Tuesday, October 5, 2010

How do you tell a student when they're just WRONG?

Sorry I've been absent. I'm sure you've been writhing in misery and missing me terribly. I'm applying to jobs right now, and it takes up all the time I spend not grading or teaching or sleeping. More later on that process.

Today's topic: the idea that all opinions from students ought to be treated as though they are great. I've actually gotten comments before on student evals that I "belittle student opinions" and argue with students, making them feel "wrong." But to some degree, isn't that my job? The present example illustrates: we're talking about the causes and consequences of depression in class, and we've read an research article that describes a genetic component. A student speaks up to say that he "disagrees" with the author - that he doesn't believe there is a genetic component. I let him talk about why, and we discuss the "nurture" portion of depression, but he keeps pushing that he thinks it's all nurture and that he doesn't "like" the author's findings. Eventually, I have to say, "well, I'm sorry you don't like them. But you're wrong when you say there's no genetic component."

The entire class stopped. His eyes went wide open. Oh, sh!t, I thought, there go my evaluations again. But I went on to explain that whether we liked data or not was irrelevant; that one might argue that the experiment was methodologically flawed (it wasn't) or do an experiment of their own to disconfirm the findings (not likely)... but that if a twin study finds a genetic component, there's probably, well, a genetic component.

I think I may have talked fast enough to avoid my students rushing to the provost or whatever to disclose that I'm berating students and telling them they're wrong RIGHT TO THEIR FACES. But I was irritated, and yet again I long for tenure. Because I think that my students have it in their head (not just from this case, from many others as well) that their opinion is just as good as mine. If that's the case, what am I good for? Sure, in some cases - in more subjective cases, certainly, all opinions are relatively equal - but my opinions are based upon years of study on a subject. They're very well-educated guesses. Doesn't that mean that - in some cases - they're better than whatever some undergrad came up with off the top of their head? I see this a lot when I have them read classic papers in our discipline. They'll say that they don't "like" G. Stanley Hall or Rollo May or Bandura. And I'm thinking, "who cares if you like them or not?" Their theories are pretty renowned regardless of your personal opinion. Explain to me why you don't "like" them, and if it's well-thought-out enough, I might listen (it never is. It's always, "he's a boring writer" or "I know a guy who contradicts this, so it's wrong").

So. Your thoughts? How do you handle this? I'll bet part of this is because I'm a psychologist. I'll bet physics professors don't have this problem (if they do say Einstein was "wrong," they'd better have some math to back themselves up!).

Aren't I supposed to be smarter than my students??


  1. Ooooh, I have this problem big-time.

    As a person with beastly depression, let me tell that little shit that it most assuredly is at least partially genetic. Perhaps he has another reason why the TILT light blinks on in my head for no apparent reason, but right now I'm going with "messed up genetics = messed up brain chemistry." Oddly enough, the right drugs keep that light shut off for months at a time...even when I encounter the "nurture" nightmare that is Christmas...and the genetic nightmare that is my family.

    Ahem. That anecdotal and perhaps specious evidence aside... I try and tell them that my job is to teach them how to use the tools of my discipline, and to show them those tools in use on subjects of interest to us. When people say, for instance, that people are "naturally" racist, we talk about what various writers in our field might say about that, and about how we could test that theory.

    I've also been known to ask the class whether or not they agree with the objector. This probably will get me in trouble because it causes us to "gang up" on him/her. But, I think you can phrase it as "What do you guys think of Argumentative Andy's argument?"

    Lastly, I sometimes truncate arguments in class with "It is clear that you and I disagree. However, we need to put this argument aside for the time being so that the lecture can continue, but please feel free to make an appointment with me after class to discuss this."

    Yes. You are smarter. They, however, somehow believe that feelings are a substitute for evidence.

  2. Yes, we're supposed to be smarter than the students. Part of that, however, is not letting a bunch of eighteen year olds get the better of us emotionally, and another part is remembering that half of academic success is psychological (and anyone who says otherwise never did a PhD thesis).

    There's a middle ground between patting them on their heads and telling them that they're right no matter what and just smacking them around. They want affirmation, but it doesn't have to be affirmation of *the answer given*. I go with stuff like this (as a representative sample): "I can see how you'd think that, but... [followed by highlighting the key concept that needs to be grasped to get the RIGHT answer]"; "Well, what makes you think that, rather than [right answer]? Ah! So, here's where you went astray..."; or "You're not the first to have thought that was the case - a lot of people thought that at one time. However, we've since learned [relevant stuff]..."

