Tag Archives: students

What Is In a Name?

What is in a name?  A lot apparently, if this recent essay in Inside Higher Ed is any indication.  In it, Alexander Bolyanatz vigorously rejects the appellation of “teacher,” largely because of the connotations he believes it carries.  Drawing on the example of K-12 educators, he argues that these individuals, who should be called teachers, are called upon to be disciplinarians, to act in loco parentis, and are often perceived by their students as adversaries.  These associations, he believes, should not characterize the work of university faculty.  Further, he contends, he is not trained to be a “teacher” since teachers have “formal training in fields like pedagogy and learning” and he does not.

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The pushback against this essay has been hard-hitting.  And it has been heartening to see many college and university professors embrace not just the title but also the responsibilities of “teacher.”  Where I would like to enter the debate is to address an issue that I encounter frequently and have written about previously: the extent to which we as college faculty should be engaged with pedagogy and research on the science of learning.

The author is correct in asserting that most college and university professors do not receive preparation in pedagogy.  So add that to the list of things we should be changing about graduate education since the vast majority of us will not teach at R-1 institutions and will regularly and frequently stand before students and TEACH.  But in the meantime, shouldn’t we WANT to engage with this material?  I have written before about the perplexing–to me–phenomenon of some university professors ignoring the vast literature on how students learn and persisting in outmoded and ineffective forms of instruction.  I have several theories about why this is the case, but Bolyanatz’s essay highlights one of them: the unspoken and uncomfortable hierarchies by which we (sometimes) divide the world of education.

I suspect I am not alone in having heard and observed the following sentiments.  Being a college professor is better than being a high school teacher.  Within the post-secondary world, being an English professor who teaches literature is superior to being one who “only” teaches composition.  Those professors who teach “Math Ed”?  Not as good as those who teach advanced subjects.  And yet ironically we expect those whose work we rank lower to be the ones engaged with the literature and research on how to teach effectively and enhance student learning.

So when the author relegates the work of pedagogy and learning to K-12 teachers I believe that doing so is symptomatic of a larger dilemma in education writ large: the chasm that often divides post-secondary education from its secondary counterpart.  Though the author credits these teachers with having expertise in pedagogy and learning, he also simultaneously denigrates them by saying in the next breath that they act as adversarial disciplinarians.  In this he exacerbates the divide by fueling negative characterizations that separate these two worlds one from the other.

Some have generously argued that the problem in bridging this gap between the findings of pedagogy and the science of learning and university faculty is one of “communication.” We should communicate the results of the work on pedagogy and learning more broadly and that will change minds.  I wish I could be as sanguine.  I think the problem is deeper and rooted in these hierarchies which in turn foster prejudices and disdain.  So the remedy is interaction.  In my experience these hierarchies do not hold once one begins to interact with K-12 educators, composition professors, my colleagues who teach math education at the post-secondary level, and others whose work we are typically quick to trivialize or criticize.  Is teaching high school different from teaching college?  Absolutely.  Are the challenges of teaching freshmen composition different from the challenges of teaching literature?  Of course.  But different does not mean that one is better or more valuable than the other.  I am convinced that we have much to learn from each other if we open a dialogue across these gaps and subvert these hierarchies.  I doubt any one of us–regardless of what we teach–has cornered the market on pedagogical knowledge and insight.  I know I haven’t.  With any luck at all, the best teachers–yes, I said, teachers–are the ones who aren’t done learning how to teach.

 

Try a Little Empathy

As an administrator, I hear lots of complaints from faculty about students and from students about faculty.  It is part of my job to adjudicate these complaints.  But the longer I do this the more I am struck by a seemingly simple observation–but one that is not acknowledged frequently enough–that is at the core of many of these conflicts.  The uncomfortable truth is that the professor-student relationship is predicated on us having power over them. We can seek to mediate that to make it less intimidating. We can seek to be more collaborative and to become their partners in learning.  But at the end of the day we occupy a position of authority and we do powerful things like evaluating their work and assigning grades. I say this not to suggest that we should lord our power over them. Quite the opposite, in fact. Instead, I think we need to remedy our (occasional) failure to fully appreciate how our students experience the power that we have over them.  We need to try a little empathy.

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Too often, our reactions to students assume a disrespect or malice that I don’t think is there. I think instead that students are worried and anxious. I am not saying we should be pushovers. Or that students should be coddled. But I am saying that a little empathy could be constructive. And in my experience, coupling that empathetic disposition with listening can really keep the situation from escalating.

