Demanding Kinder Classrooms Doesn't Make You a Snowflake
August 25, 2017 5:30 AM   Subscribe

"...there’s no question that many of my students are dealing with much more adversity than I (or their critics) ever experienced, and they largely do so with exceptional resolve. Considering that, what does compassion cost me?" A great response to all the hand-wringing about kids today, by Daniel Heath Justice
posted by hydropsyche (52 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yes. Many of my students are balancing multiple jobs, care of parents and grandparents, and worry about deportation with their academic work. Justice's experience in the classroom is like mine (in North Carolina), and he's written beautifully about it.

Thanks for this.
posted by allthinky at 5:48 AM on August 25, 2017 [14 favorites]


Anecdote from the US: sometimes I ask academic audiences to raise their hands if they're still paying off student loans. When the forest of arms goes up, it's interesting and instructive to see those who aren't still in college debt react. Often their faces indicate surprise.

Yes, these are academics (faculty, staff), not grokking just how big the student loan problem has become.
posted by doctornemo at 5:50 AM on August 25, 2017 [26 favorites]


This is an interesting issue for me. My father-in-law didn't come from money, but for most of his career he taught at an overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly wealthy and privileged high school. Now, in retirement, he's teaching at a community college where the student body is largely on the other end of the spectrum: he sees a lot of the types of students mentioned in this article and does try to help them out where he can.

But he's a Boomer lefty, an advocate for social justice, generally speaking, but still holding onto the "freedom-to is more important than freedom-from" ideal that was prevalent among a set of white liberals in the sixties. He is absolutely of the opinion that "PC" is going too far in the classroom and that students are being coddled too much, that expression is too constrained.

So yeah, I do think this is partially a liberal / conservative divide, but I know more than one older-generation lefty who feels this way. There's a strong undercurrent of let-your-freak-flag-fly among some older lefties that doesn't jibe with a culture where kindness is prioritized ahead of absolute freedom.
posted by uncleozzy at 6:09 AM on August 25, 2017 [15 favorites]


I like this. Personally, I think there is rarely a downside to being kind, though sometimes there are definitely complex trade-offs in what the group needs vs what individuals need.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:18 AM on August 25, 2017 [8 favorites]


YES.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:25 AM on August 25, 2017


The academic reactionaries are particularly troubling, and their frequent insistence that these hypersensitives simply need to learn how to deal with the “real world” seems more than a little precious given that it’s often these very professors who exist at a tangible distance from their students’ experiences in the world beyond academia.

In my experience there is a strong direct relationship between lecturing people about the "real world" and living the most coddled imaginable life.
posted by enn at 6:44 AM on August 25, 2017 [64 favorites]


Navigating young adulthood has always been difficult, but my impression is that it's more stressful than ever these days and anyone* who thinks "the kids" have it "easy" has no fucking idea.

* it seems like it's usually Boomers, but that might just be my Gen-X biases showing.
posted by The Card Cheat at 6:51 AM on August 25, 2017 [4 favorites]


The academic reactionaries are particularly troubling, and their frequent insistence that these hypersensitives simply need to learn how to deal with the “real world” seems more than a little precious given that it’s often these very professors who exist at a tangible distance from their students’ experiences in the world beyond academia.

I've grown up in and around academia at the intersection of the old way (getting a PhD largely debt-free, getting hired into tenure track pretty much immediately) and the new reality and this is absolutely also my experience. My dad is a tenured professor at a public R1 and has been for 40years, but his ability to coach me through going to college and then grad school in the 90s (the 90s! when it wasn't really even that bad yet!) was like nil. He had no clue. His world is not the world that the rest of us live in.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:51 AM on August 25, 2017 [23 favorites]


I'm an academic and there are few things I find as disappointing as seeing colleagues mocking traumatized people with straw man concepts of triggers and safe spaces.
posted by grouse at 7:15 AM on August 25, 2017 [50 favorites]


I am currently steeped in this issue, as an educator and researcher and person of colour who was once a student herself in an unkind, patriarchal, colonial education system. I am fortunate to work with many amazing colleagues whose pedagogical approaches align with principles of decolonization, indigenization, and feminism. But by God do I also hear some tiresome shit from other faculty and administrators about how it's not their job to cater to women and First Nations people and trans people et cetera, and how students need to toughen up and function in the real world. I find this said a lot by straight, middle aged, middle class white men who have experienced life on the easy setting for their entire existence.

