Own your 50%: When Things go Wrong

Teaching is hard. And it’s hard in different ways for different people. As someone who tries to provide resources for a variety of personalities, teaching myriad courses, I spend a lot of time thinking about this fact. Thus, a while back, I did an informal poll on Facebook and Twitter asking people what they personally found hardest about teaching. I got some really great answers:

  • Being involved enough to keep students interested without taking over
  • Lecturing about topics that one isn’t really interested in
  • Time management
  • Fielding questions one doesn’t know the answer to
  • Not taking it personally or getting too distracted when there is a single student who hates the class
  • Fairly evaluating progress in disciplines that don’t test easily
  • And more…

Great discussion, right? Interesting, self-reflective, critical engagement with teaching! Unfortunately, this was not the sum-total of what was said, and several people also told me that the hardest part about teaching was the students, for whom one had to drag oneself to class, day-in and day-out, in the vain attempt to try to teach them something. And so, the results of my little survey annoyed me for a few hours, and then I didn’t think about them again… until something else happened.
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[How some people see their students]

On September 3rd, as some of you may have noticed, I put up a tab advertising my services as a tutor. I then posted this tab to Facebook and was almost immediately met with comments offering advice. Don’t get me wrong, I am genuinely happy to dialogue and even to fight it out with friends and colleagues whose opinions I truly value. In this case they were trying to make sure I wasn’t underselling my skills by not charging enough. But here’s where it gets weird: justifications for why I should charge more (despite my already articulated concern about student finances) rested on the assumption that students are mostly rich kids whose parents pay their tuition and buy them fancy cars – there are poor students, but they can find a different tutor, and I should market myself to the rich.

I’m going to skip over the part where, as someone who put myself through school (on a combination of PT jobs and competitive awards), I was struck by a blinding fit of rage. What I want to talk about instead is: who should we blame when something goes wrong in the classroom, and why is teaching hard? The negative comments in the above scenarios indicate that there are some academics out there who blame underwhelming classes or difficulties in the classroom on the students. Students, from this perspective, are a bunch of irritating, privileged children, who one has to try to force into learning something. To me, these explanations are unfair to the many intellectually curious, dedicated, and hard-working students I have met over the years. And I think to place all the blame the students when things go wrong is to be painfully short-sighted.
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[Students have their own critiques]

That is not to say that there isn’t another extreme. The other inappropriate response to classroom failures is to assume that they result wholly and completely from something you’ve done as a teacher. Things like obsessively picking apart everything that one has done, blaming one’s lecture style, assignments, charisma, or poor choice of readings for a lack of student engagement. This will make it impossible for a person to commit to the material they’re teaching or to a particular pedagogical style, and it wreaks havoc on one’s self-confidence. Like those who blame the students, those who assume that students play no role in their own intellectual success or failure lack a certain perspective.

So I want to throw something out there. Perhaps we should think about teaching as a kind of relationship. As such, it can at times be taken as analogous to a romantic relationship – blissful or dysfunctional, productive or destructive, happy or fraught. And when things go wrong in the classroom, just as when things go wrong with your lover, partner or spouse, there are going to be two sides to the story. It is neither wholly your fault, nor wholly the fault of that other person. As I have reminded both myself and the various men who have passed through my life, you need to “own your 50%” in these situations! What do I mean by this? I don’t necessarily mean that when trouble hits, both parties are equally to blame. There are times when it’s more like 60:40, or hell, even 90:10! But my little slogan is meant to point out that there is no way to avoid dividing the culpability for things going wrong in a relationship of any kind.

What does this mean for the classroom? Well, for starters, if students are on Facebook, it might mean that you have to adjust your pace or method of presentation a little because, you know what, I go on Facebook during talks when I’m bored too. And I’m trained to listen to some pretty boring stuff. But if, no matter what you do, there’s still that one student on Facebook, perhaps he or she indeed just doesn’t like your class, today’s lecture, or is particularly distracted that day. That is not your fault, and that’s ok. Own your 50%, but not more.

I guess what I’m trying to say to any of my colleagues out there reading this right now is: please don’t assume you’re doing everything wrong. But please don’t assume your students are a bunch of lazy, privileged little brats when there’s more you could be doing to help them either. Sadly, the current system encourages both extremes by emphasizing that profs are bright, independent learners whose knowledge should allow them to deliver flawless presentations in the classroom without ever really training them to do so. By corollary, students should be bright, independent learners who soak all this knowledge up – like sponges – without much need of assistance. The current system, however, is flawed. Teaching is hard, and you’re going to stumble. Learning is hard, and students need help. And both of you are occasionally going to have bad days. Engaging with this situation is just as important as finishing that research project, especially if we want to inspire the researchers of the future. So, before you start playing the blame game, try to remember that teaching is a relationship. As such, it is complicated, and it will constantly need to be negotiated.

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