Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Annie From Abelard Needs Our Advice. An Early Thirsty.

Been reading for a while but never had anything worth submitting. That changed last week. I am a recent adjunct professor. I got my highest degree at a SLAC. I'm not making a lot of money at all, but I'm fortunate to have found a job near home so I can live with the parental units. So the small amount of money I'm making feels like a bit more than it is since I don't have to pay rent or buy food.

I teach four courses under the loose instruction/guidance of a more senior Professor. In my early morning Communicating to Hamsters course on Friday, I was instructing on strategies for writing to certain audiences for the final paper. One of my students questioned me today.

Student: But what about X?

Me: What *about* X?

Student: Well if we're writing to say that the Hamsters did X, don't we have to provide evidence as to why they did it?

Me: No. That's not your burden. You just need to prove that the Hamsters did X. You don't want to go beyond your burden.

Student: But I have to provide evidence that it worked, right?

Me: Well, no. Just because somebody did something doesn't mean it worked...

Student: But... why would anyone believe me?

Me: Because of your evidence, hopefully!

Student: I don't understand how we can write this and not have to explain the actions of the hamsters.

At this point, I'm sad to say, I lost it and went into one of my classic condescension/sarcasm techniques.

"Look, I got a fancy degree in this. I teach this for a living. You're a Freshman in college. What are the *chances* you know more about this than I do? Really, I'd like to hear a number. What do you think are the actual odds that you're right and I'm wrong. I really want to know. No, please, give me an actual number. You keep fighting this point so you must think it's at least 50 percent, right?"

I immediately felt bad for taking such a shitty tone. I awkwardly tried to work my way back towards giving a reasonable answer and ended by lamely asking "Did that help you understand?" To receive a shy nod from the student, whose face was bright red. What's worse is that he was one of my better students. After class I made a beeline to the offices to find my mentor, making every attempt to avoid eye contact with the student in question. I felt like I was going to have a nervous breakdown.

What if the student tells other students? Shit, what if he tells other professors? What if he tells the Dean? Oh my God... what if he kills himself? (I was super not thinking straight) I found my mentor, a lovably old man, in the copy room making scanned copies of his notes: his favored method of distributing information to his students. I blabbered to him about what had happened. He squinted intently at the key panel on the copier and there was silence.

He glanced over at me. "You gonna be alright, sweetheart?" I normally would get upset if someone called me "sweetheart". But he did it in a sort of loving grandfather way that made it inoffensive and strangely calming. I nodded that I'd be okay.

"Good. Make yourself useful and operate this thing for me. Pretty sure I did it wrong. I'll get us some coffee." After I had fixed his copies and he had gotten the coffee, we sat down. We had about ten minutes.

"So..." He began, "Your student kept questioning your instructions."


"You definitely got out of line, it seems. I wasn't there."


"It can be offensive sometimes when you're questioned by a student. But if you get them to think critically and not simply accept instruction without thorough explanation, then on some level you're succeeding in making them a good student."

"But then... I mean... do I not correct them?"

"Of course you do, silly." He bops me playfully on the head with his rolled up original notes. "That's how they learn. They need to learn how to think they're right and find out they're wrong. You're on the right track, you just went overboard."

"What do I do, then? Just move on?"

"You can. If I were you, I would apologize."

"Huh... Do you think he needs me to apologize?"

"Probably not. But I think you do. One thing I wish I'd learned when I was your age is that you should always apologize for *you*. Not for the person receiving the apology."

(End Story)

Q: Can you guys help me out here? I really do think I crossed a line. The student was somewhere between not quite understanding my explanation and challenging my explanation. What should I have done differently? Do you think I should apologize? And if so how? I drew up a little speech either for the student individually or for the whole class (I've considered apologizing to all of them) and I'd appreciate any feedback on it.

Something like: "Look. We learn Communications here. And there's a certain way that people should communicate with each other that connotes respect we have for one another as fellow human beings and members of society. I did not communicate in that way last class and I apologize for it."

I'm even contemplating turning it into a lesson and analyzing what I said/how the student and I could have communicated better.

I'm going crazy. Please help.

- Annie from Abelard


  1. If you have something to apologize for, then apologize.

    If you have nothing to apologize for, then don't apologize.

    If you have something to apologize for and you two had an audience when you did it, then apologize to the student in front of the class.