So, like you, I get emails and have interactions with students where they make requests that rankle me: they want extra time to turn in an assignment, they want a detailed study guide for the exam, etc.  There was a time when I would have gotten my hackles up: “how DARE they make these unreasonable requests?”  But I have found that doing so was a failure on my part to consider the anxiety that might reside behind such petitions.  Unreasonable requests are often the last-ditch effort of students who are panicking about a grade.  Is it likely that they got themselves into this pickle to begin with?  Absolutely.  Do I accomplish anything by responding with outrage?  Probably not.

Instead, I have found that if I make my default setting empathy and I take just a few moments to ponder the concerns and fears of my students I am usually able to work towards a more constructive response.  Better still, if I have the opportunity to engage students and talk to them, and even more importantly, listen to them, they are more likely to eventually acknowledge their responsibility.  So whenever possible, find a way to engage with the student–easier to do if they approach you in person, but if they email, invite them to come to office hours or talk to you before or after class.  Email is notoriously bad at communicating tone and intent.  My point is this: oftentimes, students just need to be heard and give voice to their anxieties.  As a chair and now as a dean I continue to be surprised at how often a situation can be defused by just listening.  At least half the time, once a student has finished giving voice to the complaint/concern/frustration, the unreasonable request has evaporated, the student feels heard, and all of this without an escalation of the situation.

But if the unreasonable request hasn’t disappeared after a conversation, your response to that unreasonable request might still be “no.”  That said, I am still persuaded that a momentary flirtation with empathy costs us very little and may keep a situation from worsening.

Empathy has other roles to play in our interactions with students.  Your empathy should include, for example, never assuming that students know how higher education works. This is especially true, of course, for first-generation college students. Even a super-rigorous college prep high school cannot prepare them for the bureaucracy and interactions that define higher education. And this means that they may not know how to interact with you at first.  They may call you by your first name. They may express frustration when you don’t respond to their emails right away. Rather than take these things as a personal affront, take the opportunity to explain the rules of engagement.

As you interact with them, your empathy should also extend to realizing that you might be scary–or at least perceived as such. I like to think that I am nice, approachable, and reasonable in my interactions with students. And I suspect that eventually they are persuaded that I am. But for a student who has never taken a class with me or never come to my office hours, I may be scary and intimidating, no matter how relaxed or jokey or unpretentious I am.  I’m the one who graded that exam they want to discuss. I’m the one who will be hearing, and presumably evaluating, that comment they make in class. An appreciation of these potential tensions and apprehensions that sometimes result from the power dynamic in the professor-student relationship might go a long way to easing interactions with our students.

Some will say that this amounts to coddling students.  I couldn’t disagree more and am inspired by Prof. Sara Rose Cavanagh‘s wise work on the science of student emotions and learning.  She contends that we need to reject the false dichotomy of assuming “that we have to choose between rigor and care.”  Are students sometimes irresponsible and immature and even disrespectful? Absolutely.  My admonition to empathy is in no way meant to deny this.  And there may be situations where a more stern response is required.  My proposal, however, is modest: we should err first on the side of empathy.  Acknowledging the anxieties that adhere to the power we have over our students is a relatively small gesture that may have a large impact on their experiences and our interactions with them.

An Open Letter and Invitation to Nicholas Kristof

Dear Mr. Kristof,

I recently read your op-ed on the “The Dangers of Echo Chambers on College Campuses.”  Many things trouble me about your piece but for now I wish to address the caricature of higher education that undergirds your entire argument.  Oberlin, no disrespect intended, is not typical.  The notion that college campuses are “liberal bubbles” demonstrates a profound disconnect between public opinion and what a college campus actually looks like today.

The students who populate these campuses are clearly not what your piece suggests as a study on higher education reveals: “The National Center for Education Statistics reports that of the 17.6 million people enrolled in college in the fall of 2011, only 15 percent were attending a four-year college and living on campus. Thirty-seven percent were enrolled part time, and 32 percent worked full time…More than a third were over 25, and a quarter were over 30. By 2019, the percentage of those over 25 is expected to increase by more than 20 percent.”

In other words, the college campus of which you write is an outlier.  It is not typical.  The new traditional student is not eighteen, probably commutes to school, may not attend full-time, and would find the college campus you describe to be quite alien.

