Dec 20, 2012

What Do Students and Teachers Deserve?

Down the years, and more recently than in my earlier career, I've had the happy experience of being thanked and acknowledged in various ways by the students who I've taught in my classes.  When you consider the alternatives -- and they are most definitely live, often-experienced and -witnessed alternatives, ranging from being entirely ignored until a student wants something (a grade, an explanation, an exception, what's going to be on the exam), through suspicious arms-length-maintenance, or wariness of instructional idiosyncrasy, unpredictability, even malevolence, all the way to the outright contempt displayed in some settings -- the exhibition by students of a grateful and gracious attitude becomes deeply gratifying to any instructor who understands the value and process of education in which they are involved.

I have to admit at times feeling a bit bewildered by my students' responses to and admissions about my teaching and how it affects them -- and that, I suppose, is due to a remnant of the pedant still within me -- the part of myself which far more attentive to all that has been left out by a student's robust but still rudimentary presentation or reflections upon some item or idea of study than gladdened by just how much distance has been traversed, how much potential has been brought to actuality and consolidated within the mind, the soul, the memory, even the heart, of the young man or woman charged to learn with me for the space of a semester.  That competent but sterile, and in some sense dense or tone-deaf, part of myself responds all too easily by raising all sorts of other related matters, at risk of contextualizing away whatever spark of excitement, whatever haven for learning, whatever inertia newly-directed along a path of ongoing reflection that the way I structure and run my classes has afforded my students.

A Bit of Bragging and a Few Admissions

I'm going to indulge for a few moments in two contrary impulses or activities that I typically strive to keep in check.  I'm going to do what to me feels like bragging, and I'm going to make what I know to be some rather deflationary admissions, with hopes that the truth comes out somewhere in between.

The majority of my students enjoy my classes, emerge from them having learned quite a lot, and express appreciation for the structure, the resources, the knowledge, the interaction, and even the attentiveness I provide to them.  I know this in part through candid conversations that break out inside and outside of class, and because they write about this to me in various manners.  They do also characteristically complain about the amount of work, particularly written assignments, which I impose upon them over the course of the semester -- including many shorter written assignments, requiring them to integrate ideas from our readings and discussions in class within the context of their own life, and to apply those ideas to scenarios and situations of other people's lives and interactions.

Somehow, through a decade of classroom teaching, coupled with continued research and publication, but also drastic and distracting dislocations, I've ended up a good teacher -- not necessarily a great teacher -- but solidly established, some of the key questions I needed resolved decisively settled, my passion, talent, and calling finally clear to me, available and accessible for the students whose paths happen to intersect with my own.  That's certainly a good turn of events, but it feels like boasting to reveal it in such a way, and by compensation, I feel compelled to reveal that much of this development took place in myself and in my teaching approach by happenstance and happy coincidences, and through the effects upon myself of those two poles I'm perpetually placed between -- my students on the one side, the great philosophers whose thought and writings I teach on the other side.

I'd like to be able to say that I formed for myself a comprehensive plan for improving my teaching across multiple, mutually supporting dimensions, and that by application and industriousness in seeing that intention through, I thereby wound up where I currently find myself.  But that would be in great part untrue -- the only portion of it with any claim to veracity being that I draw up plans -- because sticking to plans, let alone adapting plans to ever-encountered changes in circumstances, opportunities presented, new knowledge to be incorporated, always turns out to be a task beyond my resources and abilities.

I'll give you a concrete example: I poll students at the end of each semester to determine what resources which I didn't provide them they might have found helpful for me to have produced.  My students occasionally come up with excellent, innovative ideas, whose usefulness towards improving the class in immediately obvious -- and I respond ethusiastically:  Yes!  That's a great idea!  I'll incorporate that!  And yet -- one of those ideas which I myself worked out on my own -- I've been intending to develop handouts setting out in schematic form the key concepts, distinctions, and arguments for each of the admittedly difficult readings I assign my students.  Every term, I intend to, I even map out how I will, generate these handouts -- and every term, I recycle the good ones from the last semester, and succeed in adding perhaps another seven or eight more to the pool.  As it turns out, developing quality handouts invariably takes a lot more time than I allot to it!

Criteria for Making Comparisons

My students are, on the whole, happy with and in my classes for a variety of reasons.  Some  of these reasons have to do with course structure and resources.  I do provide them some handouts.  In place of an expensive textbook anthologizing readings, I link to online versions of those long-since public domain writings, and provide them with printable pdfs of them as well.  I write lessons out for them summarizing the main ideas of the readings, moral theories, and a few other matters, and I site these, along with links to other online resources and to my own lecture videos, within their course website --  where all of their assignments are turned in and graded, where they also find the assignment sheets, any needed explanations, and the grading rubrics.

