• September 4, 2015

How to Inspire a Backlash

Careers First Person Illustration #2

Brian Taylor

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close Careers First Person Illustration #2

Brian Taylor

Being neither a socialist, nor the wearer of a mustache, nor a low-level colonial employee in Burma, I never expected to have a George Orwell moment. Yet here I find myself, for the first time in my life, important enough to be hated by a large number of people.

When I wrote a recent column for The Chronicle"The Pleasure of Seeing the Deserving Fail"—about the occasionally bitter joys of teaching, I never expected a backlash. And while vituperation (as a colleague of mine pointed out) is its own form of compliment, it isn't quite so much of a compliment as a compliment would be.

Admittedly, a fairly large number of people in the posted comments that followed my column either sided with me or understood me. My essay also became the subject of a substantial blog post, something I never thought would happen. But over all I've been more struck by the negative emotions I've inspired than by the positive ones.

To begin with, I think I may have insufficiently emphasized a couple of key points in my first column that seem to have gotten lost in the shuffle. First, as I tried to express in the closing paragraph, the teaching profession seems to have become progressively more devalued these days. If critics dismiss or vilify teachers, it seems only logical that at some point the feelings may be returned: I am all for turning the other cheek, but one only has two (or at most, four).

Second, and vastly more important, I celebrate fully the positive joys of teaching. As I said in the first paragraph of that first essay, I see much to relish in my profession, and relish it I do: when students blossom; when they show the ways in which they think for themselves; when they become excited about a topic; when they change for the better in an infinitely surprising number of ways. I applaud those moments and seek neither to devalue them nor to give them up.

Neither of those points, however, is meant to excuse what I said in the rest of my essay. What fascinated me about the responses was the number of people who felt I needed an excuse: I must be old and burned out (neither, depending on what you mean by "old"); I must be a miserable person (no); I must hate students (no); I must be a bad teacher (I don't think so, and my student evaluations suggest I'm not).

But, to be honest, I feel I need no excuse at all. I don't think it's a sign of embitterment to have little time for students who abuse the college experience. When I said there was pleasure to be drawn from the student who deserves to fail, and then does fail, I thought I made it plain that I did not mean those students who are not yet ready to blossom, or those students who try their best but are not yet able to pass, or even those students I have worked with to the best of both our abilities. I meant the ones who have squandered their opportunities to improve and blossom. I do not apologize for being angry at those students, nor for taking a certain kind of negative pleasure in their getting their comeuppance.

Moreover, sometimes I do get a sneaking enjoyment out of seeing people who have wasted my time or the time of others get payback for that. I don't think that's malevolence. I think it's a combination of recognizing the value of correction (sometimes people do not grow until they see the consequences of refusing to grow) and having a healthy sense of how educational time should be spent.

One can never know for certain when a student might blossom and, for that reason, teachers should be patient, hopeful, and encouraging for a very long time. But there are students who refuse to rise to challenges and refuse to change or grow. I'm not sure I believe we should extend them infinite grace. That seems to make me different from many Chronicle readers, but it's a difference I stand by.

Yet I made the admissions that I did in my article for another reason, one I feel is just as important for a teacher as the validation I mentioned above. Let me start by saying that I am a literary scholar: It is my job to plumb meaning to its depths. If I am doing my job well, I must acknowledge that the works I teach sometimes contain and express unpleasant feelings. I must admit that the sublime authors I study may have been—or, in fact, were—misogynists, racists, misanthropes, and narcissists.

To be human is to be unpleasant as well as pleasant; literature shows that both by what it says and by what it is. Facing that about the works and authors I teach, how much of a hypocrite, a fantasist, or a solipsist would I have to be not to acknowledge that I contain the same unpleasantness? If I am committed to the discovery of truth, how can I not be committed to the discovery and acknowledgment of unpleasant truths about myself, one of which surely is the pleasure I take in some occasionally unpleasant feelings?

