Image: You Forgot I Was a Seed
Gil Fronsdale explains that “honest awareness of what makes us imbalanced helps us to learn how to find balance.”1 Unfortunately, our students generally have not reached the level of emotional maturity to find balance on their own. This is not because of some failing on their part, but because they are young. Even non-traditionally aged students are going through periods of transition that can keep them imbalanced. As such, they are unable “to look over the whole situation, not bound by one side or the other."2
Much of the imbalance that students experience stems from fear combined with a lack of agency in their lives. When I say that students have a lack of agency, I am not arguing that they have no agency. What I want to do is emphasize that there are systemic issues both within and outside the college that students cannot control or over which they have minimal control. For example, when local K-12 districts close for a snow day yet the college remains open, students often need to miss class in order to care for younger brothers and sisters. Other students miss because they have no child care for their own children. To argue that these students have the agency to choose whether or not to attend class recognizes that there really is no viable choice for these students.
When a potential snow day is anticipated, I plan a lesson that students can do at home. The revised lesson often includes a video that students can watch with their children or younger brothers and sisters. I then screen the same video on campus for students who are able to attend class. Even if the storm knocks out Internet service or the student does not have Internet at home, it is easy for them to make up the missed work at a later time.
Not just do I make alternate plans, I let students know in advance that I am making these plans. That way, they don’t have to worry about child care and their responsibilities at home.
We can also reduce fear by speaking of our own failures. It is no secret that I almost failed out of graduate school because of excessive drinking. I will joke with students that my recipe for a mixed drink was when you dropped ice into your Scotch or vodka; something I discuss in more detail later in this chapter.
I also share my writing failures with students and share stories about when I have run into problems in professional settings; such as when a laptop computer jumped out of the back seat of my car and self destructed on the pavement as I was walking into a meeting during which I and some colleagues were asking for a $2,000,000 donation from a company for the non-profit agency for which I worked. Or there was the time I had a manuscript rejected simply because I used MLA formatting instead of APA formatting.
Finally, I set up my classes to allow students to fail assignments without failing the class. Elsewhere in this book, I go into more detail about my Pass/Not-Yet grading, my views on universal design, and other techniques techniques to help insure student success.
Students need to know that they can succeed or they might not try. The level of fear and uncertainty is so much higher today than it was even just a few years ago. As professors, we have a responsibility to assist students to reduce their fear. While doing so, we are able to empower them.
Image: Overcoming the Fear of Failure
Speaking of Failure
In “The Invention of Failure,” Dr. Cathy N. Davidson rightly argues that we should eliminate “flunk out” courses, which have traditionally been defined as rigorous and demanding simply because so many students fail them. Instead, she proposes developing rigorous and demanding courses, which both set a high bar of excellence and where all students could theoretically earn an “A.”3
While considering the invention of failure and its legacy, we also need to address the fear of failure that millennial students bring to the classroom.
Today’s younger students have too often been raised in environments that are overly protective. They have experienced “competitive” sports where no score is kept and everyone gets a trophy for simply showing up. These students have lived with helicopter parents who solve difficulties for their children instead of letting their children grow into adulthood by learning from their mistakes. Unfortunately, some of these “children” are already in their 20s.
Rigorous standards can be threatening to students who have not been permitted to experience failure. As a student once told my dean, “I don’t want to think. I want Dr. Berg to tell me what he wants.” This was a bright student who could have easily met the expectations of the course, but they were too afraid of failure to even risk starting out on the path to creating substantive, original work.
Some of the strategies I have been incorporating in my syllabi to address the fear of failure include:
Participation = 100%
If students attend class regularly and do their homework, they are essentially guaranteed an “A” in the course. Yet, while the guaranteed 100% is comforting to students who fear failure, high expectations mean that students cannot get a trophy by simply showing up for class. Students must be present and prepared. For example, students who don’t complete the required research for class will be permitted to participate in the discussion, but they will not earn any participation points.