It seems almost incomprehensible to me, but my students routinely report that relatively few of their professors make any real use of the course management system, the one within which I build a course into an online learning environment for my students.  On the one hand, to me it seems a no-brainer:  if you can provide your students a place outside of the classroom and those few precious hours we get to go to study, to work on assignments, to get updates, why wouldn't you?  The more hours you've got students engaging with the material you presumably believe to be worth learning about, the more likely they will indeed learn it, and even more importantly, retain at least some of it for their future lives and careers -- to which, again, one would assume, the readings you're forcing them to struggle with bear some relevance.

When I look at my own courses, I feel a sense -- or rather, not a sense, but a nagging -- of guilt when I compare what I could be developing, what I recognize the value of, what I intend to get to, when I compare this against the reasonably decent product that I'm able to supply to my students as their course site.  At the very same time, with few exceptions, those students are very happy with the course sites for our classes, and that's because they're engaging in a very different comparison, one which is entirely experiential.  They're comparing across the course sites that they know, for courses which they've taken.  And, because course management systems -- and course development online in general -- seem to be underused by many professors and almost entirely ignored by others, the course sites I've developed appear in a much better light to those students working and learning within them.

So, two very different perspectives from which different people compare the same thing -- the same online course environment.  How do these perspectives vary from each other?  In two distinct ways, at the least.  One of those ways has to do with the objects of comparison -- is the actual online course being compared experientially with other actual online courses or imaginatively with some potential course that actual online course could be, but isn't (yet)?  -- is the course being examined from the vantage point of the student who uses the resources, reads the lessons, studies the texts, perhaps watches the videos, or from the vantage point of the professor, the course developer, the administrator?  Things look very different from these varied sides.

I suppose something similar would hold for another set of reasons students enjoy, and recommend, my classes -- those which have to do more with what I do, how I interact with students, the ways in which I teach, the enthusiasm for the subjects, the contagious confidence in the inherent value  and intrinsic intelligibility of the matters we're studying -- in short, what I personally bring into the physical and virtual classroom, even into my videos.  Again, my points of comparison differ from those of my students -- they contrast me with the other instructors they've known, and the comparison turns out favorable.  I contrast the me of actuality with the possible, imaginary me who would have said just that perfect thing at that point, who would have been better prepared to field a student's surprising but useful question and provide a fuller answer, whose digressions in discourse would never lead into blind alleys. . . .

All of these different ways of looking at my teaching are, it needs to point out, valid in their own sense and scope.  And, understood that way, they are compatible and composible.  I am both the teacher who is deservingly rated as solidly good by my students and the teacher who does get some things done, but muddles through more often than not -- the teacher I equally know myself to be. 

Do Students Deserve Good Teachers?

This is a question I've been turning over in my mind, revolving it to examine different angles and facets, striving to wrap my mind around its irregular and shifting structure -- for, as you'll soon see, there are some genuine paradoxes arising out of this matter -- and it's one whose answer would almost seem to go without saying, right?  Of course students deserve good teachers!  They all deserve the best teachers -- everyone knows that.  Everyone says that, at least, even if perhaps they don't necessarily believe it.  But, for several reasons, there's good cause to pull oneself up short of any full and hasty assent to this latter-day dogma -- and there's time to ponder it a bit, to pull at the edges and see if anything unravels.

First off -- and rather than wade into the murky marshes bordering on those discussions about education and public policy, accountability and excellence, I'll totally set aside K-12 education and teachers and just stick with those of college and university -- where are such super-instructors to be found?  Perhaps we ought to be -- or at last try to become -- much more reluctant to toss that word "excellent" around until its meaning has been pinned down and filled out, for if by "excellent" one means to designate educators who actually are, nearly always, on-point, constantly developing their competences within and instructional resources without, who afford to all of their students the maximal possible educational experience, day in day out. . .  where precisely will you find them, what wonderful never-never-land (or more likely Potemkin village!) do they inhabit?

Those are, needless to say, rhetorical questions -- for asking about something that, while not strictly speaking an impossibility, does demonstrate itself to the jaundiced eye of the experienced educator, who knows and marks well not only the genuine good points but also the flaws off themselves, their peers, their purported or proclaimed superiors -- asking about something like that is not really looking for an answer.  In fact, one asks that sort of rhetorical question precisely after enough experience has actually closed off the viability, the reality of any answer one might proffer.  As it turns out, there are plenty of good teachers, and there are plenty of bad ones, and a number wavering, oscillating, or just plunked down somewhere in between.  There are even a few really great teachers -- but when you've been up close to them long enough, when you've observed them, interacted with them, you realize that the excellence they've painstakingly developed, now demonstrate, and display is far from superlative -- such exists only in the ideality of the imagination, about the duration of the 10-minute-average space or length of a TED talk.