    1. Completely agree - a private apology for a public problem doesn't resolve the tension for the others that were in the room. A good (but not obsequious) mea culpa can get cooperation and buy in.

  2. I am 2/3 of a bottle of wine and a half a bottle of sherry in, but . . . yeah. First your mentor is gold. Jesus. Buy him chocolates. Mine could barely remember my name from day to day. Second, yeah, apologize. Here's how, steal or modify as you like or don't:

    "Hey. Can we talk a second? I've thinking bout what I said, and sometimes professors can get carried away. I see your point, that you were concerned about making a chain of support for you argument, and that's awesome. A lot of people don't even give a darn, and you do, and that puts you head and shoulders above most people. I was just trying to point out how your way of doing it would kind of undermine your argument, but I was tired and overwork and probably not very clear. Let's meet again when we're both better rested and less tense, and we can talk about how to do this more effectively. Oh, yeah, and let's take another day on the deadline, no worries there. You're totally committed to this, and I see that, and I want you to do the best you can, okay?"

    This job is fucking hard. Dude. It took me five fuking years before I got to the point where I stopped damaging *most* of my students. I'm . . . more than that into my career, and still I have students crying in my office -- today, if you want to know.

  3. Honestly, I'm sure you can recover, but if one of my instructors did that I would sincerely ask them to consider if teaching college was the right path. Sorry.

  4. I'm dying for Monica's response.

  5. What Chiltepin said, with the possible addition that if you have resources to refer to the student to someone else for help on this paper (campus writing or tutoring center, maybe?), I would offer that. I have a natural sarcastic streak, too, and it took me about 10 years to get over having that too student-facing. You are learning to do a new thing, and you are going to make mistakes as you do it. Fix what you can (I would definitely apologize, were it me) and learn from the rest. And let it help you maintain empathy for your students as they are learning things that are hard for them, too.

  6. I also have a sarcastic streak that I have (mostly) crushed like a bug over the years. I would apologize, but not to the whole class. Many of them will not remember, or will not have even noticed.

    I like Chiltepin's apology narrative, and suggest you tweak it to make it reflect your own personality. Remind the student that you are learning, too.

    I think Cassandra has written something on this site about how giving in to sarcastic impulses is never, ever, worth the momentary pleasure it gives. But still, you should just use that truth to train yourself not to be sarcastic, and do not beat yourself up. Have you read Mary Oliver's poem "Wild Geese"? Honestly----I think you should. That poem has helped me when I was feeling as you seem to be now. Here it is:

    Wild Geese

    You do not have to be good.
    You do not have to walk on your knees
    for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
    You only have to let the soft animal of your body
    love what it loves.
    Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
    Meanwhile the world goes on.
    Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
    are moving across the landscapes,
    over the prairies and the deep trees,
    the mountains and the rivers.
    Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
    are heading home again.
    Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
    the world offers itself to your imagination,
    calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
    over and over announcing your place
    in the family of things.

    Maybe my sharing this poem is a bit melodramatic. I am, actually, a bit melodramatic in all things. But this poem helps me when I am beating myself up----especially when I have good reason to. You are part of the struggle, and trying and learning and are, as are we all, a work in progress.

    1. Thank you for that, Bella. That is a lovely poem. I'm going to keep it handy.

      Your last sentence is well spoken and reminds me of what a colleague, wiser than I, recently said: "as we grow older, we are each regularly given new shit, and we're always in the process of getting it together."

    2. I tried to find Cassandra's statement. I do remember it, and I think it was recent, but I could not find it on my first pass. Instead, I found these things:

      A comment from Frod

      A post by Academic Monkey

    3. Hmm... I don't remember what, if anything, I said about sarcasm, either (and therefore have no clue where to find it). I definitely have reason to think I was somewhat given to sarcasm in my early years as a teacher. Evidence: one or two students accused me of sounding like Saturday Night Live's Church Lady (of "isn't that special?" fame). (Which is odd, and more than a bit disturbing, since I am a church lady by some definitions of the phrase, but I really, really hope not *that* kind of unwelcoming, judgmental church lady). At this point, I can't remember what I was being sarcastic about, and I don't think I'm sarcastic very often anymore, though I do tend to the blunt/pragmatic more than the warmly sympathetic, i.e. I'll tell a student there's no hope of catching up in my class, and then I'll suggest strategies for minimizing the damage and getting back on track, and remind them that this is a recoverable mistake that won't matter much in a year or two.

