• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Keyboard Courage

On the importance of setting a tone.

October 5, 2020

In response to last week’s question about new methods of teaching or grading made possible by the shift to synchronous online learning, a wise and worldly reader came back with a question of their own. Does it seem like many students are being much more demanding this semester than in the past?

I’ve received mixed reports on this on my own campus. I’ve certainly seen a stronger flavor of vituperation in some of the student complaints I’ve received. Whether that’s because there’s actually more of it, or because more of those complaints are now happening via email rather than hallway conversations, I don’t know. A colleague mentioned the term “keyboard courage” to describe the difference in levels of aggrieved self-righteousness one encounters online, as opposed to face-to-face; it’s easier to get swept away in one’s own tirade when the target of the tirade isn’t right there, looking disarmingly human. Anyone who has seen internet comment sections in other places knows how that works.

There didn’t seem to be as much of that in the spring, but I attribute that to a sort of collective shock. We all had to switch modalities so quickly that there almost wasn’t time to work up a head of steam at anybody. And nobody could realistically expect an abrupt and unprecedented switch like that to work seamlessly. When expectations were lower, they were harder to violate.

Now that the initial shock has worn off and people have had some time to prepare, expectations are higher. That’s as it should be. But people are also still stressed, with economic and health emergencies sometimes leading to short fuses. The tension between certain things being back to normal, or nearly so, and others being very much not, can be wearing.

And honestly, there’s also a level of screen fatigue. I’ve dealt with that by trying to hold one-on-one meetings over the phone, rather than Zoom, just to give my eyes a rest. It’s a bit old-school, but it works. For students, though, their classes are inescapably screen-based, whether they’re synchronous or asynchronous. I could see where that would get tiring after a while. And when the professor is disembodied, they’re easier to demonize.

Related to screen fatigue, in response to last week’s question about alternative grading assignments, several readers wrote in to say that they’ve started using oral quizzes or exams as part of their grading. It allows the professor a better sense of the depth of understanding a student has, and it’s harder to cheat. The obvious downside is the time involved. For a full-time community college professor who has five classes of 20 to 30 students each, I could imagine rigorous oral exams being time-prohibitive. But in places where the issue of scale is less pronounced, I could see them working well as part of a larger whole. I’d be nervous about basing everything on them, but as a component of a larger grading system, they could make a lot of sense.

They’d also carry the ancillary benefit of making it harder to demonize the instructor. It’s much harder to caricature someone with whom you’ve had individual interaction.

As the semester careens toward midterms, I can imagine student stress (and screen fatigue) increasing. And, of course, it’s an election year (and a lively one), which can add another layer of conflict or tension to interactions that might normally pass unnoticed.

I’ve tried to pass on to my kids that there’s another kind of courage, too. It’s the courage to maintain poise in the face of others’ anxiety, and not to let it throw you. Rather than rhetorical grenade throwing, it comes closer to something like “resolve.” Courage isn’t the absence of fear; it’s being afraid and moving forward anyway. Sometimes, resolving not to give in to the theatrics can be difficult and frustrating. But it sets a tone, it allows good work to be done and it holds up well in retrospect. Keyboard courage is easy but cheap. The good stuff shows up over time and allows actual progress.

Role modeling that kind of courage for students, even when we have to force ourselves, is a kind of teaching in its own right. Parents do it all the time. Students look for cues; if we convey that the usual rules of civility are suspended, some will take advantage. If we convey, instead, that we’ve got this, and that basic civility still matters, some will follow that. It’s a hard example to set but an easy choice to make.

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Matt Reed

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