an institution level) to assist these students. For example, on the second day of class, I “teach” my syllabus using an activity developed by Dr. Aaron Kashtan in which I ask students to compare the syllabus for my course with syllabi from their other classes. My focus is to teach students the purpose of the syllabus, how different professors approach it, and why various sections are included.
It is often difficult to determine whether a student is having trouble getting out of the shade or whether they have planted themselves in the shade. A student once made an appointment with me to discuss how to improve in the course. The day before the appointment, he didn’t submit the required assignments. On the surface, this might seem to be a student who really doesn’t care. But when I asked him why he had not submitted the assignments, he responded that he made a “stupid” decision and didn’t do the assignments because he figured he would fail them anyway.
Although I would agree that the decision was “stupid,” I can understand why he would make it. I have made similar stupid decisions myself. At a certain point, giving up seems to be the best recourse. Why continue to work when all you do is fail? Fortunately, I was able to recognize that the student was having trouble getting out of the shade and took the time to investigate what was holding him up.
One of my limitations as a professor is that I know that I cannot help every student stuck in the shade. For example, if I cannot get a student to respond, I cannot help them even if they want the assistance. What is important is that I don’t assume that a student who makes a seemingly “stupid” decision is signalling that they made a conscious decision to plan themselves in the shade.
I remember one student who was so far behind in the class that there was no reasonable way he could complete his final paper. Fortunately, I was able to give him the opportunity to be successful in the class. In conjunction with my college’s Exam-A-Rama, I would meet with students in the library from 8:00 am to 11:59 pm one day the week before classes ended.
This student came to the library to see me shortly after 9:00 am and we discussed his lack of success. After finding out that he had no plans for the day, I told him that if he was willing to work with me, I would coach him through his paper one step at a time. He welcomed the offer, but needed to go home to get his course materials. He left and never returned.
In another case, I tried to work with a student who made erratic appearances and often disrupted the class when she was present. However, she seemed to have a spark of interest. Eventually, we had a meeting with the dean during which I offered to meet with her to help her catch her up on the course. She rejected the offer. She had planted herself in the darkness of venting and had no desire to move to the light. After the meeting with the dean, I never saw her again.
In both cases, my offers to provide assistance were legitimate. Yet, as Dominic might have counseled, “It is not about what I want for the student. It is about what the student wants for themselves.” To overcome the pervasive dissatisfaction that can come from a student’s “unwillingness” to accept assistance, I need to realize that I cannot know their motives. A counter intuitive decision might make sense as a short term strategy. For example, the “irresponsible” student who did not purchase their textbook might have used the money to fix a tire on their car so that they could drive to campus for class. Unfortunately, we rarely get to learn a student’s motivation which might be impacted by psychological, systemic, or other factors.
As faculty members, we need to accept that there is a limit as to what we can do to assist any particular student. We need to remember that, in spite of our best efforts, we ultimately have no control over a student’s decisions. We cannot force a student to be present or prepared.
I vividly remember a student in one of my evening classes almost 30 years ago. He attended every class period, but he kept nodding off in the back of the room. Yet he was a dedicated student who truly desired and valued his opportunity for a higher education. The problem was that after a full day of work, he had trouble keeping his eyes open during a three hour class. At the time, my classes were less engaging than they are today, so my pedagogical approach certainly contributed to his difficulty.
More recently, I had a student whose mother had serious health problems. Even when she was present in class, her mind was on her home situation. Because of technological advances, we could use email to help her stay engaged in the course even when she was not present physically or mentally. Also, because of improvements in my teaching—especially having students sit around tables instead of in rows—she developed stronger ties with colleagues in the course who also took on the responsibility of assisting her.