In addition to daily activities, students also receive participation points for more substantial work. An assignment’s participation points can be worth 5%-15% of the total course grade. To include such assignments as part of a participation grade makes them less threatening to those students who fear failure.
It needs to be noted that participation is not as simply as I present it here. In my classes, we have an understanding that sometimes life gets in the way. When that happens, it is possible for students to make up participation points even if they were not physically present on a certain day or had not fully prepared for that day’s activities. Furthermore, as I argue elsewhere in this book, there are many reasons why a student might not be present or prepared.
For example, “I could not get out of bed today” might be a legitimate reason for a student suffering from anxiety or depression. Or an “irresponsible” student might have spent their textbook money for a new car tire so that they could make it to class. Even a student who is physically present in the classroom might not be engaged because they have not eaten and don’t know where their next meal will come from. As someone who arrives to campus a minimum of one hour before his first class, I once had to call the college to let my students know that I was running late because I-275 had turned into a parking lot in which I had already been sitting for 45 minutes.
Because I do not assign topics and instead insist that student projects grow out of broad-based reading, students can fear failure because they are not handed a rubric defining the specifics of their lightning talks or other major assignments. To help allay their fears, I give students a list of the types of references they will be consulting. It looks like a rubric and fearful students find comfort in being able to check off each step as it is completed.
I refer to this as a false rubric because it provides comfort without providing the specific details the fearful students want. Such overreaching details would get in the way of quality research.
The first research assignment I give each term is for students to look up their broad topic (e.g. the Civil War or contemporary education) in Wikipedia and to do an internet search concerning their topic. Because Wikipedia and Google are familiar to them, students do not experience a fear of failure. By the time they are asked to consult sources not written in English, they already have a series of successfully completed assignments and do not fear being asked to do the seemingly impossible.4
Teaching Previous Student Work
I regularly assign essays written by previous students. By assigning the work of previous students, current students are able to see the results of a process that they do not yet comprehend. I have created the Scholarly Voices website5 to publish student work. My students as well as the students of colleagues from around the country publish essays on the HASTAC website.6
Focus on Revision
Even if they totally bomb an assignment, I assure students that the worst-case scenario is that I will help them develop the skills they need to revise the assignment into a successful project. The focus on revision not only lessens the fear of failure, but it also reinforces the concepts of continuous improvement and building on success.
Another advantage is that I can push students to experiment and to take risks with their writing and research.
By focusing on revision, I can set aspirational goals that exceed the ability of my students. Because they don’t fear failure, students work toward those goals and generally accomplish them. For example, instead of saying that a research paper/project is due on a certain date, I scaffold the assignments in the following way:
Select something that interests you.
Complete Wikipedia worksheet which give students an overview of their area of interest.
Do library research on topic while working with a librarian and me. (This is done during class time).
Find a minimum of five quality Internet sources on your area of interest.
Create an annotated bibliography of those sources.
Repeat steps four and five for each of the following: journal articles, Google books, YouTube videos, newspapers, and non-English sources. Note: No more than two of these strategies is assigned at any given time.
Work with me to select a topic for their research paper/project. Note: During the research process, I have been meeting with students to direct their research, but I don’t allow them to define a specific research topic until they have an understanding of the material.
Repeat step nine as often as necessary and time permits.
Submit final manuscript.
Ironically, as I have taken steps to lessen students’ fear of failure, I have actually raised the expectations and rigor of the courses I teach. By breaking the research process into even smaller steps, I require more research than I have previously expected when I taught research in larger chunks. My students typically consult 40-50 sources which they have annotated even before they have decided on a specific approach for their research papers/projects. Because they do them just a few at a time, the quantity sneaks up on them.
Some Students Still Fail
Even when classes are designed for success, some students will fail certain assignments and the overall course. Others will have events from their personal lives take an unrecoverable toll on their academic lives. Others will make bad decisions that lead to failure and (hopefully) future learning. But, as Davidson argues, we should not design our courses in such a way that guarantees a certain percentage of our students will fail. Rather, we need to design rigorous courses where all students can theoretically succeed.