Thanks so much for this article. It is so fucking bang on I want to quote all of it, but I'll settle for this part:

Frankly, I don’t want my classes to be gladiatorial arenas where only the strongest survive. There’s already enough cruelty in the world. Our students don’t need to be cowering supplicants, adoring acolytes, or uncritical sponges. They don’t need classrooms rooted in the arrogant belief that their experiences and contexts are meaningless, that the only Truth that matters is the one intoned by the unassailable, privileged authority at the front of the classroom. They don’t need to be anything less than their whole, imperfect, uncertain, hopeful, fabulous selves. And if a bit of generosity in our teaching can help them, if a bit more patience with their challenges can make the difference between hard-won success and crushing struggle, then it’s our duty as teachers to provide it. To do otherwise is an inexcusable moral and professional failure.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:17 AM on August 25, 2017 [45 favorites]


I should add that most of my colleagues don't teach the humanities, so they've never even had to deal with a student upset that they weren't warned about violent content. They're upset that some student, somewhere, is asking a professor to be just a little bit considerate of someone who has gone through serious trauma. It's appalling.
posted by grouse at 7:18 AM on August 25, 2017 [28 favorites]


As a professor, I am constantly communicating. Part of that communication is judging my audience and adjusting my approach to cause the least friction between what I am presenting and my listeners. If I am communicating with a diverse audience, and, at a research-intensive University, I always am, it's good practice to keep that diversity in mind when I'm presenting. This is not a particularly controversial idea. As usual, it's the conservative pundits who are the fragile snowflakes.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:33 AM on August 25, 2017 [13 favorites]


In my experience there is a strong direct relationship between lecturing people about the "real world" and living the most coddled imaginable life.

I'm not in academia--but I work at a company in a midwestern city that pays markedly above-market salaries and has incredibly low turnover, and I regularly hear this "why do they need safe spaces" stuff from people who have worked at the exact same company for 20 years and have at least a month's worth of paid vacation every year and a job where nobody pays attention to your specific hours and everybody will bend over backwards to cover for you if you're not very good at your job, for decades if necessary. They're very, very concerned about how other people don't know the value of hard work. They have no idea what hard work looks like. The safest people are the ones who think everybody else is too concerned with safety.
posted by Sequence at 7:38 AM on August 25, 2017 [54 favorites]


I started college in the late '70's. At the time I could pretty much go to college for free. I also dropped out immediately started some bands, joined the National Guard, got sober, got married, and lived life for another 20 years, finally dropping back in in 94. It took me 6 years to get my degree. When I was done I owed more money than I've ever seen. I can't imagine ever being able to pay it off, short of pulling some kind of scam. But yes, people who complain about hardships are special snowflakes. Fuck you, other boomers. You've got no fucking idea the trouble you've caused by being so irresponsible to the rest of society. We need to smack the shit out of some of these people and get them to realize that they're the problem, not high taxes, immigrants, PC, or libtards.
posted by evilDoug at 7:46 AM on August 25, 2017 [8 favorites]


I spent some time on a university committee responsible for hearing students' appeals to have classes that they performed poorly in removed from their record. These appeals were granted if the students could show that they faced emergency life circumstances that made it more or less impossible for them to meet their academic obligations.

It was one of the most illuminating and worthwhile jobs I've done as a faculty member, but it was also utterly heartbreaking. Every week I'd get a stack of files documenting the most terrible episodes in these students' lives: evictions, car accidents, job losses, family and relationship trauma, brushes with the police, unplanned pregnancies, HIV diagnoses, struggles with drugs and alcohol. Some of these were longstanding or chronic problems, which limited what we could do given the constraints of our mandate. But in a lot of cases we were able to provide some relief to students who were struggling with problems far more serious than most of us on the committee had ever faced.

Having done that work, I have a far greater appreciation for where those young faces in my classes are coming from. It imbued me with an awareness of the invisible trials and daily lashings many of them endure just to be in that room. It makes me appreciate their triumphs all the more, and gives me some greater measure of patience and understanding for their lapses.

I think that every one of my colleagues who has ever pejoratively referred to our students as "snowflakes" or derisively commented about the demands of "SJWs" on campus should be forced to take a long, unflinching look at the lives of those they profess to teach. For anyone with even a vestigial sense of empathy it makes it much harder to dismiss calls for a more humane and attentive pedagogy. There should be room for that even in the emotionally dessicated life of academia.
posted by informavore at 7:48 AM on August 25, 2017 [38 favorites]


Holy crud, where was this guy when I was in school? I wanted to copy and quote almost every single thing he said.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:04 AM on August 25, 2017 [4 favorites]


There's a strong undercurrent of let-your-freak-flag-fly among some older lefties that doesn't jibe with a culture where kindness is prioritized ahead of absolute freedom.

reminds me of an old roommate who was a Philosophy grad student at the time.

