• July 31, 2014

The Pleasure of Seeing the Deserving Fail

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

As teachers, we rightfully celebrate our positive victories in the classroom: the poem well taught, the student for whom light dawns in the middle of the semester, or the freshman who starts out unable to string two words together but becomes a writer of supple grace by senior year.

None of those moments, however seemingly negligible, should be underestimated.

But equally pleasurable, although much less discussed, are a series of what might be called negative victories—moments when our worst fears or lowest expectations are fulfilled. Gore Vidal once said, "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail." And in these straitened economic and intellectual times, it may be a little cheering to make space for the grimmer wins of teaching. Here are a few such moments.

The irritating student who drops out. You know the one—usually in the front row, sometimes dead center but more often slightly to the side so as to take you by surprise. The irritating student spends the first few classes offering utterly vacuous or unnecessarily highbrow answers to your in-class questions, with a hand always raised as soon as the final word leaves your mouth. This is not an earnest but puzzled student, a thinker who is really trying. This is someone who loves to hear himself or herself talk.

Then, come the end of the add/drop period, the irritating student is suddenly gone. Sometimes a palpable sense of relief emanates from the other students, but more often you alone are left in blissful serenity, able to teach your classes without the tensed shoulders you experienced every time you saw that hand waving in your peripheral vision. You are now free to move about the classroom.

The joy of saying "No." Learning is a process of trial and error, and discovery is a process of advancing apparently crazy possibilities and seeing if they work. Students need encouragement and support as they go along, and the classroom is their place to stretch, not your place to damp them down. But you did spend somewhere around eight years, or more, getting your Ph.D., and sometimes, just sometimes, that means you simply do know more than a student.

Sometimes, a student's idea is just plain wrong. Never mind, "interesting thought," or, "there's some good stuff there, Harold!" When you encounter a student who is absolutely wrong, there's a lot to be said for a good old-fashioned, roundly articulated "No." As in, "No, Shakespeare wasn't the Earl of Oxford." As in, "No, Oliver Cromwell hasn't just been misunderstood." As in, "Let's shut that notion down right now."

The joy of doing it yourself. This is a variation on the above. Sure, the root of "education" is supposedly "exduco," meaning to lead out. Every hokey teaching movie tells you that at some point.

But sometimes there might not be anything to exduco, or it might be taking forever to do it. At such moments, little else beats the feeling of taking the reins yourself, of leaving behind the halting, jerking, irritating interrogative tone of all the students' statements and moving quickly and authoritatively through some point to get to the next. You'll show them! And you do.

The bad student who writes a bad paper. Although one of the greatest pleasures of teaching is to see a bad student suddenly blossom, one of the greatest pleasures of life is to see one's beliefs validated. For that reason, the bad student occupies a curious place in the pantheon of students.

I'm not talking about the mediocre student, or even the student who tries but fails, but about the irredeemably bad student who seems content to be bad, who never makes any effort to think in new ways or try new ideas.

Because it seems that no student can be so bad, we try to suspend judgment when we encounter a bad student—at least until the first paper is handed in. Although we believe that the student is, in fact, terrible, what if that first paper proves that he is simply not good at speaking up in class? What if it shows that she has a rich fund of ideas that she cannot articulate verbally but can pour forth onto paper?

And then the paper doesn't show any of that. Ah, sweet reassurance. The world remains on its axis. In larger life, this feeling is called, "I told you so," and it is always unwise to give it voice. In the privacy of your office, though, it gives immense pedagogical pleasure to know that your instincts were right.

The student who richly deserves to fail and does fail. This is, perhaps, the most complex of teaching's victories because it requires us to admit something that, although true, we are not supposed to acknowledge: There are some students you just don't like.

The student who deserves to fail may well be a version of the irritating student above, but here the irritation will stem from a cluster of legitimate factors. The student is almost always a facile talker who never learns. His in-class comments take up time that could be spent on better answers (but you can't always ignore that constantly waving hand). Her papers are terrible: sometimes empty, sometimes hopelessly, unnecessarily bombastic or complex.

You may feel offended that your subject is being sullied by such thoughts, or you may just dislike people who never learn, or you may (let's be honest) just find the student annoying. But, good teacher and decent human being that you are, you fight your instincts.

And then comes the semester's end, the opening of the grade book, the totting up of the points, and ... there is cosmic justice! Ah, the pleasure when the deserving fail.

As with almost all tasks that are insufficiently compensated and often unacknowledged in their difficulty and complexity (think motherhood, think love), there is a tendency to sentimentalize teaching—as if giving out apples will make up for denying larger rewards.

Instructors, however, aren't saints: We're decent, and patient, and experts at suppression, but we are human. If occasionally our bitter victories taste awfully sweet, well, that seems perhaps fair in a profession that, these days, feels increasingly bittersweet.

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

Comments

1. johndenning - November 14, 2010 at 09:55 pm

Wow. This is stunningly negative. Another reason why we should mandate dial-up internet connections for all rooms that house humanities departments and the re-appropriation of network power to the people who actually make contributions to humanity: the mathematicians, engineers, and scientists.

2. larryc - November 15, 2010 at 01:48 am

"Alice Fenton" is a posturing martinet with no business in the classroom.

3. fiona - November 15, 2010 at 02:20 am

Oh, it's so easy to dump on "Alice Fenton," and I'm sure everyone will. We take the high road, we love our awful or nasty students, and we never, ever think discouraging words about anyone.

Get real! Alice Fenton is telling the truth. Teachers are humans, and we really can't educate everybody, especially those who want to show off rather than learn. It's a great relief to get those obstacle people out of the way, so that we can really teach to those who want to learn.

OK, you can all go back to your self-righteous posturing, and dump on me and "Alice Fenton" together. Kill the messenger.

4. tuxthepenguin - November 15, 2010 at 06:32 am

Some students do disrupt the lecture, undermine the professor, and do their best to prevent other students from learning. Those students should be removed from the classroom. Unfortunately we usually can't do that.

Nonetheless I think we ought to be indifferent to the grades that are earned by our students. You cannot grade impartially if you are cheering for or against the students. {Note that I'm not saying anything beyond that. I'm not saying you shouldn't do your job.}

5. cmsmw - November 15, 2010 at 07:08 am

And johndenning's sweeping generalization is another piece of evidence that the STEM fields alone don't quite cut it.

6. stevenlberg - November 15, 2010 at 07:20 am

A student recently had a mini tantrum when we discussed her poorly written paper; a paper for which she had not yet completed some tasks that had been due seven weeks earlier. The next day she dropped the course.

If I have read Alice Fenton's essay correctly, she would rightly define this student as one who deserves to fail.

When I was younger, I did get pleasure--as Dr. Fenton recommends--at seeing such a deserving student fail. But, I have come to realize that such pleasure has no impact on the student and that it dehumanizes me.

I have found that approaching such deserving students with compassion is a much better way to maintain the equanimity for which I strive.

Steven L. Berg, PhD
Associate Professor of English and History

7. midtowner - November 15, 2010 at 07:39 am

Wow, this is mean. Why did the Chronicle publish this? It is mean-spirited and demeaning.

8. dharmaraell - November 15, 2010 at 07:41 am

I agree. This is terrible!

9. chgoodrich - November 15, 2010 at 07:43 am

Some college students just don't belong in college, correct? We've all had 'em. When it becomes clear that a student's negative energy can't be transformed -- by you, or at that time -- why waste everyone's time and resources?

10. olsonka - November 15, 2010 at 07:53 am

This really depressed me. This sort of post reminds is exactly why students feel that teachers are unsympathetic and school is toxic. One wonders why why Ms. Fenton feels called to be in the classroom. May she soon experience a well-deserved exit.