Anger, dislike, weariness, schadenfreude: Those are all, for me, parts of human experience. That does not mean those emotions rule people, but it does mean they are there sometimes. Acknowledging those feelings may improve the chances that they won't affect how I behave, since acknowledgment leads to awareness, which, in turn, can lead to clarity and caution (if not the kind of caution that keeps one from writing an article for The Chronicle).

So I did not write my original article because I was burned out, or filled with rage, or even—delightful as it might be—a harpy. I wrote it, in part, out of a sense of ironic fun that I assumed (naïvely I now see) would be shared, and, in part, as a description of occasional and ephemeral angers that I saw no harm in sharing.

But equally I wrote it because I feel it is part of my job, as a teacher as well as a person, to acknowledge my negatives as well as my positives—not because that makes me superior, or inferior, but because it makes me human.

Alice Fenton is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of English at a university in the South.


1. jadee - December 10, 2010 at 01:59 am

I agree 100% with this article (and the first one too)!

Just because we are in the teaching profession, we are expected to smile and grin and bear whatever disrespect and disregard thrown at us. Heaven forbid if we dare to complain or express anger at being treated badly by our students! Like the prof says, we ARE human, and we are entitled to use our inside voices to vent like all other human beings.

I also have a sneaking suspicion that had "Alice Fenton" used a male pseudonym to write this article, the complaints agaisnt "her" would not have been so mean-spirited. After all, it is only men who are allowed to express dismay or "wicked" thoughts when they are treated badly; women, who are "natural" nurturers, are expected to cuddle and coddle their students and pretend all is well. Just sayin'

2. joelcairo - December 10, 2010 at 06:55 am

I absolutely applaud Alice Fenton's sentiment about students who display no inclination toward appreciating their teachers or what their teachers impart. We are teachers, not saints!

3. mattcardin - December 10, 2010 at 07:02 am

I agree 100% with jadee in agreeing 100% with this article and its predecessor.

I read the eruption of shock, rage, and horror in the first one's comments queue with no small amount of annoyance. The expression "Oh, come the frack ON!" (or actually a close variant of it) frequently crossed my mind, and I think I even subvocalized it a time or two, as I plowed through what I couldn't help but view as a veritable rainbow of self-righteousness and self-serving, otherworldly idealism. In your article you articulated what we, your fellow college teachers, already know and experience in our own careers, and you did so quite smartly and amusingly, with panache. And yes, the two-sided, fair-minded part of it came through clearly. So the putative outrage of those who found you worthy of being put in the stocks and publicly flogged for your candidness rang distinctly false, or at least fatuous.

In short, I dug it. Your article, I mean, not the comments. And I'm glad to see you standing your ground here. Nicely done.

4. vernaye - December 10, 2010 at 07:56 am

You're corrupting the youth and being impious toward the gods. Here's your hemlock. Drink.

5. henry_adams - December 10, 2010 at 08:26 am

I enjoyed both of Alice Fenton's essays, and I hope that she writes more columns.

jadee, as the author of the "Academic Bait-and-Switch" series, I can assure you and Alice Fenton that using a male pseudonym does not shield a writer from negative feedback.

Henry Adams

6. velvis - December 10, 2010 at 08:35 am

I got a similar response from my adult students when they realize that teachers are people and probably talked smack about them in the lounge. I think it's a necessity at some point.

I think seeing the right students go down in flames --- especially the ones facebooking during class all semester and then begging for help in the last days before the final or the backtalking snarky smart-alecks who are using erroneous information for their snark or the ones too artificially nurturing to admit that they like to see those who are deserving fail (I wonder if a student of theirs had written something as this how they would have reacted) --- can really do your heart some good and restore your faith in yourself, the system and the universe in general.

To Alice -- I salute thee.

7. velvis - December 10, 2010 at 08:36 am

And if Alice is a professor of mine -- can I get some extra credit?

8. panchodesastre - December 10, 2010 at 08:51 am

The students at my institution who get financial aid, abuse it, can't be bothered to use their book stipend to purchase books, work full-time under the table, and then fail their courses... Not a surprise. Happy to put them out of their misery by failing them.

