Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Trying to Balance

For some reason, several of my first year students seemed to have forgotten the part of the syllabus we went over the first day of class that said that assignments were due on the day indicated at the beginning of class. I know this because I've received journals a day or two late, just stuck into the pile.

Did their high school teachers not talk about due dates, or were they just suggestions?

So I mentioned it today in class, trying to be gentle, and certainly not pointing out that Joe and Mary messed up, and OMG how could you!

And then a student in one of my earlier lit classes was using a really old looking edition with no notes or glossing or line numbers, so I mentioned that I found glossing really helpful for such texts, and did she want to borrow an extra copy of the text I had in my office?

And later, I got an email apologizing profusely about the text. The email made me think that she thought I was mad or upset that she didn't have a glossed text, but I was more thinking of how frustrating it is to try to read earlier lit without glossing sometimes, especially when you're fairly new to the stuff.

It's a hard balance for me, trying to point out problems, even small, really inoffensive things, without making students feel like it's something big. Partly, I think, it's because I'm very coastal, far more Woody Allen than Garrison Keillor, and my students feel way more comfortable laughing about Norwegian bachelor farmers than about angst and despair. So my style freaks them out from the get go. (It took me about 3 years to sort of get the Prairie Home Companion thing. Sort of being the operative term here.)

Added to that, I'm just not maternal. I'm no one's idea of a mothering type, and students really often want a mothering relationship with female faculty. (K8grrl has blogged about this recently, with added complications of being fairly youthful still.)

And no one wants to be told they made a mistake, even if it's not a huge thing.

I want them to take seriously my admonitions about not turning in work late as if it's no big deal (at least have the courtesy to talk to the instructor!) without sounding really harsh, but I have difficulty striking that balance. And so forth.

More despair, and it's only the second week of classes!


  1. I grew up in a Garrison Keillor environment, complete with a Scandinavian Lutheran church, lutefisk dinners, Norwegian farmers, and Swedish Christmas carols. And yet that mild-tempered, polite, pleasing modesty (coupled with stubbornness, of course) drives me crazy at times. Maybe I don't think Keillor is funny...because I grew up in a Lake Woebegone place. (When I hear him tell a story, I want to shout, "Get ON with it, will you?")

    So the West Coast bluntness is something I like, but something that can be hard on my students. (And frankly, I can dish out that bluntness better than I can take it myself, which means I'm more Prairie Home than I'd like to believe.)

    Coming from such a culture, I think that the secret to speaking in this culture (from somewhere in Luther's Small Catechism, I'm sure) is to be blunt...but to say blunt things in a quieter voice, and with a slight smile. A phrase my father, a 5th grade teacher, often used on his students was: "I'm not upset with you. You can tell that I'm calm and I'm not raising my voice. I simply need to remind you to turn in your assignments on time, because it's a class rule, and because you'll be more successful that way."

    Calm. Rational. Ja, sure, you betcha.

  2. Funny you write this today. I just had a similar thing on the other end. Even tiny criticism makes me just freak out...and today I got screamed at for something I was actually right about. After that, it didn't matter how right I was, how ridiculous the complaint was, all I can think about is having to face this guy after the weekend. It's tough. I always try to be gentle when I have to tell someone something to do differently (like students), but it's so hard...especially when people are trying so hard and unsure about expectations and what the penalty/consequence will be for a fuckup. I know, though, that I have told them stuff sometimes as gently, privately, and noncritically as I can, and still seen their faces fall.

  3. i'm a mom, not an academic. it made me laugh, reading that you don't feel so maternal, because by the end of high school, my main motherly function was to nag [about getting some sleep, getting up in the morning, being on time, doing the homework, doing the homework, doing the homework].

    it's not that beginning college students have not heard of deadlines. instead, they are struggling [some of them] with suddenly being in charge of themselves, frequently away from home for the first time, and having far more freedom than in high school. missing a class, for example, no longer results in school detention or parental grounding. but for some students [like my daughter], the transition to taking responsibility for oneself is not always entirely smooth.

    to my horror, my talented daughter failed her freshman writing class last year, because she overslept too much and failed to get all the work in. but that was an important life lesson for her -- that she has to meet the expectations of the class. she was treated perfectly fairly; this was her own mess-up. that's what she really hates, admitting she messed up all by herself.

    daughter ran into a few bumps in other classes. i encouraged her to talk to the professors, and when she did, that worked very well for her. she was afraid to hear condemnation, but what she actually heard was [a] exactly what the expectations were, and [b] encouragement.

  4. msilf -- that's awful, being yelled at. that is not acceptable behavior -- not from a boss, not from a student.

    but in other instances, where you see a face fall despite speaking gently and with encouragement -- perhaps that is a good sign, and not a failure. that is a student who probably will be self-examining. and isn't that a goal of undergraduate education? the content of particular courses may not stick after 20 years, but larger lessons will.

  5. Anonymous9:55 AM

    I grew up in the Upper Midwest, but not at all in Lake Woebegon, and I can't stand Keillor. The only time I laughed at Prairie Home Companion was during an episode of The Simpsons. The family found itself watching the TV version of Keillor's show--Homer jumped up, slapped the television, and yelled "BE FUNNY!" at the show.

    Didn't seem to work.