"The only absolute freedom anyone should have is the freedom to be virtuous." A pause while he took a big toke from his bong. "Now let's try to f***ing define virtue."
posted by philip-random at 10:33 AM on August 25, 2017 [9 favorites]


I think uncleozzy is on to something about some older lefties harboring "these special snowflake kids and their safe spaces" sentiments. My alma mater recently made the decision to start the process of renaming one of the central campus buildings, which was named after one of the school's early presidents. That president was hugely influential in establishing the school as it stands today, but she was also a known racist and anti-Semite who literally paid the woman who would have been the first black student at the college to go elsewhere. Seems pretty hard to argue that it would make Jewish and POC students uncomfortable to see someone who hated their existence honored so prominently.

But then current students went to an alumni Facebook group asking for support in signing a petition to the administration re the name change. To be fair, most people were very encouraging of these students' efforts. But oh the bingo cards you could make from the small subset of very angry alums. Special snowflakes! Erasing history! Back in my day we did real activism and weren't keyboard warriors! Why are you so emotional?! I'm a Jewish alum and I never felt offended so why should you! And this is at a teeny tiny moderate-to-liberal college with very little republican presence.

Seeing current students advocating for justice and pushing back against respectability-politics liberalism is one of the only things that's ever made me want to give money to my alma mater. We need more compassionate academic writers like Mr. Justice, who have the patience to engage angry liberal alum types so current students can keep up their advocacy in peace.
posted by ActionPopulated at 11:21 AM on August 25, 2017 [14 favorites]


I'm a tail-end-of-Gen-X'er who attended university in the 90s. The pissing & moaning I hear about how today's younger folks are supposedly under-motivated, over-sensitive, and too PC for their own good is DEPRESSINGLY familiar.

I work with a fair number of millennials, and so far as I can tell, being a twentysomething in 2017 isn't drastically different than being a twentysomething in 1995. Yes, popular culture has changed, but the good times, the bullshit, and the struggle are pretty much the same. The biggest difference I can see is that I didn't have a smartphone or social media back then, and trust me, I'd have been ALL over that shit had it been an option.
posted by tantrumthecat at 11:22 AM on August 25, 2017 [9 favorites]


I just always think it's terrible pedagogy not to take into account where your students are coming from. How can I reach you if I don't even know where you are? How can you profess to be a teacher and be uninterested in your students' minds?
posted by praemunire at 11:22 AM on August 25, 2017 [22 favorites]


She said colleges would do better to understand the deep flaws in their history and work to reshape them rather taking symbolic actions such as removing names.
I keep hearing things like this, and I can't for the life of me think of a single reason why we can't do both. Why do so many seem to assume that it's an either/or proposition?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:40 AM on August 25, 2017 [22 favorites]


Why do so many seem to assume that it's an either/or proposition?

They don't want to admit to themselves that every freaking day for the last [x] years they have been making a conscious choice to honor someone monstrous. So the decision to honor someone with a named building becomes meaningless "symbolism" and, what are you, some kind of crackpot fanatic to want to waste time changing that?
posted by praemunire at 11:59 AM on August 25, 2017 [13 favorites]


I keep hearing things like this, and I can't for the life of me think of a single reason why we can't do both. Why do so many seem to assume that it's an either/or proposition?

As an excuse for doing nothing. You cancel he renaming project. Then form a committee on "understanding and reshaping deep flaws" which meets a few times a year and after a couple of years, after most people have forgotten about the issue, produces a report, which is briefly discussed and then placed on a shelf and ignored.
posted by deanc at 2:13 PM on August 25, 2017 [3 favorites]


I just always think it's terrible pedagogy not to take into account where your students are coming from. How can I reach you if I don't even know where you are? How can you profess to be a teacher and be uninterested in your students' minds?

There's a certain school of thought in university pedagogy that the process of learning at this stage is where it is time for the students' minds to be reshaped according to the material and pedagogy, not that the pedagogy and material should be shaped towards the students.

On the face of it, it isn't a bad idea: the point of a university education is to flood your mind with material and for the students to adjust your mind to university-level academic material and the mindset of academia.

The thing is that this can be a sorting method rather than an exercise in academic discipline: instead of training the students' minds, you can end up just selecting the students who are already predisposed to perform in that environment and discarding the rest.