9. quidditas - December 10, 2010 at 08:57 am

I disagree with the whole idea that it's A-okay to gloat over student failure, even when the student is obnoxious.

Having worked in an academic administrative capacity--where students tend to regard you as "the help" in contrast to teaching where they know they're dependent on your good graces for grades--there have been plenty of times I've encountered students who have been acutely obnoxious, and been in danger of failing. I didn't, then, sit around hoping--or advocating--for their failure because they deserve it or they asked for it.

What respondents found obnoxious about YOU--who don't even need to resort to external provocation to ensure a student's failure-- is that you apparently view failing an obnoxious or lazy student as a means of revenge, which you additionally enjoy, whereas they saw nothing worthwhile in what is a mutually regrettable experience for all involved.

In other words, you are suspected of harboring a mindset that leads to abuse of power. And while you pretend to be conscious of it, comparing yourself to a racist and etc, you really aren't conscious of it, or you would stop defending that mindset and encouraging it amongst your colleagues.

No, we don't always like the students--but that's not the sum total of what you said.

10. mchag12 - December 10, 2010 at 09:05 am

We also seem to be afraid to mention that there are those students who simply don't belong in a college classroom-- they are not malevolent, or entitled (as many seem to be these days) or even lazy. They just don't have the background, education or ability to do college-level work. Colleges and Universities that are willing to put substantial resources into remediation can sometimes take those students further--most universities do not have that structure. Many today are in college because they do not know what else to do, have little direction, and unfortunately, little aptitude for college-level work. They drag down the rest of the class and I, for one, am constantly amazed at the level of incomprehension I sometimes witness. There has to be other ways.

11. maw57 - December 10, 2010 at 09:40 am

@quidditas: I don't think it is fair to say that Alice's article expressed a desire for "revenge." Pleasure in the operation of justice perhaps. More generally, the article elicited intense response because it tapped into the ambivalence that inheres in all strongly affective relationships. To operate as we aim to -- that is, as dispassionate professionals -- we normally repress the negative axis of our response to students. The positive axis, in contrast, is socially acceptable and doesn't elicit censorship (unless that positive charge threatens to cross obvious boundaries, sexual or otherwise). So Alice's article blows everyone's professional cover: "how dare you express feelings that I refuse to acknowledge are mine as well!"

12. quidditas - December 10, 2010 at 09:41 am

"Many today are in college because they do not know what else to do...They drag down the rest of the class and I, for one, am constantly amazed at the level of incomprehension I sometimes witness."

The same could be said for a lot of college English teachers, which department also happens to have been one significant player in the university edition of the culture wars, and a breeding ground for the academic lynch mob mentality.

Like bullies everywhere, they do it because they can and they do it because they enjoy it.

13. 11261897 - December 10, 2010 at 09:41 am

We as teachers have no more obligation to like our students than they have to like us as teachers. We DO have the obligation of suppressing any dislike that exists as we strive to guide them through our curriculum. It's unfair if we fail them, but there's nothing to prevent their failing themselves -- and many do.

14. mchag12 - December 10, 2010 at 09:56 am

quidditas: What?

15. quidditas - December 10, 2010 at 09:57 am

"To operate as we aim to -- that is, as dispassionate professionals -- we normally repress the negative axis of our response to students."

Even a quick survey of commentary in the CHE will reveal that there is no profesional taboo inhibiting this "negative axis" and its public expression. Fenton is not speaking the unspeakable when she complains about boorish behaviour and lack of effort. These criticisms are so all pervasive that they're practically invisible to all who work in academia. It's wallpaper.

16. plclark - December 10, 2010 at 10:07 am

"But over all I've been more struck by the negative emotions I've inspired than by the positive ones."

Is this so surprising? The author's original piece was devoted entirely to the sharing and celebration of negative emotions.

