Student failure and student humanity

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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Filed under Education, Higher ed, Life in academia, Student culture, Teaching

7 responses to “Student failure and student humanity

  1. I disagree with that. As you said earlier, you have a human emotion directed towards another human because he made choices to seal his fate. So if anything, by that feeling you acknowledge that there is a human involved, not a dog that does not know better.

    I do feel pleased when people to deserve so drop out and anger when they don’t. This is not because I judge them but because I enjoy to see the educational system work as it should, at least in part. I think there is a distinction there. In particular, my feeling does in no way imply that I will not do anything in my power to make my students deserve to pass, not to fail. But I am at the same time fully aware that this can never work for everybody since I can only make offers, not force anybody to take them.

    And yes, I quip about students’ episodes. But also about my own.

  2. Glad I didn’t see the article that prompted this. I like what you have to say. There’s also a more particular ethical reason not to hang onto our bad feelings about badly-behaved students. Grading is subjective, even in math – at least if you offer any partial credit.

    The student who caused me grief all term gets the same respect for her efforts when I’m figuring out partial credit as the ones who participated fully – to the best of my ability. If I allow myself to find any enjoyment in the failure of students I don’t like, that would make it even harder to grade fairly.

    • I ran into a chilling story at the Russian project, somewhat similar to the English Post Secret, called “Kill Me Pls.” At the site, people share stories that make them (humorously or seriously) feel like, “kill me please” and stories usually end with the abbreviated request, KMP. One of the stories is from a university professor, one of the highest-voted for seriousness of the situation:

      “Once I made a student fail an (oral) final. He terribly annoyed me, argued, irritated, was too attentive to details. Overall, he knew the subject, but I found a hole during the test. I was glad to get my revenge. But later I learned the boy was in a very difficult situation. He escaped some small village, entered our university (which is hard, because it’s a good university), lived in the dorm, worked part-time. After being expelled he had nothing else to do but go back to his backwater place, naturally losing his part-time job. I also discovered he’s an orphan, living with his granny and his younger sister. He was probably their big hope, obtaining good education in the city. When I go through this here story in my head, I think my hair is turning gray. I can’t eat and I don’t sleep well. What have I done? KMP.”

  3. Thank you for your thoughts. Here is the comment I left at the second article. I would be interested in your reaction.

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

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

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

    • You are right. The simplest explanation for the author’s quote is that blaming students is easy and it feels good. “Alice” uses supposed student misbehavior as a pretext for saying this is “justice” rather than sheer mean-spiritedness, but I’d be a lot more willing to believe in that version of the story if there were the slightest evidence that she looked in the mirror before writing her two articles.

      • When people are mean to one another, something is usually wrong with the setup of the experience. I think Alice is as much a victim as her failing students. However, seeing how she has (a bit) more power and responsibility, it is probably up to her rather than the students to change the situation.

        There are ways to deal with all these problems. For example, one of my”kids in the front row who like to give off-topic rants at all times” – we talked about him taking notes, so he remembers his ideas as they come up. We can discuss ideas after class in more detail and/or he can write them up. It made him more happy, along with everyone else, and it made for a better learning situation.

        The situation where the teacher is forced to go through the motions of teaching someone who clearly should not be in a class, and the student is forced to go through the motions of taking the class, is rather sick. It happens entirely too often. I think it is the responsibility of the educator to recommend dropping out as early as possible, when this happens. However, with so many social privileges tied to certification… It’s a cruel situation to be in.

  4. JJ

    I went and read both articles and I have to say that…I wasn’t offended by the articles, though your descriptions of them made me think I would be.

    About a week ago my car was hit outside my house, totaled in fact, by a hit and run driver. It looks as though the driver actually came back and picked up the pieces of their car, to avoid being caught. They did miss one identifying to make piece from across the road.

    Am I a bad person for wanting this person to be caught and their insurance to pay rather than mine? Am I an even worse person for feeling even more angry that it was an expensive car that hit mine?

    I think not. That person didn’t play by the rules, went out of his/her way to subvert them even. And IF they are found, I won’t be shy about my schadenfreude.

    That’s what I read in these articles — “Alice” very clearly and narrowly parsed out students who feel both that rules and social mores don’t apply to them and also feel entitled to something they haven’t earned. She excepted all students who tried, who weren’t ready, etc.