Keep in mind that the traditional model for post-secondary education was for a student to come from a college preparatory high school and then to move away to a college where any work to cover tuition would be minimal or done during the summer. And even though many (most?) colleges, especially public universities and community colleges, don't operate that way, that's the way many professors see themselves, and that is the academic background that the typical conservative polemicist has.
posted by deanc at 2:54 PM on August 25, 2017 [5 favorites]


There's a certain school of thought in university pedagogy that the process of learning at this stage is where it is time for the students' minds to be reshaped according to the material and pedagogy, not that the pedagogy and material should be shaped towards the students.

That's laziness and arrogance, not pedagogy--"I didn't have these problems to surmount, therefore nobody will, especially if I pretend they don't exist." When one turns eighteen, one's mind does not automatically become superhumanly detached from its history and culture.

I have that academic background. The problems he's talking about aren't limited to the ones imposed by poverty. Consider, for instance, how extraordinary it is to ignore the effects of having experienced sexual assault on a student's ability to analyze texts dealing with the subject when possibly one in four of your students has that experience. If the dean called you and told you that 25% of your students lived in a dorm that had caught fire the previous night, you would certainly approach class that day differently. Especially if you were reading, oh, Njal's Saga that day.
posted by praemunire at 3:15 PM on August 25, 2017 [8 favorites]


One of my classmates (an English grad student/TA) said that if you needed trigger warnings, you weren't mentally healthy enough to be in college. Which made me feel, frankly, that I'm not mentally healthy enough to be in college - I don't have triggers as such, but I'd had panic attacks in class, and it sucks, but I think it would be nonsense to exclude somebody who is bright and studies hard and writes really good papers and has an occasional bad brain day.

But most of all I think it's unrealistic. If we're going to live in a world where college gets sold as the thing you need if you're ever going to get a decent job, then it has to be made accessible to as many people as possible. And that includes people who have mental health problems that are not fixable in the short term (or possibly ever).

(It is a separate problem that college gets sold as the thing you need in order to do well in life! But that's the world that my students are very likely going to go out into, and if any of them is dealing with chronic mental health stuff I'd certainly tell them to do whatever they can to graduate, because it's a lot easier to treat your mental illness if you can get a job with health benefits, and those aren't just lying around on the floor.)
posted by Jeanne at 3:34 PM on August 25, 2017 [8 favorites]


If you're enough of an sociopath that you aren't going to warn people before you show them messed up stuff, then you aren't mentally healthy enough to be interacting with society.
posted by Zalzidrax at 4:37 PM on August 25, 2017 [9 favorites]


One of my classmates (an English grad student/TA) said that if you needed trigger warnings, you weren't mentally healthy enough to be in college.

And if I was the professor overseeing him, we'd have a very long talk about his fitness as a TA.
posted by NoxAeternum at 5:19 PM on August 25, 2017 [4 favorites]


Boomer logic:
1. fuck a generation. Ruin everything. Impoverish them all. Delete their life prospects.
2. criticize them for their suffering. Blame them for not buying houses, having kids, eating at Applebees.
3. Pathologize their needs.
4.???
5. Profit.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:22 PM on August 25, 2017 [8 favorites]


This fucking guy:

Mental disabilities shouldn't be accommodated with extra time on exams

Bruce Pardy is Professor of Law at Queen’s University. This column is based upon an article published in the Education and Law Journal.

Interesting that he's advocating breaking the law.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 7:08 PM on August 25, 2017 [4 favorites]


Exams are competitions too.

No, they fucking aren't.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:05 PM on August 25, 2017 [9 favorites]


Boomer logic:
1. fuck a generation. Ruin everything. Impoverish them all. Delete their life prospects.


well, what do you expect from a bunch of f***ing yuppies? The Boomers invented that, too. Except, of course, the multitudes who wanted no part of it. I could personally vouch for hundreds of them, who are entirely unlikely to be found criticizing the younger generations, blaming them for not buying houses, having kids, eating at Applebees. Or profiting.

Seriously, it's not the so-called Boomers you hate, it's Fucking Yuppies.
posted by philip-random at 11:27 PM on August 25, 2017


No, it's the Boomers. (And I'm plenty old enough to know what Yuppies are.)
posted by Joseph Gurl at 11:44 PM on August 25, 2017 [1 favorite]


bigotry doesn't have an age. for example, i often hear this sort of "im against trigger warnings and snowflakes" nonsense from gamergaters and pewdiepie defenders, who are i imagine a pretty young demographic
posted by yaymukund at 2:18 AM on August 26, 2017 [5 favorites]


I wasn't mentally healthy enough to be in college. Heck, that's true of a lot of people, including some of my current students, and from what I hear it's true of almost everyone some of the time.