Image: Almost Failing Out of Graduate School, 1983
Teaching Our Failures to Benefit Students
One day, I drafted an incredibly boring essay. There was a kernel of quality in the draft, but I would need to cut at least 75% of the text before I could hope to produce anything publishable.
I was not the least bit concerned about the bad prose I drafted. I have a folder of abandoned drafts on my computer, some of which I will return to and others that will rightly stay abandoned forever. All writers produce failed prose. Even though the essay failed, my students still benefited from reading my failed prose and then discussing it is class.
We provide students with valuable insights about the writing process and help them gain critical thinking skills when we share our own failed drafts with them. In addition to showing students my published writing, I will sometimes ask them to help me edit failed manuscripts in order to make them fit to print. Students critique my work and help me to improve. By assisting me in editing my less-than-sterling drafts, they learn a great deal about the editing process. More importantly, this process empowers students who learn that they can provide meaningful feedback to their professor. By seeing me in a vulnerable position, it makes it easier for them to be vulnerable as their own work is edited.
I first began sharing drafts with students when I was a graduate teaching assistant at Michigan State University. At that time, we used a technology called the mimeograph machine. I would write papers with my students by feeding a purple ditto master into a typewriter. After typing the text, I would secure a special machine to print out copies of my manuscript for my students. The papers would come out as purple text on a white sheet of paper. Because neither self-correcting typewriters nor computers were readily available at that time, it was not possible for me to edit while drafting; something I do today.
Once when I shared the purple text produced after taking the ditto master directly from typewriter to mimeograph machine to an undergraduate class, one student commented, “You intentionally garbled this, didn’t you?” My response: “No. This is what all my drafts look like.”
I know I am not alone when I say that I don’t want most people to see drafts of my writing. However, I think it is important for students to see drafts; especially those that are most embarrassing.
In addition to sharing work in progress, we can also share mistakes we made in our professional lives. For example, I am upfront that I almost failed out of graduate school. I joke that it is difficult to do quality research while drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. I will even give them my favorite recipe for a mixed drink: drop ice cubes into your Scotch or Vodka. In discussing my alcoholism, I do not go into details about my addiction or recovery. Not only are the details none of their business, but sharing such details is not appropriate for the classroom.
When mentioning my failure in graduate school, I am able to model that there is recovery from our mistakes. I am also able to discuss services my institution provides to students as well as the endowment through which my family provides second chance scholarships.7
Lesser failures, such as that I had a manuscript requested because it was in the wrong format, can also be shared.
I also take responsibility for problems that develop in the course even if they were not my fault. Once, many of the course materials disappeared from our course management system after I had completed updating them for the new semester; a problem that was not my fault. But, as I wrote to my students after the problem was discovered:
We have had a bit of a rough start this semester with course materials not being available, a messed up grade book, and the wrong date on a quiz. I fear that we will discover other errors.
Instead of speculating on how these problem happened, as the professor of record, I need to take full responsibility for the problems and make sure that things are right.
There was a failure in the class and, as President Harry S. Truman maintained, “The Buck Stops Here.” This is an important message for students to learn and one we can help them learn when we model that behavior.
We all experience failures in our lives; sharing those failures with students can help them become better students.
Postscript: While working on this book, I taught the draft of one of the essays as well as the improved revision in one of my classes. The students responded that the original was better. After hearing them explain their position, I had to agree. That essay has been revised again (and again). Empowering students has its benefits.
Image: Educating the False Prophets
You Have a Right to Your Opinion—But Not in My Classroom
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees freedom of speech. As a result, many individuals are under the mistaken impression that all opinions are equal. This is not the case in my classroom.
My stance against certain opinions is not based on ideological reasons. Rather, I make a distinction between informed and uninformed opinions. There are opinions rooted in evidence and those that are not. In an academic setting, we do not deal with feelings. Instead, we deal with facts and logic.
