Helping or Hindering Students

I want to discuss the fine balance between helping and hindering student progress. I am trying hard to work on this balance, as I am quite aware that sixteen years into teaching I am still learning. My current student population is different from my students circa 2005-6. I have attended various workshops about our students and more specifically about first years. Our students require more hands on attention and most universities now have stronger recruitment and retention strategies.

What this means for me on the ground is that I try to provide students with as much information as possible. But, I have also learned some important lessons. Several years ago I helped my godson register for courses and purchase his books in the bookstore. This entire experience really stuck with me. I have more compassion for my students and I am less invested in “schooling” them when they miss the obvious. There is no obvious for the new student. When I say schooling I am really talking about how I know that I have to repeat myself about due dates, have the due dates bolded in the syllabi, and that students will still inquire about things in the syllabus.

I can only do so much, though, and the students need to meet me half way. What do I mean by that? They need to show up to class and come to my office hours. I am not in the habit of chasing students down between my various courses; however, I will make announcements in class or send announcements via the online learning management platform reminding them about course related issues or other campus events. I do contact students when they suddenly disappear. Here, I am not including students who are in crisis or have other issues like learning accommodations that I must take into account. Those students require a different level of attention.

I have resolved for honesty in my office and with my marking. This translates into support and at times brutal honesty while I am assessing work. I do my students no favor when I am not honest with them. This might mean that I am clear about my  assessment of an assignment or an issue regarding academic integrity. What does this also mean? I am listening more. Does this make me helpful? I hope so. This term a common statement, “What can I do to help your success in this course?” But, this requires that the student contact me. Like I often say in class, “I don’t have ESPN.” I know–I need to find new jokes.

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Some of You Will Like Me

Another term is ending for me and one theme that stands out for me is part of a lecture that I gave my students in my American Politics class. (The department renamed the course United States Politics, but my default over twenty years is American Politics. I know, I’m exercising American exceptionalism here or you can accuse me of that). The lecture was a primer one on how to do well on the assignments and I spoke to critical thinking and need for a higher level of analysis. I also advised them to come see me in my office hours. Then, I did something that I do not normally do. I referred to that site that allows people to rate instructors. You know which one that I am referring to–don’t you? It is like Voldemo…you cannot say the name!

The reason I referred to the site, as I explained to my students was that the last time I had quickly reviewed my ratings, I noted one person say that it is important to get me to like you. I recall having a quick laugh and smiling for the next twenty minutes, as this is not true. I told the students in my class, “I like all of you. The difference is that some of you will like me back.” I explained that my life is quite full and I am content. I also shared with them that my teaching philosophy statement notes that I am not in the habit of chasing the 5, which is the perfect score on our teaching evaluations. Yes, I had included this sentence in my dossier for a teaching award, the Faculty of Social Sciences Excellence in Teaching. I was honored to get the award! Back to my comments to my students, I was extremely honest with this group and later left the classroom feeling satisfied with this moment of brutal honesty.

The fact that a person or some people would think that instructors only “give” good marks to students that they like is false. Trust me, I have run the Excel equation and said, “Oh, no.” This is that moment when you really want a student to do well, but one assignment or two assignments sealed their mark with a C or worse. You feel for the student, but there is nothing you can do. Ultimately, what I told my students is that I try to have an open mind and that many of them come from various places across the province and some out of province. Regardless of where they are from there is a whole host of different views and more importantly different abilities with writing, thinking, and success with the work of being a student. I also explained to them that they will perform better in courses that they are interested in and should try to take courses that appeal to them. Then, they need to show up. Go to class, go to office hours, and get to know their instructors or Teaching Assistants. I even referrred to Wil Wheaton’s comments in a high school yearbook and he said the same thing: go to class, go to office hours. I agree with him. (Hey, follow him @wilw). In my opinion, it is not a matter of my liking you. No, it is about my assessment of the work and hopefully seeing an improvement through the term. This puts a smile on my face. It is great to write on the assignment: your work has improved, bravo!