But parenthetically, generational blame, which ignores class, race, income, ethnicity, and location, is lazy thinking.

It ain't Boomers, it's a specific set of them. It ain't Millennials. It's a specific set. If you're talking about college-educated white professionals in their sixties with professional jobs who demonstrated against the Vietnam War and then went to law school and sold out, say so, but they are a minority. If you mean people who devoted their entire lives to service to others, and who took care of their parents and their adult kids, and are panicking because they were unable to save any money as a result, say so; those are Boomers too. If you mean people who served in the Vietnam War and came back to scramble and fall into drug addiction, those are Boomers too. Auto workers out of a job. Women raising grandchildren because their kids fell apart. Or maybe you mean the media who constructed the narratives of yuppies and hippies, and who continue to use them as convenient shorthand?

The narrative you see in the media, and the narrative you see in the people in your immediate circle of acquaintances? Those are convenient fictions. Symbols.
posted by Peach at 2:24 AM on August 26, 2017 [6 favorites]


Fantastic article. I've been dismayed that some of my old high school friends have started fussing about trigger warnings. I always ask them "have you ever actually seen a trigger warning in practice?" And the answer is always no.

So I tell them how a trigger warning sounds, as in: "by the way, today's lecture will include graphic pictures of human remains." It's no different than the warnings they give on the news, I say ("this footage may be upsetting to some of our viewers").

People who object to the basic concept of a content warning -- who have most likely never actually seen one in a classroom setting -- seem to believe that students are incapable of learning unless the material is sprung on them by surprise. It's infantilizing.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 3:10 AM on August 26, 2017 [12 favorites]


seem to believe that students are incapable of learning unless the material is sprung on them by surprise

Oh hey, you've just described the teaching philosophy of some of my worst colleagues. Some of them seem to think students learn best if they're in the dark about everything that's going to happen, kept in a state of fear and confusion until the very last minute.

I once mentioned that I had gone over in class which topics would be covered on the midterm, and was treated to a condescending lecture by a colleague on how they didn't believe in letting the students have that information ahead of time. They genuinely believed it was cheating if the students were given a vague idea of what they might be asked to write about on a test--that giving specific parameters so students could prepare was giving them an unfair advantage because "that's not how things work in the real world."

In true l'esprit d'escalier form, I'd like to retort now: when your dean assigns your teaching workload, you don't find out what your courses are the day the semester starts. You're told exactly what's expected of you with plenty of advance notice and given time to prepare, so you can do a good job. That's your "real world." Why should it be different for our students?

My exams and assignments are not an exercise in divination and mind reading. I want them to show me what they actually know, and the best way to do that is to actually let them know what I want them to show me.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:13 AM on August 26, 2017 [16 favorites]


I get annoyed with how much these discussions tend to focus on trigger warnings, because while I think that issue does a ton of work for conservatives, it's not actually where I see this coming up. Where I mostly see it come up is with professors who have very rigid policies and who are very righteous about never making exceptions to their policies, even when exceptions are clearly warranted. For instance, someone I know worked with a student whose professor had a strict no extensions policy and refused to make an exception when the student's close family member died suddenly a few days before a paper was due. My friend was so incredulous that she actually called the professor, who was like "nope, my policy is clear. No extensions. If that snowflake really can't pull themselves together enough to complete the assignment, they should drop the class." That was a particularly egregious example, but I see smaller versions of it all the time. And the most frustrating thing is that the profs are so damn self-righteous about it, like they're somehow fighting the good fight for rigor and standards, when they're actually just being assholes.

(Honestly, I think it's often better to drop the class than take an extension, because it can be tough to make up the work, especially when you're dealing with stuff that isn't going to be resolved quickly. But the prof didn't frame it that way. It was about being fair and not coddling the student.)

I also think that a lot of profs have a picture in their heads about what a student in distress looks like, and actual students sometimes don't fit that picture. I've known several students who have been homeless, and in none of those cases would I ever have guessed it. They just seemed like typical middle-class college students, even though they were living in the shelter or their car or bouncing around from couch to couch. And I think that students often have a fair amount of shame about those circumstances, and they won't let on, especially if they perceive authority figures to be hostile. So professors perceive them to be entitled when they're late for class or don't do online homework or whatever, when there's actually a lot more going on.
My exams and assignments are not an exercise in divination and mind reading. I want them to show me what they actually know, and the best way to do that is to actually let them know what I want them to show me.
This is so much the point. Students take tests to demonstrate what they know, not to engage in some sort of scholarly competition with arbitrary rules.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:01 AM on August 26, 2017 [12 favorites]


We have a name for people who aren't vulnerable to triggers.