Kirsten Olson
author of Wounded By School

11. pgow3 - November 15, 2010 at 07:59 am

The sweetest joy in teaching is to be wrong about the irredeemable, hopeless student: to have been prepared in one's secret heart to write off a student, only to see that student shine in unexpected and wonderful ways that reveal humanity, curiosity, and intelligence. This is why we have to suspend our judgments and believe in every student. Even those who annoy and underperform can surprise us in positive ways. And for those who do not surprise us, I think common decency and whatever is the equivalent of the Hippocratic oath for educators require us to hold onto the belief that they will surprise someone else, some day.

This does not mean that we can't demonstrate tough love, irritation, and disappointment. It doesn't mean we can't give students a piece of our minds. It doesn't mean that we have to feel guilty whenever a student fails; some students earn their failures. It simply means that we can't give up, can't revel in or be smug about the failure. We have a job to do, and we need to do it, based on the highest principles of belief in our students.





12. duchess_of_malfi - November 15, 2010 at 08:01 am

Can't the Chronicle create a new section for "Burnt-Out and Bitter" or something? This column does not belong in "Advice"> "Do Your Job Better." It is insulting to place it there.

I won't dispute that "Alice Fenton" thinks of low-achievement students as deserving failure, nurtures her dislikes rather than trying to overcome them, enjoys the "I told you so" moment. But she is lying when she generalizes from "I" to "we." And does she not understand the way these sentiments will eat away at what is good in her?

I don't think it's my job to ensure that every student passes my course. I can try, that's all. But to take pleasure in the ignorance, messed-up life, or dwindling life opportunities of a young person? That is a form of evil. I hope it is not common.

13. blog21 - November 15, 2010 at 08:05 am

What a horrid little essay.

How about this joy: "No!"

14. ksledge - November 15, 2010 at 08:05 am

I'm just going to assume this was a joke. I completely disagree with it. I'm not saying we should pass all students. MANY students don't make the cut. But I'm never HAPPY when that happens. Jeez.

15. writingprof - November 15, 2010 at 08:19 am

Y'all are crazy. This is terrific work. Way to go, Alice.

16. mindnbodybuilding - November 15, 2010 at 08:36 am

duchess_of_malfi

After reading Essig's latest, your suggestion that the Chronicle create a new section for "Burnt-Out and Bitter" seems all too reasonable. Hopefully the CHE is paying attention.

17. girlfriendinacoma - November 15, 2010 at 08:41 am

Great insights, Alice. I'm printing it and putting it with my copy of Barbara Ehrenreich's *Bright-Sided* (*Smile or Die* in the UK) and recommend the miserable gits commenting read both.

18. s_bartell - November 15, 2010 at 08:45 am

I think you are forgetting a critical element in this conversation of rejoicing over failure. For each student that is disruptive in the classroom, there are between 2 and 500 students cringing, rolling their eyes, and hoping that Joe Talks-a-lot will leave. There are times when no matter what you do as a professor, Joe will not cease and desist. Not every person is meant to go to college. Unfortunately, in that learning process there are dozens of casualties, and many times those casualties are other students.

19. plclark - November 15, 2010 at 09:03 am

I want to take a shower after reading this piece. What's bad is that it's filled with pettiness and schadenfreude. What's worse is that, through the format of the second person, these negative feelings are attributed not to the author but to ME.

I was becoming more and more uncomfortable reading the piece -- apparently I am riddled with negativity; who knew?? -- until I came to the following passage which, like a bad fortune cookie, went out on a limb with incorrect specificity:

"But you did spend somewhere around eight years, or more, getting your Ph.D., and sometimes, just sometimes, that means you simply do know more than a student."

What are you talking about? I spent much less than eight years getting my PhD. And by the way, I am so committed to my field that I HAVE A PHD IN IT, which means that I walk into every class the uncontested expert in the material. The challenge is to channel my expertise in a way which is useful but not overwhelming to the students. And sometimes, just sometimes, a student gives an answer which I had not thought of and shows me something new. Those are the best classes, much better than the other 97% of the time when the knowledge and insight is flowing entirely in the other direction.

So ultimately this did not hit home -- far from it, thank goodness. But I still feel a little soiled after reading it.

20. tappat - November 15, 2010 at 09:11 am

I expected something very different, coming to this essay, but I don't know exactly what. Still, the essay has done what such essays should do: it's held up a mirror to its readers. And while it is very easy for me to condemn the author for her nastiness, I really should thank her for showing me that I am not nearly as nasty as I think I expected I was. I expected to relish the essay, and I can recognize myself in days past in parts of the essay. However, reading the essay, and seeing myself as this way or possibly that way, I reflexively recoil. Such a mirror inspires me to be sure to take all that my students have to offer, and work from that. How easy is it, after all, to realize that a question about "Shakespeare being the Earl of Oxford" is really a very curious question about methods of knowing the past, about judging reliability in textual representations, about the possibilities of genius and accomplishment without the benefits of institutionalized higher education, etc.? What a rich session such a question could inspire, were it not greeted with a big, toxic (pleasurable?), NO.

21. 11191210 - November 15, 2010 at 09:16 am

The Latin root of education is "educo" or "ex duco," but not "exduco." That isn't a word.

22. qrypt - November 15, 2010 at 09:17 am

Ms Alice seems all too ready -- quick, even? -- to give up on her "problem" students. I can think of one situation in which her instincts make sense: I get a bit of pleasure when a persistent and unrepentant plagiarist gets the boot. Apart from that, though, surely the whole point of teaching is to lead students to a better place, a better way of doing things. If your only "successes" involve the ones who already do well, what kind of teacher are you?

23. 7738373863 - November 15, 2010 at 09:19 am

This essay, however mean spirited, is a predictable outcome of trying to teach well under the customer-service model of higher education, in which the rationale of "my tuition gives me the right to my opinion" has displaced any shred of respect for the teaching/learning process. Fenton's problem is that she has accepted the role of subaltern, of hired help, and failed to assert her dignity as a way of fighting the assumptions that cast her in the role in the first place.

24. benbel28 - November 15, 2010 at 09:26 am

"Happiness" when the student, who's come in early to write on the board a list of my failures as in instructor, then threatens me, is finally counseled into dropping the class? "Happiness" when a second-attempt student who's missed more work than the rest of the class combined, then complains to my dean that I have it out for him, fails? Happiness? No. But sweet relief? YEP!! And somedays the hardest part is masking that relief from the class, since student failure is never something to celebrate.

It's naive to think that these students don't steal our time and energies and their fellow students' time and energies. The worst student evaluations I've ever had were direct comments about my failure to control a couple of these students. I learned my lesson about patience-- and realized that my efforts to be patient were stealing valuable instructional time from other students.

25. dank48 - November 15, 2010 at 09:27 am

I agree that there are plenty of students who don't belong in a college classroom. Apparently there are some instructors who don't either.

26. sisgett - November 15, 2010 at 09:54 am

I suppose it's a good thing that "Alice Fenton" is a pseudonym.

27. monsterx - November 15, 2010 at 09:55 am

Do all you who are dumping on "Alice Fenton" really never take any pleasure in seeing students who deserve to fail, fail? While it may be mixed with frustration of not being able to reach someone and inspire them, on the other hand there is some satisfaction in being able to shift that failure onto the student. As instructors, we take the rap for failing students in our evaluations - whether or not it is actually our fault. It is only natural to take satisfaction in the fact that the idiot who dinged us on the evaluations is taking home a richly deserved "F".

28. onlineasllou - November 15, 2010 at 10:14 am

As a lowly adjunct whose has a full time "day job" outside acadmia, I marvel at the comments regarding this essay. Some of you are "oh so politically correct" and "oh so sensitive." Your delicate spirits wouldn't last a month in the outside world.