Although I cannot force my students to be "present" in the hegemonic sense of the word, it is my responsibility to offer them as many options for being present as possible. Offering a variety of methods for participation enables my students to show up in ways that are meaningful for them, rather than assuming the worst and punishing them for not being "present" in ways that are immediately identifiable to me. I know that I often only appear to be physically present and not caring when, during a professional development seminar, we are asked to write down our reflections. Reflection takes time and I cannot do it immediately so I sit quietly while others finish the task at hand. It appears that I do not care to be present, but, later that day or the next, I am recording my thoughts in great detail in my journal.2
Over the years, it has become easier for me to accept the reality that for any number of reasons, a student might not do well and it is not always possible for me to assist them. When I almost failed out of graduate school for drinking like a fish, it was not the fault of my professors. Because I was a secret drinker, it was not their fault that none of them recommended that I get treatment for my alcohol abuse. But Dr. Sam S. Baskett did have a talk with me about my poor performance. He did his part as best he could. Even if I had not stopped drinking three months later and had failed out of graduate school, my demise would not have been Dr. Baskett’s failure. Dr Baskett was a success because he took the time to care about a troubled student and did what he could to assist me. It was ultimately my decision how to respond to his concern.
While I was fortunate to sober up, over the years I have seen too many people caught up in a cycle of addiction where “just say no” was not a viable option. In one case, I am aware of someone who was unable to enter a halfway until 24 hours after he had been released from a 30-day treatment program. The bureaucracy was essentially sabotaging his treatment plan. Fortunately, someone heard about this young man’s plight and arranged for safe housing for him so he would not be on the street without support. If he had not come across a safe house that was not part of the official support system and he drank during the 24 hours when he was left on the street, would it be fair to say that he “chose to drink?”
I have seen similar situations where college bureaucracy fails a student and then blames the student for their seemingly poor choices. For example, an error/delay is made in the financial aid office and the student is dropped from their classes for non-payment. Because they have been dropped, they still need to jump through hoops to get their professors’ permissions to add the class late. Until they secure these permissions and are re-enrolled, college policy forbids them to attend class. Did the student choose to fall behind while working to correct the problem?
Unlike the Yuzu tree, students are sentient beings with free will. We cannot uproot them and force them to make good decisions. We can only prepare the soil. But, while preparing the soil, we need to make sure that students are given support to move out of the shade.
Image: Balancing Heart and Mind
Judge Judy and Academic Success
I feel that the dean’s assistant doesn’t like me. I made a request, and she laughed at me. The next day, I told her that I didn’t feel she had treated me well, and she told me that she didn’t care. I feel that if I make a complaint to the dean, the dean will take her assistant’s side. I don’t feel this is fair.
—Complaint About the Dean’s Administrative Assistant
My interaction with the dean’s assistant took place at the end of a long day when I asked her if there was money in the budget to bring Judge Judy to campus. She laughed and asked if it had really been that bad of a day for me. The next day, as I was leaving campus, I stuck my head into her office and told her that I didn’t feel she had treated me fairly the day before. That is when she rightly told me that she didn’t care. It was just one of those amusing interactions we share.
But what if I had a serious complaint against my colleague? If I began my complaint to the dean with the words “I feel,” the dean should give me her best Judge Judy impersonation while informing me, “I don’t care what you feel.” The dean shouldn’t be interested in hearing just my feelings. She should want me to support my feelings with evidence.
My argument does not totally negate the role of feelings. My point is that they require support before they can be acted upon. “I feel” needs to be followed by “because…” It is not that Judge Judy doesn’t really care about someone’s feelings, it is that she wants to hear the because. “I feel my colleague doesn’t like me because she will not acknowledge me when I walk into the office” is something that can be discussed and/or investigated.
I do worry that we can be too quick to disregard legitimate feelings; especially if they are rooted outside our own experiences or worldview. I remember receiving an email in which the writer referred to me as “dear heart.” I replied that I was uncomfortable by the inappropriate intimacy and requested that the writer refer to me as “Steve” or “Dr. Berg” instead of the more romantic term. In the classic formula of an abuser, the writer responded that to say someone had a romantic heart was in no way romantic. Whether or not this claim is true is irrelevant because that is not what the writer initially wrote. More importantly, my feelings were dismissed because the writer determined that I was wrong.