We call them psychopaths, and if that's what you are and the population you wish to teach, we could do with many fewer of you in the teaching profession -- or any profession at all, for that matter.
posted by jamjam at 10:54 AM on August 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


Students take tests to demonstrate what they know, not to engage in some sort of scholarly competition with arbitrary rules.

Despite what I said above, I do think part of the problem is exporting certain ideas that work well with certain very small populations to populations for whom they make no sense.

I remember having the impression back in the day that my very good high school calculus teacher wrote our tests to be about 35% problems that were mere mechanical application of skills we'd learned, about 55% problems you had to stop and consider carefully because there was a wrinkle, and about 10% problems you had never seen before and would have to discover how to solve through creative extension of previous learning. For well-supported students who had gotten themselves into second-year calculus at a wealthy high school, this was stimulating, albeit terrifying. For most other populations, the idea of a problem on the test that you had literally not yet been told how to solve would be pointlessly cruel, and not because some of them wouldn't be "smart enough" to get it.

If you ask a lot of people, you have to support them a lot, too. My high school was a bunch of kids supported along every possible axis by their families, by their communities, by society (and then there was me and a few other scholarship kids, I guess, who had already demonstrated our feral tenacity in getting there in the first place). Most students you will encounter in most settings are lacking at least some of that support.
posted by praemunire at 11:20 AM on August 26, 2017


Where I mostly see it come up is with professors who have very rigid policies and who are very righteous about never making exceptions to their policies, even when exceptions are clearly warranted. For instance, someone I know worked with a student whose professor had a strict no extensions policy and refused to make an exception when the student's close family member died suddenly a few days before a paper was due. My friend was so incredulous that she actually called the professor, who was like "nope, my policy is clear. No extensions. If that snowflake really can't pull themselves together enough to complete the assignment, they should drop the class." That was a particularly egregious example, but I see smaller versions of it all the time. And the most frustrating thing is that the profs are so damn self-righteous about it, like they're somehow fighting the good fight for rigor and standards, when they're actually just being assholes.

The problem here is that academia needs to learn that tenure protects the controversial, not assholes. A professor who does this sort of shit should get a long talk from their dean, pointing out that the behavior is not acceptable and that if it continues, it will be grounds for termination. And yet it would be argued that if a professor was fired for this, that it would be a massive blow to academic freedom. Which is a load of bullshit. Professors who act like dicks should be shown the door.

Also, what really saddens me is that at the heart of things like political correctness, trigger warnings, etc. is the the idea of treating people decently and with respect. And yet so many people argue that if they're not allowed to abuse people with impunity, their freedom is being compromised. It's sickening.
posted by NoxAeternum at 12:21 PM on August 26, 2017 [5 favorites]


I remember having the impression back in the day that my very good high school calculus teacher wrote our tests to be about 35% problems that were mere mechanical application of skills we'd learned, about 55% problems you had to stop and consider carefully because there was a wrinkle, and about 10% problems you had never seen before and would have to discover how to solve through creative extension of previous learning.
I actually think that's fine, as long as students are prepared for it. Some professors don't realize that they need to prepare students for it, and some don't think they should have to, because anyone in college should be able to do college-level math, blah, blah, blah. And it may be true that anyone in college should be able to apply their learning and solve a problem they've never seen before, but the average American high school doesn't prepare students to do that, and professors aren't going to solve our educational problems by punishing their students. So tell your students that you're going to expect them to apply their learning and solve some problems they haven't seen before. Talk to them about how you approach that kind of problem. Assign some for homework and then walk them through the steps to solve it. Give them additional opportunities to practice that skill if they want it. Don't spring it on them for the first time on the exam, thinking that a surprise attack is the best way to discover who is worthy and who isn't. Because if you do that, you're really going to find out who had an elite high-school education and/or performs well under pressure, rather than who understands the concepts.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 12:22 PM on August 26, 2017 [4 favorites]


Thanks for sharing this strong essay and to all for the great thread. I teach some really difficult material in some of my classes, and I always begin by stressing that it will be difficult for all of us, but more difficult for some, and that part of our task is learning as a community. I also state that I don't see any pedagogical value in students being surprised by content. I mean, why?
Also just + in general to the idea of being kind; if you really think a key part of your job is not to be kind, maybe look for a different line of work?
posted by Mngo at 1:31 PM on August 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


Where I mostly see it come up is with professors who have very rigid policies and who are very righteous about never making exceptions to their policies, even when exceptions are clearly warranted

Yeah, that's a good point, and I think it's easy to overlook that stuff because it happens more one-on-one, in private, and it isn't any one thing. "Trigger warning" is a buzzword that can rile people up; refusing to allow an extension after a death in the family isn't so easily reduced to a talking point about coddling.