Sometimes I am amazed by the political naivete of the new college graduates I work with -- and dismayed by their pain as they struggle to transition from student to professional. Your comments illuminate a possible source of their weaknesses and career struggles.

It's not just that they had helicopter parents and got trophies "just for participating" ... they were educated by college faculty who feel soiled whenever they have to confront some of life's less "high and noble" realities.

The rest of the world lives and works in muck, people. If you can't deal with that and accept a certain amount of muck in your lives ... maybe you shouldn't be responsible for teaching the next generation of working adults.

29. onlineasllou - November 15, 2010 at 10:16 am

Oops! Previous post #28 has a typo caused by my editing. But I assume you are all smart enough to understand the post anyway.

30. dank48 - November 15, 2010 at 10:44 am

Of course teachers enjoy it when undeserving students get what's coming to them. Just as doctors and surgeons typically celebrate when a patient dies.

31. ksledge - November 15, 2010 at 10:54 am

I'll edit my previous comment to say that the only item on this list that I agree with is a problem student who is disruptive in the classroom who drops the class. Good riddance to him/her.

But the others aren't really joyful things to have happen. I'm indifferent when a bad student writes a bad paper. Yes, I think, "ok, my instinct was right," but I don't feel a sense of writing off the student, either. I still HOPE that the student improves for the next paper. And frankly I would have preferred it if the student had surprised me with good work.

There are students I don't like: the ones who are blatantly disrespectful and put in absolutely no effort. Also, anyone who cheats. So yeah, I guess a part of me is glad when things don't go their way (e.g. doing badly on a test.) So if that's what's meant by the student who "richly deserves to fail" then maybe I agree. But all of the students I've had who have failed were not cases I was happy about. Yes, it usually meant they weren't putting effort in, but they also weren't bad people...they just usually had health or outside issues that were keeping them back, and it was disappointing that we couldn't pull them together before it was too late.

32. washingtonwarrior - November 15, 2010 at 11:19 am

To everyone throwing the author under the bus: look in the mirror before starting your "holier than thou" rant.

33. ksusasw - November 15, 2010 at 11:20 am

Wow. I couldn't disagree more. Fenton's approach is simple-minded and hateful. If we cast a student's failure as a teaching victory, we do not belong in the classroom. In fact, we shouldn't be working with people in any capacity.

34. rsgassle - November 15, 2010 at 11:37 am

I once had a student who talked continuously in class, and did not respond to my attempts to gently coax her out of it.
Not just my class. The dean of students actually circulated a memo saying "Is she as disruptive in your class as she is in mine?" I had never seen that before.
The next term the dean of students called her in and said she seemed to be doing better. The student replied,"Yeah, the classes aren't as boring as they were last term."
She flunked out. Not only that; she is not coming back.
The reason: we have the pictures from the parking lot underneath the hotel at the spring ball.

35. andrew_orr - November 15, 2010 at 11:50 am

You're entitled to your feelings, Ms. Fenton. But to celebrate them publicly on the CHE is in bad form. And to do it under the guise of anonymity is in even worse form. I'm afraid this essay casts you - and more importantly, your profession - in a bad light.

Andrew Orr

36. ccchron - November 15, 2010 at 11:51 am

re: 29. onlineasllou - "Oops! Previous post #28 has a typo caused by my editing. But I assume you are all smart enough to understand the post anyway."

actually, I don't understand your post, but I think it's not because I'm not smart enough--or realistic enough. It's that your post is so vague, I don't know what you're talking about. What specific connection between the weaknesses of your new co-workers and some of the comments here do you want to point out? Which comments don't you approve of? What are some of life's less "high and noble" realities (and who are you quoting)? What is "muck" (I'm quoting you)? I could go on...

37. ccchron - November 15, 2010 at 11:57 am

re: 34. rsgassle - "She flunked out. Not only that; she is not coming back.
The reason: we have the pictures from the parking lot underneath the hotel at the spring ball"

ok, this one I'm not smart enough for. I don't get it. What did the pictures show, and what did they have to do with the student's academic performance?

was this at a college or high school?

38. 11223435 - November 15, 2010 at 11:57 am

Well, I guess this anonymous "teacher" could just follow Essig's model and pray for her students to get caught in a scandal and have their lives ruined--then, gosh, maybe they'd drop out of this anonymous moaner's class, and life would be good again. Just pray..against them?

The CHE has become a rag, for idiots to publish in (on?)

39. digiwonk - November 15, 2010 at 12:01 pm

Oh, for the love of Pete. Why is everyone so snippy? I thought this was a funny essay at a stressful time of term.

I glory in the success of my students; I don't gloat or wish their failures, but I certainly recognize some of the scenarios 'Alice' describes, and she's not asking us to let loose daily with our negative emotions, but simply allowing us a minute or two to sheepishly admit to one another that we do sometimes have petty feelings, and that it's perfectly natural.

Instructors *aren't* saints; we aim daily for saintly behaviour perhaps, but we're still human, and that's okay. I know I do my very best to teach everyone in every class, on every assignment, at every opportunity. But the feelings described here are not, let me admit, unknown to me.

40. 11245928 - November 15, 2010 at 12:12 pm

What the Hey? I think I am giving up on CHE. Is all of academia getting this negative, or is it the editorial staff of this venerable old paper whose tea has been poisoned. This is the second article this week that shouts "no" to me.

I give up.

41. 12039333 - November 15, 2010 at 12:37 pm

In my 20 years of teaching, I can recall experiencing this kind of schadenfreude only once. I was a young instructor, and I had a student who tried to schmooze his way to an A. I agreed to meet him in the caf for lunch one day, and after a few minutes of literary chitchat, he leaned forward and said, "But let's talk about you." Ew. I soon learned that he'd tried that stuff with other faculty as well, and not just the juniors. When I returned his first paper with a C, he moved his seat to the back of the room and stopped trying to chat me up after class. He didn't fail, but he didn't get a better grade than he deserved, either.

I've learned to give the obnoxious know-it-all enough rope to hang himself: "You seem to know more about that than I do. Care to elaborate?" If he can, I've learned something (and yes, it happens). If he can't, well, he should have been more circumspect. Sometimes this type will drop the class, but sometimes they learn to put their money where their mouths are and then they usually do good work.

In my opinion, the only student who "richly deserves to fail" is the cynical plagiarist--not the one who steals out of desperation, but the one who doesn't take my class seriously enough to do any actual work. And yeah, I'm glad to see that one go. Is there anyone who isn't?

42. michaelmarkham - November 15, 2010 at 12:44 pm

I certainly feel relief and perhaps validation in the scenarios described in the article. In some instances, I genuinely dislike problem students.

To take pleasure in these cases, however, is both immature and unprofessional. Sure, some students are distracting and disruptive. Some students should fail, and they do. A good instructor has the strength and ability to manage the problem student and the fortitude to assign failing grades. A good instructor sees these situations as unfortunate but necessary.

I am quite disappointed in this article. When I look for professional advice on teaching from CHE, I would expect it to be coming from someone with more professionalism and maturity.

43. tee_bee - November 15, 2010 at 12:52 pm

johndenning, I'm not terribly happy about this article. But your claim is so foolish and illogical that it defies explanation. I am glad that my STEM colleagues aren't as narrow-minded as you are. I wonder if, in your humanities and social science courses, you were one of the students who mercifully dropped before you could do any more damage to the course.

Bottom line: this is an article about schadenfreude. Deal with it.

44. cwinton - November 15, 2010 at 01:13 pm

Any good teacher should almost always be able to turn bad questions into good ones and so advance overall class progress. Students fail, that's life, but it is never something to take pleasure in, which I think is the ultimate failing expressed in this piece. For that reason, if no other, I assume this article is tongue in cheek, wherein the author is seeking to get a rise out of the readership, something for which she (if indeed the author is a women) has obviously succeeded since so many have risen to the bait.