I remember a student who had taken offense at something I said to her. Had she just left me know what she felt, I would still be baffled by her response. Because she added the “because,” I was able to realize why she felt the way she did. In this case, the issue was my use of the word “issue” which, to the student, implied that she was having certain problems in her personal life. To me, the word was neutral. I was just acknowledging a situation she had mentioned. Without the “because,” we would have remained at an impasse where she was upset with me without my knowing why. More importantly in terms of structural issues that impact students, because she supplied the “because,” I have become more conscious of how I use the word “issue” with students. Arguably, there was nothing wrong with how I used the term. Yet, knowing that this could be a general concern for other students who do not have the confidence to confront their professor, I need to take more care that I am communicating to them effectively.
Judge Judy gives primacy to facts over feelings. But far too often, students know that in the world outside Judge Judy’s courtroom, the feelings of people who are white, male, heterosexual, wealthy, or part of the social elite have their feelings take primacy in rhetorical situations even if those who are not privileged have the facts on their side. Why bring up a concern if you know from experience that your professor isn’t going to take what you feel seriously anyway?
I recently shocked some students when I announced at the beginning of the semester that I was not sure if some of the grading procedures3 in the course were still working as well as they originally did and that I wanted to know how the students felt. One student responded, “Overall your grading system works and I respect that you’re open to adaptation, most professors are not as open as you are. I say we keep the grading system as is” [emphasis added]. Because the question was posed at the beginning of the semester before students had any reason to trust me, I allowed them to post their comments anonymously. None of them took advantage of this opportunity. Even students who argued for modifications signed their names.
Early in my career, I was taught that “feelings were facts” and that we need to acknowledge people’s feelings about situations because those feelings were real to them. The problem with this advice is that even though the feelings themselves were facts, feelings do not constitute factual evidence. Just because I “feel” that the dean’s assistant doesn’t like me is irrelevant. What has she specifically done?
Unfortunately, in today’s marketplace of ideas, I have witnessed an increase in the number of individuals who—regardless of any other evidence—insist that whatever they feel must be accepted as truth. We live in a world where “fake news” is defined as information with which we disagree or which places us in an unflattering light.
I still vividly remember when I responded with factual evidence to counter an inaccurate meme. The person who posted the meme replied, “It doesn’t matter if it’s true. It’s a good quote.” The meme supported his feelings and facts didn’t matter. These cultural attitudes are drifting into higher education.
I once had a student who filed a formal complaint against me because she didn’t feel it was fair that I offered to give her an additional three weeks after the course ended to still complete assignments she did not submit during the semester. She felt that my actions were unfair because she had other plans for the weeks immediately after the semester ended. Because she felt I was so unfair, she demanded that the college provide her with a full refund for the course she had failed. Unfortunately, it does not go without saying that administrators rejected her complaint. Readers of Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education know of cases where administrators have based decisions solely on student feelings regardless of the merits of the case.
The student who wanted a refund is an extreme case. A more typical example is the student who felt I had graded him unfairly when he did not answer the assigned question. My offer to allow him to revise the two paragraph assignment was insufficient because he felt he earned a higher score and expected that I give it to him based on his feelings even though he admitted that his answer was wrong. In another case, a student filed a complaint because she felt I made her feel stupid because I told her that I couldn’t help her if she wouldn’t read the course materials on which the assignment was based.
Although I joke about Judge Judy proclaiming that she doesn’t care about someone’s feelings, we need to be aware that feelings of our students do matter a great deal because those feelings are generally based on some time of evidence that they can articulate if we ask them to do so. In my classes, I tell students that not all opinions/feelings are the same; that we made a distinction between educated and uneducated opinions. The criteria for an educated opinion is whether or not it is based on evidence. If someone can add the “because” after they begin “I feel…” they will be taken seriously.
When a student tells us that they feel something, we cannot really turn ourselves into Judge Judy and gavel them down. We need to ask, “Why do you feel that way?”
