Sunday, January 18, 2009

"Magnificent Wind:"* In Which The Radical Begins Receiving Excuses From Her Students Even Before The Term Begins

Yesterday I, and a number of other colleagues who work at Zenith and other colleges, began to receive a steady stream of emails from students. They said some version of the following: "Hey, Professor, I am going to Barack's inauguration and won't make it back in time for class on Wednesday afternoon. I am sure you support my presence at this historic event. Hope this is ok -- let me know if it isn't, (signed) Siouxsie Q."** I had several crabby, middle-aged responses to the emails I received, including:

"Hay is for horses" (I had a kindergarten teacher back in 1964 who was fond of this one.)

"If I am not going to the inauguration because I have a prior commitment to be at school to advise you on Tuesday, and teach you on Wednesday, why shouldn't you actually have some commitment to be there and receive these services?" As the Mother of the Radical (MOTheR), a font of wisdom on matters of playground justice, would say, "So who told you life was fair, Radical?" Point taken.

"In the twenty-four hours between the end of the swearing in ceremony (which you will be watching on a Jumbotron, simply another kind of TV) and my class at 1:10 the following day, you could get back from San Francisco, London, and perhaps even Moscow; you can certainly get back to my classroom from the District of Columbia, so actually you are staying so you can party all night and not get up at the crack of dawn to put your sorry, hungover behind on public transportation." Now this is something I could have sympathy for, as opposed to the claim that affordable and timely travel arrangements are impossible.

"Oh grow up Radical" (said to self) "Who gives a crap what they do? Particularly when it offers you a topic for a blog post?"

Then I sent an email to my class telling them that I expected to see them there at 1:10 sharp on Wednesday, and I went to a lovely dinner party where we talked about what a relief it was to finally hear a (prospective) cabinet member say, in so many words that water-boarding (aka, simulated drowning) "is torture."

But I do wonder whether the Bush administration's penchant for acting like mutual obligation was a waste of time and money, for telling obvious lies as if they were true, and pretending that bad decisions represented the only possible option, has infected all of us in some indefinable way that will take time to recover from, no matter what breed of dog the Obamas eventually adopt. As a much younger colleague from another institution who was at that dinner party agreed, this kind of exchange is common between teacher and student nowadays, at least among those of us who teach at elite private colleges. "I have to go to the inauguration, which unfortunately conflicts with your class," is yet another version of, "I just found out I can't be in class tomorrow because my parents want me to come to Paris for the weekend" (I mean, whose parents really tell them on Wednesday that they expect to see them at dinner in the Marais on Friday?) Or try this one: "I need to take the exam early because my dad's travel agent bought me a non-refundable ticket to L.A. and I'm leaving the Tuesday before break." But my favorite one is this. Every once in a while students at Zenith organize a campus strike to raise consciousness about some serious issue. Inevitably, I am then asked -- well-known left-winger that I am -- whether I would please cancel my class so that my students can go on "strike" and not have to worry that they will miss anything that will affect their final grades. Some of you, dear readers, might say that there are students less interested in the political issue at hand who have actually (I know this is gross, but I am going to say it) paid for that class, and might think I have an obligation to teach it if they plan to be there. This is one good point. But a second is that the point of a student strike is to interrupt business as usual, and it doesn't work if business as usual has been, well, canceled, by lefty profs sympathetic to the cause.

All of these interactions have several common themes, in my view: powerlessness over one's own schedule; an assumption that the activity to be substituted for the academic obligation is not a preference or choice, but an unavoidable conflict with fixed parameters; and the request that permission be granted, after the fact, so that the student can feel good about the choice to do something fun that displaces the obligations attendant to being in school. "I hope this is ok" is another way of saying "what kind of unjust person would you be to kick me out of a course I need for my major just because I went to DC to party my butt off at this unique, historical moment for partying?" I agree that probably would be too steep a penalty for missing the first day of class; but it would also be fair to let you know, that I know, that for $15, you can catch one of many Fung Wah Bus departures from the District of Columbia after 3 P.M. Tuesday. Tickets are still available!

I could kick them out of class if I wanted to, but they are banking on it that a reasonable person would not do such a thing. Looking on the bright side, it is even a compliment that I am perceived as a reasonable person. But the corollary to that, in my view, is that I should not be required to endorse their failure to meet their obligations to me; or to reassure them that meeting these obligations was clearly impossible, given the odds stacked against them. This last can be tricky when, for example, we all know that there are parents who are exactly so narcissistic that they make fixed, and expensive, plans without consulting their children at all; and that, because of various divorces, joint custody arrangements and remarriages, children who are not at all wealthy are buffeted by impossible scheduling demands from an early age and might just find it easier to submit to family demands. Yet, would not some of those parents be able to hear it, and even be impressed at the sign of new maturity, if Biff responded to the notice from the travel agent by saying: "Gee Dad, I'm so sorry you are going to have to change the ticket, but this economics midterm is just too important to me to screw it up. And it isn't fair to the teacher to put her to the trouble of making up a new exam and setting up a proctor just for me. If you want me to pay the difference, I can, but next time, could you ask me?"

