Friday, January 13, 2006

Engage or Don't.

This recent spike in attention for Rate Your Students has resulted in a flood of new email from terrific correspondents. Over 3000 hits today and scores of interesting posts. This is my favorite of the bunch, and certainly one of the best things ever to grace this fledgling site. A Humanities prof at an art school in the South sends this:

A friend sent me the link to this blog with a question: "Catharsis?" Maybe. We have an ideal or value in common as professors, and that is that an education is a valuable thing, a good in itself. We are also generous: we want to share what we know. We are idealists of one stripe or another. The world from which our students come, and to which they will return, and in which they work while in college, does not hold those values. Also, I try to remember that 18 year olds are not now the people they will become, and the that person I'm teaching may not emerge for a while. Sure, I have students who drive me mad, and their general poverty of talent for "being students" is frustrating. That's their education. I tell them about this. They perk up. I was not always a perfect doll as an undergrad myself -- and now, I'm on the other side of the desk. Asked about me at 18, most of my profs would likely have just crossed their fingers, rolled their eyes, or held silent. I was not a treat. I earned the grade. But I was not a treat.

Sure we are sometimes appalled. Sure some of our students do come to class in altered states (since there have been universities, or symposia for that matter, students have come to class altered). Sure we wish some of them would put some clothes on. Sure, they sometimes threaten to kill us (four profs in my experience, all women, have been so threatened). Sure, the sense of entitlement is obnoxious and the result of their upbringing and previous education. Yes. Absolutely. This, in the modern age, is the job. As one of my former profs said when I asked why he never shared certain students' position papers, "I don't need them." After I blinked in astonishment, he said something like,"You, on the other hand, are actually trying to get Lacan. Your position papers get shared because you're trying. That is, you're sometimes wrong in a really interesting way, and it bothers you. Them? They're wrong and don't care." That was the day I learned that I could and should really expect adult level, heavy duty creative and critical thinking from my students. He "needed" us too, on some level, so he let the "problem children" go. And, well, taking that position saves me some emotional energy that is better spent on people who love me. Why try to feed someone who's not hungry?

I sometimes explain to my students what kind of work goes into becoming their prof. Some of them really do not know, can't even guess. I put it in terms of "becoming a professional" and "paying dues in any profession" -- because we do -- and because doing well in college shows a willingness to learn, and to pay those dues. Some of them listen.

Bitch, moan, vent, shake fist at heavens. Please do. Because teaching is a human interaction and it affects us just like any other human interaction. But then get on with it, stay open to them. We're the experienced adults in this context. We've been on both sides of the desk. We were not all perfect at being students when we were young. But, we caught the bug, fell in love with learning, and here we are. The ones with talent, and dedication, and drive, they need and want our guidance, advice ,and tutelage. is proof of that. It's also proof that some people are vindictive and vengeful and spoiled. What, really, is new? Vent away.

We need not be concerned. There is no statistical standardization for the RMP site. None. So the ratings you find there are without any real value compared to your course evaluations, which are properly measured. Some are offered in good faith, some are just emotive, and there's no standardization like the IDEA folks and other evaluations companies have. And I bet our administrators do not have time to dig around for what "the jock in the back" had to say.

I talk to my students about accepted methodologies, about national standards, about how accreditation works. I tell them to go read the syllabi for similar courses at other schools by searching on the web. They do. And then they know it's not them against me in whatever Oedipal drama they're still working out with their families. It's them against what's expected of them Out In The World (where their flat tire and their hangover and their break up don't matter and their habitual rebellious self-sabotage doesn't matter either). Then, I can be their guide and advisor, not their neurotic adversary. Most of the time, this works. And some kids, and some adults, are simply unaware that a touch of medication and therapy would do them a world of good. ;-) Probably including me.

Miss class? Have a receipt for the fix on that flat. Dead grandma? Funeral program. Missing homework? Email went to Mars? Nope. Leave me a hardcopy too. Dog ate your lap top (really, got that one)? Bring the receipt for the new lap top, and shoot that dog because it is a menace. Life has a paper trail. I make them show me the trail. Really cuts down the self-sabotaging and cynically manipulative lies they sometimes resort to. No paper trail, no extra help, no extension, nothing.

For my part, they get to choose. Engage or don't. I have a whole new crop to be available to next term. I'm a blip on your radar, you're a blip on mine. That blip can help you or not. I assume they're grown-ups, I treat them like grown-ups, most of them act like grown-ups. "Here's the community rules for my class. Come back next week and I will understand that to mean you agree to these rules. So, when you break them, you just get the consequences as spelled out in the rules. Your call."

Most of the time, that works. When it doesn't, they fail.