I'm officially a disabled student, and that has given me a lot of leverage to get extensions, extra time on exams, etc. Even before I had my disability status, I had professors who were nice enough to work with me if something came up, and I think I can take it for granted that there are jerks out there who wouldn't have been so accommodating. I don't know how other universities are, but I think mine is pretty good about providing institutional resources for students so they don't get screwed by jerky professors.

(And yeah, that article about extended time on exams was dumb.)
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 1:50 PM on August 26, 2017


Where I mostly see it come up is with professors who have very rigid policies and who are very righteous about never making exceptions to their policies, even when exceptions are clearly warranted

I don't understand why policies on these sorts of things are left to professors. Within at least one faculty of my institution, instructors have no authority to grant extensions—they are approved by a faculty-wide committee.
posted by grouse at 3:19 PM on August 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


I remember having the impression back in the day that my very good high school calculus teacher wrote our tests to be about 35% problems that were mere mechanical application of skills we'd learned, about 55% problems you had to stop and consider carefully because there was a wrinkle, and about 10% problems you had never seen before and would have to discover how to solve through creative extension of previous learning. For well-supported students who had gotten themselves into second-year calculus at a wealthy high school, this was stimulating, albeit terrifying. For most other populations, the idea of a problem on the test that you had literally not yet been told how to solve would be pointlessly cruel, and not because some of them wouldn't be "smart enough" to get it.

You see, that's not an issue of students with mental illnesses, traumatized backgrounds, relatives who've just died, or students trying to finish college while also supporting their parents and siblings back home. That's students who are best served by a less rigorous curriculum of the sort available at most colleges outside of elite universities and specialized state university honors scholarship programs. And there's nothing really wrong with that, but it's why there are elite colleges, and it's why large universities have an honor college for high achievers, etc. It's why elite colleges generally have a host of special programs to get very smart students from disadvantaged backgrounds "up to speed" so they can compete on a similar level as better prepared students.

One of the things I thing a lot of people relate to as formative academic experiences are situations where the student has to accept that no one really cares about what they're dealing with. Lots of times you're going to cry over a problem set you can't solve, stay up at night wondering how your future is going to turn out because maybe what you thought you wanted to do your whole life isn't really what you actually want, etc. And some academic experiences are going to break you down, cause you to question everything you thought you knew, and force you to climb back out of your hole to emerge an educated person.

This gets into a lot of issues about university pedagogy. I've taken classes both where we where hit by a flood of information that was more than anyone could be expected to handle, and you were expected to grasp it as best you could, even if you had to spend lots of time in office hours and in the library re-reading the text book to understand what was going on. And I've taken classes in programs where everyone just accepted that the students were there to get a ticket punched and demonstrate an understanding of the material.

There's the practical nature of the fact that there's no reason for deadlines to be inflexible and no need for tests to take X amount of time or be taken on Y day (Prof K, you are brilliant and I loved working with you on my thesis, but I'm still angry about that time you scheduled an exam on a major religious holiday that, while celebrated by a small US minority, was still a big deal, and you refused to be flexible). And then there's the fact that high level academic material is both difficult and intellectually and philosophically challenging material, and you can expect to have a hard time with it.
posted by deanc at 5:33 PM on August 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


One of the things I thing a lot of people relate to as formative academic experiences are situations where the student has to accept that no one really cares about what they're dealing with. Lots of times you're going to cry over a problem set you can't solve, stay up at night wondering how your future is going to turn out because maybe what you thought you wanted to do your whole life isn't really what you actually want, etc. And some academic experiences are going to break you down, cause you to question everything you thought you knew, and force you to climb back out of your hole to emerge an educated person.

As a student at an elite university in an exclusive honors program, who also has an official disability designation due to mental illness, I'm going to say that this kind of "formative experience" you are describing is not healthy for me, is not productive for my education, and only serves to hinder my progress. I know this because I have experienced it in the past, and I have suffered as a consequence. I can't accept that I should be suffering in order to truly learn and grow as a person, in order to fulfill some vague notion that there is "no pain, no gain" with regards to my education. I absolutely resent the idea that I need to break down, yet again, in order to become an educated person. This isn't the army. The goal of my education is not to break me down and rebuild me as a finer person.