Part of what I would like to salvage from these encounters -- which in the end, mean little in terms of a semester's work -- is what they have to teach us about the changing climate for instruction more generally, both in elite schools like mine and at schools where students are more highly conscious of the conditions by which hard-earned cash is exchanged for knowledge and credentials. And how do we talk about these things as faculty without trashing students, and in a way that examines our own responsibility to meet students where they are? Part of what is shifting dramatically, and what we do not know how to talk about except in the crudest, most reactive terms, is the notion that a college course represents some kind of fixed, but unspoken, contract between teacher (authority) and student (subject), in which the student is bound to a particular schedule, and a social relationship, that respects the traditional power imbalance between teacher and learner, grader and gradee. It is very rare that I find myself enforcing all the terms of my syllabus nowadays; but it is also rare that more than a few of my students feel bound by the terms of the syllabus, or that any expectation, great or small, cannot be altered to accommodate their "needs," great or small. How, and why, these power relations between professors and students are shifting; what constitutes a successful negotiation about expectations between teacher and student; how electronic communication has facilitated and/or ameliorated those shifts and how we speak to each other about them; and how new expectations about power and authority play themselves out in daily, casual encounters between teachers and students -- all of these things deserve a great deal more thought as we enter this bright and shining new day.

* According to Wikipedia, "Magnificent Wind" is a loose translation of "Fung Wah." Perfect, no?

**This is an amalgam of several, surprisingly similar emails, received by me and other colleagues. The emails were so similar that I actually went to the Obama-Biden Transition Team web page to see if there was a standard excuse being made available to students skipping class to attend the inauguration.


GayProf said...

It seems to me that another piece of this is the general sense of entitlement that Americans feel as individuals (and that has really been brewing since the 1980s). Their decisions are the really important ones. If that means missing class, ignoring the environment, or adopting reckless economic policies, everybody else should understand accommodate their need to "just be themselves." Simply being told, "No, you can't do that" has become tantamount to infringing on their basic human rights.

Rest assured, though, that the day of reckoning is coming. The many bad behaviors of the nation are bearing their bitter, bitter fruits.

In the meantime, just enforce the attendance policy.
Or, if you want to play into their fantasies of "doing this for history," require them to write a ten page paper that fixes the Obama inauguration in historical context.

Virginia S. Wood, Psy.D., Instructor said...

As it happens, I had already announced in the syllabus that Tuesday would be cancelled because I am accompanying my husband to an out-of-state medical appointment that day at a clinic that books six months out.

One student asked me if class cancellations were campus-wide or just me.

My policy generally is that "you are adults and you can do what you please. But you will inevitably miss something important, and it will inevitably be reflected in your grade. Your choice."

They still have an assignment due Inauguration Day, to be submitted via WebCT, no excuses for lateness either. They can submit early or they can take their laptops to DC for all I care.

Frankly, I hope some of them do go. I think it would be a great thing to be there. But were I in town, class would go on without them.

Flavia said...

Because my students range from the fairly privileged to those who work 40 hours a week, have small children, and are also full-time students, I've sometimes been treated to consecutive visits, during office hours, by one student apologizing profusely for missing one class because yesterday was a snow day in the public schools and she didn't have alternate child-care arrangements. . . followed by another swinging by and casually saying, that, hey? maybe I'd noticed she'd missed a lot a classes? But she's editor of the student paper, and it goes to bed at like 3 a.m. sometimes, and she has a hard time getting up the next morning.

I never give the latter a particularly hard time--as Virginia says, it's her choice how to spend her time--but neither am I particularly interested in or sympathetic to her excuses.

JackDanielsBlack said...

Missing class to go on a family vacation is one thing; missing class to witness the inauguration of the first African-American president is another. As a teacher of history, I think you should encourage your students to attend this historic occasion if possible, and to report on their experience (either by paper or in class) when they come back. If you had been teaching in 1863 and some of your students had wanted to take the train to Gettysburg to catch Mr. Lincoln's address, would you have let them?