      I have to admit that I'm not very good at apologies myself (among other things, I had few good models, probably due to perfectionist tendencies, and a connected sensitivity to criticism, that I share with both of my late parents). But I agree that, in this case, a brief, non-dramatic apology is a good idea, especially since the student himself was clearly upset (the red face).

    4. I can't speak for Bella, but I may have been combining memories of two contributors and/or contributions. I may have been thinking of Frod's comment:

      Go easy or sarcasm with students. They rarely get it, so it doesn't do much good anyway. In the rare cases they do, it's tantamount to a challenge to a duel.

      Furthermore, The Academic Monkey post I referenced above is actually more apropos a different post, where I'll now copy the link.

  7. You stepped in it, no doubt. Apologize. You will feel better knowing that you did your best to make a bad situation better. The student will likely feel better. Your mentor will know that you care about students enough to put yourself out there, a little exposed.

    In my own personal experience, students respond well to apologies. Maybe because they don't receive them very often, students seem to bounce back without much problem.

    Next time, hold your tongue and send us a post at CM instead. Oh, and don't do that again.

  8. CrotchetyCanadianCrankApril 19, 2016 at 10:15 AM

    The fact it is bugging you so much suggests your path.

    I have chronic pain. Last week it was particularly bad. Also last week, my students were in a blind panic over finishing the term. A particularly keen student asked me a question on a topic we had covered multiple times, which had been already assessed and which the student had clearly demonstrated competence with previously. (No such thing as a dub question? Really?)

    My response to the question was basically a snarky verbal version of an eye roll.

    I was wrong. I apologized the next day when I had had time to recognize I'd been inappropriate.

    We are allowed to be human. Responsible. Mindful. Honest with ourselves and them. Humans make mistakes. Humans apologize when they know the should.

  9. "One thing I wish I'd learned when I was your age is that you should always apologize for *you*. Not for the person receiving the apology."

    It took me far too long to figure that out. The only thing I would add is you apologize when the person you want to be would apologize, and you do your level best to fake the grace and charm that person would have.

    On top of that, me experience is that I rue every time I've lost my temper longer, but the only ones that weigh on me are the one where I didn't apologize. Because the guy I'd like to me would have. (Actually he wouldn't have lost it in the first place, but if he did he'd fess up.)

  10. Add mine to the voices saying that an apology would be good for whoever was involved in (or witnessed) the event.

    Annie, I like your idea of making a lesson from this. How could the student question the instructions without appearing to be questioning the authority or qualifications of the instructor? How could the one being questioned better understand the question and help resolve the disconnect between the instructions and his understanding of them? How could you both work to ensure that future students don't have similar misunderstandings?

    Though (I like to think) I am fairly good at writing instructions, things do occasionally slip through that can be interpreted other than as I'd intended. When that happens, I typically revise to close the loophole. As you're surely aware, we who write can be blinded to alternative interpretations by the fact that we know what we meant without having to read what we've written. This recent comment illustrates a probable occurrence of this phenomenon.

    And, yes, students' inflections and demeanor can sometimes set me on edge, too, when they seem to imply that the problem lies with me, not them. Sorely have I been tempted to say, "if you're such a fucking expert, why aren't you the professor and I the student?" We are in good company, as this recent comment illustrates. "Resting bitch face" is a thing, so I propose "resting bitchy voice" as another thing, which I hypothesize can be exacerbated by exhaustion or frustration of those so afflicted.

    1. Some regional accents are definitely experienced as "resting bitch voice" by some people. I mostly speak something close to 'RP', formal radio announcer English, when I'm tired or struggling with emotion/motivation or just not paying attention (or over-enthused about my subject) - basically when I'm more inside my head - and this comes across as arrogant and patronising to many of my students, most of whom have strong regional dialects mostly from regions where dialect speakers are charicatured as 'slow' or 'sneaky but not clever'. When I DO pay attention I can 'pass' for northern (my family are RP speakers who moved around a bit, but we lived in the north-west when my sister and I were teens at high school, and we both reckon we're "bilingual" - she married a local lad so sees RP as her second langue, whilst I went south for University and moved a lot, and regard "Mank" (Manchester slang, sensu lato, VERY cool at school in the '80s) as my second langue...).

      Thing is, anything that enforces the power differential becomes extra hard to get around... but apologising is a really powerful game changer in these situations, for you and for the student(s). Go for it!