45. shushufindi - November 15, 2010 at 01:20 pm

While some students deserve to fail a course, it has never given me pleasure to assign an F. However, for some students, a D or F grade is important feedback. They may reevaluate their study habits, intended majors, or motivation for school. Some drop out for a few years to work in non-academic settings, and then return as excellent and highly-motivated students with well-defined goals.

46. oldcommprof - November 15, 2010 at 01:23 pm

Oh, come on. Nobody really enjoys seeing students fail. But not all have the ability to pass and part of our job is sorting them out. I'm grateful that there are people who apparently have the guts to separate those who will design bridges from those who will drive buses over them. A lot of posters here seem to think the two are interchangeable.

47. rstritmatter - November 15, 2010 at 01:55 pm



Dear Professor Fenton:

You write,

"As in, 'No, Shakespeare wasn't the Earl of Oxford.' As in, 'No, Oliver Cromwell hasn't just been misunderstood.' As in, 'Let's shut that notion down right now.'"

Leaving aside the question of Oliver Cromwell, on which subject I must confess to being both a neophyte and agnostic -- being more at home as I am in the 16th century than the 17th -- I find it amusing that you would chose as your first example of a conversation to shut down in the classroom the subject of the authorship of the works of "Shakespeare." Therein you show an ignorance of the history of ideas, and the values of freewheeling debate and discussion in civil society (an ideal which I understand theocracies of various guises are under no obligation to imitate) which constitutes a textbook case for the study of what is wrong with higher education.

Sincerely Yours,

A Once and Future Student


48. grward - November 15, 2010 at 02:35 pm

dank48 said "Of course teachers enjoy it when undeserving students get what's coming to them. Just as doctors and surgeons typically celebrate when a patient dies."

I have a physician in the family and, therefore, socialize with several physicians frequently. While I would argue that doctors and surgeons don't "typically" celebrate whan a patient dies (just as the author didn't imply that her feelings towards a few students were typical of her feelings towards all students), I have witnessed countless situations where physicians were more than a little gleeful to have seen the last of a patient who just took advantage of them for too long, who thought the world existed to do their bidding, who thought that their own needs surpassed those of all other people, and who couldn't have left this world too soon, as far as they (the doctors) were concerned.

What? You didn't know that? Do you get out much?

I enjoyed the article and I have to admit that what the author said bothered me far less than did the apparent cluelessness that many of the commenters have about the destructive effect some students can have on the learning experience of others.

49. books4jocks - November 15, 2010 at 03:01 pm

I certainly understand the "schadenfreude" we can experience when a truly irritating student gets just desserts. But mostly I feel *failure* if a student fails. I failed to convince them this class meant something. I failed to connect with them personally. I failed to see that they were struggling and intervene. I think if this essay had been more along the lines of, "Sometimes I get pleasure from a jerky student failing. I know that's a human reaction, but what do I do with it? It's a little secret part of the life of a teacher," then maybe we could engage in a discussion about that funny aspect of being a human teaching other human beings. But publishing it under the guise of advice? Saying somehow this connects to doing our jobs better? It forces readers to take a stand for or against. I stand against it. A failing student often means a failing teacher, and I take my job as a teacher very seriously.

I wonder if a big problem here is that many college teachers don't feel "called to the classroom," As kolson puts it. People become academics because they're called to study texts or events or cultures, not necessarily for the joy of teaching.

50. mrbridgeii - November 15, 2010 at 03:08 pm

I have to admit that once when a particularly obnoxious student handed in a plagiarized paper, lifted directly from an on-line magazine, where the only changes were that the photos had been removed, I took a little bit of pleasure in copying that article with the photos included and handing it to the student along with his draft and a note that read, "Great paper. Next time please give me the pictures along with it! F "

51. 11272784 - November 15, 2010 at 03:38 pm

I agree with the article. Some students generate their own bad karma and it's satisfying to see it come home to roost.

52. lauramh1212 - November 15, 2010 at 04:05 pm

I pray I don't spend 100k on my kid's education only to have her subjected to a professor like this. Honestly, if you hate your job so much, maybe it's time to consider a career change.

53. quidditas - November 15, 2010 at 04:15 pm

"Wow, this is mean. Why did the Chronicle publish this? It is mean-spirited and demeaning."

They published it because the finance and real estate people who sit on university boards and fund their endowments would like to abolish tenure, and faculty employees self righteously stating that they take pleasure in student failure--rather than setting them straight as they were hired to do--gives them lots of ammunition.

(And I bet you thought the Chronicle was for you).

54. quidditas - November 15, 2010 at 04:16 pm

"Wow, this is mean. Why did the Chronicle publish this? It is mean-spirited and demeaning."

They published it because the finance and real estate people who sit on university boards would like to abolish tenure, and faculty employees self righteously stating that they take pleasure in student failure--rather than setting them straight as they were hired to do--gives them lots of ammunition.

(And I bet you thought the Chronicle was for you).

55. shannonfield - November 15, 2010 at 04:36 pm

Disturbing and sad.

56. quidditas - November 15, 2010 at 04:45 pm

"Wow, this is mean. Why did the Chronicle publish this? It is mean-spirited and demeaning."

They published it because the finance and real estate people who sit on university boards would like to abolish tenure, and faculty employees self righteously stating that they take pleasure in student failure--rather than setting them straight as they were hired to do--gives them lots of ammunition.

(And I bet you thought the Chronicle was for you).

57. drdyreson - November 15, 2010 at 05:23 pm

Yes Ms. Fenton, I remember you. I was excited about the research paper you assigned. I chose a topic and spent many hours in the Library of Congress examining sources. I typed the paper, complete with footnotes, on my little portable typewriter with the folding keys. I handed the paper in on time. On the day that Ms. Fenton returned the papers, she spent half the period on a tirade about how poorly we had done. Then she held up my paper and said, “You couldn't possibly have written this paper yourself.” I was stunned! It was my first year in university. I was sixteen years old and had none of the skills that would have enabled me to respond. She refused to return my paper. I failed the course, I suppose to the delight of Ms. Fenton.

Dr. Felix F. Mickus was my Physical Chemistry professor. On the one night in the semester that Margaret and I went to a movie, Dr. Mickus was there. The next morning in class he said, “Mr. Dyreson. Do you have time to go to movies.?” Margaret was in the college choir, so I joined the choir. Dr. Mickus said, “Tell me Mr. Dyreson, do you have time to be in the choir?” I dropped choir. And then there was track. Oh well, my eligibility was about finished. But there was a huge difference between Ms. Fenton and Dr. Mickus. I knew that Dr. Mickus wanted me to do well and pass his course. He was never mean, sarcastic, or unkind. He was simply willing to do, within reasonable bounds, whatever was necessary to cajole me into investing the considerable time and effort needed to learn Physical Chemistry. Dr. Mickus well understood that there were bounds to his methods and he never transgressed those bounds. Of course, he knew about Margaret but never suggested that I spend less time with her.

Margaret and I graduated and the following Fall, we headed off to another university where I had obtained a Chemistry Fellowship. I arrived at the Chemistry Department on a Monday morning and was told that beginning that evening and continuing for the rest of the week, there would be qualifying exams in five fields of chemistry. I had not been forewarned. When I received my qualifying exam results, I found that I made the best score in Physical Chemistry.

Under Ms. Fenton's tutelage, I acquired a sense of how not to treat other human beings, even if they are students. During my teaching career, I have oftened wished that I could tell Dr. Mickus how much I owe him for his excellent teaching and his basic human kindness. Thank you Dr. Mickus.