These statistics provide a powerful counter, in fact, to the very dangers of insularity that you decry.  Diversity is not simply political or ideological.  It is generational and experiential as well.  When I look out at a classroom that includes a nineteen-year old, a thirty-ish year-old single mother putting herself through college, a returning veteran, and the handful of individuals who are over sixty and participate in a program my college offers that allows them to take classes for free, I don’t trouble myself much with a worry about a liberal bubble.  Instead, I relish their discussions of the assigned material, as each brings to bear a distinctive perspective that educates the others.  There is nothing “shrill” about this exchange.  And if anything, I have observed in over twenty years of teaching at this institution, that their exposure to such a diversity of life experiences encourages a civility and open-mindedness that serves them well both inside and outside the classroom.

If anything, your caricature of higher education only serves to feed its critics on the right.  When you accuse us of operating in liberal echo chambers and behaving shrilly and illiberally you endorse the image that conservatives have used to undermine and underfund institutions of higher learning.

The only cure it would seem, is to understand better what college campuses today are really like and to actually meet the students who populate them.

And so I end this letter with an invitation.  And a sincere one at that.  Come visit me and my students at an urban, public university where many of my students are Pell-eligible, working multiple jobs, raising families, all while being among the most engaged and diligent students I have ever had the pleasure of teaching.  Spend a day or more with them, talking to them, listening to their experiences, and discovering more about what it’s like to be a typical college student today.  I think you will be pleasantly surprised to find that they are not the straw men and women that your piece makes them out to be.  They are living, breathing students who have a lot to teach you.

Academic Kindness

Not gonna lie.  I’m angry.  As I reflect upon the presidential election and the troubling ripples it continues to cast I am angry.  And fearful.  I have tried in the short-term to productively channel these emotions by calling my congresspeople and making donations to various organizations.

But in the longer term I have concerns about my anger.  I think it is okay to be angry, but generally speaking I am aware that my anger and fear have made me impatient and short-tempered in my daily interactions with colleagues and students.  And this worries me.  While I think anger can be an inspiring emotion–it can motivate us to take action and fight back–it is ultimately, in my experience, an exhausting and unproductive emotion if you inhabit it for too long.  So inspired by a terrific Tumblr account and the Twitter hashtag #AcademicKindness, I’m determined to find ways to insert more of this into the culture of my campus and my broader professional communities.  And before you accuse me of being a Pollyanna and just trying to paper over real problems with sunshine and flowers, I also want to offer some insights as to why such an approach has merit beyond temporarily assuaging unpleasant feelings.

Being truly present for my students.  Over and over again the evidence about retention and student satisfaction demonstrates that one of the most significant factors is the sense of connectedness that students form with their professors.  In his book, Small Teaching, James Lang highlights small, easy things we can do to reach out to our students.  For example, arrive a few minutes early for class and make a point, over the course of the semester, to chat with each student–not just the ones in the front few rows.  The twenty-first century university has, in my opinion, become too enamored of shiny software fixes.  Yes, that clever online advising system does make a difference, but so does something deceptively simple: human relationships.

Such an approach doesn’t just make students happier, it can also impact student learning.  In their book How College Works, Dan Chambliss and Christopher Takacs have demonstrated that student motivation increases when they sense this kind of investment and attention from their professors.  If we can engage students at this level, then we can leverage that motivation and enthusiasm in other ways that promote their learning.

But then it occurs to me, why would we limit such an approach to our students?  Surely we want to retain good faculty and colleagues and promote their job satisfaction, too, right?  Surely, we want to motivate them to do their best work.  What might this look like in practice?

Create community among our colleagues.  And no, I don’t mean department meetings.  I never cease to be amazed at the power of a shared meal or cup of coffee and conversation.  When I was a department chair I instituted a weekly opportunity for faculty to gather, imbibe some caffeine, and share a snack.  It cost next to nothing and it fostered tremendous good will.  Some of the conversations inspired new initiatives and projects.  We could replicate this practice or variations on it across various categories enacting it at the departmental level, as a way to foster interdisciplinary conversations, or to bring colleagues together to discuss teaching and pedagogy.

Recognize good work.  Let people know when they’ve done something you appreciate or find valuable.  In these short-tempered days I am very quick to complain about the colleagues who annoy me.  But this it to ignore the ones who unfailingly meet deadlines, produce great work, or otherwise are just easy and pleasant to work with.  And here, too, the lessons from student motivation and learning have something to tell us.  Much of what drives faculty is the reward system of tenure and promotion–in other words, they are extrinsically motivated.  Staff motivation is often built upon a parallel rewards system of merit pay and the like.