    They don't need to be told they're right, come hell or high water. They DO need to feel like they're not idiots, or else they'll just throw up their hands and get out of the game. Now, some of them MAY BE idiots, and that gets tricky. If the rest of the class seems to regard the kid in question as a moron, then you're probably pretty safe smacking him around. But if they don't, then maybe some of them - some of the non-idiots, that is - are making the same mistake. And, sure, to us, maybe it would look like a dumb mistake. But remember that they're kids, and not just any kids - they're the kids who didn't do as well as you in school. Doesn't mean they're dumb, but it does mean that they don't have your intellectual confidence - the kind of intellectual confidence that is probably more common among professional academics than other folks.

    Just my two cents.

  3. Physicists most certainly do have that problem. Albeit, not so much from students but from the general public. You should check out the Crackpot Index. They guy who came up with this was interviewed on NPR a few years ago where he talked about coming up with it. I think that it could probably be modified to fit any field.


    That said, all students want to be heard and praised for their amazing brilliance. When a student gives a sort of way off answer I try to tie the sentiment into the correct answer. So I'm praising the effort but not the content. I like to imagine this validates their feelings. I get many complaints but "squashes my opinions" has never been one of them.

  4. Oh, the Coddling!! I blame Fox News. The whole "I'm JUST asking a question [even though it's entirely based on false premises that convey a suspicion of guilt where no real offence exists]" or "I'm sorry but that's JUST my opinion [also based on flawed assumptions about cause and effect etc.]"

    There's this idea that individualism and voting and democracy means that what is in our heads and hearts is sacrosanct... as though these thoughts and opinions aren't themselves manipulated.

    Maybe that's the answer. Maybe you should show them how opinions do not come out of nowhere. That they are created and manipulated through the "nurture" part of reality. And that your information is less opinion and more fact.

    So there.

    (Ps leave the problem of "fact" out of it)

  5. I taught astronomy at a religious HS. It was the most painful year of my life.

    I don't know what the crackpot index is, but whatever the highest score is, it goes to this guy:


  6. Yep, just happened to me today, actually. So it definitely happens in Composition (what do comp teachers know about the world anyway?!!? *snarl*)

  7. I will never forget the student in a geology class who announced that the earth was 5000 years old and that nothing he was told was going to convince him otherwise.

    I was a student in the class luckily and think I saved the professor the trouble by turning around and telling him that if he believed that so strongly perhaps geology was not the field for him.

    Yes, he was a geology major.

  8. I find that in the Humanities there's a LOT of pressure to ALLOW all sorts of nonsense students say about texts we read. After all, it is their "feeling" that most short stories that involve any kindness among men are really just "gay" stories anyway.

    And no matter how much eye rolling I do, once "gay" comes out of the closet it's all anyone talks about.

    And then I say, okay, let's imagine all of Hemingway's male character are gay. Can I give you that point and just get on with talking about the REST of the story?

    Oh dear, and I teach Hemingway tomorrow, too. Gack.

  9. "I 'belittle student opinions'."

    At that point, I tell the pinhead administrator to go fuck him or herself. I am not here to make them feel good about themselves. I am here to challenge them. I am here to give them an edge for a job by knowing more than their fellow applicants. I am here to make them better people.

    If they do not want their feelers hurt, then go take a course in a department where circle jerks are part of daily classroom activity.

    Then, I point to my increasing enrollment numbers. The conversion ends there.

  10. I'm waiting for the day I'm fed up enough to come out with "Idiotville. Population: You."

  11. Glorghhh, this is a huge problem in English classes, as ELS says. Not so much the gay at my uni, but the "I feel it's about X," or "I feel X about this work of literature." I take a sadistic pleasure in saying, "Really? About X? What an interesting idea! Can we go to a place in the text where that seems most apparent and dissect it a bit?" Or "Ahhh... so where in the text did that X feeling hit you? Can you find the place where you really got [bored, annoyed, alienated, etc.]? Because it's entirely possible that the text is built to bring this feeling on, but we need to know how and where." And so the lazy-asses kind of shrivel up and retract their uninformed opinions and dippy feelings, OR, and this is so great, some genius finds the magic X and we have a great and unpredicted discussion.

    It is also true that I went to college thinking: English, what a stupid major. You don't read the books and then you talk about how you feel; who the hell would major in that? Luckily for me I had a superstar freshman seminar teacher who put me through my methodological paces, and I try to channel him whenever I encounter fluff passing for literary criticism.

    On the other hand, I would love to just channel Professor Poopiehead and be done with it.

  12. I'm sure that psychologists get it bad here, because everyone is an amateur psychologist, or at least thinks so. As Samuel Johnson noted,

    "We are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians only by chance. Our intercourse with intellectual nature is necessary; our speculations upon matter are voluntary, and at leisure."

    (At this point, I just know two of my students are snickering, "Huh huh, you said intercourse," but I digress.)

