Giving a Damn When it Counts

Two weeks from now I will once again don my academic regalia (which, for some reason, is almost always donned in the humid heat of late August and late May) and prepare to celebrate my students who will graduate from college. Some will actively avoid me. Some will have forgotten about me. Some will embrace and thank me. Some will keep in touch, while others I will bid farewell for the last time.

Of course, some of them I will be glad to see go. Some (sadly, more than I would prefer) I will have forgotten. And some I will remember fondly and miss genuinely. Inevitably there will be some with whom I will miss an opportunity to congratulate and say goodbye… which bothers me for a bit. But I remember that the day is not about me — it is about them, and what they have accomplished (or will, after those elusive few make-up credits). My experiences with them are certainly varied. Some were an intellectual and emotional joy to work with over the months and years. Others I recall for that one ten-week term they tried my patience and raised my ire. Still, what they have accomplished is worthy of celebration, and at these times I mourn as well the kids who, for whatever reason, weren’t able to successfully get this far.

One of the valuable things about being in this job for a while is the unique opportunity to observe something of the lives of our students over time. Rationally, we realize that our students are complex human beings with often unpredictable, messy lives. Still, there is much about their lives we are not privy to observing, and these sometimes crucial moments of anxiety or struggle can be easy to forget. Such a moment finds me today, as I prepare to grade a stack of students work, some of which will make me smile, and some of which will make me grimace and swear.

Sam Bell of Johnson County Community College wrote a piece for a recent Chronicle of Higher Education blog that provides a helpful reality check as some of us push through the final days and weeks of grading student work from our limited frame of reference as our students’ classroom teacher. It is important for us to be mindful of the human lives that define them apart from our role in it, and to be capable of the compassion and concern for their learning that brought us to this profession in the first place.

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Why Professors Should Give a Damn

The spring semester is coming to a close. That means students are trying to pull up their grades, professors are finishing projects and committee work, and almost everyone is running low on patience. On social media, I’ve seen an uptick in professors’ complaints about their students. Recently, I read a thread on a social-media site that minimized a student’s struggles because she had asked for an extension on a deadline. Faculty members castigated her and welcomed her to “the real world.” One suggested how to avoid dealing with her. Are we serious? If we don’t understand students’ real-world dilemmas, what are we doing teaching?

[more reality check after the break!]

Complaining about students minimizes the work that we, as college professors, do. It’s not funny to complain that a student’s “second grandmother died” this semester. If you can’t trust your student enough to try to have compassion, how can you willfully allow the student to sit in your classroom comfortably? If a student discloses that he missed a paper deadline because his son was in surgery, or because he’s been having severe anxiety, are we seriously asking for a doctor’s note? Does your boss (your dean, your administrative assistant, your officemate) ask for a note when you suffer a loss, or when your son needs care, or when you take a much-needed personal day? I doubt it. And if that does happen, you’re being degraded at work.

My vehemence aligns with current research on student depression, anxiety, and suicide rates. Students on all types of campuses suffer, and many suffer alone. Academe has built a very dangerous facade: It can be unforgiving, rigid, and fear-based. The risks outweigh any prestige we think we’re providing by perpetuating this negative climate. In the 112-college system of California community colleges, Chancellor Jack Scott has taken note because of the high stakes, including recent data that show that “stress, anxiety, and depression are among the top factors that affect student academic performance.” Put another way, when we ridicule students, we become part of their problem.

Over a year ago, a 19-year-old student of mine committed suicide. I had been recommending our campus counseling services to him regularly. I could not have stopped him.

When you truly watch students, you see their suffering. That matters more than their late papers. When I asked my students to grade my teaching performance at midterm, one student gave me a D because I was a “hard grader.” Her papers, in my mind, were underdeveloped. I assumed her to be a mediocre student. This week I met with her, one on one, to talk about her next paper, a major semester project. She said that she lives at home to help care for her younger siblings. They have special needs. Her role at home is consuming her time, instead of what I thought was typical college laziness. That was my issue as an educator, not hers.

At this point in the article, you’re probably angry and thinking thoughts that appear regularly on social media:

  • So what? We all have responsibilities.
  • All my students have issues. I can’t pick and choose who I feel sorry for.
  • This is college. If you can’t hack it, get out.
  • College is for people who are serious and able to be respectful enough to meet basic guidelines.

I want you to really examine the last year of your life. Really think about it. What was a struggle? A celebration? When did you come to work not 100-percent prepared for the class discussion or lecture?

Please don’t say never. The point is to be honest. Here, I’ll play along. In August my brother-in-law died suddenly. All my in-laws live in New York, and I teach in Kansas, so I was gone for a week from all my classes. When I got back, I had a grieving husband and four classes to manage. In October my grandmother died in New Hampshire. Same deal. Four classes, grief. You know what I didn’t expect? My colleagues to ask me to attend all my committee meetings, my dean to reprimand me for being absent to attend a funeral, or my students to be unforgiving when I had to miss a week of classes they were paying for.

My colleagues and students were incredibly kind, and I expected that basic human compassion. Our students are entitled to expect the same from us. We have to stop complaining. First, we must alter our mind-set and dispense with the notion that students are terrible, incompetent brats. They aren’t. When some 18 percent of undergraduates have thought seriously about suicide, we run risks that are larger than failing grades or upset parents.

I don’t mean to suggest that any student at any time could commit suicide unless you’re nice. No. I want only to remind you that students are people with lives, and those lives matter. I, too, hold a Ph.D. and have published a bunch and am proud of my academic career. But I am prouder of who I am as an educator. I am proudest of how I treat students. If we’re truly educators, we carry with us knowledge, the ability to communicate knowledge, and a duty of care that extends to those whom we’re lucky enough and grateful enough to teach.

Sam Bell is an associate professor of English at Johnson County Community College, in Overland Park, Kan.

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2 Comments

  1. This reminds me of a story just published by The New York TImes Magazine called “Who Gets to Graduate?” It details the intangibles of student success—things like self-confidence and drive—that one admin/former prof at the University of Texas is trying to hone in on and incorporate into a holistic advising program as a means of boosting the graduation rate and retaining less privileged students.

  2. Ben, thanks for the heads-up on that article. I appreciate what Augie is doing (and the plans in the pipeline for next year and beyond) to make advising and student success programs more effective. I know that new resources such as the Student Readiness Survey have helped me have much more useful and supportive early conversations with First Year advisees. I hope it makes a difference… I suspect it does.\

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