But in these difficult times I believe it is all the more important to help connect the people we work with to intrinsic motivation, something bigger than themselves and beyond the quotidian tasks at hand. Research has demonstrated that the more specific we are in our praise of students and the more we connect it to their development of skills or a larger purpose, the more it resonates with them and motivates them to improve or continue to perform at high levels.  So rather than simply thanking a staff member for helping a student, what if it went something like: “thank you so much for taking the time to work with that student.  Connecting her to that important resource is going to help with her graduate school application.”  And for the faculty colleague: “I really appreciate your hard work on that report.  Your thoroughness is going to make it much easier for me to argue with the dean for new positions.”

Finally, practice some academic kindness on yourself.  I know it’s a busy time of the semester/quarter/term.  But this week commit to carving out 20-30 minutes in your schedule for something that is pure joy for you: reading for pleasure, going for a run, watching an episode of your favorite sit-com, taking your dog for a walk, enjoying a meal and conversation with your partner or a friend, or maybe, just maybe sitting still and doing nothing.

We Are All Bunnies

I’m sitting at my desk today watching the reactions and commentary about the situation at Mount St. Mary pour in via Twitter and Facebook.  In case you haven’t read about it yet: here’s the latest.  Those of us who recognize the value of tenure, still believe there is a place for respectful disagreement in higher ed, and want better things for our own students and institutions are a bit speechless (which would be a wise strategy if you were at Mount St. Mary).  Horrified and shocked and saddened seem the most common emotions.

I’m guessing that this drama isn’t over yet.  I expect lawsuits, alumni protest (at least the president can’t fire them), and hopefully, some response from the college’s Board of Trustees.  But in the meantime I think we faculty and administrators at other institutions need to do three things.

The first is to engage in some self-education.  What are the policies and procedures at your institution governing speech?  In one of the first ripples in the drama at Mount St. Mary it became clear that the university had a policy that “all university employees must clear any communications with reporters first with the university spokesman.”  What is YOUR university’s policy in these matters?  Perhaps there isn’t a policy, which is probably a good thing.  But my PSA to you is to find out.

The second two items hinge on the assumption that in the current higher ed climate no one is immune from these kind of actions.  We can shake our heads and wring our hands and say how messed up things are at Mount St. Mary, but I bet our colleagues there didn’t see this coming, either.

So the second item is to become the allies of vulnerable individuals at your institution who might end up in the firing line.  A particularly troubling part of the recent developments is that the untenured facultly advisor to the student newspaper, which leaked the president’s emails, was one of the faculty members fired.  I’m not sure what sort of things might have protected this individual, but having senior, tenured members of the faculty recognize his vulnerability would be a good place to start.

The third item is to write and tweet and post about this as much as possible.  And sign this petition.  We need to recognize not just that this could happen to us wherever we are, but that we need to be in solidarity with our colleagues at other institutions.  It is easier to pick off faculty like this if the perception is that they are isolated.  And I say this to my fellow administrators, too.  We need to say that this kind of management is unacceptable and an insult to the enterprise of higher education.

Here and Now

For many of us today is a holiday.  And yes, I am using it to run errands, get caught up on laundry, and go for a run.  But I am also trying to use it to pause and reflect as a way of honoring the occasion.

Ours is a world that desperately needs more justice and peace, and less division and hatred.  But these are overwhelming tasks.  I talk a good talk, but often feel like I fail to deliver on anything truly transformational.  But what if I boil it down to the essentials of my chosen vocation, higher education, and my daily work?  It is easy amidst the various crises that plague our profession to lose sight of our purpose.  And don’t get me wrong, the resolution of these crises–the exploitation of contingent faculty and the rising costs of higher education, for example–are at the core of ensuring that this world has more justice and peace, and less division and hatred.  So let’s keep doing that important work, but in the meantime, how do our daily tasks and interactions intersect with these larger aims?

We are here because students have come to us for an education.  That education encompasses everything both in and beyond the classroom while they move across our campuses–both the brick and mortar ones and the virtual ones.  And I know that we are all doing more with less and that class sizes have grown and advising loads have doubled and tripled, and that they upper administration is bloated and doesn’t get it.  But despite all of this, can we carve out moments and gestures that might make a difference?