Early in my career, during a discussion being held in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, a student began expounding certain racial theories. When I asked for supporting evidence, his response was, “I have a right to my opinion!” He was not amused when I informed him that we could not consider his opinion unless he could provide his colleagues with supporting evidence. He dropped the course.
Several years later, I had a student voice her opinion that I was trying to advance my religion because a course lesson was inspired by the life of Muhammad Iqbal, one of the intellectual founders of Pakistan. After she was informed that I am not a Muslim, she continued to argue that my purpose in teaching Iqbal was to advance my religion. That was her opinion, and she was sticking to it.
More recently, I had a student complain about the approach I was taking in one of my courses. When I pointed out that his absentee rate of 33% made it unlikely for him to understand the pedagogical basis for the course structure, he informed me that he had a right to complain and that he had a right to his opinion.
Opinions that are not supported by evidence, contradict evidence, or are determined prior to investigation do not have a place in academic discourse. In my classroom, such opinions are not open to discussion because there is no substance to discuss.
To paraphrase a colleague, it is our job as professors to help students learn that they are not the center of the universe. There are things that matter, existing outside of their opinion, their history, and their identity. We also need to help them appreciate that it is worth spending time with those things and learning from them.
In my classes, I teach authors with a variety of worldviews and many of them provide perspectives which challenge my thinking. Students are surprised when I mention that one of those authors—an author that I clearly respect—believes that I am going to hell. Although he is sure that I will be damned for eternity, his historical perspective is well argued and worth considering.
I also make sure to support my opinions with evidence and that my informed opinions are open to debate. For example, during one ancient world history course, I presented my case that the birth of freedom begins with the Battle of Thermopylae—an earlier date than the informed opinion advanced by a documentary I had screened. During the discussion, a student countered my argument by citing evidence concerning the small percentage of Greek citizens who were considered free in 480 BCE. This student—and his colleagues—were not required to agree with my opinion about the birth of freedom, but they did have to respect it and consider it because it was an informed opinion. In the same way, I need to respect and consider the informed opinions of students, even when I don’t agree with them.
We will always be confronted with those students who would prefer to drop our classes rather than to develop informed opinions, are content to maintain their opinions even when the factual evidence contradicts them, or will persist in advocating opinions prior to investigation. Most of our students, however, are open to accepting that there are things that matter existing outside of their opinion, their history, and their identity. Students are more willing to do so if we model the same behavior ourselves.
Image: Providing a Transformative Learning Experience
The Devil’s Den of Ignorance
While attending the 2014 Michigan Developmental Education Consortium Conference,8 I had the pleasure of hearing the keynote speaker, Consuelo Kickbusch. Kickbusch share her story about growing up in a small barrio in Laredo, Texas, which was called “El Rincon del Diablo,” or the “Devil’s Den.” During her presentation, Kickbusch recounted a climactic moment in her junior year of high school when students who wanted to attend college were asked to go to the cafeteria and the other students were told to go to the gym. Kickbusch went to the cafeteria. Her friend went to the gym.
Kickbusch’s story is one of an individual who was determined to overcome obstacles to achieve academic success. Her message about how to reach students like her is worth hearing. But what about her friend? How do we reach those individuals who do not have the desire, determination, or access to succeed?
In our role as college professors, there is little—if anything— we can do for Kickbusch’s friend who went to the gym instead of the cafeteria. Those students have been lost before we have the opportunity to engage them on our campuses. But what about those students who make it campus and still do not have Kickbush’s determination to succeed?
After Kickbush’s presentation, I spoke to an MDEC colleague whose son once told her that he had done enough to pass one of his college courses, and, therefore, he did not have to attend any more of the class. This was a class for which he was paying approximately $500 per credit hour. Unlike Kickbush’s friend, my colleague’s son came from a privileged background, which had provided him with the academic and social basis for success. Yet he chose not to succeed.9
Four years later, a community college colleague of mine shared this experience.
