Thursday, September 25, 2014

Bloody Tongue Offers up a Big Thirsty on Tenure, Kowtowing, and Covering One's Ass.

I'm a non-tenured adjunct teaching a "developmental" writing class, one of dozens I've done over the years. Yesterday, an assignment was due in class, and I made a student mad when I chided him on a format issue. Seeing he was upset, I immediately tried to smooth things over. I told a self-deprecating joke. I apologized. I asked, "Are we good?"

When I moved on to the next whole-class activity, I felt a wave of disgust so powerful I thought I'd drop to the floor. I think students should follow very, very basic instructions, at least out of fairness to the other students who do just that. However, I also want to maintain rapport. The two impulses contradict too often to ignore.

This morning, I do what I always do when I'm work-depressed: head over here, lurk in the CHE forums, look at comments underneath education articles, etc. Especially the last few years, I notice an increasing bluntness on the part of teachers/professors about the importance of burnishing those student evaluations and (flip-side of the same coin) avoiding student complaints. The overwhelming worry seems to go something like this: "I'm scared that if I do the right thing, it will come back to haunt me on the evals."

Here's how I would have handled my angry student yesterday if I had tenure: "I can see you're upset. Why don't you take the rest of the class off and think about whether or not this class is going to be a good fit for you going forward? If you're mad now, you're going to be homicidal come the holidays. Be good to yourself. I'll respect your decision either way."

Instead, I "walked it back." I kowtowed. I kissed ass. I would gladly shine the shoes of my students if I thought for one minute that would help them be better and stronger students, but I know better -- not that knowing better matters. So, disgust and depression, and a question:

Q: How would having tenure change the way you teach? Would you be a better teacher? or Has having having tenure liberated you to do the best (vs. the most expedient, ass-covering) thing?


  1. I got tenure (barely, 3rd try) despite a very cavalier attitude towards student evaluations driven by the fact that all the research I've read on them suggests that they're just numbers, generated by students in response to stimuli that have nothing to do with the quality of the learning they do under my instruction.

    I don't think it's changed my approach much, but it's early yet.

  2. Students' feelings about our teaching affects all faculty to at least a small extent and is a significant factor that adjuncts must consider due to their lack of job security. That sucks.

    However, I'm not sure that helping a student get over hurt feelings counts as kowtowing. The student screwed up and you called him on it. Fine. If you embarrassed him in front of the whole class or made his mistake into a personal failing on his part, then you do owe him an apology. Yes, they are dumb students but it's often true that they are humans also. They deserve some basic respect even from those like us who are higher on the academic food chain.

    With tenure, you can tell the student to piss off but that doesn't mean that you should. That doesn't help anybody. You want to rip the kid a new one? That's what this place is for.

    1. Agreed. I'm in no position to throw stones, since I've never taught developmental comp. and hope to maintain that record until I retire or quit, but I suspect that a lot of the job is acculturation to the classroom environment, and that may include helping students figure out how to take criticism (even, gasp, public criticism/correction) gracefully, and to recover when they don't.

      I'm not sure where I come down on emphasizing formatting issues. On the one hand, yes, following basic directions is an important skill for success in school, and meeting the expectations of one's audience is a basic lesson of the composition classroom. On the other hand, I've taught too many students who are so hung up on the details of formatting that they can't seem to think about larger issues at all (and/or don't understand how a perfectly-formatted paper can receive a B or even a C because of mediocre or downright weak content). I'm not sure where the happy medium is -- perhaps there need to be some assignments where following formatting instructions to the letter is key to a decent grade (as it will be in some situations -- e.g. many kinds of applications), and some where content and writer-determined organization are the only things that count as long as the writing is comprehensible?

      Ultimately, on this blog, it seems that many pedagogical conversations come back to some version of whether it matters if the students staple their papers or not (and, even after years of accepting only virtual papers, I can see and support the arguments on both sides).

  3. Got tenure 2 years ago... has it changed my teaching? Not really. What it changed was my interactions with my colleagues, not my students.
    I truly believe that students respect me BECAUSE I demand better of them, rather than kowtowing to them. But, that balance of challenge the students/demand respect/not kowtowing took a couple of years to get right.

    1. Hi. Could you use the NAME/URL option on commenting and just pick a pseudonym? It helps us keep track of the community. Welcome!

  4. It would change everything. I protect myself all semester long with extra credit and makeups. I rationalize it to myself by saying that at least the work gets done and to a level I'm comfortable passing. But the workload I create for myself (multiple assignments / multiple times) is at least 3 times what I would normally do, or what my full time colleagues do.

    But if I don't have good evaluations, I risk losing the $3000 a class. And I couldn't live without that.

  5. "Corrupt" is not too strong of a word to describe an educational system in which anonymous popularity contests among students determine what gets taught, and by whom. For a book-length elaboration on this, see "Generation X Goes to College." Since I get tenure, I need not fear to use the word "evolution" in the classroom.

  6. I've had tenure for three years but am so scarred by my three-year probationary experience and my years of adjuncting prior to getting my TT job that I react in pretty much the same way that you do, Bloody Tongue, a lot of the time. It saddens me that this is what it's come to. I had a particularly difficult summer session with students that ran to my chair every single week, and every single time I'd hear about it, I'd feel nauseated. And sometimes placating them -- backpedaling and saving face a little too much -- helped to maintain some semblance of less-than-chaotic in the classroom, where just a few disgruntled students can sour a whole section.

    I have no advice. We live in a world where education has become a service for which students pay and professors -- adjunct, tenured -- are commodities to be used. It's sickening.

  7. Don't think that once you get tenure or some other form of permanent status that you don't have to worry about the student evaluations.

    In the department where I used to teach, student evaluations were largely a joke. The kiddies simply used them as a means of telling an instructor what they lacked the courage to say to that individual in person. Since much of what they said was immature mewling and puking, I largely ignored them.

    I sometimes compared evaluations with colleagues and, on the whole, there wasn't much difference. However, my last department head as well as the assistant DH thought otherwise. Those two had taken an intense disliking to me, so anything the students said was used as evidence that I was a lousy instructor. However, if they said the same things about a certain colleague (particularly one the DH and ADH liked), those comments were ignored.

    It got to a point that the DH and ADH quibbled about minor comments (sort of at the level of "define what 'the' means"). Soon after that, I decided I'd had enough and resigned. That place became too weird, even for me.

  8. After tenure, you can try things out that are not necessarily popular with the students. But it's true that students feel entitled: to instant understanding, to instant success, to immediate feedback at any hour of the day.

  9. I'm not sure that getting tenure (for which I am not eligible in my present position) would change the way I teach all that much. I *might* grade harder, but, honestly, the primary disincentive to doing so now (and I'm not a pushover, just freer than I should be with the Bs and B-s) is not fear of losing my job (I have some job security) but unwillingness to spend time and energy explaining/defending grades when I could be spending that time trying to help students who actually want to learn (and/or on my own writing and research, or really, anything more productive than defending grades, which, as far as I'm concerned, includes just about anything short of alphabetizing the newspapers before recycling them).

    On a related note, what *would* change the way I teach would be a lighter teaching load (more time and energy to experiment and innovate), a sabbatical (renewed energy ditto), and/or being able to take summers off again (which would feel like a mini-sabbatical at this point). Only the last option seems to be a realistic possibility, and it will take a few more years for me to get there (assuming nothing about my present job situation gets worse in the interim, which may not be the safest assumption).