"Yet here I find myself, for the first time in my life, important enough to be hated by a large number of people."

This is pretty melodramatic. Speaking for myself, I commented on the first piece, and my reaction was one of moderate exasperation and -- more than anything -- surprise that a piece which offers so little other than a disclosure of negative feelings about teaching and a projection of that onto the reader (the repeated "you" that I objected to in my earlier comment) was published as "advice". I certainly don't hate the author. I don't even know the author, maybe even less than I should after having read a piece of her writing.

And now we get a rejoinder in which the author places -- or tries to place -- the negative disclsoures of her first piece in the context of her academic work and intellectual duties. Yikes. Yes, every teacher I have ever met is a human being, and every teacher that I have gotten to know at all well as a human being has frustrations and complaints about teaching and students. We share these complaints with each other and tell colorful stories about all sorts of student shortcomings, often in a way which is distinctly negative in character: i.e., the worse the student, the better the story, somehow.

I think this is perfectly justifiable, and even healthy and necessary behavior. But it is appropriate in a certain context. "I take pleasure when students who deserve to fail actually do fail" is a disclosure within the spectrum of normal human emotion and certainly not inconsistent with good teaching. But as insight (the "and so do you" that I found so prevalent in the first piece) it falls flat, and as advice it's ridiculous. As a regular Chronicle reader, I feel quite confident that possessing and vocalizing negative emotions concerning teaching is not something that people here have trouble with.

I have to say that I find the equation of voicing negative personal feelings with scholarship -- "plumb[ing] meaning to its depths" -- perhaps worst of all. Do we also have an intellectual obligation to discuss our bouts of poor digestion, insomnia and glandular imbalances? As a mathematician, my idea of plumbing depths of meaning is quite different from this, and the suggestion that there is scholarly merit here is embarrassing to me. I think that -- in truth! -- it might be embarrassing to the author as well. Were she serious about her scholarship, she would sign the piece with her real name in order to receive proper credit. In general I am coming to feel that what is appropriate for broad distribution is appropriate to sign with one's actual name.

Pete L. Clark, Ph.D.

17. quidditas - December 10, 2010 at 10:19 am

"quidditas: What?"

I'm saying that, as an English professor today, Fenton was probably educated and enculturated in the disordered tit-for-tat environment that emerged when the Department's liberal Arnoldian mission was breaking down.

18. formerprof05 - December 10, 2010 at 11:28 am

@quidditas: As a former academic dean, I sometimes, like you, encountered faculty who abused their power, and I tried to intervene and correct the situation. But I also encountered students who tried to scam their instructors or the system and, therefore, merited failure or expulsion. I admit to experiencing a sort of satisfaction at seeing justice done. How about you?

19. mmarion - December 10, 2010 at 11:30 am

I currently have in one of my classes a student who missed two of the first four classes. We meet once per week. Therefore, she missed two weeks of classes and the instruction about writing lesson plans. Now, as she rereads the attendance statements from the syllabus, she seems to have snapped to attention and has begun the "Well-it's-your-fault-and-I-have-not-gotten-what-I-need-from-this-class," routine.

I think that this is the type of studen about which "Alice Fenton" was speaking.

20. libartphil - December 10, 2010 at 11:39 am

It seems to me that this is just a corollary of the sense of disappointment we feel when a student is able to game the system. It is a basic feature of the emotional underpinnings of our sense justice that we probably share with other primates. When we stop preening and admit a sort of Nietzschean underbelly to our sense of justice and fairness, we find that we resent those who get away with stuff and we take some pleasure in people who get their just deserts. And whether some people might be biased against students they dislike and help them along their path to self-destruction is something to be seriously concerned with. But, the fact that we have these sorts of moral emotions connected to our sense of justice does not seem by itself to be a character flaw--how we act on these emotions might, however, result in injustice, or be a sign of an ignoble character.

21. more_cowbell - December 10, 2010 at 12:16 pm

My reaction to this post is the same as that of the original article. Immature and unprofessional.

