Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What's with the myth?

I don't understand it. Why do teachers, especially in the humanities, continue to perpetuate the myth that teaching is always wonderful?

I'm especially talking about the comments to Fenton, who wrote that article about enjoying seeing students fail that either didn't do the work, or were exceedingly rude and didn't do the work, and so on. Many comments seem to suggest that she doesn't deserve to be an instructor at all because she's not doing her job. One of the very first commenters gives her as an example of why the humanities deserve less funding--look! they don't even enjoy it! There were nowhere near as many negative comments here when we discussed students we hate, but there were still some people who said that hate was too strong a word for it, or that it wasn't fair to let people get to us, etc.

Right, let's get one thing straight: for the most part, I am one of those crazy people that genuinely enjoys my class and students. However, there are exceptions to the rule. I too have been frustrated by people that just won't do what it is that most college students are there to do (which is get a degree--grades and learning being secondary to that).

If anybody really truly loves all their students, I want to work at their school. In order to really appreciate your students, you must have fairly good administrative support that allows you to deal with problems quickly and quietly. Alternatively, you must have really awesome students.

The students I deal with on a daily basis came from some of the poorest school districts in the country scattered over the past 30 years. They aren't very prepared, but many of them are very bright and catch up very quickly. This is amazing and why I genuinely love my job.

But then, we do get the occasional person who is so packed with entitlement that they think the world needs to bend over backwards and bow down to their almighty power. I have no idea where they get it, and I've seen it equally scattered among students and faculty.

When I have new faculty members that come to me in tears because they have encountered one of these jerkwads for the first time, do you really think I tell them that they should love all their students equally and that if they don't, they don't deserve their job or funding for their research?

Um, no.

Out there, right now, there's some poor grad student or contingent faculty member who has their first hard case. Articles like Fenton's (as well as the I hate this student article here) let them know they aren't alone. Guess what? Problems happen and they suck. Pretending otherwise is absurd.

What I actually do in such situations is that I comfort them, share some of my own stories, and let them know that they aren't alone. I also let them know what other administrative support they can reach out to if they need it, and be sure they know the proper procedure for reporting whatever issue (behavioral or academic) is currently cropping up. I let them know I'll come to their class if they need me to observe the behavior. I bend over backwards to make sure they know they have my support to do what they need to for that student.

Teaching college can be great fun, but it isn't sunshine and unicorns all the time. Why would anybody continue to perpetuate the myth that it is? Not all problem students are savable. Sometimes you reach out and it helps. One of my least favorite students when she started here became the girl I hugged and took pictures of on graduation day. She hangs on my office door, along with our other success stories.

But I'll begin to wrap up with a story. Guess what? Reaching out to students doesn't always work. Gasp. I know, I'm probably preaching to the choir here. In my fourth or so year of teaching I had a guy in class that wouldn't stop doing chewing tobacco in class. He was breaking two of the school's rules: 1. no eating or drinking anything but water in class (gum included), and 2. no tobacco except in authorized locations. Also, this was freaking gross.

Fine. I confronted him, explained the policy, and he swore at me, refused to stop, and started to break even more rules. He cheated on an exam and then laughed in my face when I caught him and failed him for it. I talked to him after class, confronting him about why he was behaving this way. He plagiarized his essay. Then I ended up mentioning the chewing tobacco to my supervisor (then the Dean, now there's a Department Chair) and Security overheard. They watched on the in classroom camera (fancy computer lab) and nailed him for it.

From what I understand, his excuse was that he didn't want to be in college at all. His parents were forcing him to go. We talked to him about wasting their money and the government's and he didn't care. He just plain didn't want to be in college and he misbehaved till he was expelled.

Without the support of other instructors who had been through really bad situations (complete with the cheating and plagiarism) I would have felt completely alone through the entire insane situation. I don't think that any teacher deserves to feel alone that way.

Having a rough term? Teach a hard class? More and more students being recruited at lower levels? It's okay. Why would we ever say this is anything but normal?


  1. I dislike some of my fucktarded colleagues much more than I dislike any of my students, because some of my colleagues are truly fucktarded and brainwashed.

    How could I possibly hate students who have no power over me? It doesn't make sense. It's like hating a cricket.

    I wouldn't care if a student chewed tobacco in class. I wouldn't even mind if a student ate pot brownies and drank beer in class. Unless he made a mess or bothered the other students.

    Many of the students don't want to be there. I get that. If it makes their lives more tolerable, then why should they be prohibited from eating, drinking, reading the Bible, playing Tetris, texting their friends, sleeping, or whatever? If they leave the classroom the way they found it and they don't interrupt me, then I don't care.

    I'd rather have the student quietly, harmlessly playing Tetris in my class than quietly, harmlessly playing Tetris on his sofa at home. Maybe, maybe he'll pick something up if he's in my class.

  2. Most of this "teaching is an endless joy" stuff is a psychological defense, a way to verbally supress the memories of bad students, long hours, stagefright, etc. The rest of it is the "stiff upper lip" mixed with a tiny particle of hope that things will get better. It reminds me of the last bit in "The Great Escape" where David Attenborough is talking to Gordon Jackson about how it was all worth it despite most of them being captured and [SPOILER ALERT!] the SS machine gun all of them down* in the very next scene. Not that teaching is like escaping a Stalag Luft camp....


    * Sorry, I don't know if we can change the font color.

  3. @Southern Bubba: As I have noted in other threads, this is a very conservative private school. I can get canned if I allow them to break the food, drink, and tobacco rules. In other teaching situations I don't much care either (and here I don't enforce no texting, etc.) but if it's MY job on the line put the freaking chew away. I'm also fairly positive the little turd knew he could get us fired for it too.