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Last semester, I taught a Shakespeare night class that met for three hours. On the first day of class, I used every bit of those three hours lecturing about the history plays that we were diving right into. Surprisingly, three different students wanted to add the class the following week, and another two wanted to add the class the third week. I said to them, "You can try adding if you want, but we've already covered so much material, you will most certainly be lost." Two of the five students came and tried to catch up, and then dropped the class after another two weeks. Starting with the history plays was difficult because there was so much background to cover initially, there are so many characters to keep track of, and students come into a Shakespeare class a little intimidated already. BUT starting with the history plays keeps the class size small! I only had eight students, and the whole semester was a blast. (This is at a very small liberal arts college where class size is usually about 12-15.)

I also taught a composition night class last semester. On the first day, I always talk about plagiarism and then around midterm (or as necessary), I'll bring it up again. One student missed the first day of this class and used that as his excuse to say he didn't realize it wasn't okay to plagiarize (copy/paste four pages from wikipedia -- come on, man! At least make the hunt a challenge.). He ended up failing the course because the paper he plagiarized was weighted so heavily. (The school's policy is fail the paper.)

Anyway, I have a very strong prejudice against students who miss the first day. As a student myself, I NEVER missed the first day of class -- it never even occurred to me that you COULD. If I had a chance to go to the inauguration but that was the first day of class, I'd be disappointed, but God, it's not like this is the 19th century. We've got multiple ways to view the show -- TV, internet, and some might even listen to the radio (heaven forbid!). Being there would be great, but it'll be so crowded and zoo-like, I'm positive that sitting on my couch to watch the proceedings will guarantee I ACTUALLY see something -- unlike being there.

Anonymous said...

Here's a curious observation. I also teach at "Zenith" in one of the natural sciences. Out of 55 currently registered students for my Wed morning class, exactly zero have contacted me about missing it. Is this a discipline-dependent phenomenon? Or does it have something to do with the class year? My course is overwhelmingly first year students, while I believe TR's is limited to junior and senior majors.

AndrewMc said...

It resonates. Our student government association organized a "class walk out" last spring to protest some university policy. The idea was to walk out of class and march to the admin building, and then stage a demonstration.

Several student government members then asked me if I would let students go early so they could attend the rally. They knew that I supported both the issue, and the idea of a mass protest.

Ha! "Hell no!," I said. "If you want to stand up for an issue, then stand up for an issue."

The couldn't believe that I wouldn't accommodate them.

Anonymous said...

I'm a student at Zenith. I am going to the inauguration. I am also going to my Wednesday classes.

Bullshit, I say, to those who haven't figured out that this is entirely possible.

But I do think it would be nice of you to not drop people from your list for missing class.

moria said...

Look, the argument about "get off your ass and figure out how to get back from D.C. in time for class" is a legitimate one. The argument that states "you are a self-absorbed little pain in the ass because it is important to you to attend an event of national - even global - significance" is bullshit.

You have to remember, Claire, that your students have had George W. Bush as their president for their entire lives as mature, thinking creatures. They came to political consciousness after September 11, 2001. For them, we really have always been at war with Eastasia. This is the first time in their lives (this is the first time in my life) that they get to participate in national politics in a way that is meaningful to them.

Wasn't the involvement of the young in something beyond their narcissism the entire point of the Obama movement? Wasn't that, alone, what won so many of us over to his otherwise unconvincing messages of Hopeyness?

Cut the kids some slack - I'm sure they're not expecting special treatment, anyhow. Let them have a moment - an extended one, even - to revel in their own hopeyness.

chris said...

"Part of what I would like to salvage from these encounters -- [...] -- is what they have to teach us about the changing climate for instruction more generally, both in elite schools like mine and at schools where students are more highly conscious of the conditions by which hard-earned cash is exchanged for knowledge and credentials."

Part of what you are talking about here is an ethics of behavior. Repeated over time without consequence, small acts such as the ones you've described here eventually become habits for both individuals and institutions. When these habits become accepted they then become a part of the fabric or character of the individual/milieu.

At the beginning of every semester I start off with a zero-tolerance policy for things like late papers and cell phone usage in class. I tell myself that it is important to maintain my policies not just for my own scheduling sanity (I teach a 4/4 while finishing a dissertation) but also to instill a sense of discipline and rigor into students. I teach at a very affluent institution where enforcement of things like quality work or one's own work is notoriously lax (e.g. the institution offers a free editing service where students can drop off their papers and pick them up the next day fully and neatly edited).

But the force of the the tide is so strong that I am successful at sticking to my guns but only a percentage of the time.

Anyway, my point to all this is that small little acts repeated over time turn into practices and habits that become ways of being for students. In addition to teaching in our fields, part of our job is to instill an ethics of behavior, a sense of discipline and rigor, that some students seem not to have acquired elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

Yeah -- it is oh so VERY important to be at the first lecture. I can recall listening to those pearls of wisdom distilled from Professor Pooh Bah's yellowed notes and wondering -- how did this person ever get tenured.