So, students -- all students -- deserve to have their entire education occur with, under the tutelage of, these imaginary beings?  Clearly, that can't be the case.  And this leads me to the second observation, which might strike you as equally disheartening or discouraging, but which at least does apply itself all across the real -- teachers I have actually know, peers with whom I have interacted, incognito or behind the lines, as it were.  I'm sometimes amazed, even appalled, at the way in which some professors speak about students, about their capacities and potentials, about their presumed motives and values, and most of all about precisely what they plan to do -- or not do -- with and for those learners.   Using a core curriculum class as one's own private research playground, for one classic example, one of many types of examples which could be multiplied on and on.

It's not always done cynically, with open or disguised disparagement and contempt for the very students who are, after all, if not the entire purpose for use to be there and be employed -- the material we're teaching, its worth needs be accounted for as well -- certainly a major or main part of that purpose we ought to perceive as educators.  The professor as ideologue or as liberator -- whether Enlightenment-, freemarket-, or postmodern-style -- who turns education away from genuine inquiry into advocacy (which, mind you, does have its place) fails in many of the more mundane tasks of education.  By comparison, I disagree with Kant on much, but when my students are in the classroom and we're discussing Kant, the point being for them to actually learn something, you'd swear at least for a while that I was attempting to be more Kantian than the old Konigsberg professor himself -- and why?  Because if a student gets through an Ethics class without having learned some Kant, and learned it so it will stick, either that student failed or I failed.

Likewise, the professor who fails to push their students, to really challenge them -- not just to give lip-service to it, who dumbs down their curriculum, who makes their classes essentially hoops to jump through and time to waste, desks to circle in endless "well, I think. . . " discussions -- the instructor who only appears to empathize with students -- genuine empathy, in my experience, exhibits and involves something rather gritty, pragmatic, you might say "tough" -- the teacher who simply feels sorry for their underprepared, demoralized, had-it-too-bad, had-it-too-good. . . pick whatever grounds you like for this. . .  students and makes matters easier than education will admit -- that teacher fails all of their students in a more significant sense even if their marks are across-the roster As and Bs.

When I witness the processes of education from within the gears and lattices of the vast machine, in the belly of the proverbial beast, some of these things I see are, to say the least off-putting.  Hearing a colleague openly admit that he plans to turn his class -- a required Core Class inhabited almost exclusively by non-philosophy majors -- into his own students supported (and endured) opportunity to read and teach about texts which he's not really all that well-read-in, not sure about, or in some cases hasn't actually read, drawing up a reading-list that taxes both his student's abilities and their pocketbooks -- hearing that, I cannot but feel for his students, and say to myself:  they deserve way better than this guy.

If students are stuck taking classes which they wouldn't otherwise select -- and I'm actually all for that, mind you -- there's a duty on the teacher's part to build as many, as wide, as attractive bridges as are necessary for the majority of those students to make it across and into that assigned material.  Core, services classes are not the place to introduce experimental, "innovative" canons, to try one's hand at some new author one admittedly does not understand.  That may count as being a "good teacher" in some quarters -- and in some situations, a graduate seminar for example, that might be a hallmark of good design and instruction -- but not in the all too little observed trenches where the bulk of teaching and learning goes on.

I hear a lot of other stories from my students about the sorts of things that go on in other professors classes -- some are good, some are bad, and some are very ugly.  Not providing any feedback at all on assignments.  Assigning head-cracking readings and castigating students for not "getting it," and then deploring their students not displaying an enthusiasm and respect the subject matter deserves.  Singling students out for ridicule, taking out frustrations accumulated from other students on the one student with whom one happens to crack -- there's a seedy underside to American post-secondary education that I don't intend to fully expose here.  My point is that there are a number of genuinely bad teachers out there, teachers that arguably, at the least, most students don't deserve to have as teachers -- instead, those students, most of them, deserve good teachers.

But what counts as a good teacher?   I'm not going to attempt to tease this topic out fully here -- this post is already long enough, and I've yet to present the paradox I intend to get to.  I will say this, however:  a good teacher is typically not the sort of teacher who all or even most students -- while they're students -- recognize as such.  There's a perennial problematic going all the way back to the time of Plato, who distinguished between those supposed teachers who flattered and pleased their students, and those who genuinely educated them.  I'd also say -- without  providing further supporting argument, but willing to make exceptions for certain of them -- that it's not the education experts, particularly those "teaching" in education departments, who are expert judges of what constitutes solid teaching, real education, genuine and lasting learning.  Nor is it, in most cases, those administrators nominally tasked with maintaining and improving the quality of teaching and learning in the fiefs placed under their purview.