22. tlgriffith18 - December 10, 2010 at 12:20 pm

As a professional advisor, I can sympathize with Alice. Most of my students pay attention, do well, etc. But there are those that are in academic jeopardy with whom I work non-stop to help, and I flat cannot reach. These are the students who do minimal effort and are more interested in the financial aid check than learning. Term after term, I struggle to find something in them that is excited about the learning process. Sometimes I find it and they graduate. Others continue to play the system until the system catches up to them. Am I happy about it? No, of course not. I tend to feel I've failed them as an advisor. Do I wish the system had caught up to them sooner? Sometimes.

I'm a strong believer in giving people a second chance, but I also know not everyone should be in college. Allowing them to continue just puts them deeper in debt and goes against what I feel is our mission: to help them. We aren't helping them by letting them fail again and again and we are just letting them accrue loans they will have no way of repaying.

23. more_cowbell - December 10, 2010 at 12:22 pm

My reaction to this piece is the same as to the original article. Immature and unprofessional.

If you really do relish seeing people fail, it's best keep it to yourself.

24. sci_case - December 10, 2010 at 12:47 pm

yes, it is human to experience pleasure at the misfortunes of others, and it is also understandable for a teacher to experience it in the instances described by Fenton. But it still remains regrettable. The author passes up the opportunity to explore this as another all too human yet regrettable aspects of human life.

25. writingprof - December 10, 2010 at 12:52 pm

"Fenton" claims to be a literature professor and, simultaneously, not a socialist.

One of these is clearly a lie.

26. oh_richard - December 10, 2010 at 01:36 pm

@velvis - "I got a similar response from my adult students when they realize that teachers are people and probably talked smack about them in the lounge. I think it's a necessity at some point."

Chuckle - This response happens too when you realize ... things ... like that your parents have sex (beyond that one, extremely special, time when you were conceived). Sometimes a startling moment when you have to see others as human IS a necessity for some folks, if not all of us.

@maw57 - "how dare you express feelings that I refuse to acknowledge are mine as well!" Well said and quite true... and accepting the pretty and ugly side of being human IS a necessity for some folks, if not all of us.

I said it before and will say it again... I think a few folks here protest too much...

27. tsylvain - December 10, 2010 at 03:39 pm

I applaud the author for being willing to write again for the Chronicle after the extremely negative reception of her first essay. It's also refreshing that she doesn't apologize or back too far away from her original argument. It is, after all, a reality of teaching that some students are difficult, grating, or unwilling to take the opportunities to learn that are offered to them.

Nevertheless, I am glad that Fenton chose to explain precisely what kinds of students she had in mind and to answer those critics who imagine that she is old, bitter, and a horrible teacher. My only problem with the original essay is that it is a bit too celebratory about students' failing, and Fenton (to me at least) comes across as egotistical at times, such as when she tells the story of needing to show floundering students the way and to shut down silly questions with a "no."

My problem with this new essay is the part about Fenton's scholarship. I don't really think bringing up her devotion to research does her any favors, especially since her critics were focused primarily on the type of teacher she must be. I am in the same discipline and have to admit to being annoyed as well with the readers who are taking Fenton's possible abuses of power as typical behavior for English faculty.

28. motomama - December 10, 2010 at 03:58 pm

For those self righteous, holier than thou folks who got on poor Alice for being a human being--and an honest one at that!--shame on all of you...Anyone who has ever taught--really taught!--knows that the selfish, petty, small-mindedness that many of our students possess and seem downright proud of these days--anti-intellectualism is received by many of them as a compliment and a goal-feels bad to teachers who really care about learning, makes one angry, is disrespectful, should not be tolerated, and should not be rewarded with a lot of feel good, hippy-dippy crap...To my colleagues who bashed Alice and rationalize their "critique" in Lefty terms--shame on you. You disrespect the profession of teaching and the critical mission of the university by infantilizing students and deceiving yourself into thinking that all behavior is acceptable and all laziness, narcissism, and manipulation is just another excuse for oppressive and inequitable relations of power...now that's a misreading of power and the critical project if I ever heard one...