Del Dyreson, PhD

58. merinoblue - November 15, 2010 at 05:45 pm

What a small and petty world you live in, "Alice Fenton".

59. peggy875 - November 15, 2010 at 06:09 pm

Wow, where does Alice Fenton teach, if you could call it that. There is no place in education for this type of attitude. If this is how you truly feel, get out now before you are found out - and fired. I suppose you are protected by tenure. Too bad!

60. agusti - November 15, 2010 at 06:46 pm

I think this is a really interesting debate, but maybe the more important issue (and it's been mentioned already) isn't whether we take pleasure in a student's failure as whether we are really there to stop it in the first place.

I have five classes this semester, and ONE student who I think deserves to fail, and I admit I'll be satisfied to see him do so. But the reason he might fail has absolutely nothing to do with his mastery of the course material - he's just a hostile, disruptive student who doesn't do homework or other assignments, and gets progressively more hostile and disruptive as I allow that to be reflected in his grade (as per crystal-clear grading structures stated in the syllabus).

He's made the class a bad experience for me, and for many of the other studets, and I don't particularly think it's my job to cajole, coax, persuade (etc.) him to do the right thing.

I consider giving him the grade he's earned as part of my responsibility as a teacher, and while I certainly wish he'd been different as a student, I feel the same "I did the right thing" satisfaction entering an F for him as I do entering an A for the girl who sat in the front row, prepared and did every assignment. They both deserve it, it's my job to set them apart in the form of a letter grade, and I consider it part of a job well-done and evidence that my grading structure rewards the postive and denies reward to the negative. Anything else is bending to the will of the "student as consumer" mentioned in some of the posts above.

61. mariebelanger - November 15, 2010 at 07:07 pm

there's only one problem with this article. it was written by someone else than a grade 2 teacher. these students are in university only because they never got failed in elementary school

62. oh_richard - November 15, 2010 at 07:15 pm

This is disturbing. A short article about the dark side of teaching, the temptation as we feel less and less power to use what little power we still have even if we do so recklessly, provokes great ire and 50+ responses of "Bad Instructor! Bad!" Obviously, a few people posting are -quite- able to say "Let's shut that notion down right now."

It is sad that it provokes so little thoughtful reflection, and so much emotional response.

Why would plagiarists be acceptable to some of you? Because they lied? They claimed to have ideas, knowledge, and insight they did not have, and so committed the most grevious sin of academia. Fine... "I'm here to learn" followed by no effort to do so, or "I'm here to have an intelligent conversation and be challenged" followed by no preparation and no willingness to rethink their views (which "Alice" clearly indicates is the extreme case, not the common one) are lies too. They are also lies that students can not repeatedly tell in the real world (at least not without being fired, denied, dismissed, rejected...).

If you are spending $100K for your child's education, then be upset about such teaching for your dollar. If you were paying for your own college by working or borrowing to pay for it, you might like for the students who don't value the opportunity someone else is paying for to rethink the privilege that lets them enter a classroom feeling entitled to an entertaining experience that values their simple presence, mindful or not.

To be clear about this... I'm not saying that I always think the way "Alice" does. I'm also not saying that I've never had these thoughts either. I am saying perhaps Shakespeare (or someone else who deserves the credit) had it right when s/he said, "Me thinks the lady doth protest too much."

63. rear_view_mirror - November 15, 2010 at 08:22 pm

If you grade everyone meticulously by the same standard and process, then it shouldn't matter how you feel about someone's failing.

64. worstprofever - November 15, 2010 at 08:53 pm

Oh, don't worry, people denying you've ever felt pleasure at failing a pain-in-the-ass students. You're probably just enacting your real biases unconsciously. (Don't believe me? Read 'Blink'.)

Good for you, Alice, for telling the truth. We need more of this and less of the 'teacher-martyr' complex painting educators as otherworldly saints who should be willing to sacrifice themselves on the altar of student achievement.

65. rweba - November 15, 2010 at 09:52 pm

I'm with Alice. There is satisfaction in seeing students fail who deserve to fail. There is no use in pretending to feel especially bad about this, that is just bollocks.

66. optimysticynic - November 15, 2010 at 10:21 pm

There are the feelings we own and pontificate about, the happy self-justifying images we build of ourselves and what we claim to others...and then there is the set of feelings we don't like so much, or can't face, or refuse to admit and never talk about publicly. Alice wrote about the latter; the majority of the posters are talking about the former. Both are equally true, folks.

67. mahig - November 15, 2010 at 10:22 pm

No wonder Alice uses a pseudonym. I hope she (or he) doesn't teach at the school my child attends. Doesn't sound like Alice enjoys her job, a pity since there are others who would do it better as well as enjoy it.

68. 11161452 - November 16, 2010 at 12:10 am

"there's only one problem with this article. it was written by someone else than a grade 2 teacher. these students are in university only because they never got failed in elementary school"

****
Thank you. Let's remember these are COLLEGE students and much of the junk we have to put up with should never be happening, because that student should not be in college.

69. csabel - November 16, 2010 at 12:16 am

While I agree with a few of the commenters who point out the importance of "compassion" or the wonder of seeing the seemingly lost student succeed, I have to say, most of the negativity directed toward this author is just bizarre. It is as if you people live in a world without any assessment regime. Did you not notice that it is now officially required at nearly all colleges that everyone learn, and that they learn in a way that is assessable? It is "Lake Wobegoen" without the gently mockery. The admins demanded that we dance, and jammed us in to iron pants! (sorry, Papa)

And let's not mention the consumeristic student, it might be mean. But I do love it when thy get what they paid for, three "credits" of worthless paper.

It is simply true that there are real asses in classes. A colleague of mine once dubbed their Negative Presences, "the belligerent dead," a wonderful name for those who use their own unwillingness to learn as a weapon (though he was also compassionate). Thx to "Fenton" for meditating humorously on this sad fact. These asses in classes turn up without our having any say in the matter. I have longed to create an education system where teachers "choose sides" to get their classes, and have powers to "bench" students, possibly to "redshirt" in cases of untapped potential. How high I could soar with a hand picked roster! Thank god almighty, I'd be free at last!

70. csabel - November 16, 2010 at 12:17 am

While I agree with a few of the commenters who point out the importance of "compassion" or the wonder of seeing the seemingly lost student succeed, I have to say, most of the negativity directed toward this author is just bizarre. It is as if you people live in a world without any assessment regime. Did you not notice that it is now officially required at nearly all colleges that everyone learn, and that they learn in a way that is assessable? It is "Lake Wobegone" without the gently mockery. The admins demanded that we dance, and jammed us in to iron pants! (sorry, Papa)

And let's not mention the consumeristic student, it might be mean. But I do love it when thy get what they paid for, three "credits" of worthless paper.

It is simply true that there are real asses in classes. A colleague of mine once dubbed their Negative Presences, "the belligerent dead," a wonderful name for those who use their own unwillingness to learn as a weapon (though he was also compassionate). Thx to "Fenton" for meditating humorously on this sad fact. These asses in classes turn up without our having any say in the matter. I have longed to create an education system where teachers "choose sides" to get their classes, and have powers to "bench" students, possibly to "redshirt" in cases of untapped potential. How high I could soar with a hand picked roster! Thank god almighty, I'd be free at last!

71. artemisms - November 16, 2010 at 01:32 am

Anyone who's ever slaved away at teaching five comp classes a semester while getting paid way less than full time faculty understands how Alice feels about some of those so-called "problem students."

You just don't have the patience for their childish behavior when it comes down to it. And yes, I'm thrilled when my roster shrinks by the end of the semester. So sue me.