More to the point, my accommodations do not prevent me from being challenged, but what they do is allow me to recover from difficult situations when I would not otherwise be able to. I work extremely hard at my studies, and the implication that my education is somehow any less valid because I haven't broken down enough is an insult to all the work I have done, and to the tangible growth I have experienced as an, yes, educated person. My scholarship speaks for itself, regardless of the accommodations I have received during my college career.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 6:06 PM on August 26, 2017 [10 favorites]


some academic experiences are going to break you down, cause you to question everything you thought you knew, and force you to climb back out of your hole to emerge an educated person.

The notion that people have to be "broken down" to be somehow "improved" or "educated" is so fucking pernicious and I want to kill it with scorpions and jellyfish.

I can't tell you how many times as a lifelong educator I've heard this from colleagues. It. Is. False. And. Harmful.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:16 PM on August 26, 2017 [15 favorites]


I think that there's a really strong urge among a certain kind of nerdy man to see college and grad school as a sort of heroic quest. It's not just about learning stuff: it's a heroic ordeal that tests one's mettle and forges one's character, and at the end of it one is a special, elite person who deserves respect and rewards and is better than the lowly liberal arts majors who were not similarly tested. And honestly, those are impulses that are best worked out with a therapist, not imposed upon the younger generation.

Sometimes learning is hard. Sometimes you have to be confused and fight through your confusion until you understand a difficult concept. But that's really different from the whole heroic thing about being broken down and crawling out of the hole. It's just calculus. It's not the hero's journey.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:20 PM on August 26, 2017 [14 favorites]


It's not just about learning stuff: it's a heroic ordeal that tests one's mettle and forges one's character, and at the end of it one is a special, elite person who deserves respect and rewards and is better than the lowly liberal arts majors who were not similarly tested.

This is the classical view of how liberal arts was viewed as well-- even moreso, actually, because it was supposed to change your mind, and perspective, philosophically and intellectually. At least, this is how I envision Universoty of Chicago to be.

Calculus is, as you say, just calculus, though obviously a high level science education should be about giving you a firm understanding and be able to problems you haven't seen before, not just regurgitate what you've seen. But liberal arts is supposedly about expanding your mind in ways you didn't think was possible.

The people I knew who had some of the hardest time in college, from a psychic perspective, were those who always seemed to have approval and success come easy to them in high school. Even if they were quite intelligent, they had little experience with intellectual struggle or hardship. To a large degree, if college doesn't cure you of that, it hasn't really forced you to stretch the boundaries of your intellect and capabilities.

What's interesting is that this conversation really isn't about trigger warnings. I think most (reasonable) people would agree that warning students about content ahead of time is perfectly valid. But obviously some people do also think that some students need protection from experiences that contain intellectual hardship and difficulty resulting in self doubt and fear of failure.

So maybe this really isn't about trigger warnings or how to address students who have difficult family issues. Some people genuinely see education that shouldn't involve these stresses of intellectual challenges and workload. But that ignores the contingent of students thrive and are well served in that environment
posted by deanc at 8:18 PM on August 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


My doctoral program was about breaking you down and giving you things you had never handled before, without much preparation for it. Many doctoral programs in some disciplines are like that. The reason is that they don't actually want most of their students to graduate, because they don't have enough jobs for them, and so they make their students utterly miserable until they give up. The result of that kind of program is that the people who do graduate are invested in suffering as a lifestyle.

Most other programs ought to be about teaching students to handle things. If you are going to give students real-world, undefined problems, which I argue you should, you should also be giving them lots of practice in dealing with real-world, undefined problems in situations where they are not being evaluated in a make-or-break way.

A college classroom is not always a lecture or seminar where students are going through the conventional process of learning. I currently supervise college students who are doing a practicum semester in classrooms. I do want some of them to decide they aren't going to go into teaching, honestly, because not everyone should be an urban public school teacher - it's one of the hardest jobs in the world. But most of my students, many of whom are handling incredible stress in their own lives, including deaths, alcoholism, attacks by others, lack of financial resources, and (I am sure) other things they didn't tell me about, can and do also handle the stress of the classroom if they're prepared for it and if they're supported.
posted by Peach at 11:34 AM on August 27, 2017 [4 favorites]


Just popping in to say that I adore the original op-ed and the thoughtful discussion here. Thanks, MeFi.
posted by invokeuse at 6:47 PM on August 31, 2017 [1 favorite]


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