Not long ago I had to sign about 200 form letters that congratulated students on a significant accomplishment.  In addition to signing my name, I wrote a simple “yay!” on each.  In total it maybe added 5 minutes to the tasks of signing all those letters.  One of the recipients of that letter recently thanked me for doing this.  At the time, I wasn’t sure it would make a difference, but it did for this student.  And that’s the tricky part: you never know what the impact of gestures like that might be.  And so it’s easy–and trust me, I’ve been there and done that–to just not bother.  I often lack the fortitude and the patience to take the time to do the things I’m prescribing here.

And it’s not just the nice stuff.  We can probably all recount stories of the professor or advisor that held us accountable in uncomfortable, but necessary, ways.  So this is not an argument for babying or pandering or being a pushover.  Our students’ education is certainly what we teach them in the classroom, but it is also the accumulation of all those other interactions–the conversation in the classroom door about why they were absent last week, the response to the frantic email that comes the day before a big exam, the advice about what classes to take next semester and why.  All of those scenarios might require stern words and consequences.  But the way we deliver that message–the words, the tone–will matter.

So I will continue to fight the good fight for better pay, lower tuition, smaller classes, and more tenure-track lines.  But I will also strive to remember that one part of achieving those things is  built on the accretion of these smaller, daily moments and how I handle them.

Role-Playing

No, I don’t mean Dungeons and Dragons.  And I also don’t mean some horrible team-building exercise where I play the role of the exasperated faculty member and you play the role of the department chair trying to help me.

What I do mean is a better-informed sense of what goes on in the daily work life of people on my campus and your campus.  What is it like to be the dean?  What is it like to be an adviser?  What is it like to work in student life?  What it is like to be a faculty member who teaches a large survey course?  What, dare I ask it, is it like to be a student at your institution?

In this age of demands for greater accountability and demonstrations of the value of a college education, we have all dug deep into our campus trenches, adopting a defensive posture.  Our constant refrain, regardless of which part of the university we speak from, is that “they” don’t understand.  Don’t understand what it’s like to teach large classes, balance the university budget, tutor poorly prepared students, etc, etc.  We would do well to remember that our enterprise is a common one: at the end of the day, when we are acting on our best intentions, we all want what is best for our students.

But universities are complex institutions.  As faculty our rhetoric rightly highlights the educational mission, and hence the centrality of our role in shaping curriculum and teaching classes.  We  are quick to rail against administrators who don’t get it, who don’t understand what happens in our classrooms, who are out of touch with our students.  Both our rhetoric and our railing may be appropriate, but at the same time, I wonder about two things.

First, to what extent is the educational mission of the university dependent upon those other pieces–and thus the work of non-faculty–falling into place?  About five years ago I had an administrative position that required me to implement a new general education curriculum.  This provided the opportunity to interact and work with a broad cross-section of the university.  I emerged from that experience with a much deeper appreciation of the work that advisers, admissions officers, student life leaders, and others do.  I realized the extent to which what happened in the classrooms of faculty who taught in the general education program was dependent upon the training and hard work of these individuals (It also gave me a ready supply of allies across the campus when I need questions answered and help with solving problems).  Prepared, enthusiastic, well-advised students, who get the occasional chance to blow off steam at events sponsored by student life are the students I want in my classroom.  That doesn’t happen without the dedication of the admissions officer, the adviser, and the student life specialist.

And as a corollary to this, what could we, as faculty, gain from role playing or putting ourselves in the shoes of our campus partners?  Could we better understand what it’s like to advise stressed students about their financial aid?  Or the difficulties of creating a vibrant campus life on a mostly commuter campus?  Or promoting good study habits amidst noisy dorm life?  You get the idea.

By the same token, what if we turned tables on this proposition and also encouraged our partners to sit in on a class or invited them to a department meeting where we discussed the common challenges of helping students with issues of time management?

I’m also going to propose that we move role playing up the food chain of the university.  When was the last time your dean or provost sat in on a class?  Or attended a student life event?  But by the same token, when was the last time that you looked at the university’s budget spreadsheet and sought to understand the how your state (if you’re at a public institution) subsidizes (or doesn’t subsidize) higher education and the pressures that creates?  Or appreciated the shifting demography of graduating high school seniors and the challenges that creates for admissions officers?

My point is simple: we’re in this together.  Rather than cry that no one understands the work we do, we should encourage others to see us in action and then return the favor for our campus partners.