The students who I mentor or coach I get to know better and subsequently do like them in a different way. I have had more opportunities to get to know them. And, I must say here that I have mentored more students who hold political opinions that are quite different than my own. My mentoring or teaching does not take this into consideration. Most years, I find that I am mentoring an equal number of women and men students; even though our campus is 60% women and 40% men. Overall, I would be hard pressed to say that I dislike a student. No, I am more apt to feel a negative thought about a colleague in another unit, who pontificates about how teaching is beneath us or questioning my presence on Senate as a teaching focused professor. These sort of statements rub me the wrong way.

I have a special place in students’ lives. I am part of their college experience. I can be a mentor or coach. I get to work with them and I think that is an honor. I do, but today I have 70 items to mark so it feels somewhat burdensome, but overall I think that I am in a great place. I was reminded of this last night when I attended a former student’s wedding. I had met her parents before, but to hear that to this day she still talks about my classes–I was touched. Over the course of my career, I have met many siblings and have taught all the siblings in several families and have had coffees to meet my students’ babies. Like I said, I am lucky and know that some of my students will like me. The tumbler below is from a former student. She has also worked with my kids–it is a small community. I wish her luck with what is next!

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Honesty Redux

This post just ran on UVenus and Inside Higher Education and I want to share it here on my personal blog. Saying that honesty is important almost feels like stating the obvious, but in practice it can be quite complicated.

A few weeks back I was chatting with a friend and she asked what my New Year’s Resolution was. I paused and thought about how I do not really believe in these sorts of things, but then realized that my resolutions are formed in late August or September, prior to a new school term starting. Last year my resolution was to continue to make mentoring my mandate. This school year my resolution was for honesty. Now, this honesty works both ways. I mean to continue to offer my honest, helpful comments to my students, mentees, and graduate students who I supervise or coach as my Teaching Assistants. But, it also means that I expect honesty.

What has this meant this last term? I have not responded to emails that crossed the line. I have set up face to face meetings with colleagues or students who sent the email to discuss the matter at hand. Life is too short to not communicate clearly and if I have the opportunity, I would rather clarify an issue face to face. This policy has worked like a charm. I have felt clarity with an honest conversation where all parties really come from a place of “I” and not “you”. I think I have to thank the Human Rights office and the two committees that I have sat on for the last year and a half for the foresight and tools to make me a better communicator and also expect the same from my students and colleagues.

In terms of my blogging and social media visibility, this has also meant that trolls exert no power or emotional energy for me. I am not saying that they took up that much space before, but now they take up zero space. I easily ignore them and move on, and this is quite freeing. I have used this place of honesty as a way to forge productive energies. I do not think that trolls are practicing honesty. No, the keyboard warrior is actually a coward. I have previously heard that I am blunt or brutally honest, and I think that these assessments have been fair. However, I do think that this resolution of honesty is different for me and my interactions with students.

I no longer circle around comments and waste time trying to not offend and choose my words ever so carefully. There are moments when you really cannot find something positive to say about a student’s work. This does not mean that I lack compassion or do not try to help my students perform well.  I offer constructive, honest comments and if this means that I state, “This is not your best work. This is sloppy work. You did not review my syllabus closely.” I will say it. I have said it. The reactions from students have varied and I know that one student thanked me profusely for my honesty. His next two assignments were stronger, and during the holidays he sent a nice thank you note. I was clear that he had not submitted his best work and that I expected more from him. I have told my mentee that I expect her to participate more in class—that she does not get a free pass—no favoritism. Guess what—she started talking more. I raised the bar, and many students responded with better work.

Sure, there was a student or two who noted something to the effect of, “I’ve never had a professor be so forward or speak to me this way.” My response was that I was sorry that no one had taken the time to be honest. I do not live my life by the students’ comments on sites about professors—see I won’t give them a shout out. I prefer to see the student do well, try harder, and graduate. I am not in the department to make friends. I am mentoring students and this includes honesty.  The year is halfway over and I will continue with my resolution of honesty. I really believe that the vast majority of my students appreciate it. Some of them might realize it a year or so later–and their cards or emails are a testament to the importance of honesty.