Get over your bad self...and give Alice a break...at least she didn't talk about the pleasure she undoubtedly receives in seeing her ignorant colleagues fail to get their dribble published and their banal presentations accepted...we can only hope for her next essay...

29. amnirov - December 10, 2010 at 06:25 pm

I've read George Orwell, baby, and you aint he.

30. rear_view_mirror - December 10, 2010 at 09:42 pm

It could be that when you feel satisfaction in failing a student, you believe that you're undoing or offsetting a mistake made by another educator? Like someone who lets in too many, or passes too many.

31. marina727 - December 10, 2010 at 09:43 pm

Alice, I find that those who yell loudly and meanly (or type harshly)at you for your honesty are angry because you struck a raw nerve -- one that is live with agitation, because they know exactly what you mean. So many of us do -- we've all been there --we just don't want to admit it. Good for you!

32. godard - December 10, 2010 at 10:01 pm

we do not fail our students. they fail themselves. an important distinction.

33. immigrant - December 10, 2010 at 11:02 pm

Someone already alluded to this, but I see nothing wrong in taking pleasure in justice. I'm happy when a deserving student gets what they've earned. I'm also (though not equally) happy when a student who has been indifferent, unpleasant, lazy, or dishonest gets what their work deserves. I am, however, disappointed when a student who has put in sincere effort misses the mark. I'm invested in my students and career and think some kind of emotional reaction is quite reasonable.

I don't really understand the fuss here.

34. 11161452 - December 11, 2010 at 12:49 am

From #22 (the advisor):

"I'm a strong believer in giving people a second chance, but I also know not everyone should be in college. Allowing them to continue just puts them deeper in debt and goes against what I feel is our mission: to help them. We aren't helping them by letting them fail again and again and we are just letting them accrue loans they will have no way of repaying."

This is a commendable philosophy, in my opinion--but do your higher-ups actually allow you to be honest with these students and "let them go"?

I used to teach in a small liberal-arts college, and a colleague of mine, exasperated that a student steadfastly refused to practice for his individual music lessons, just flat out told the guy that he should save his parents money and withdraw from the course. Well, it took about 5 minutes for this to get over to the college dean, who was vigorous in telling the faculty member that he was NOT to make statements like that, no matter what. Can't offend the paying customers, you know--no matter how much they have offended us.

35. rear_view_mirror - December 11, 2010 at 07:52 am

11161452: The dispassionate version would be "you will have to practice regularly in order to pass the course; reread the syllabus please." He may not do it, but you've behaved professionally and kept the dean out of your hair.
If this were my situation I particularly wouldn't mention the parents. You're just asking for it.

36. julianf - December 11, 2010 at 09:35 am

I presume this pushback against Alice, and all the hand-wringing over it comes from a kind of American Protestant guilt.

I have also taught for many years and am relatively strict, but that isn't saying all that much given grade inflation. What I experience emotionally at times is what Alice does, and is perfectly natural and even good. As rear-view-mirror says above, it's also the feeling of pride for having the courage to maintain standards. Could it be that the "raw nerve" Alice has struck is really the denial of being a pushover, or worse, outrage at never actually being able to savor this kind of professional integrity? Took look into the mirror and see a coward?

In any case, whenever I fail or give a lazy student a D or even a C--which is now basically considered a D thanks in part to the cowardice of grade inflation--the shadenfreude I may feel is greatly overshadowed by the sorrow, pity, and dread I feel for how much lower that soul might fall.

But then again, falling is the only way to learn how to get up again.

37. rear_view_mirror - December 11, 2010 at 12:01 pm

Every one of us has sometimes felt as though the student has turned it into a contest instead a collaboration.