If any select body was to be constituted for ascertaining and evaluating precisely who are the good teachers, I'd suggest it would have to be composed partly of good teachers and partly of good students -- there's an issue there analogous to one in virtue ethics -- to really understand what's what in these sorts of matters, to make distinctions well and reliably, one needs already to be, if not virtuous, at least well on the way.

A Paradox of Desert

Not all students do deserve good teachers.  Let me say that again, up to the mic, nice and slow, since if one quip is going to excerpted from this post for purposes of indignancy, I'm certain it would be that one -- not all students deserve good teachers.  There are, after all, bad students.  And at least some bad students don't actually deserve good teachers.  If anything, they deserve bad teachers -- and if anyone does deserve bad teachers, it's bad students.

There's a number of different ways, not all of them compatible with each other, in which a student could be accurately, rightly, deservingly described as "bad".  I won't attempt to catalogue them at this point, but I'll just point out one general shape of badness, what we might call indocility.  This is a lack of docility, a privation of the disposition or at least potential that ought to be present in a student -- for docility is in fact, lexically at least, the capacity to be taught, to relate oneself productively to a teacher, a doctor, and to the subject that teacher instructs them in, docere.  A student for whom a class is going to do any good has to be open enough to learning that the instructor can reach them.  They have to be willing to put in the work necessary to learn, to build, to progress and widen their store of knowledge -- or better put to solidify the habit of knowing painstakingly, bit by little bit, assembling and consolidating within their mind, reworking them in ways not readily apparent to them at the time.

There are plenty of teachers who do in fact merely "teach to the test" -- but there are many students entirely happy with this, and correspondingly unhappy if you require more of them than simply learning to the test.  There are students who possess the time, attention, and energy to select classes reputed to be the easiest, to formulate and follow up on complaints, to seek out a variety of online repositories and resources to do their thinking, learning, and even writing for them -- but who seemingly see nothing strange about not investing a fraction of that boundless effort into actually doing what their instructor asks them to do, with the resources carefully organized for them into a course or curriculum.  Those are actually bad students.  I'm not unconcerned with how they became that way, what circumstances or culture steered them in such a negative direction -- but at a certain point, as adults, they become responsible for endorsing that direction, and it transmutes into a decision.

The unfairness in education that is the most galling is really this:  there is apparently very little linkage of desert between goodness and badness on the part of teachers and students.  There are good teachers, who both deserve and are deserved by good students.  And there are bad teachers, who likewise merit classrooms entirely full of bad students, who in return richly deserve such poor instructors.  But, that's never the way matters sort out, is it?

Assuming we could draw clear enough lines between the bad and the good, wouldn't it be a good thing to be able to separate them out and then unite students with teachers, instructors with learners, who so well suited each other?  Set aside the issue of merit, desert, justice -- just think about it in terms of prudence, of effectiveness, of outcomes.  Good students, who want to learn -- and are often stymied, frustrated, discouraged, left resourcesless by bad teachers -- would prosper when placed exclusively with good teachers.  They'd probably not miss their bad classmates.  A much greater level and intensity of learning would occur.  The bad teachers and bad students -- what would they do?  Who cares?  It doesn't matter, now does it?  They could go at each other's throats or turn the classroom into a carnival -- but they 'd be safely out of the way and out of the hair of those who actually do have some real stake in, commitment to, and love for education.

There's really only one catch -- and that's there the paradox raises its head -- it's not so much that we can't draw these distinctions and lines.  It's rather that matters are much more dynamic than the static conception we've sketched out here.  You see, even bad students have some -- and certain have more, certain less -- moments, dimensions, even yearnings for the goods of education latent within them, and good teachers, often without necessarily intending to, often manage to cull these out, bring them to the surface, make themselves felt.  So, good teachers have some sort of role in bad students becoming good ones -- just as much, I suspect as bad teachers bear a guilt, a responsibility for some good students becoming bad. 

You see, there's where we need to rethink who deserves what -- or whom.  In one sense, the good teacher deserves the good students, and the good students the good teacher.  The bad students do not deserve the good teacher.  They deserve the bad teacher, who also is deserving of them.

And yet, the bad students, insofar as they can become better. . . who more deserves to be led from the bad to the good, to be provided what is needful for that?  In anyone needs the good teacher most, it is the students who have been made worse not only through their own poor choices but through their exposure to bad teachers.

One might also wonder. . . and here I'll leave off. . . whether the good teacher, who understands education as a never ending process that both tires and invigorates does not in some sense also deserve the bad student.  I'll leave that open as a suggestion, without hinting at why that might be, as I suspect, the case.

No comments:

Post a Comment