  4. Southern, you are a lot more tolerant than I would be about the Tetris-playing students. I find that really rude. It's one thing if they want to just sit there and daydream but I do think it's rude and disrespectful to blatantly slack off in class. Why show up at all? Maybe they'll gain something by subconscious absorption but probably not.

    I also think the tobacco-chewing is gross because it always seems to result in spitting, and I wouldn't want to sit next to a student constantly spitting tobacco juice into a cup.

    But I'm sort of uptight, as you may have suspected.

    You do raise a good point, Southern, in that colleagues are annoying. Not just in academe but everywhere. And for that reason, no job can be an "endless joy." Even being a rock star has its share of hassles. If work was an "endless joy," then they wouldn't need to pay anyone to do it. And that is why certain jobs are so poorly compensated. They know people will do those jobs anyway, so they can get away with paying very little since there's always some poor sucker willing to take the gig out of pure love for the profession.

  5. I hate most crickets.

  6. I have never gotten the impression that teaching is wonderful. In fact, I've been ostracized for liking it myself. This might be the pressure of a research institution, but it seems to me that it would be difficult to go through 6 or 8 or 10 years of grad school and never debunk such an absurd myth.

    Students suck balls. I realized that back when I was an undergrad.

  7. Well, I've gotten kicked for this before, but I didn't get into to teaching FOR the students i.e. I'm not a matyr. Some people think teachers should sacrifice their lives to teach (low pay long hours), we shouldn't get mad or swear, we should be entertaining ALL the time, we are expected to put up with complaining and disrespectful students ad infinitum.

    I didn't get into teaching because I couldn't compete in the "real" world or because I wanted to change the world or even because I love people. I teach because I love to teach. I love the learning process, the prepping and research, the delivery and the interaction (especially when it works well) and even some of the grading and feedback. Based upon student and colleague feedback, I'm good at what I do. Is it important to me to feel I'm making a difference? Absolutely. But an architect probably feels that way too.

    This idea that teachers are supposed to be lovable and infinitely patient and self-sacrificing is bullshit-squared. And you don't have to love your students to be a good teacher. I would expect a teacher of literature to love books and words. So much so, that they wanted to SHARE that love. Caring about whether a student learns is different than caring about the student on a deeply personal level.

  8. I like the idea of "bullshit squared" as I believe it could be as much as six dimensional - a bullshit hyper hyper cube.

  9. lovable + ( ∞ * patient ) / self = BS ^ 3

  10. @Prof and Circumstance: I certainly won't give you trouble, since you've described my own attitude pretty exactly: I enjoy the process of constructing an environment in which my students can learn (a task which is, ultimately, theirs, not mine, to accomplish), and I enjoy seeing the results. I also like a reasonable proportion of my students as people, and feel more or less neutral about the great majority of the rest. But I don't think of teaching as some sort of glorious, always-fulfilling activity, and I certainly don't think that if I and/or my students aren't enjoying ourselves at any particular moment, I'm not doing it right. Many important activities are hard, and not particularly fun all or most of the time; that doesn't mean they won't be ultimately worthwhile, and perhaps even satisfying/gratifying.

    I think the difference between those who just love teaching and those who find it worthwhile, even fulfilling, but not necessarily enjoyable on a moment-to-moment basis might have something to do with the difference between extroverts and introverts. For someone who is energized by contact with people, teaching can be really exciting (or, I suspect, really, really distressing, if a class is uncooperative or just doesn't mesh well with the teacher's style). For those of us more energized by time by ourselves, the time we spend with students is interesting but tiring; the time we spend alone with their work, and/or reflecting on the whole experience, may ultimately be more fulfilling. Though the popular image of the "good" teacher probably tends toward the extrovert model, I suspect it takes both types, and mutually respectful communication between the two, to build a strong educational institution at any level.

  11. "where David Attenborough is talking to Gordon Jackson" -

    - and describing the wildlife in the German countryside, right?

    (David's the naturalist; Richard's the actor/director.)

  12. You are one snarky Hungarian, szoszolo....and you're right; I should've called R. Attenborough "Big X" and Gordon Jackson "The Scottish Pilot in 'Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines'" but that would've taken up too much space.

  13. I blew a job interview at a SLAC recently because I mentioned the "evolution" of my teaching philosophy through time. I pointed out that when I started, I believed that I had to teach to every student's strengths, learning styles, blah blah blah. And then I said "You know what? I realized there are two things that have to happen. One, the student has to be interested. I make it as interesting as I can. Two, the student needs to consolidate his or her knowledge. That's true regardless of how the kid learns. So, that's what I focus on."

    It was like I'd turned a big-ass hairdryer on their precious snowflakes.

    Meanwhile, my colleague with a whole two semesters of teaching experience gave his version of the snowflake speech in his interview and they Ate. That. Shit. Up. I wish them luck with him, he's an ass. (By that I mean "he talks a lot of empty theory and has a 'connection to the workers' that is entirely predicated on some weird combination of Dickens and Marx.)

  14. @BlackDog: that sounds like an interview it was better to blow. I blew a few in my time, mostly by giving presentations on (then) non-canonical women authors to very traditional departments, and, despite the complaints I have about my present job, I have never regretted it. Teaching (and trying to get tenure) in those departments would have been true misery.

    I'm glad the department with which you interviewed got the colleague they deserve.

  15. FWIW, Strelnikov, my Russian friend, I wasn't trying to be snarky. I was trying to avoid posting a blunt correction that would come across as humorless. I was actually amused that someone who was familiar enough with British actors of the sixties to know Gordon Jackson's name would mix up the Brothers A.


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