Monday, March 2, 2015

The Zero-Sum Game of Denigrating Students. By Peter Kaufman.

Teaching and learning are relational processes and it is nearly impossible to be in a constructive relationship, especially an educational one, when there are feelings of
disrespect and disdain.
  • “It’s depressing teaching some of these students, they are just so ignorant.”
  • “I’ve come to the realization that students today don’t want to learn.”
  • “I’m tired of these students always wanting to cut corners and find the easy way out.”
  • “I feel like it’s a waste of my time trying to reach these students. They just can’t think critically.”

Sound familiar? These quotes are just a sampling of the denigrating remarks I often hear colleagues make about students. Sometimes I hear these comments in conversations, other times they are mentioned directly to me, and increasingly I hear them at faculty gatherings, both on my campus and at academic conferences. They are usually expressed when someone is discussing a specific classroom experience, an interaction with a student, or a general observation about higher education.



  1. I agree completely. That's why it's important to vent to CM. You don't want these feelings of disrespect and disdain to fester, no matter how well earned.

    A touching illustration of this was described at the end of "Generation X Goes to College," by Peter Sacks. He’d just been disgusted by a dull, thoughtless student, when one of his better students followed him back to his office. She startled him by saying:

    “One of these days, a truly interested student will come up to you and you will no longer be able to recognize it, because you’ll be just as dead as your students…That vacant look will come over you, too. It’s contagious.”

    She later wrote to him: “Please don’t give up. Give the few of us who want to learn a chance.”

    It’s far better to talk about this—even if we must do so anonymously on CM since for many of us, there will be untoward consequences if we speak out—than to look away, pretending that good cause for these feelings doesn’t exist, which is deluded.

    Have you lately visited a good university, such as Columbia or Cornell? I am fresh back from a trip to Caltech, so I can recommend it. You may realize that one of their students will do more than all of yours, put together, ever. Blaming the victim, you say? Why has it not occurred to you that respect is a two-way street, and that the victim here very much deserves a share in the blame? Pointing out to your students that they are only hurting themselves when they act dysfunctionally helps not at all these days. Try it!

  2. I read the first 4 pages. It's not garbage like other pieces but it is still unconvincing.

    The author suggests that complaints could be just blowing off steam but then dismisses that possibility. He never, at least so far that I've read, defends that choice.

    Much of what he says is based on the idea of student-centered pedegogy. Sounds like a nice way to teach a senior-level seminar. I cannot imagine how this works in a 100 student intro to chemistry class, full of nonmajors who don't want to be there. And to be clear, I have thought about these issues because I would like to be a better teacher. I try different teaching approaches but when I am evaluated based only on students' course evals, my hands are a bit tied. His overall approach to education is not practical in the dysfunctional systems that we work.

  3. Student A: Bright, hardworking, clearly knows the material and wants to learn more.
    Response: Setting up a summer research project for her in the Hamster Holding Centre

    Student B: Struggling but willing. Has an annoying habit of waiting until the last minute to ask questions about the assignments, but genuinely tries to figure it all out.
    Response: Contemplate a mildly annoyed rant on CM. Decide against it when he pulls out a pass on the midterm (in contrast to similar students who didn't ask questions). Cockles of cold black heart slightly warmer than before.

    Students C and D: Hand in identical assignments. Look me in the eye and swear they weren't copying despite TA seeing them do so.
    Response: You're zarking right, Kaufman - it is nearly impossible to be in a constructive relationship, when there are feelings of disrespect and disdain - such D&D being much evidenced by cheating and lying about it. (Or is that my fault too?)

  4. As Norman Mailer observed, you use the word shit so you can use the word noble. We bitch about the bad students as a means of relief, so that we can go back and help the better ones.

    I think that a college teacher has to find ways to focus on the engaged students; the others are far too depressing. Like Ben, I have tried (and I still used) various "student-centered" techniques, but I always have to fall back on Richard Pendarvis' First Law of Educational Thermodynamics: "Nothing works if the student doesn't."

    1. Yes, and I would add that we make fun of bad students because we do make an effort to help them too. You can't rant about having to remind a student five times to turn in an assignment if you don't actually remind them five times. I could tell them once then leave it up to them but that results in them performing more poorly. I complain because I care.

  5. Holding students to standards and requiring basic respect, while giving them the respect of honesty and sincerity, isn't denigrating students. But I do thing that some things my colleagues say are out of bounds. Complaints that students are ignorant strike me as silly. Nic they weren't ignorant, what the hell would they be doing in a class?

  6. I'm my experience, the worst complainers about student behaviour were those who started out with the greatest idealism, and greatest enthusiasm, for the profession of teaching. My colleagues who are most heavily invested in their research, and couldn't give a fiddler's fart about teaching, and invest little or nothing into their teaching, those are the ones from whom I've never heard a word of complaint about the students...

    Hell hath no wrath like an educator scorned.

  7. I say many things LIKE those quotes. But not quite. I will say,
    "They're just so ignorant - the high schools have failed them. How can we catch them up?"

    "I've come to the realization that the students have had all their desire to learn beaten out of them."

    "I'm tired of students not understanding what's expected of them."

    "These students just can't think critically. And the current research shows that critical thinking courses don't substantially improve that. And my own pedegogical methods are working only on about half the students. A few are crossing the threshold, but not enough. Does anyone have any really good research-tested methods around this? No? Fuck."

    I can be completely exhausted trying to teach students but not consider it their fault.

    1. So you're OK with entirely relieving students of any moral responsibility for their failures? The outside world is not so generous.

      On this blog, pretty much everything you've said has been said, and discussed. I once observed that this place can be a font of good advice, and it's better advice because the advisors don't have any illusions about the worst that we face.

      Dzięki Bogu that I seldom see students who are "the worst that we face;" I'm grateful that most of what I post here is humorous exaggeration -- another purpose of this website.

      But the bottom line is that, no matter how badly we've been treated, we're still responsible for how we behave. And that "we" includes students.