Image: Dōmo-kōmo Taking a Class
We Wouldn’t Have Taken the Course
“What will become of young adults who look accomplished on paper but seem to have a hard time making their way in the world without the constant involvement of their parents?”
Former Dean, Stanford University
In 2015, Tara Shultz and her parents were in the news after complaining that four of the graphic novels in her English class at Crafton Hills College included nudity, sex, violence, torture, and obscenities. Ms. Schultz characterizes the four novels—which include Marjane Satrapi’s award-winning Persepolis— as “garbage.”5 While reading news reports about Ms. Schultz and her parents, I was especially drawn to a comment that her father made to reporter Sandra Emerson: “If they (had) put a disclaimer on this, we wouldn’t have taken the course.”6
“…we wouldn’t have taken the course.”
The plural is problematic. Ms. Schultz is a singular individual, and it is “she” who enrolled in Professor Ryan Bartlett’s English 250 course. Not she and her father. Mr. Schultz’s worldview that “we” are taking the course inhibits his ability to fulfill his parental responsibility to help his daughter develop into a mature adult, who has learned the life skills necessary to function successfully and independently in the adult world. When a parent becomes so immersed with their child, I cannot help but thinking of Dōmo-kōmo, a two headed gray demon from Japan. It is an image both humorous and frightening.
I have had dissatisfied parents who have tried to intercede with me on behalf of their children. Too often, these students are unaware that their parent has contacted me on their behalf. In one instance, my student was not amused when she was accused of academic dishonesty that her Dōmo-kōmo mother had committed without her knowledge.
Once, a Dōmo-kōmo father questioned why I had given his son an incomplete and threatened to pursue his concerns about my conduct with administrators. Because the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) prohibited me from discussing his son’s grade with him, I was unable to inquire why he thought it was a good idea to criticize the behavior of a professor who had agreed to work with his son; especially when I could have just issued his son a failing grade. But what most troubled me about the brief exchange was that the father should have been having this discussion with his son, not his son’s professor.
A model of positive parental involvement was exhibited by a mother who sat in the hall outside the dean’s office while I met with her daughter and the dean. Unlike Tara Shultz’s father, this mother realized that “we” were not having a problem; that it was her daughter’s problem and that her daughter would need to fix it. I am sure that mother coached daughter on how to handle the meeting and was there to support her. But the mother rightly allowed her daughter to negotiate her own way in the adult world of which she was now a member. Things worked out well for her daughter.
When I first read the comment by Mr. Schultz, I wondered how long we would be taking courses together. Would we continue to take courses until graduation? Would we accept a job? Would we then deal with employment issues? At what point, I wondered, will Mr. Schultz allow his daughter to function as an independent woman. Age 25? Age 30? Never?
High school students do not need to advocate for themselves. They are assigned advocates in addition to their parents. The transition to college can be extremely disorienting to a student who is now expected to advocate for themselves. Unlike in high school where parents are expected to be involved in their child’s education, college professors are forbidden to discuss a student with their parents unless the student has signed a release form. This release is even required of dual enrolled high school students whom have not yet reached the age of 18.
Like the mother who waited in the hall, Mr. Schultz could have coached his daughter on how to navigate in the adult world instead of treating her like a perpetual infant. Because his daughter was so disturbed by the novels, Mr. Schultz might have encouraged her to consider whether or not being an English major was a good career choice. As an English major, his daughter is going to encounter more novels that address issues in ways that she will likely find disturbing. Mr. Schultz might also have helped his daughter investigate the inconsistencies of her own thinking as evidenced by her Twitter feed.
Unfortunately, because Ms. Schultz was 20 years old when she publicly complained about her professor and the graphic novels he assigned, she will need to accept the consequences of her decisions as the adult she is. Although her father might still infantilize her, the world is going to evaluate her choices as if they were made by a singular adult—not as a child tied to her Dōmo-kōmo daddy. It is this singular adult who will reap the results of her decision to place her complaints about her professor in the public sphere. Three years after her complaint was made public, a Google search of “Tara Schultz” showed her complaint against her professor in the top search results.7
Tara Schultz will never be able to escape her past. The pervasive dissatisfaction that this may cause—to her, to her father, to her professor—could have been avoided had her father better prepared her for adult decision-making.
