Teaching Today

On Being Both a Hard and Heartful Teacher

Strong professors believe it is worth holding their students to high standards, argues Deborah J. Cohan, and that they can, in fact, be tough as well as supportive in the classroom.

July 17, 2018
 
 
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My students have told me I’m a bullshit detector and a straight shooter -- that I don’t sugarcoat the truth and can be a hard-ass. I take these as compliments. They are good things to be and perhaps all the more so now, given the current climate of higher education and against the backdrop of the larger sociopolitical landscape. At a time when social forces both inside and outside the academy are making a mockery of higher education and especially the liberal arts, listening to and honoring the hard-asses among us is an important thing.

A recent opinion piece in Inside Higher Ed raised the issue of prickly women in academe, highlighting the strengths that they bring to the life of the institution and its trajectory. Authors Caballero and Knupsky discuss how prickly women faculty members contribute to challenging yet crucial conversations among colleagues and vis-à-vis the administration. According to the authors, prickly women “cut through the academic bullshit and prevarication that keep higher education spinning its wheels instead of moving forward.” Later they are careful to note that prickly women faculty are “full of empathy, passion and concern for others. They are guided by an ethical compass that we desperately need.”

My purpose here is to explore why we must also respect the importance of being prickly professors for our students. Prickly professors know when to call bullshit with their students, and they are able to handle this confrontation compassionately, bound by ethics that sometimes seem forgotten. They believe it is worth holding their students -- and themselves -- to higher standards.

The trouble is that a sentiment has long circulated in higher education -- especially at teaching-intensive institutions with a greater number of underserved and underprepared students -- that educators need to meet students where they are. It’s known to be the right thing to say on statements of teaching philosophy, in interviews and at meetings. But what does that even mean anymore? Have we possibly taken this too far -- especially when we have students who are not meeting us even part of the way?

So, when a colleague told me that I hold the bar too high and should ease up on students, and that I need to teach in a way that is accessible for all of them, what is being conveyed here? Let me be clear; we are not talking about access issues for students with disabilities. My colleague is referring to how I handle the worst-performing students, the ones flunking out of many of their classes, not just mine -- those who are plagiarizing, missing three to five weeks of a semester, being extremely needy with excessive emails, or being disruptive in class and needing to be removed. I don’t pass a student who is failing just so she can graduate, and I’m not afraid to assign a zero to a paper that earned it.

I wound up telling that colleague about the student who earned 46 on her first exam. When she came to my office in mid-February, I asked to see her notebook, and only a third of a page was filled with notes from the first week of school in mid-January. She told me she didn’t have any other notes and shamelessly admitted she’d never read the syllabus or obtained the books. Smiling, I pointed out, “Wow, you got a 46 doing that? Imagine what would happen if you did everything!” I told her I could not and would not be able to help her until she started to help herself.

After the second exam, on which she earned a grade in the 70s, I emailed her to say I was happy to see the improvement and invited her to meet again. I asked her then what she had done differently and what her advice would be to future students and to me in similar situations. She admitted that I’d done all I could and she just needed to do the work -- and that once she did that, the material was actually really interesting and made her want to learn more. Is this the type of student we are encouraged to meet where they are and for whom to modify our classes? Or should we trust and value hard-ass colleagues who refuse to make a mockery of higher education and produce outcomes like those that occurred with this student?

Of course, some professors can’t be, or perceive they can’t be, hard-asses and badasses due to structural constraints, such as being contingent faculty or being worried about tenure and promotion decisions. Some face outsider status for other reasons and are not comfortable with the approach that I’m suggesting. For some it may not be part of their personality. And for many, it’s about fear. But for those who are able to unleash their inner hard-ass, I recommend the following based on more than 20 years of teaching.

Call students on their bullshit. I caught a student whom I’ve taught for three classes plagiarizing this past semester. I gave her a zero on her paper, asking her what happened. When she played dumb in an email and asked me what I meant, I leveled with her. I told her I like and care about her, and trust she likes and cares about me, and that she could not get away with what she had tried to do. I asked her quite simply, “What would you do in my shoes with you?” as a way to invite her to take more responsibility. She came clean.

I have also called bullshit with whole classes. Last year, during group presentations that took place in the final exam period, almost half the class did not return after the break to listen to their peers. Later, I sent all students an email indicating that I was disappointed in what I had witnessed and that I had done a second round of attendance after the break. The students who had stayed thanked me.