    That said, physicists and astronomers like me do catch a fair amount of nonsense here. I've had damnation wished upon me on many occasions, for revealing evidence for stellar evolution and Big Bang cosmology. (I know, those same two students are now snickering "Huh huh, you said revealing." I'd smack them in the head, but it would only just hurt my hand.)

    But then, the nature of evidence is among the most valuable things I have to teach. I therefore continue to slog onward, and enjoy having a clear purpose in life.

    As some other comments here also state, one needn't be obnoxious whenever pointing out that 2 + 2 are not equal to 5, no mater what anyone "feels" about it, which is what much of education has been pushing in recent decades. I find that being professional and to the point, as well as being fluent with the evidence one needs, are all handy.

    A lot hinges on how confident you can sound. As Bertrand Russell pointed out,

    "The demand for certainty is one which is natural…but is nevertheless an intellectual vice. If you take your children for a picnic on a doubtful day, they will demand a dogmatic answer as to whether it will be fine or wet, and be disappointed in you when you cannot be sure. The same sort of assurance is demanded, in later life, of those who undertake to lead populations…"

    You won’t be able to convince some people, no matter what. These are made fun of here:


    The fence-sitters greatly outnumber them, though. You can convince many fence sitters, if you teach them carefully and well about the nature of evidence.

    You're right in observing that modern students can be SO touchy. I had a student who complained about me, "He made me feel like an idot [sic]." This student felt this way because she had previously written on a homework exercise, "How do they know this [the Big Bang] happened? Were they there?" I wrote, "Yes, because there is here. We know about the Big Bang because of the evidence that it left behind. Traces of it are still around here today, such as the cosmic background radiation and the observed redshift of the galaxies." (This might sound technical, but I'd just discussed and showed pictures of both phenomena.)

    But then, as in the words of Joe Walsh,

    "You can't argue with a sick mind."

    Hmm, it’s not every day I can quote Dr. Johnson, Bertrand Russell, The Onion, Beavis and Butthead, and Joe Walsh, all in the same comment.

  13. Ask that geology major how many job offers he's gotten by companies who want to drill into the ground and actually find oil. My guess is zero. As Carl Sagan wrote in "The Demon-Haunted World," "One thing you have to say about science: it delivers the goods."

  14. There are some cranks who deny relativity. In fact, practically all that any of them talk about is special relativity, because the math is harder for general relativity and isn't as easy to boil down into a few memorable examples, like Einstein's own illustration of the train and the observer on the embankment.

    I've never seen it happen in a physics class (I took mechanics, E&M, and modern physics as an undergrad), but I have seen and sometimes tutored creationists who were upset at the amount of material on evolution that was taught in the classes. They got no joy from me, as a tutor and TA, because I emphasize evolution even more than the professors do.

    It's relatively easy to take their creationist views apart, but the challenge is doing so in a way that doesn't turn them off or cause them to retreat into a robotic recitation that comes from hitting one or two keywords. I don't even know if they realize how programmed they sound. It's their substitute for analysis, because they have no foundation for coming to grips with the actual science. They'll talk your head off about how there are "gaps" in the fossil record, but I've never seen a single one, even among the professional creationists, who ever knew anything about comparative anatomy, which is the only way of quantifying a "gap" if it exists.

    I don't wish to sound heartless, but their right to practice their religion does not extend to a right to remain blissfully ignorant of anything that might challenge their received views.

  15. I do a lot of asking "why do you believe that? What evidence do you have for it? what standards for proof are you using?"
    It is obviously not fool-proof. But every now and then someone registers the idea that feelings don't equal facts, that belief is not proof, and that preferences don't persuade.

  16. ACK! Every. EFFING. Year. In AP English, some delightful moooo-er informs me that "A poem can mean whatever you want it to mean." No. It cannot. A poem MEANS something, some actual thing which one can in fact divine upon close and careful reading. And reading. And reading again. And once out loud, at least. And reading some more. Put that kind of work in? Hells to the no, not when AN ENTIRE GROUP OF 17 CHARMERS DIGS IN ITS HEELS AND INSISTS THAT "Dover Beach" IS ABOUT GREENPEACE AND SAVING THE WHALES. "Why, it's right there, in the first stanza, Mrs. C: 'the long line of spray'--that's the whale!"

    Retirement: Come soon...

  17. Froderick,

    The sad thing about that situation... he was the geology major and I was not. Both things changed by the end of the term.

  18. I get this shit on my evaluations all the time. "She makes me feel bad for not knowing the answer," REALLY? AWESOME! Maybe next time you will think before flapping your yap.

    One student wrote that when I told students they were not correct, I should at least say "Thanks for trying". FTN.


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