Although I cannot legally talk to my students’ parents, I still need to deal with bad parenting. In an extreme case when a father closed my office door while threatening me, I had no choice but to call the campus police. Or when a mother wants to talk to me about her child, I cite FERPA. But, generally, I have to deal with not very effective parenting in the form of Dōmo-kōmo students.
Sometimes, I am able to have discussions with such students about the proper way to approach a professor. There are times when I will respond to a rude email from a student with “If I were in your position, I would write…” but “as your email is written, the only response you can expect is ‘No.’” Once the student emails me a polite email, I quickly reward them.
Modeling responsible behavior can also help students. I once posted an email from a student who complained that I had made an error.8 Although I mentioned why I appreciated how the student approached me, my main purpose was to let students know that I sometimes make mistakes and they need to be sure to check the online gradebook once I tell them it has been updated. An unintended consequence was that the next student who approached me with a question about their grade used a similar style and approach of the student whom I had complimented.
Instead of increasing my dissatisfaction with bad parenting to the point where it becomes pervasive, I proactively take steps where I can to provide students with the soft skills they did not learn at home.9
Image: Horticulture and Horses
Of Horticulture and Horses
During the 1920s, members of the New York literati would meet for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel. Known as the “Algonquin Round Table” or “The Vicious Circle,” they were famous for their witty banter. One day, when Dorothy Parker was given the word “horticulture” to use in a sentence, she responded, “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.” Parker found an erudite way of expressing the common cliché, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”
I think of horticulture and horses while meeting my students at School Daze, an event that is held each Fall on my campus that combines enjoyable activities and information about the types of assistance that the college makes available to them. Each year, I see several of my students walk up to the event, sign the attendance sheet and then walk away without taking advantage of the opportunity with which they had been presented. For them, it was an opportunity wasted.
I remember talking to a frustrated colleague who had tried to work with a student who had shown up for class every day but sat in the back of the room refusing to participate in group-work and other class activities. The student was present without being present. My colleague can prepare engaging lessons but can’t force students to engage.
Each day after class, I email class notes to students that include a brief summary of the class, URLs that were cited during the lesson, a list of participation points, and a description of the homework. Most students appreciate these updates. Yet I am amazed at the number of students who will miss class and then not consult the class notes in order to come prepared for the next class. I can prepare the class notes, but I can’t force students to read them.
There was one student who emailed me an assignment he should have printed out for class. As a result, he did not receive credit for being prepared for the class activity that was built around the assignment. He expressed his appreciation when I offered to print out the assignment for him after class and still give him credit for having done the work on time. After class, he left campus without meeting with me. I can offer to assist students, but I can’t force them to accept the assistance.
I refer students to our Writing Support Studio, the Learning Assistance Center, academic/personal counselors, academic coaches, and other contacts. Whenever possible, I walk them to the office where they can get the assistance they require. I can make referrals, but I can’t make students utilize the service.
Margaret Price, in Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life rightly argues that we need to rethink the issue of presence. Generally, “‘Presence’ is usually taken as empirically obvious, and as such an a priori good.” But mere physical presence does not mean that the student is engaged in class any more than the teacher’s presence means that they are engaged. The “inattentive” student could have a physical or mental illness, a bad night’s sleep, or something else on their mind.
I have gone into more than one class in which I warn students that if I appear to me less than stimulated, it is because I am ill. I even remember once when I told my film class that I feared that I might fall asleep during the movie we were screening and that if I started to snore that they should poke me. Imagine a student saying such a thing to their professor! But illness happens to them, too.