Raise your expectations, especially of students’ writing. A former student from 16 years ago who is now an academic adviser at a university told me, “I know how to write because of you! You challenged me, and you knew I could produce better work than what I had turned in. You just expect more of your students because you know of their potential. Rather than hand out high grades, you grade fairly and provide the feedback necessary for a student to submit better work.”

Cultivate the conditions possible for students to find the answers on their own. You need not even answer every question. One student wrote to me, “I remember the first day I asked you a question, and you just showed me your mug that says, ‘It’s in the syllabus.’ But when I really needed help or had big life questions, you were always open to hear every student out.” Then there is the student who earned a D yet had the maturity not to blame me for it and instead told me, “I know ‘no question is a stupid question,’ but let's be honest, some of them just were. Especially the ones you had already answered. You're also a very kind and fair professor, your door is always open, and you've always got a listening ear and great advice, help or knowledge to give.”

Craft a syllabus that communicates your pedagogical and personal values and expectations. Create a nonpunitive syllabus. A student referred to mine as a “course welcoming document.” The combination of gentleness and firmness can go a long way. For example, in my syllabus, I convey a sense of mindfulness of the whole person -- both the whole person of the student and the whole person of me as the teacher, and I reveal that good teaching is about the capacity for connectedness. The educator Parker Palmer writes about this extensively: “The connections made by good teachers are held not in their methods but in their hearts -- meaning heart in its ancient sense, the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self.”

Don’t cave to student complaints about grades. They will complain from every point on the grading spectrum. As we know, some students will be upset when they do not earn an A. I try to convey that just doing the work and checking off the boxes correctly, even on a rubric, does not mean the work is superior -- which is why rubrics, assessment and other measures often are unreliable.

Don’t let students simply go through the motions. Upholding rigor, while exuding warmth, is a good thing. Insist that students think for themselves. Don’t let college become just another environment that is about teaching to the test.

A recent alum told me, “We had talked multiple times about how those in online classes tend to just go through the motions of read a chapter, answer a question and respond in an agreeable manner with two classmates for ‘discussion.’ I became that guilty person that we talked about with one of the papers. I just ran through the motions. You told me my grade was lower because you knew I needed to push myself. Some students would have thrown their hands in the air, but that comment was exactly what I needed to kick my ass into gear.”

”That is such an important lesson to learn as a student,” she continued. “I don’t complete a single thing now in my professional career simply by going through the motions. I always push myself to make whatever I’m doing the best I can possibly do. Being hard yet fair is such a difficult thing, and honestly, not all college students will understand. I really try to walk that fine line with my team at work, and you instilled that in me.”

Role model critical thinking. Allow everyone to have an opinion, but only if they are able to support it. That encourages people to deeply analyze their thoughts before expressing them.

Consider your relationship with technology and what that means for your classroom. Students are often amazed when I stop a lecture midword to question a student sitting in the back of a large classroom on a cellphone. I’ve had students thank me for this. One wrote, “I loved no technology in class. One girl even got up and left class because she was so upset, but I admired you. It teaches respect and responsibility. Definitely needed in college!”

All this does not mean you shouldn’t be understanding and supportive when students are truly going through difficult times. A student wrote to me after taking my class, “Although your tough love felt unfair at times when we were all drowning in school work, we can all reminisce, laugh and thank your hard ass because you taught us so much about life. I remember one day in particular when I experienced your tough love personally. Over the course of a few weeks, you had noticed that my work had not measured up to my fullest potential. I had started to fall short on my capabilities as a writer and as an active student. You pulled me into your office, and I couldn't help but spill about my family situation. It was as if you already knew. Like you knew I needed a friend, mentor and a pep talk. I remember leaving that day with a new appreciation for your level of attentiveness as a professor and willingness to listen and understand as a friend.”

The key thing is to keep asking the hard questions in class. It may be difficult for you as well as the students at times, but many students may thank you later. As another one told me, “Some may call you a hard-ass, but I refer to you as a professor who penetrated a part of my brain that was dormant. You stimulated a new way of thinking and opened up a magnitude of questions I never would’ve considered.”

Bio

Deborah J. Cohan is an associate professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort.

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