We All Have Bad Days

Can fostering goodwill on campuses make a difference? Maria Shine Stewart reflects on the topic.

March 28, 2018
 
 
iStock/Jacob Ammentorp Lund

“Goodwill” may seem like a rather old-fashioned word, heard sometimes in a Christmas carol, in the field of accounting or on the signage of a charitable organization. Yet the practice of goodwill could transform academe. It could brighten up student conduct codes, add warmth to faculty training manuals and maybe even put some sparkle in a mission statement or two.

And I wonder if lack of goodwill has spread like a virus on some campuses, replacing collaboration with “me first” and constructive assessment with “you suck.”

As is sometimes the case, it was a day of trouble from dawn to dusk that got me thinking about what was missing from my work life that day. I had a day from heck, which began with emailed comments from last term’s faculty evaluations at one school. Email is the worst way for me to get bad news. And I hadn’t even had a cup of coffee yet. Groggy though I was, several snarky comments quickly woke me up.

In the old days -- like last year -- I could take the paper evaluations to a safe place, look for one or two “clunker” comments and exhale when seeing, on balance, that there was constructive feedback. In the world of online everything, words are front and center, in your face, no way to stop ’em, like pop-ups to crush the soul.

Some recent research suggests that women may be more likely to experience this type of skewering.

“I spent my most rewarding time in this class waiting for the latecomers to arrive,” boasted one.

“Stop expecting us to laugh at everything you say!” offered another.

“All she does is …” Don’t read further when you see the “everything,” “all” or “any time” comments.

Am I perfect? No. But as a writing teacher, I do strive to use care when commenting on students’ writing. Am I naïve to expect the same in return?

As a student, I would never have critiqued Dr. X’s three pantsuits, Dr. Y’s speaking voice or Dr. Z’s foolishly giving me a B, not understanding that I am an A student. I was sometimes angry about things that happened. There is a difference between anger at a perceived oversight -- “All you did was call on your pet,” I might have written. But I thought deeply. “Some of us would have liked to say more -- please get more of the class involved.”

A possible bandwagon effect can occur when students do faculty evaluations on phones, and the bar seems to be set low in some circles. I know that classic, silly lines like “his shoes squeak” (offered to a colleague of mine) or “she looks like an old hippie” (yes, that one was aimed at me 15 years ago) are subjective peeves and do not comprise a valid or reliable evaluation. Still I wonder: Why get personal, why go for the jugular? That teacher was invested in you. Held hope for you. Taught, evaluated, aimed to inspire, supported you.

But that was not all. I was facing a new class rather out of the box in behavior -- unruly and filled with some students who apparently had bad habits from high school. From day one, walking in and out as if at an airport? The juggling of strong personalities -- and others who appeared entirely checked out -- had made it harder for me to get my own bearings. Most typically, college classes are on their best behavior at the start. But I had received no honeymoon period and was almost immediately contemplating divorce. My blood pressure had skyrocketed, my back went out, I had nightmares about being unheard and lost, and I almost fell backward down a flight of stairs.

Could the collective unhealthy dynamic be an expression of contrapower harassment -- a phrase I didn’t even know a few months back? Or was my class composed of diamonds in the rough?

Knowing that my implosion would serve no one well, I found a new focus. What was the missing in the most egregious comments of the past and rattling behaviors of the present? It is a word I used when I proposed “A Kinder Campus” seven years ago: goodwill. It’s free, so stock up and spread it around.

Comedian Rodney Dangerfield lamented lack of respect as part of his stand-up routine. As a little girl, I could not understand that at all. He was a grown-up! Only little kids like me were disrespected! But then I grew up, finding plenty of bad will all around, and disrespect, too. He was right.

Goodwill, by contrast, implies that we really are on this journey together, not part of one faction battling another for control of the oars -- whether student versus teacher, administration versus faculty, or legislature versus institution.

Cultivating goodwill might reduce complaints, grievances and even the need for some litigation. The collective campus immune system might improve; more innovation and creativity could emerge. We might even be happier. And wouldn’t it be something if an intangible that costs nothing improved campus culture enough that enrollments increased and top-notch talent converged?

I asked a colleague why she changed colleges for a parallel position. “They were just so mean there.” Not the students -- rather, her former colleagues.

A professor I met at a conference had been derailed from the tenure track. Her student evaluations were excellent, she said, her scholarship innovative. She was perceived, though, as abrasive and opinionated. She had her supporters but was ultimately let go.

We should know better, right, than to create a hostile environment? Well, I am not making up that a respected, longtime professor was harassed each year by his chair for requesting some religious holidays off.

Goodwill can help, but it might not always heal. Perhaps it’s like preventive medicine: best used to bolster one’s health before a pattern goes awry, a system breaks down and one becomes critically ill.

A student of mine, let’s call her A-plus, demonstrated goodwill in abundance. She made it look easy. She was a science major who did not scorn English class. She did not balk at group tasks. She took feedback. Yes, she worried about grades; these days anxiety seems to be running high. Yet from day one, she greeted me simply like an old friend.

Another student, A-minus, left a different impression. During the final exam one glorious spring day, instead of writing on the prompt assigned, he wrote a poison-pen letter, skewering both me and the class. I guess getting that last jab in was more important than the points that might have been earned.

And yes, some faculty members lack goodwill, even respect. My sister remembers a chemistry teacher who had disdain for nursing students. Comments like “You nurses …” were followed by assertions that they would probably be unable to master the material. My sister reports learning chemistry plus the sting of degradation. I cannot help but wonder if a nurse ever tended this professor later in life, and if that person’s help was scorned or appreciated.

Heartwarming movies leave us feeling good, especially if goodwill is among the themes. And transformation. Sometimes such turnabouts take place in unruly classrooms, and with new leadership at the helm, there is a course correction. That is the true story of the school where E. R. Braithwaite taught, leading to the book and then the movie To Sir With Love. Things started simply enough, using respectful forms of address. Goodwill accrued from there. I still have my beloved paperback from junior high. Braithwaite was brilliantly portrayed in the movie by Sidney Poitier, an actor who faced his fair share of “bad will” as a young actor just starting out, as I learned from reading his memoir, The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography.

Modest to the end, Braithwaite said in a 2013 interview, “I don’t know if I changed any lives or not. But something did happen between them [the class] and me, which was quite gratifying.”

I often see potential for kindness, sharing and positivity in children -- with, of course, times of defiance, destructiveness and passivity. We are in character formation -- just as kids are -- and seem to have some degree of choice even with strong environmental influence and certain temperamental traits. I wonder if the following are holding some of us back:

  • exhaustion
  • cutthroat competition in our fields
  • prior anguish, even trauma, leading to character armor
  • poor working conditions
  • a bad job fit
  • belief that: give an inch, they [students, teachers, colleagues] will take a mile
  • unhelpful modeling from the top
  • lack of reward for goodwill

These problems are not unsolvable. I wonder what would happen if we could envision goodwill as the North Star, offering light and direction on a kinder campus. And if we tried to share some of that light ourselves.

Bio

Maria Shine Stewart teaches writing and is a licensed professional counselor. This is part of a series, “A Kinder Campus,” that explores human relations in the academy. It offers anecdotal and research support for the idea that when we work kinder, we work better. Workplace morale, civility and collegiality count. Goodwill is free, so stock up and spread it around. Topic suggestions are welcome.

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