72. simonj55 - November 16, 2010 at 01:41 am

Such posturing, do-good nonsense coming from detractors of Dr. Fenton. She is talking about college students, for goodness sake, revealing, for me, that most colleges are not selective enough and burden professors with babysitting tasks for which they did not sign up. The colleges also expose professors to unpleasant and demeaning student conduct that detracts from the joy of teaching. The kind of attitude towards students most detractors of Dr. Fenton evince should be reserved for elementary and high school students, who are readily subject to disciplinary measures by teachers themselves--not college students. It is misguided high-mindedness that sees as part of the professor's job reaching those hell-bent on making their job difficult.

Dr. Fenton exhibits a refreshing frankness that speaks to my experience. I go out of my way to encourage a student whose performance is failing to meet course standards, but who is respectful and applies himself tenaciously to his work. However, I must admit to finding some pleasure in seeing a rumbunctious, rude and indolent student fail my course.

73. tidewaterglacier - November 16, 2010 at 02:06 am

so many of you really think "bad teacher" - which is not at all how I read this. I agree with Dr Fenton. i do think perhaps her emotions are misread - i do not feel happy when I fail a student, but some amount of relief, yes. Sadness at both of our time lost, yes.

74. lginger - November 16, 2010 at 06:10 am

I agree completely with Alice Fenton. She is telling the truth. Anyone who claims that they have never had these feelings--and been justified in them--is being dishonest. These feelings are part of being human, and of dealing with other human beings.

75. stevenlberg - November 16, 2010 at 06:35 am

Casabel (#69): I would like to clarify my use of the word "compassion;" a term that I employ within the understanding of Theravada Buddhism. Having compassion for someone does not negate academic standards or expectations of appropriate behavior. It does, however, negate taking joy in the misfortunes of others.

For example, yesterday I had compassion for the student who placed a phone call during one of my classes *and* I also asked him to leave. But watching students self destruct--or ultimately fail--does not give me pleasure.

Steven L. Berg, PhD
Associate Professor of English and History

76. aydub1978 - November 16, 2010 at 09:19 am

People. It's the end of the semester. If ever there was a time to acknowledge some of our dark thoughts, this is it. Lighten up, and recognize that good teachers are often the ones who don't waste their time trying to accommodate students who haven't figured out how to take the classroom seriously yet.

I was a good student, but some of my most important learning experiences - in and out of the classroom - came from the realization that I'd screwed up, and that it would be up to me, not a teacher or parent or boss, to right the situation. And some of my best students, now that I'm a professor, are the ones who flunked out of undergrad initially, but came back several years later, wiser, more focused and more prepared to take advantage of their education.

So no, 95% of the time I don't walk around triumphing in my students' failures. But I do sigh with relief when a student who wasn't listening to me anyway drops or disappears. And I hope that at least some of those students who bungle it all up this time around will be back later when they're ready to really be in college.

77. greenbobb - November 16, 2010 at 11:13 am

From fiona: "Get real! Alice Fenton is telling the truth. Teachers are humans, and we really can't educate everybody, especially those who want to show off rather than learn. It's a great relief to get those obstacle people out of the way, so that we can really teach to those who want to learn."

"Teachers ... really can't educate everybody." There's the rub. Anyone (teachers included) can be an "obstacle" person.

78. 88854333 - November 16, 2010 at 12:59 pm

The article is great fun and a stress reliever. Give Alice a break and assume that she is as conscientious as the rest of us self-righteous saints!

The mean-spirited professors are the holier-than-thou goody-two-shoes--bet they make the same pessimistic presumptions about their students. They sure seem to me to be far more likely to be the aggressively competitive type than honest Alice.

Thank you, Alice, for a spoofy look at real-life students that I unhappily dealt with this very semester. I don't feel happy about them and their choices, but I do feel a bit better about myself.

79. dyspeptic - November 16, 2010 at 01:21 pm

Ummm...Steven L. Berg, please explain why you had compassion for the linthead who had the immaturity, selfishness, and/or unvarnished stupidity to make a phone call while your class was in session.
I admire compassion. But there is one response to this guy: Get the hell out of this classroom, and come back when you can act like the adult my colleagues and I assume you to be...

80. more_cowbell - November 16, 2010 at 02:54 pm

Surely many deserve to fail, but whoever gets pleasure from that should not be teaching.

I wonder if I had "Ms. Fenton" as a teacher..... I did, after all have one English prof whose disdain for undergraduates was palpable. Gave me my only D.

81. lindeman - November 16, 2010 at 03:31 pm

Interesting... one can come down hard on Alice Fenton, arguing for compassion, while simultaneously wanting the pleasure of seeing her fail. The mind and heart are complex. I imagine we're all just doing the best we can.

Lisa Lindeman

82. lindeman - November 16, 2010 at 03:35 pm

@dyspeptic: In the Buddhist tradition, compassion can take the form of wrath and still constitute compassion.

@Steven L. Berg: nice!

Lisa Lindeman

83. dyspeptic - November 16, 2010 at 04:11 pm

@Lisa Lindeman: Well said; thanks for the observation.
But whether the teacher has compassion for the student--who, and I'm going out on a limb here, just a guess, mind you, is probably NOT going to reflect upon his ejection from the classroom as a compassionate act in the Buddhist ethos--might well reflect upon it instead as a Zen punch in the forehead. Sometimes the best lesson is one that immediately and unmistakably focuses the student's attention. That's been my experience, at least. I've never needed to eject a student who messes with his/her cellphone in my classes twice. They receive the message, and I like to think that putting them in time out helps them shrug off the adolescent belief that they are at the center of the universe. I'd like to think that, when they become a bit more mature, they look back upon that unhappy event as a turning point in their development. And thank me.

84. psychephile - November 16, 2010 at 05:29 pm

Petty and malicious. I really need to stop reading the Chronicle.

85. persefone - November 16, 2010 at 06:59 pm

This is a sadly telling editorial. The writer herself fails her employer and should reconsider her occupational field. Unfortunately, she would be lost in the real working world where people who work are compensated and expected to actually produce or offer something of value. I see little opportunity for her here. 'Tis is shame.

Those, like her, hide in the insulated world of academia, hoping to harm and hinder higher education's students, term after term. These educational charlatons are on the take. They swindle educator salaries, while sustaining an atmosphere of ignorance, failure, prejudice, and discouragement.

Why should a single cent of our federal and local public funds supply this toxic teacher's salary? What is she really worth to the public? What will we gain by paying someone so determined to feed her ego on her host of designated student failures? How many tax paying families does it take to support such a toxic teacher? How many local students sadly suffer under her model? If we count her casualties, her succesful immediate and delayed victim list, what will we find?

These teachers types pollute our classrooms, prohibit real learning and waste time, energy and school salaries.

This teacher's classroom more than likely looks like this: Her ideal, perfect pupils are devoted sheep. They mindlessly, quietly attend her every word, follow all lectures, turn in all assignments, pass all tests, no matter how tedious, meaningless, and uninspiring. They dare not think, initiate or attempt to expand on the 'teacher's' limited, trite agendas and course content.

People like the original poster enjoy wielding power over others, punishing and rewarding at will, feeding on the energy, attention and effort of her student hostages. They are hers to rule. her captive audience. Heaven help the student who dares question her haughty authority, who wants to really learn, who endeavors to explore, engage and actually expand his knowledge.

For these 'hired' fake teachers their interests or ideas matter and no others. Students are the potential enemy, the objectified trinkets to bounce along the indifferent assembly line where evaluations, inspections, passing or failing are all one sided and up their unquestioned authoritative absolute discretion.

This teacher and those like her/him help our schools win the race to the bottom of the world's educational outcomes and student success ratings.
Wish there was somewhere we could send the lot of them, or reassign them to some remote job far far away that had no influence or impact on any one else.