      ---Grumpy Academic---

  11. I'd like to simply remind you to only apologize for the part that needs apologizing for.

    I think your tone was a bit harsh (he'll survive), but you definitely were not wrong to remind the students that YOU were the expert and YOU were telling them something they were actively resisting. A little shock may have been what was needed (but, alas, the fragility of the modern student!).

    - Anon y Mouse

  12. Students are at times overconcerned with "motive". Maybe they get this from cop shows.

    Interrogator: OK, the GPS logs from your cell phone place you within a 2 meter radius of the crime scene at the victim's time of death. Your tool kit is missing a 20mm box wrench, and a 20mm box wrench with your name scratched on it was found embedded in the victim's skull.

    Suspect: Yeah, but you got no motive!

    This might lead to students thinking that proving motive is sufficient and necessary for proving that something happened. Then we get scenarios like one reported here. I can't find the post, but I seem to recall that students were asked to critically analyze a paper. One student's comment was something like,

    The author should of told us they're background so that we could know if they're bias.

    as if the truth of the author's statements could be decided not by their merits and supporting evidence, but by the author's reasons for saying them.

    The other thing our dear snowflakes often do is begin papers with statements like "In order to discuss X, we must first discuss Y*." Reasons they do this** include: they are more comfortable writing about Y, perhaps because they understand Y better than X; they wrote a paper on Y for another class; they bought a paper about Y.

    * Here, X is what the hamsters did, Y is evidence as to why they did it.
    ** Yes, I'm discussing motive. Oh, the irony. But wait---I'm not using motive to establish whether they do it or not. HA! Gotcha!


  13. I am a recent adjunct professor. I got my highest degree at a SLAC. I'm not making a lot of money at all. . . .I teach four courses under the loose instruction/guidance of a more senior Professor.

    Just had to comment on this, though it's slightly off topic. This is in no way a criticism of you, Annie, but aargh. I so much fear this is the future of the higher ed teaching profession (if you can call it that): underpaid (and hence rotating and therefore more likely to be inexperienced, though we were all inexperienced once, and not all of us benefit as much as we might from experience) facilitators or discussion leaders or whatever they're called doing the direct teaching under the "loose supervision" of an instructor of record.

    In this case, the instructor of record (assuming he's also your mentor) sounds like a gem, but since when is a 4-section load part time, or deserving of anything less than a salary that covers the basic costs of living in the local area, even if the teacher is in somewhat of an apprenticeship position? And of course apprenticeship of any sort is unsustainable (and unjustified) if there isn't sufficient demand for, and the ability to pay them commensurate with their experience. But this is very much a rising model (and one administrators like -- in fact, they increasingly seem to be embracing the idea of advanced undergraduates teaching less-advanced ones, thus neatly sidestepping the supply problem that is likely to be created if potential grad students realize that a grad degree may not lead to a job).

    1. It's not so bad. It's definitely sustainable, but by living with the rents I can live like I'm making 45 thousand dollars a year instead of, like, 35 thousand dollars a year.

      I'd be a petulant little child if I said I couldn't live on 35k while there are people supporting families on less.

      I'm just super thankful I COULD live with my parents, pay off what little debt I have, afford to buy a car eventually, etc. etc.

      And yeah. Super happy to have gotten this mentor. Some of the others range from lazy to just plain horrible. Also lucky to have what appears to be a good, caring Dean. He gave me a really brief talking to about the incident (a student had gone to him).

      And he basically just said "You know the Professors in this school that have a reputation for speaking that way to students regularly? Picture them. Now do you know how the students and other faculty feel about them? Do you want the to feel that way about you?"

      And that was it. It was valuable. Gave me a goal to not be someone.


  14. I've had that moment, although I was lucky that the words did not leave my mouth.

    I have apologized for being unclear. I have apologized for losing papers. I have apologized for making a mistake in a PowerPoint lecture. I thank students when they correct me.

    I have, however, stood in front of my class and told them that something had clearly gone wrong, because they had all (except 1) failed this assignment, and that I needed their help fixing the description so that this did not happen again.

    We went through the assignment description. We read each bit aloud. "Is that unclear?" I would ask, again, and again. It was probably excruciating. And no one would admit to it being unclear, or being confused. And the next assignment with a similar assignment, almost everyone followed directions. Sometimes they deserve the discomfort.

    But in this case, I think an apology is in order.


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