This does not mean that physical presence is never a requirement. Sometimes presence is important to the class; for example in a classroom where students are making decisions about what and how things are being covered. A writing workshop might also require physical presence. In those cases, Price advised that “If presence is a necessary component of the class, be direct about that.” In my on campus classes, regular physical presence is necessary for success because of the types of classroom coaching and interactions we have. Yet, it is rare that physical presence is necessary on any given day. As a result, in my classes we have an understanding both that presence is important and that life gets in the way. When life gets in the way, we work to help each other catch up on what is missed.
Once I posted a sign on the door of my classroom that I was ill and had to leave campus. I felt bad because I did not, at that time, have a good way to notify students at the last minute that class was cancelled. When I returned to the next class, I assumed we would pick up where we had left off the day before I was ill. It turns out that on the day that I cancelled class, students had continued with their presentations. They were present and prepared and saw no reason that class could not be conducted in my absence. Instead of cancelling the class, they took down the sign.
The students who are “obviously” being irresponsible can lead to faculty despair. Yet it helps to recognize that a student might be pressed by external forces that do not allow them to make the type of responsible decisions we would prefer. As a colleague reflected in a discussion we were having after a student plagiarized in their class:
I've been thinking about it. My guess is that it is often fear [by the student]of something that feels bigger or scarier than getting caught. Fear that they will say it wrong and look stupid if they use their own words. Fear that they can't get it done in time. Fear of stuff that doesn't have to do with us at all — too much pressure at work or at home, or fear of missing out on activities with friends or family because of doing homework....I don't know. I could be wrong. But I like to think most of our students aren't sitting there thinking "I just can't be bothered. And my instructor is so stupid/silly/ busy/whatever that they won't notice..."
I am sure that some of my students think that I am too stupid, too silly, too busy, or too whatever. Others deliberately choose a strategy where they will do as little work as possible to complete their coursework. But other “obviously irresponsible” students are dealing with other issues such as fear that does not make their irresponsibility so obvious. For example, we know that students are more likely to cheat the closer they are to the deadline. Instead of certain failure for failing the assignment, they might cheat instead of asking for an extension (which they might rightly know their professor will not grant). Students might also choose to cheat because they are embarrassed to ask for help.
To acknowledge that fear can explain why a student might commit plagiarism is not the same as excusing the plagiarism. As I tell my history students, just because I understand why a culture we are studying does a certain thing does not mean that I agree with the actions they are taking.
Sometimes, when life gets in the way for our students, we cannot provide the assistance that will make the student successful. A student who is hospitalized for a mental or physical breakdown might have to drop the course.
For dedicated faculty members, it is frustrating when students will not or can not take advantage of the opportunities we offer to them. But we need to remember that our efforts can greatly benefit students. Maybe we can’t force students to do more than sign the attendance sheet, but we can continue to provide possibilities. Furnishing possibilities is part of our responsibility and one that we can’t take lightly—even when some students don’t seem willing to do their part. We are less likely to fall into despair if we remember that when some students can’t do their part, it is not necessarily the case that they can’t be bothered or think we are studpid or silly or busy or whatever.
Image: “If You Are Going To Speak…”
It Doesn't Matter Does It?
After someone posted a meme in Facebook, one of his friends commented that it was obviously photoshopped. The original poster replied, “It doesn’t matter does it?”
I generally do not engage in such discussions, but I couldn't help but comment, “I think it matters a great deal if something is photoshopped and then passed on as a real image.” The original poster disagreed. “The point the poster [creator of the meme] made was well made in my mind. I’m sure they were aware that it was a bit fixed.”
I was horrified. How is it possible for someone to justify falsifying evidence because the resulting meme agreed with his political point of view? And how could he describe using photoshop to make a substantive change as a “bit fixed?”
This attitude is entering the college classroom at an increasing pace. In an extreme case, I have twice had students falsify email chains that they then submitted as evidence as to why I should change their grades. Both the students filed complaints against me. One of the students went so far as to argue that falsifying an email chain was not academically dishonest because it did not directly relate to the assignment; an argument that was initially deemed to have merit.
