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Student failure and student humanity

December 13, 2010, 5:13 pm

A mathematics lecture, apparently about linear...

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Alice Fenton (a pseudonym) set off a minor firestorm recently with this post to the Chronicle of Higher Education website, titled “The Pleasure of Seeing the Deserving Fail”. The title explains the content; the article is about different kinds of students who bring failure upon themselves in some way or another, and the pleasure the instructor can take in failing them.

Today, “Alice” has published a sequel, called “How to Inspire a Backlash”, to serve as a counterpoint to the negative reactions to her first article. At the close, she says:

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.

I used to think, and teach, this way. In fact, if you go back far enough in the archives of this blog, you will find numerous posts that have a kindred spirit with Alice’s two articles. I called out torpid students and took pleasure in their mistakes and failures out of a sense of “ironic fun”, a sense of needing to vent “ephemeral angers”, a sense that doing so affirms my humanity. I would celebrate the successes of my students and vilify their failures with equal relish. And whatever I restrained myself from blogging about, I would keep active in my thoughts and gab about with colleagues in the hallway. After all, those emotions are there, and acknowledging them makes me more human, and therefore failing to do so would be dehumanizing.

Then I realized something: Professors aren’t the only people around here who are human. Students are human beings, too.

My students are human beings with all the accoutrements other human beings possess. They have intelligence, prior knowledge, nonempty cognitive frameworks, morals, creativity, and nontrivial accomplishments in life. They have people in their lives who love them dearly, whose hearts would break at my schadenfreude at their expense, no matter how much “ironic fun” it is. They are capable of doing amazing things, and they have their own successful K-12 education to prove it. There is no reason to believe they cannot go on to even more amazing things, and any educator who doesn’t feel this possibility when teaching is not paying attention.

Yes: On the flip side of this, students can also be astoundingly lazy, rude, ill-mannered, slow, foolish, and downright unpleasant to be around. Many of them think they are still children. Many of them do not have the first idea how to manage themselves; some of them willfully mismanage themselves because they figure this is what college is all about. For us faculty, students through their behaviors can drive us to insanity, to rage, to tears of frustration.

And yes: Many students deserve to fail as the logical outcome of a litany of irresponsible behaviors and bad choices. In a just, well-constructed academic environment where learning and academic rigor matter, these students will fail — they must fail. It is not wrong to find a kind of satisfaction in a system that works in this way. There is pleasure, in a way, to be found here as well: a pleasure one gets from first dividing the educational world in to two parts — us and them — and then lumping the students who frustrate us the most into the them category and watching them get what they deserve.

So I don’t deny that there is pleasure to be had in student failure when they “deserve” it. But it’s one thing to apprehend the pleasure and quite another to take it. Anybody who is serious about becoming more human will begin by acknowledging the humanity in other people. And I defy any educator worthy of the title to take pleasure in student failure, “deserved” or otherwise, without ignoring one or more key elements of student humanity. You cannot take pleasure in student failure without dehumanizing the student — and yourself. If you do, you are not an educator, no matter what your title may say. You may not even be as human as you think.

The way forward to humanity — and sanity — as an educator, as I was somehow blessed to find out, is to treat students as human beings with complex sets of values and assumptions. These values and assumptions all play into their behaviors, and it is way too easy to dismiss the student based on behavior without considering the cause. That guy in the second row preferred Facebook to your lectures all year. Why? That young lady in your 9:00 AM class has missed five class meetings and falls asleep when she shows up. Why? That fraternity dude in your 12:20 class would rather party than study. Why? All of these behaviors are linked to student’s values and assumptions — that is, to their humanity — as well as to our own values and assumptions about student learning. We make progress when we start answering these Why? questions seriously, taking student values and assumptions — that is, their humanity — into account as well as our own assumptions about student learning and how it takes place.

Just as we faculty — and entire institutions — can and should find happiness, satisfaction, and joy in student successes, let us be frustrated, perplexed, and saddened by student failures. There’s no point in denying those feelings. But indulging them? Finding pleasure in student failure? Never, under any circumstance.

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