Tag Archives: Chronicle of Higher Education

Changes coming for Casting Out Nines!

My family and I are all settled (well, mostly) here in Michigan, and pretty soon I’ll be in full swing in my new position at Grand Valley State University. I can’t overstate what a delight it’s been, getting situated at GVSU. It is a dynamic and forward-thinking university full of great people and exciting ideas. I haven’t met a single person who isn’t excellent at what they do and generous with their expertise.

I am officially taking CO9s off hiatus, and I intend to pick up the pace on blogging as the semester kicks off. That seems wrong — shouldn’t I blog more when it’s less busy? — but I’ve always seen blogging as both an overflow mechanism (to think more about what I’m doing) and an incubator (to kick off new things by rehearsing them here).

Along with a return to regular posting, I have an announcement that I’ve been waiting a long time to make. Over the next few weeks, Casting Out Nines will be rolled into the blog network of the Chronicle of Higher Education, the leading publication about higher ed in the world. Most higher ed people are already familiar with the Chronicle’s print and online publications. The Chronicle Blog Network will be a new venue of voices on the web, writing about higher education, with a worldwide scope and featuring bloggers from all corners of academia.Currently there are two excellent blogs in the network — Tenured Radical and The Ubiquitous Librarian. Casting Out Nines will be joining them.

Posts from blogs in the network will be promoted to Chronicle readers through the Chronicle’s home page, their e-newsletter, and their social media channels. When you take into account that the Chronicle’s website reaches 1.7 million unique visitors and has 14.3 million page views per month, this means that the posts here will be reaching a much, much larger audience than in the past.

Obviously I am tremendously excited about this. This has been in the works for a long time (almost a year?), and things are ready to take shape now. Over the next few weeks, content from the site will be archived and ported over to a new location hosted by the Chronicle on their servers. It will be a hosted WordPress site, which will allow me to add a considerable number of elements to the site that WordPress.com doesn’t currently allow, like different video formats and MathJax typesetting. And I won’t have to deal with technical difficulties. (Although I am not getting any money for this, I consider having a team of experts handling the technical end of things to be more than enough compensation.)

Eventually, when you type in the usual URL for this site, you will be redirected to the new site on the Chronicle’s servers. This means you won’t need to change any web bookmarks you use to get here. As far as RSS feeds go, you might need to change the address. I’m not certain how this will go. Keep your current RSS feed and if it “goes dark” all of a sudden, check back in on the main site; if it’s been officially moved, there will be an RSS subscription link at the new place you can use to replace the old one.

I should stress that although CO9’s will be officially a Chronicle blog, the Chronicle will NOT be editing my work or telling me what to write about or not write about. Also, none of the blogs in the network will be behind the Chronicle’s paywall. The posts you get and the way in which you get them will be the same as always (hopefully the posts will improve in quality…). But you’ll be among potentially a whole lot more readers and commenters, the whole look/feel of the experience should be improved, and you’ll be able to put my posts into context with others in the network and with the Chronicle itself.

It would be wrong not to say a huge thank-you to all of you. (Bonus points if you can remember the blog when it was called something else… and what that “something else” was.) I hope you stick around for the next iteration.

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Filed under Blog announcements, Casting Out Nines

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