Our students live in a country where the White House has no qualms about releasing a modified video to justify taking away CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s press credentials.10 White House counsel Kellyanne Conway replied to criticism of this decision by claiming, “That’s not altered, that’s sped up.”11 When people at the highest levels of government can lie with impunity, why should we be surprised if some of our students follow their lead?
However, most of the “dishonesty” I encounter in the classroom stems from a lack of broad based reading; not from an intent to deceive. Because students don’t have a full grasp of issues, they don’t realize that they are citing sources that are not valid. They are passing on the inaccurate information in good faith. Students lack foundational knowledge prior to taking our introductory courses because it is the foundational knowledge that they are learning in our courses. If they were experts at understanding validity of sources—or other foundational knowledge—they would not need to take our introductory courses.
As faculty members we need to help students develop the critical thinking skills necessary to understand what makes a credible source. The first step in doing this is to require broad based reading before students begin writing.
Once students have an area that interests them, I have them do library research using books with the help of librarians to gather information. I then scaffold the class so that they consult quality Internet sites, journal articles, Google books, newspaper articles, YouTube or other videos, and sources not written in English. I provide step-by-step directions to students on how to find resources in each of these areas and define terms such as “quality.” By the time students begin to develop the thesis for their papers, they have already consulted between 30 and 50 sources. As such, they are less likely to be fooled by false claims.
In addition to broad based reading, in order to best help students, we also need to move away from the common academic pedagogy of just defining quality sources which are safe for students to cite. For example, instead of teaching students to avoid .com websites or to look for articles from credible authors or sources, we need to put more focus on analyzing content.
We need to teach students fact-checking skills such as asking them to determine what evidence—if any—is cited by the author (if they even know who the author of the piece is). Are the sources biased or credible themselves? A lack of citations does not necessarily mean that an article does not have merit, but do they know enough about the topic to judge if the author is being accurate? If not, they need to verify assertions by finding the documentation that supports the author’s point of view.
If students are in their early stages of research or if they are citing articles in a non-research class that does not involve broad based reading, we can ask students to conduct Internet searches on the topic to discover whether or not what is written is consistent with what else is being published. Searches should also be made to check accuracy of quotations; especially to determine whether or not the quoted material is made up or taken out of context.
I teach students how to do Google image searches which they can use to determine whether or not the photographs show what they are reputed to show or whether or not they have had their meaning changed by cropping the image. Especially if the image is clearly deceitful, students need to be cautioned that the article itself might not be credible. Even if there is a stock image used, accuracy is important. I once read an article where the author was being critical of the institution where I teach. To illustrate the article there was an image of a large lecture hall. Our maximum class size is 31.
Especially for contemporary topics, students should be encouraged to check websites that specialize in fact checking. Websites like Snopes, Politifacts, and Truth or Fiction lay out their evidence so that the reader can judge the work of the fact checker. Teaching fact checking skills has become even more important than recognizing credible sources.
The lack of knowledge that many students have when it comes to verifying truth and relying on credible evidence can lead to a pervasive dissatisfaction and dread of entering the classroom. Instead of falling into a pit of gloom because students don’t know what we think they should know, it is better to accept the reality of their ignorance12 and to teach them the skills they need to be successful. Maybe they should have learned those skills before entering our classroom. But, as the old saying goes, “We need to teach the students we have; not the students we want to have.”
Image: Tips and Tricks #01
Everyday Tips and Tricks for Avoiding Pervasive Dissatisfaction
In twelve step programs, there is a saying that insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results. Sometimes, the move away from pervasive dissatisfaction is to try a different approach that might change situations that lead to our dissatisfaction.
Teach syllabus on second day instead of the first.
Do something substantive on the first day.
When teaching syllabus, teach how to read syllabi in general, not just your own.
Offer varieties of methods for participation.
Provide class notes or other email summaries of the class.
Include a section called “Forthcoming” that allows students to access materials in advance.
Reach out to students who are exhibiting “irresponsible” behavior to see if physical or mental health, transportation, or other issues are the root cause of the behavior. Students do not always communicate those issues with us without some prompting.