86. avalongod - November 16, 2010 at 07:40 pm

An interesting essay. I assume its intended as a bit of a catharis, giving rise to all negative feelings at once rather that something that reflects the day-to-day feeling. I've read many of the comments on both sides. I agree the essay is "nasty" in a way and certainly reflects the darker side of teaching. But I suspect most teachers, even those who are 95% "compassionate" (to use the wording of some of the commentaries) have 5% flashes of irritation toward students.

Overall I think it is useful for us to discuss these issues openly and honestly. Simply by evoking so much commentary I'd have to rate this essay a success!

87. amnirov - November 16, 2010 at 08:05 pm

What a sad, spiteful harpy.

88. panacea - November 16, 2010 at 09:43 pm

Interesting how easy it is for some to demonize the author for something that everyone here has felt in the deepest darkest place of their hearts.

Do not try and tell me that you have never secretly felt relief or pleasure when a student failed. Human nature is to feel good when an irritant in removed.

That is not the same thing in taking sadistic pleasure in failure.

I have students who have failed, or who I know will fail. That is a good thing: in my profession (nursing), graduates must be competent or people suffer. I want the weak sisters to fail. I want only the ones who can show they know what they are doing to pass my courses.

89. amnirov - November 16, 2010 at 09:52 pm

Actually the funniest and most telling part of this piece concerned: "The irritating student [who] spends the first few classes offering utterly vacuous or unnecessarily highbrow answers to your in-class questions.... [and who] is suddenly gone. Sometimes a palpable sense of relief emanates from the other students, but more often you alone are left in blissful serenity."

Har har har.

I think that one should always entertain the notion that some of our students might be smarter than we are. Who among us can honestly say that he or she didn't feel like dropping a class because the prof was a charlatan who only had a marginal grasp of the subject being taught? Who here has the honesty and the courage to distinguish between serenity and a bored stupor?

90. fruupp - November 17, 2010 at 01:54 am


I'll go the extra mile for any student who makes the effort, but for the punk or punkette with a staggering sense of entitlement who gives me attitude, and expresses in a dozen sneering little ways nothing but contempt for me and the course I teach (it's really not worth their while, don'cha know), then, yeah, I crack a secret smile when they go down. And they DO go down.

91. wdabc - November 17, 2010 at 06:04 am

A syllabus which clearly states that disruptive students will be instructed to leave the classroom solves the problem.

92. mikey - November 17, 2010 at 06:24 am

An excellent essay with a faux-serious tone that seems to escape some of our holier-than-thou colleagues!

93. soc_sci_anon - November 17, 2010 at 09:30 am

Professors are human, and human nature is not all compassion and warm fuzzies.

I've only been happy (and that's too strong of a word) to see one student drop out, in ten years of teaching. This student lied, cheated, plagiarized, and bullied his way through three years of college. He's the only student I have taught who genuinely tried the "my daddy is a lawyer" line as part of his argument for getting a higher score on the exam than he deserved. I also caught him trying to physically intimidate one of our front office staff, a petite woman who he must have outweighed by a factor of three, into extending an add/drop deadline for him. Was I just a little bit satisfied when his antics finally caught up with him and he was asked not to return? Yes. I wouldn't be human, otherwise. And that's the way I read Fenton's essay: as a reminder that professors are human.

That being said, I assume she is exaggerating for the sake of getting an article published. Either that, or she really is in the wrong business.

94. sparrowt - November 17, 2010 at 09:55 am

The question that most of the comments fail to ask (and perhaps I've missed its asking in my review)is, 'What is the *appropriate* response when a 'deserving' student fails'? Too many comments launch the charge of pettiness, meanness, hatefulness (that's a strong one!)at the author, but many of these also fail to substantiate the supposed hatefulness of Fenton's negativity. It's negative, for sure, and part of the problem is that Fenton appears a bit clumsy in his/her presentation, although I suspect that the absence of caveats and digressions, etc., is a deliberate rhetorical device intended to provoke.

So, what is the appropriate response to deserved failure? I suspect that many responses--including sadness, disappointment (in self and student), frustration, compassion--are inappropriate projections of the teacher's insecurities onto the student. Many folks believe they can reach each and every student, and when they don't, then the blame falls on their shoulders, not the student's. If this is your take, then of course finding pleasure in a student's failure is going to seem like an illegitimate (spiteful?) response. But if there is such a thing as a just grading system, then it follows that there *should* be pleasure when that system operates justly.

Maybe hope would be an appropriate response. Is it a contradiction to feel satisfaction when a student who earns an 'F' gest an 'F', and at the same time feel hopeful that when this student retakes the course they'll have learned their lesson or taken the steps to improve their classroom conduct or study habits? Personal psychology aside, I think the single truth of Fenton's piece resides in the way it points out the obvious fact that students sometimes earn an 'F', and there's something reassuring (if not 'pleasureble') when you can confidently pen this grade into your grade book. When this happens, and your response is to feel angry or sad or inadequate, perhaps it's your confidence in your assessment that is soliciting these emotions, in which case it has nothing to do with the student. Or perhaps justice is just depressing sometimes.

95. beck6818 - November 17, 2010 at 10:46 am

Wow. You guys are truly part of the reason that my students are little brats. Seriously? Now it's too "negative" to hope that the jackass in the front row drops, or to be happy that some slacker-dunce who did none of the work during the term didn't somehow manage to squeak by on the final? I have absoultely nothing in common with you, and I don't want my students coming near your sappy positivity. The last thing they need is more of an ego, or someone else to smile politely and make excuses for them as they once again get by on superficial charm and no work.

Man, I miss Rate Your Students. Those people would know that if anything, this article is laughably soft for what I see and feel in the classroom on a daily basis. Here's a newsflash: your students are gaming you. Stop letting them. Thanks.

96. dannyboy547 - November 17, 2010 at 11:05 am

I have to admit that it does secretly feel good when someone who is cheating and/or slacking their way through class finally drops out of the course. But I also know that what I perceive as bad behavior may well be emotional distress on the part of the student, so I don't go dancing down the hallway when it happens.

97. andreology - November 17, 2010 at 12:13 pm

Certainly there are students who do not perform. They may be underprepared, they may be uninterested, they may be unintelligent. It is OK to admit this reality and to give a grade that recognizes the lack of performance. But a mature adult does not take pleasure in student failure. We all have areas in which we need to grow, and both the failing student and the teacher who enjoys observing the failure need to examine themselves and ask what is the next step in becoming a flourishing human being.

98. sparrowt - November 17, 2010 at 12:25 pm

Why is everyone pretending as though the author makes no distinction between a student who struggles with genuine effort and a student who is simply lazy, disruptive, or actively trying not to pass? Surely this is the key to understanding the difference between a pleasurable withdrawal and a lamentable failure.

Aren't we warned as educators that we will face a generation of students who have been nurtured on the 'everyone's a winner' dogma, which is close to the 'look on the bright side' mantra cited by one commenter above? These feed into the sense of entitlement another commenter noted, as well as the general lack of responsibility that many students display toward their own grades. It seems that some of this has rubbed off on us, too, no?

Incidentally, isn't it interesting how the comments section generates very little dialogue, and thus mimics the kind of classroom discussion that we're supposed to avoid. Lots of people reacting to a provocative point, holding their ground without much reason, shooting from the hip or from the gut, talking past one another with fundamental disregard for the purpose of the forum: to critically engage a contentious issue. Some of the comments applaud the much-hoped-for breakthrough moment when their students succeed in thinking differently and revising their own narrow views, but such an Aha! moment is avoided like the plague in this forum.