Empowering my students makes my job fulfilling. One student, in particular, stands out. She is a young Hispanic mother and the first in her family, including relatives, to go to college. Her mother told her she was too stupid to go to college and she would fail, but she wanted a better life for her children. She would talk with me after class and her life had been unimaginably hard and heartbreaking, but by encouraging her to speak in class and by providing some philosophical insights when we talked, I helped her build confidence and deal with a particularly troublesome event in her life. On occasion I'll see her in the hallway and she is happily on her way to getting an associates in the healthcare field. Every semester I have students who, all of a sudden, realize I'm teaching them to think and act purposefully in their lives, and when their faces light up, it's rewarding. This, for me, makes all the drudgery worthwhile.
At my institution, our mission is “to provide a transformative learning experience designed to increase the capacity of individuals and groups to achieve intellectual, social, and economic goals.” Unfortunately, being open to a transformative experience threatens the status quo, and too many individuals are not prepared to take the risks and responsibilities required for improving their lives.
While it might be too much to expect a high-school junior from El Rincon del Diablo to summon up the courage to go to the cafeteria without support from others, once students enter our classrooms, it is imperative to do what we can to support them “to achieve intellectual, social, and economic goals.”
Image: Those Who Benefit from Universal Design
Why I Don’t Worry (Much) About Student Accommodations
The week before each semester, I receive notices from our Disability Support Counselor about accommodations students need in my classes. Although I read the accommodations notices, I don’t worry (much) about student accommodations. The reason I don’t worry (much) is because I have already incorporated the most requested accommodations as standard practices available to all students.
Before discussing the specifics of accommodating students in my classroom, I want to reflect on non-academic accommodations such as having ramps next to stairs. As I walk from my office to the other side of campus, there is one part of my path where I can choose a ramp or steps. Although I do not need the accommodation of the ramp, I almost always take it. The ramp is easier for me to navigate than the steps. As a person who is currently able bodied, I benefit from this accommodation.
In the same way that the ramp benefits me, all students benefit from many accommodations for which they do not officially quality. For example, some students appreciate being able to preview a video or read a short essay before coming to class even though they do not require such an accommodation. Therefore, whenever possible, I try to provide all students with access to such materials in advance. They are neither required to consult the materials in advance nor are they disadvantaged in they do not consult them. But the opportunity is available if they want to take advantage of it.
When I give formal lectures, I make my PowerPoint slides available before class not just because I know that some students need the accommodation. I also know that most of the students who consult the PowerPoint before class or print it out to make it easier for them to take notes do not officially qualify for accommodates. Yet they still benefit from having the presentation available in advance.
Instead of giving timed exams, I have students do projects to demonstrate their learning. As a result, there is no need to worry about who in the class qualifies for extra time or requires a different room to take the exam. And all students benefit from the increased learning which projects provide over formal exams.
By making these accommodations available to all students, I also cut my workload. It is easier to post my PowerPoint in our course management system than it is to remember to send it out to certain students who requested the accommodation. In the same way, it is easier to send the entire class an email about a forthcoming video or essay than it is to send an email to the one or two students who require such an accommodation.
Although I don’t need to worry (much) about accommodations for specific students because the accommodations are already built into the course, there are two types of accommodations about which I do need to worry.
First, there are accommodations that are not routine. Although I have begun routinely printing certain handouts in 14-point type, it is not feasible—or even helpful to most students—to have everything printed in such a large font. While a deaf student might benefit from a transcriptionist, there is no benefit to trying to make transcriptionists available for everyone. Some accommodations cannot be realistically incorporated into the class for all students. However, for the students who require such accommodations, I want to make sure that those students get the accommodations they need.
Second, there are some students for whom I cannot provide reasonable accommodations. For example, because of how I arrange my classroom and because I move around throughout the class period, it is not possible for a student to “sit in the front of the room” because there is usually no area that consistently serves as the front of the room. In cases such as this, I discuss the issue with the student so that we can develop a strategy that best suits their needs and the realities of the pedagogical approach around which my classes are designed. For example, I once had a hearing impaired student who wanted to sit near the front of the class to make lip reading easier. While the request itself was not possible, I made sure that wherever I was standing in the classroom that I was looking at them.