38. robjenkins - December 11, 2010 at 06:50 pm

I understand where you're coming from, "Alice," but technically YOU aren't really hated; Alice Fenton is. Of course I understand why you don't use your real name and have no problem with it. I'd say you're wise not to. But trust me--being hated anonymously by thousands of faceless readers, most of them also hiding behind psuedonymns, is nothing compared to being hated, in person, by just a handful of your co-workers. When you reach that point, you'll know you must have really accomplished something professionally.

39. kattt - December 12, 2010 at 10:43 am

Do you think that perhaps it is the tone of the original piece that caused the negative reaction you received? Perhaps it is treating the subject in a jokey manner (more than the idea of professors occasionally have our moments of schadenfreude) that rubbed people in the wrong way.

40. books4jocks - December 12, 2010 at 12:47 pm

I largely agree with quidditas. Fenton isn't speaking the truth that dare not be spoken in academia. I'd say MOST of the conversations about teaching here center around how irritating and uncommitted students are. Fenton just got a headline for her complaints. Is what she said true about anyone who has taught at one time or another? Sure. But come on, this kind of venting has about a trillion outlets. It doesn't move the conversation forward. It doesn't address something that is desperate for attention. Nothing here is interesting or a revelation. I don't understand why it got featured in the first place.

41. robi6293 - December 12, 2010 at 01:05 pm

@kattt Maybe it's the combination of tone and medium. If it had been similarly joky but delivered orally in a campus bar, I doubt if anyone would have been up in arms.

42. justplain - December 13, 2010 at 02:56 am

As a student, I really appreciate Fenton's public honesty. All too often, professors take on a holier-than-thou veneer, as if they don't experience the same human emotions as all of us.

I just hope she, and other educators, apprecaite how much satisfaction students get from passing and getting A's with a bare minimum of work.

43. kattt - December 13, 2010 at 02:50 pm

@42 justplain: " just hope she, and other educators, apprecaite how much satisfaction students get from passing and getting A's with a bare minimum of work."

Really? My experience of pulling that off as an undergrad was that it was accompanied by feeling that I had just wasted my time & money.

44. rtalbert - December 13, 2010 at 03:30 pm

It's only natural to take pleasure in student failure when the student "brings it upon himself". Natural -- and dehumanizing, to both the instructor and the student. The fact that there is a kind pleasure to be had in such situations does not mean that we should choose to take it. Every time one partakes of that kind of pleasure, one becomes less human and less of an educator. I frankly question the values of any person calling him- or herself an "educator" who does so.

Every one of those students who Facebooks during class, etc. is a human being with intelligence and potential. True, we can't make students act on those qualities, and we want the system to work such that students who don't put forth their portion of responsibility don't reap the corresponding rewards. But there's a huge gulf between knowing that your system worked, and taking pleasure in the fact. Rather than pleasure, let us instead take pause at the fact that we (individual instructors and entire institutions) have failed to get those students to rethink their assumptions about learning and about themselves.

45. mikegreen41 - December 14, 2010 at 12:45 am

As a professor of History, I can relate to your side of the story. While I did not get the chance to look at the first story, I do think that your remarks are timely. In an age were more students of different backgrounds attend college, there are vast opportunities for students today who would not have had those opportunities 60 or even 30 years ago. It has been drummed into all of us in the late baby boom generation (those born in the late 60s who are not gen x but do remember the cold war) from presidents, to teachers, to parents, education is the key. And to some extent that is correct. A high school eduction is not enough. It merely entitles you to a job that requires one to wear a paper hat. Some sort of further education will be required. However, I do get my share of students who just don't get it. And IT is the college experience. College IS different than high school. I don't spoon feed you the answers. You must read the textbook, I am not going to do that for you. And there are some that, clearly and unfortunately, should not be there. They either lack the necessary eduction, motivation, or don't understand why they are there in the first place. And they don't understand why they must use the education they have obtained from their other courses to further their education in new courses. The fact that I make my students write a history paper and that they must use American Standard English is downright dictatorial (and I am not the world's greatest grammarian). The point I make is that you must show me and your possible employer that you can do acceptable work.