Do not quickly jump to the conclusion that students are “choosing” to be irresponsible when systemic or personal issues are actually interfering, forcing them to make the best choices they can under the circumstances.
Discreetly talk to the student before or after class or during break to see if everything is alright with them.
Include a section in the syllabus about what to do when life gets in the way.
State in class that students should ask you questions even if they don’t think you know the answer. Tell them you likely won’t, but you know where to find the information.
Mention college services such a food pantries, learning support services, or offices for accommodations, mental, health, or veteran’s affairs.
Whenever possible, walk with students to support offices.
Don’t get upset if you have to teach how to do image searches or other skills you want them to know. Getting upset changes nothing. Teaching the skills makes your life easier.
While sometimes appropriate behind closed doors, venting is a dangerous luxury that can lead to increased dissatisfaction without facilitating change.
As faculty members, we need to accept that there is a limit as to what we can do to assist any particular student.
We need to recognize that our pedagogical choices can contribute to student difficulties.
Realize that even if something works for you that it might not work for everyone.
Teach strategies that don’t make sense to you or that you don’t use.
When you teach those strategies, let students know that they don’t work for you, but that they do work for some people
Ask yourself if a specific rule or requirement is really necessary.
Ask students if a specific rule or requirement makes sense.
If it doesn’t you might discover that the student is correct and you need to change.
If it doesn’t you might discover that you need to better explain the rationale so that students realize that you are not just being arbitrary.
Adopt that attitude that students need to do equivalent work; not identical work.
Provide choices for meeting course competencies.
Prepare students for adult decision making.
This line is from a 1971 Pogo cartoon that was published on Earth Day in 1971. Pogo is telling Porkypine that the enemy to the environment is each of us.↩
When I attended a college sponsored training on 26 August 2019, we were asked to record our reflections on a worksheet and turn them in at the end of the day. People who did this were eligible for prizes. Even though I did not care about the prizes, I initially felt bad that I would not be eligible for prizes simply because I would be writing my reflections later. Then I noticed that the organizers had taken people like me into consideration. We had a week to submit our notes before the drawing took place. Even though I did choose not to submit my notes to qualify for a prize, it was really my choice and I was grateful that I had not punished because I could not produce meaning work in the moment.↩
I find that the Pass/Not Yet grading system I advocate elsewhere does not lend itself well for the online courses I teach. Therefore, the online courses provide a combination of Pass/Not Yet grading and other procedures.↩
Lythcott-Haims, Julie. “What Overparenting Looks Like from a Stanford Dean’s Perspective.” Mindshift. 9 June 2015. Excerpted from How to Be an Adult: Break Free from the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kids for Success. Henry Holt, 2015.↩
Schultz comment that “At most I would like the books eradicated from the system. I don’t want them taught anymore. I don’t want anyone else to have to read this garbage” was reported in Emerson, Sandra. “Crafton Hills College Student, Parents Protest Material in Graphic Novels English Course.” Redland’s Daily Facts. 11 June 2015. Retrieved 23 November 2018. The case is summarized well in Murphy, Anna. “CA College Student Challenges Graphic Novel Syllabus.” Library Journal. 20 July 2015. Retrieved 23 November 2018.↩
Emerson, Sandra. “Crafton Hills College Student, Parents Protest Material in Graphics Novels English Course,” 11 June 2015.↩
I completed my search on 2 November 2017.↩
When I post such emails to the class, I make sure that the student cannot be identified.↩
Many of these steps are found elsewhere in this book.↩
Harwell, Drew. “White House Shares Doctored Video to Support Punishment of Journalist Jim Acosta.” The Washington Post. 8 November 2018. Retrieved 24 November 2018.↩
Martinez, Didi. “Kellyanne Conway says Jim Acosta video was 'sped up,' but not 'doctored.'” NBC News. 12 November 2018. Retrieved 24 November 2018.↩
I use the word “ignorance” because later in the book I will discuss “Accepting the Reality of Our Ignorance.” To be ignorant of something is not a pejorative term.↩