Because I have already integrated the most common accommodations into my classes, I don’t need to worry (much) about providing accommodations to students who qualify for them. However, even if I did not care about student success, by incorporating as many accommodations as possible as standard components of the class, I make my job easier. Because I have structured courses in which I don’t need to worry (much) about accommodations, my students and I both benefit.
Image: Tips and Tricks #06
Everyday Tips and Tricks for Reducing Fear and Empowering Students
Students enter our classrooms with fear. They don’t know what to expect and have external pressures that they must succeed in an uncertain world. The more we move to a student centered classroom, the more fearful students become because they don’t know how to “work the system” to insure success. Saying that students learn to “work the system” is not a criticism of students. Instead, I am critical of the systemic pedagogies promoted by the hememony that define success so narrowly that they crush the creativity that leads to transformative learning experiences out of students. As professors who care about student success, we need to do what we can to reduce student fear while empowering them in ways they never thought imaginable.
Design classes to fascinate success.
Have false rubrics that are really checklists.
Take small steps.
Teach previous student work.
Focus on revision.
Share your failed work with students.
Teach students why not all opinions are equal by discussing the difference between a simple opinion and one that uses evidence to support it.
Respect the informed opinions of students even when you disagree.
Teach authors who challenge your thinking; not just your students’ thinking.
Practice universal design.
Make videos and readings available before class.
Make PowerPoints and lecture notes available before class.
Avoid timed exams.
Make “accommodations” available to all students by including them in your course design
Extended time on tests
Use projects instead of tests. Put quizzes in a course management system without a time limit.
Providing notes in advance
Post your notes, videos you intend to screen, and so forth in the course management system or email to all students before class.
Needing to leave class for medical reasons
On the first day of class, tell students who need to leave class that they should do so discreetly; that they don’t have to ask to go to the bathroom or get something to drink.
Don’t start sitting in front of class
Especially if you change classroom geography by moving chairs and tables around, move around the classroom so that there is no front.
When a potential snow day or other day where you anticipate large student absences, plan a lesson that students can do at home.
If you use a video, make it family friendly so that the student can watch it with their children or younger brothers or sisters.
Anticipate unofficial holidays: If you teach in Michigan, you can generally anticipate absences on November 15; especially if you teach in a more rural area so plan accordingly. Why November 15? It is the opening day of deer season.
You don’t have to approve to accommodate. I know that I will have younger students who want to vacation with their family the week after Easter because that is when K-12 schools take their Spring break. Although college my students are running on the college schedule; I don’t fight the reality that students want to be with their families.
Let students know in advance that you are making these plans. That way, they don’t have to worry about child care and their responsibilities at home.
Fronsdale, Gil. “Equanimity.” Insight Meditation, 2004.↩
Hahn, Thich Nhat. The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation. Broadway Books, 1999.↩
Davidson, Cathy. “The Invention of Failure,” HASTAC. 11 January 2015.↩
Students use Google translate to locate non-English sources.↩
The URL for Scholarly Voices is http://scholarlyvoices.org/.↩
The URL for HASTAC is https://www.hastac.org/. On HASTAC, we have created the Scholarly Voices ““Scholarly Voices” is a group which can be found at https://www.hastac.org/groups/scholarly-voices.↩
The Berg Endowment provides scholarship to students who are on academic probation or academic dismissal whom had at least one good semester.↩
In October 2019, MDEC changed its name to the National Organization for Student Success: Michigan Chapter (NOSSMi), an organization for which I currently serve as President.↩
Throughout this book, I frequently discuss socio-cultural and system reasons that impact student choices and caution that what appears to be a choice might be fundamentally out of a student’s control. However, there are students, such as the one cited here, who choose mediocrity and just doing enough to get by.↩