This semester I have caught 2 students outright plagiarizing materials. It was not a pleasant experience. However, I did fail them for the class. I catch you in my class that is it. To me catching these few, as I am sure there might be others, sends the message that everybody does not do it and that you cannot steal something and get rewarded.

The other thing that I have come to observe in the college system is the new emphasis on customer service. Now, I am not against ensuring that students get their fair hearings and that they obtain services for which they have paid. However, I do think that a line must be drawn between the expectations for services and getting something out of a class. I do hope that we do not get to the day when one can just write a check to some university and get a degree, there are institutions that do run like that but they also do not have a good reputation.

So, thanks for writing about the perils that teachers go through. The fact is we do care. We do get some satisfaction out of catching the slacker who copied the latest information from the encyclopedia and through we would not notice. For me it is a vindication of the knowledge I have obtained. Hopefully, those students who will fail my class will have learned something.

46. drtlegg - December 14, 2010 at 08:10 am

I wouldn't be too upset over the blog. "Blogging: never have so many people used so many words to say so very little to so few readers..." I prefer peer reviewed journals myself.

47. mindfulwhim - December 14, 2010 at 09:49 am

So many professors are afraid to let their students make mistakes, as if nothing can be learned from them. Just the opposite is true. Please let students make mistakes.

Some professors [apparently] want college to be an extension of the failed K12 policy that cannot allow students to fail.

In this age, when a college education is necessary and required for most professions, students should be made aware, at an early stage in their educational devopment, that they have the right to fail; and that there are consequences for those choices that led them to the failure.

I support Fenton's expression of whatever feelings she might have with regards to failing students.

If I am paid to fix someone's car, and I find out that the reason their car is broken is because they failed to put oil in the cranckcase, I have the right to believe they deserve thier misfortume because they made poor choices. Past that, it would be my failure if I did not tell the car's owner why it is important to keep the car properly maintained, and that the consequences of those choices can be catastrophic (if the car owner values getting down the road).

That I snicker while I am cashing their check is one of the things that gives my knowledge... value.

48. mchag12 - December 14, 2010 at 01:18 pm

I just had a student who complained about her grade, and when I told her that attendance was counted, as clearly stated in the syllabus, and that she had missed more classes than attended, her reaction was "When did you take attendance?" I couldn't even respond. I just started laughing. She walked away in a huff.

49. robi6293 - December 14, 2010 at 01:59 pm

"Natural -- and dehumanizing, to both the instructor and the student."

Aren't we exaggerating a little here? Apartheid is dehumanizing. Ethnic cleansing is dehumanizing. Concentration camps are dehumanizing. This is just normal human behaviour.

50. lee77 - December 15, 2010 at 10:10 am

Like several comments, especially early on, I enjoyed both Fenton columns in the spirit intended. As a transplant from outside academe, I've been startled/dismayed by the narrow mindedness evidenced by so many comments on so many topics.

51. duchess_of_malfi - December 16, 2010 at 06:25 pm

You didn't read your comments, did you? It would have been fine if you had said "I." Where you erred was in wanting to drag me into it. Do you not teach your students about the dangers of the second person or unsupported claims?

All parts of the human experience are not experienced by all members of humanity, and the ones that are truly, empirically, universal are not experienced as a response to the same causes, or in the same ways. What is that so hard to understand?

52. mariadroujkova - December 18, 2010 at 08:46 am

"Moreover, sometimes I do get a sneaking enjoyment out of seeing people who have wasted my time or the time of others get payback for that. I don't think that's malevolence."

Why direct the negativity specifically at the students, though? When there is a problem in a class, there are many entities involved: the administration, the teacher, curriculum designers, students. Depending on the class, there may also be professional groups or online communities. Out of all these people, the least experienced and powerful is typically the student. Predictably, the student is also most blamed.

When a student has opportunities to waste other people's time, isn't it a problem to solve through better learning task design, peer-to-peer communication systems, and the like?

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