99. 3224243 - November 17, 2010 at 12:37 pm

I'm certainly glad I didn't have this person as one of my college instructors. Convenient, too, that she hides behind a pseudonym. Hope this assistant professor never makes it to associate. *eye roll emoticon*

100. sparrowt - November 17, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Maybe it's because I'm watching House, but I'm tempted to ask: what difference does it make whether Fenton finds pleasure when his/her deserving student fails? If the students never experiences this reaction, who cares? Again, many of you are assuming that such a person is a bad teacher. Unfortunately, there is no correlation.

101. firstsai93 - November 17, 2010 at 12:44 pm

I understand why the author is hiding their frustration and burnout behind a pseudonym. The fact is, the true victims are the students.Many instructors waste their time with their banal classroom chit-chat, their academic war stories, and their "barbarians at the gate" teaching mentality, while the students, steeped in debt and apprehension about their futures, are trying every way they.ve learned how just to get by. The only thing that is keeping people like the author from imposing their own person academic Darwinism, is that despite the propaganda about students paying only about one-third of their education costs, at the end to the day, enrollment does pay the salaries and all of the other perks for academia, who spend most of their time grinding out hopelessly vaccuous journal articles, books that are never read, and going to conferences to hear their collegeagues grind out the same sausage they presented the year before. Today's students are the most ambitious, most medicated, most indebted, most jaded, and most entitled previous generations have ever produced, and guess what...like it or not, sooner or later, they are going to be calling the shots. Academia, having lost its monopoly on information to the Internet, is rapidly losing its influence on society, and unwittingly yielding the field to the accredited for-profits. At least with the for-profits, you get what you pay for, and I guarantee you will see a rise in their graduation rates, with no decline in quality, and no instructors complaining about the students.

102. gogreen - November 17, 2010 at 01:33 pm

I am so disappointed at the Chronicle for running this horrible essay. I hope my kids never have an 'educator' like Alice Fenton. I'd love to know what university has the misfortune of employing someone with such a terrible and mean-spirited attitude.

She sounds like a bit of a sadist to me, taking pleasure in others' shortfalls. Shame on you, Alice, and shame on you, CHE!

103. sparrowt - November 17, 2010 at 01:45 pm

@gogreen
Okay, so you'd rather professors like Fenton (and the CHE) keep quiet about his/her psychic life? Is this because the truth is too dark or because it's distasteful for the public to hear about this truth? Be sure that your kids *already* have an educator like Fenton, but you will never know who it is. More than that, it does not matter. There's a good chance that Fenton is your kids' teacher (if they're in college), and maybe even their favorite. That's just the thing: there's nothing about Fenton's attitude that implies that she is an ineffective educator.

So, what is your objection to Fenton's article again?

104. bmljenny - November 17, 2010 at 01:48 pm

@persefone are you kidding - the "real working world?" Teaching IS working. It's a real life actual job. You get up, you go to work. Universities are, in fact, on Planet Earth. Just like you. And it's definitely been my experience out in the "real working world" that disdain for one's more irritating customers is not just an everyday experience, it's a national sport.

105. qwerty_asdf - November 17, 2010 at 03:57 pm

This essay is the product of a warped mind. The author needs to change careers before she does any more harm to her students.

106. arestelle - November 17, 2010 at 04:11 pm

Love this article.

I felt the same way, as a student, about several of my classmates. My professors weren't hired to be nannies - they were hired to teach the people who wanted to learn. Unenthused students have no business wasting the time of serious ones.

107. pvenderley - November 17, 2010 at 05:07 pm

My initial reaction was disappointment that such views would be shared about the failings of certain students. Feeling good because the "irritating" student drops out? Or because the bad student fails? This perspective reflects more about the failings of the teacher than the student.

But then, there's the acknowledgement -- teachers are human. Teachers experience frustration right along with the rest of the world.

The power of this article is in the qualifiers. Ms. Fenton is describing a clash of wills in the classroom, not a failing of minds. The students that engender such frustrations, and later vindications, are the ones who are testing the teachers rather than themselves. When a teacher wins, be it through a drop-out or a failing grade, will that teacher feel victorious? Vindicated? You betcha. Does it make that teacher a worse human being? Not if he/she genuinely tried to help the student in the first place.

By the way, Ms. Fenton, kudos on you for your second point. I started reading this article prepared to be angry at teacher negligence, but you had me at "No." P.C. Socratic dialog can only go so far.

108. navydad - November 17, 2010 at 05:40 pm

It makes sense to me that: teachers become annoyed, frustrated, and downright pissed off at the behavior of some students; teachers feel relief when a pain in the ass student drops their class; teachers take a certain grim pleasure in catching a cheater. It does not make sense to me that someone who claims to be an educator takes pleasure in seeing students fail and I certainly would not want her teaching my kids.

109. navydad - November 17, 2010 at 05:48 pm

And by the way, disagreeing with the author does not constitute supporting lower standards or coddling of students, as some posters seem to think. Some students will fail due to lack of ability or lack of effort, which is the way it should be. But to take pleasure in their failure? "Alice Fenton" needs a serious attitude adjustment.

110. gbsadler - November 18, 2010 at 01:11 pm

Illuminating discusussion and article, which raises some very interesting questions about emotional responses, pedagogy, and moral evaluation. Seemed like a great topic for a blog post discussing the essay and the stances revealed in the comments from one well-developed moral theory tradition, the Aristotelian one. First installment of my discussion: http://gbsadler.blogspot.com/2010/11/pleasure-in-student-failure-aristotlean.html.

Best comment so far in my view: ". . . the essay has done what such essays should do: it's held up a mirror to its readers."

111. mrbridgeii - November 18, 2010 at 01:36 pm

I have the opposite problem: I find many of my A students to be repulsive sychophants, while I secretly like many of my failing students even though I can't ethically give them a passing grade.

112. andisciacca - November 18, 2010 at 06:06 pm

best arguments -> @sparrowt & @gbsadler

113. sparrowt - November 18, 2010 at 10:22 pm

I certainly had Aristotle in the back of my mind when commenting, as gbsadler (#110) picks up and elucidates in their blog post. Thanks for doing the leg work!

114. robi6293 - December 11, 2010 at 09:28 am

"The writer herself fails her employer and should reconsider her occupational field."

No, she's "failing" students, not her employer. Her employer is paying her to teach students to the best of her ability, pass the students who deserve to pass, and fail the ones who deserve to fail. If she takes some satisfaction in either side of that, I see no breach of professionalism. Her employer is not paying her to feel unconditional love and compassion towards her students. There are some people who can feel unconditional love and compassion for all sentient beings, all the time. They are generally found in remote monasteries in the Himalayas. The rest of us would do well to be as honest about our feelings as the author.

115. nassa - December 12, 2010 at 07:01 pm

Kirsten Olson's comment about this article stems from her theory of teaching-learning as a "healing" process. Although I do understand where she is coming from - we all felt under-served and overwhelmed by school - but in the context of higher education is it possible to demand of the professors to "heal" students who clearly do not wish to study? Often this lack of motivation comes from their intrinsic circumstances - engineers having to take history classes, etc. - and so to what extent is this the professor's responsibility to "heal" them? Isn't history and philosophy in themselves healing subjects? without the professor feeling apologetic for teaching it? If the student does not see the healing power of learning - what can we do?? On the other hand what if the "professor" is really an underpaid and overworked adjunct who teaches 200-300 students in five different colleges per semester? Never having any vacation or sabbatical or health insurance? Not to mention retirement fund? Those people represent 75% of faculty today. Are they to heal those students? Or should they first be healed themselves?

116. nell4609 - December 15, 2010 at 02:36 pm

I'm with you Alice. When you begin to see patterns in some students behavior that indicates a potential drop out or fail, you tend to give up. The job market is tough enough and it's the educator's job to weed them out. Harsh? Yes, but try working in a corporate environment which is where most students will end up. Some just can't cut it.

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