Teaching is replete with its frustrations. This was true before the Pandemic, and is even more so now. Here is a running list of things I have to remind myself of throughout the semester, so as to be ever cognizant of the needs of my students and their teacher. I intend to keep this list updated and republish it every term; any teachers in my audience are encouraged to post comments.
For the last couple of years, the educator’s internet has been awash with advice articles. Of course, we’ve always had to put up with unsolicited advice–often in the mandatory form issued by legislators with no pedagogical experience–but the Pandemic has seen a real boom in the educational advice economy, as more of us are trying to figure out what we’re doing, and sharing with each other whatever useful scraps we’ve kludged together. At best, these are conversational: the author comes to us as a human being, sharing their specific priorities and practices, along with the philosophies and rationale. At worst, these are given to us as Pronouncements from On High, and the authors condescend to us as prophets.
Oh heavens, I don’t want this to be in that latter camp.
Much of the advice I give and receive as an educator tends to be aspirational. It’s not the matter of stone-bound dicta that we live our lives by, but precepts that we are always trying to approach. I write this post, not to position myself above my colleagues, but to remind myself of what I want to achieve.
I’ve taken a lot of the things that I have to remind myself of over the course of a semester, and I’ve put them together in one place. I can come here, read the headings in a single litany, or linger over a particular point for a more detailed reminder. This is primarily for myself, but I’m sharing it. I always tell my students, “Don’t be afraid to speak up just because something gives you a problem. There are probably a half-dozen classmates with the same problem who will be encouraged to hear it voiced.” Well, here I am, putting my money where my mouth is.
Again, I am the main audience here. I belabor this point so you know that the observations you’ll read here aren’t indications of how enlightened I am. Quite the opposite–these are the places where I need a guardrail. If this post is of any assistance to my colleagues, though, I would love to hear it. Just as I would love to hear any additions you might recommend in the comments.
“Your Clichés Are Their Discoveries”
Jeff, your life changed when you transitioned from grad student to faculty. But your intellectual processes did, as well. All through grad school, you were moving forward. There’s a multi-year narrative there of your progress as an intellectual, as you learned new concepts and built on those concepts and then built on that new layer, and so on. And you were not the only person making these changes. Your cohorts were all developing, and your mutual discussions showed this increase.
This has conditioned you to expect, on some level, parity between your own development and that of your students: each year you develop, so each year your students should be more developed. But you teach undergrads, not graduate students. What’s more, you teach at a two-year college, so you are always repeating those early stages of introduction and discovery. By the time the students become more sophisticated as scholars, thinkers, and writers, they go on to a different school.
I know. It’s very frustrating. You’re always going to be Sean Connery in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, saying of generation after generation of Indies, “You left just as you started to get interesting.” Know that that frustration is coming, so when it appears you do not ascribe it to other things–such as malice or unseriousness on the part of your students.
When you read their writing, you may be tempted to roll your eyes at a simplistic observation about the identity of a narrator in a text, or of an “overlooked” meaning to a poem that is actually the standard reading. Unroll those eyes, Chuckles: these students are just starting their process. Think about the things you wrote when you were in your first two years of college. Think about “discovering” a theme of sanctimoniousness in the writings of Flannery O’Connor. Hell, Jeff: you frickin’ love Kurt Vonnegut, and the bulk of his appeal is in “obvious” truths stated plainly.
Don’t be Angelica from Rugrats. When they find these connections, don’t slap at their hands and say “That’s for babies!” Run with their excitement. Encourage them, as you were encouraged.
“The Duty of Care Is a One-Way Street”
You give a damn about your students. You may not always know what to do with that damn. You may not always be equal to their needs, but you care. And yet, often it seems like that’s only going in one direction. To be fair, there are days when everything clicks, the students are helping maintain a lively discussion, and everybody’s interest in the matter at hand is apparent. You walk away from those classes with your feet barely touching the ground. But sometimes–most of the time–you put so much of yourself into class, into trying to lead discussions, into giving encouraging feedback on papers, and all you get are gray screens and an empty chat box.
You’ve gotten angry. You’ve gotten down. These are human reactions, and it’s okay to feel them.
But they are not the responsibility of your students.
You have a duty of care to these students. They have none to you. They are not responsible for your emotional state, and are not to be reprimanded for your frustration.
This is a line that, so far, you have not crossed. But you have stay vigilant.
Here it’s important to maintain life outside of the classroom. There are people in your life who love you and can help you with that stuff. None of them are in your class.
“They Are Not Your Advisor”
You’ve gotten better about this one in the years since you completed your PhD, Jeff. But you still have to remember it sometimes.
In grad school, especially in the PhD, far too much of your progress and success was bound up in the reaction of a single individual. After completing your course work, you lived and died by whether your dissertation director thought your progress was adequate.
But after you graduated, remember how ragged you ran yourself. You could not let yourself be a day late in getting a student their grade. You put everything aside to answer an email you got on the weekend at ten o’clock. You festooned every comment with lengthy qualifications in anticipation of a hundred questions the student hadn’t even asked. In short, you had made every one of your students your new dissertation director.
It wasn’t healthy when there was just one person that you gave all this power to.
It sure as hell isn’t healthy when you have over a hundred.
These people are not your director. They are not your boss. They are not even your customer. They are your students. You do your best to see that you can help them succeed, but you do not put yourself through the meat grinder. It isn’t good for you, and it isn’t good for them to see that self-destruction modeled as a professional norm.
A lot of the points in this litany are obligations you place on yourself. The litany becomes unsustainable if you don’t remember that you have a life that does not belong to them.
“Don’t Torture a Dozen to ‘Punish’ One”
You will have features in your course that are there to give your students a measure of grace and a modicum of understanding.
Some students might take advantage, though! Some students might ask for an extension, not because they “need” it, but because they didn’t take the class seriously enough to start their projects in a timely manner! Some student who doesn’t work two full-time jobs while raising a family might take advantage of your lax deadlines!
So what? What are you going to do? Means-test your compassion?
There are ways to do it, of course: forms you can make them fill out to change an essay topic, specific conditions they must meet before requesting an extension, grand performance of loss and suffering they must make before you will shift your stone-carved policies one iota. And while you’re running around maintaining all that shit, you’re squandering the attention that could be going to helping students who want to learn but need your help to do it.
Those Zack Morris students who insist on gaming the system? They’ll always be there, patting themselves on the back for how clever they are, because they put in a week’s planning to avoid an hour of work. They’ve decided they’re going to game your class, no matter what you do. So don’t play their game. They can have all the satisfaction of a dime-store Houdini escaping from imaginary handcuffs. Don’t put snares in front of a hundred real students just to catch one hypothetical jerk.
“Don’t Grade on the Ineffable”
When you grade, keep looking over the assignment–the actual prompt document. Look over the materials you gave them. What have you actually asked them to do? Grade on that.
“Oh, but they should know that the comparison/contrast argument needs to have these features.” Why should they know it? Did you teach them?
“I can’t teach them everything. They have other teachers.” True. And sometimes those other teachers need reinforcement. I’m not saying every class has to have a session on how to write a thesis statement or format a paper. But make sure the students know where to find that reinforcing information.
Remember, these are early scholars. They haven’t mastered a lot of those moves. They’re still building up their intellectual toolboxes. Be clear in what you expect of them, and judge them based on how well they have met those expectations–not the unspoken ones that have only ever lived in your head.
Never grade on je ne sais quois.
There. It’s out there in the world. However, I do not expect to have gotten this right, perfect, or complete. I may add, remove, or change any of these, and would love to have feedback from my fellow educators. Perhaps you have some version of this litany. What is there that I’m overlooking?