The grumpy profs complaining about their students should re-read "An Apology for Idlers." But IMHO - I doubt RLS's wisdom will do much to assuage the chattering/nattering nabobs of negativism. After all how can their charges actual have the audacity to go to the Obama inauguration - instead of sitting oh so raptly in the front row of the class.

I'd like to suggest that any student preferring to park their backside in Dr. Pooh Bah's first class instead of going to the inauguration is a dolt. After all what will that student miss -- a dullish droning on about the syllabus, the fluffing of academic feathers, pearly housekeeping chore nuggets tossed out with little if any savoir faire and other important matters as the prof bides time since bookstore has bollixed the texts needed for the course, etc. etc.

After all -- we must all do our part in reproducing the conditions of production. I learned a long time ago that we are not trying to teach anyone to be original, courageous or even critical thinkers. We have a very simple mission. We are giving corporate American our assurance that our better students are dullish dolts. We know they will never rock the boat because their high scholastic honors are a testament that we've drained their ability to question authority.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I'm kinda glad that I teach at a directional state school with a 4-4 load. As a general rule, my students don't have to meet their parents in Paris for dinner. And whenever I find myself preaching in class, at least I know my remarks aren't directed to the choir.

Tenured Radical said...

Well, 11:07, you sound like the happy type -- hope you aren't an educator. Just a reminder: it wasn't my view that my students ought not to go to the inauguration, but rather, that they had plenty of time to get back in time for the first class. Which is important, yes.


Anonymous said...

I used to think waterboarding was torture. Around the third time I watched a reporter being waterboarded by exCIA types live on camera I decided it fits into the category of "pretty crappy to go through but not torture." When I heard we waterboard our own troops as part of their training in resisting interrogation this only confirmed my suspicions.

Anonymous said...

Dear TR,

I've toiled for some 40 years in the groves of academe. Unlike most of my colleagues, I've held real jobs. I've been known to talk to the locals and the help. I can actually wield a hammer and wire a house. Plus, I'm one of those diversity types who was tenured during the Tonian era or in other words before it was fashionable. So it should not come as any surprise to you that I've NEVER been impressed by Pooh Bahs or any other "self-anointed educators."

Like RLS I still love "certain odds and ends that I came by in the open street as a truant." My students and I will spend the next 15 weeks together -- my job will be helping them to rekindle their curiosity and to ask:

Quel est ce nouveau dieu qu'on impose a la terre?
Et si ce n'est un dieu, c'est au moins u demon...

And surely you know the next three lines......

Mark Kille said...

I'm in grad school while working full time and keeping up a variety of volunteer commitments. Sometimes I have to prioritize things over attending class or completing an assignment on time. But when I tell the professor, I always make sure to apologize and acknowledge that any negative consequences that come my way are fully justified.

Anonymous said...

Claire, I want to thank you for bringing up a topic which I have thought a great deal about, particularly in the last few years. I think the general problem has existed in the United States for quite some time. My mother's family lived in Scotland during World War II. One brother served for six years in the British army, while all the other sisters and brothers (twelve of them total) either were evacuated or worked in munitions factories. After the war the British people decided to change their social welfare system in a drastic manner. There was a sense of shared obligation coming from the hardships of war. It is also probably no coincidence that the defeated countries of World War II (Japan and Germany, for example), also instituted similar problems.

After the war, however, this country emerged relatively unscathed, and with the sense that IT had won the war. Such overconfidence eroded any sense of obligation that could have come from a more realistic assessment of the situation. Instead, we continued on our old, merry individualistic way, oblivious to the ideas of sacrifice. And this sense has just become worse in the past thirty years.

CelloShots said...

One of my students asked me on Wednesday (when pretty much all of my students were present in lecture) if she could miss discussion section on Friday because "All of my friends are going to Disneyland, and we wanted to leave early in the morning."

This student, a major in my department, had missed section the previous Friday because she forgot what time section happens.

I informed her that this was not an option, of course, and discovered at the end of Friday's section that several other students were also going to Disneyland but had not deemed that a worthwhile reason to request to miss class.

Entitlement is not limited to the Ivies, it seems. Even large public universities suffer from certain attitudes attendant upon wealth and privilege.

NB: My verification word is nurabba, which I have decided to parse as "nur ABBA," or "only ABBA" in German. What it means, I have no idea, but I like it.

Anonymous said...

in complete seriousness, the fung wah bus has a terrible safety record. if i were in your position, id rather students miss class than get on the deathsled. amtrak?

Anonymous said...

Claire Potter does not care about black people! Please respond to this comment, or delete it. Either way, it will bother you the rest of the day.