Professors as Purveyors of Praise

We shouldn't shield students from challenging discussions or material, argues Domenick Scudera, but if we perceive them as being too sensitive, we should teach them how to gain strength -- not scold them for being weak.

January 29, 2016

Oklahoma Wesleyan University President Everett Piper posted a message on his college’s website titled “This Is Not a Day Care. It’s a University!” in response to a student who was offended during a sermon and feeling victimized. He declared that his university is not a “safe place” and excoriated the student for being self-absorbed and narcissistic. With a tough-love stance, he recommended that the sensitive student consider going elsewhere for his education.

Students in higher education are becoming increasingly vocal and powerful with requests for more sensitivity to their needs. Some professors, viewing their students as thin-skinned, are condemning that trend, and Piper’s voice is but one of many exasperated educators. Earlier this year, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote a piece in the Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” concluding that student requests for trigger warnings and increased protections are a disaster for education and mental health. More even-tempered than Piper’s rant, the article is no less harsh when it comes to castigating students for creating an atmosphere of what the authors call “vindictive protectiveness.”

I agree that shielding students from difficult material and discussion is a mistake. But Piper publicly humiliated a student as a means to remind everyone that higher education must be challenging. I question the need to berate a student for asking for more sensitivity. If we perceive that some of our students are hypersensitive, we should teach them how to gain strength rather than scold them for being weak.

In the recent film Whiplash, J. K. Simmons plays Fletcher, a music professor who uses drill-sergeant tactics -- including humiliation, intimidation, degradation, physical torture and mind games -- with an aim to push students beyond their comfort zones and force their potential. This professor drives some students to greatness, but the collateral damage includes suicide and violence. Although a work of fiction, Whiplash highlights a real situation: educators have the potential to push vulnerable students over the edge.

Several years ago, I lost one of my students to suicide. I had not known that she was struggling with mental-health issues. The loss was devastating. If she had told me that she required a heightened sensitivity from me in the classroom, I hope I would have been receptive. I hope I would not have castigated her for not being strong enough to handle her problems.

There is not much value in education if students are taught to hate themselves. Removing a student’s self-esteem is not necessary to challenge him or her. Can we, as educators, be positive without coddling? Is it possible to increase a student’s self-worth while simultaneously challenging that student’s comfort zone?

Focusing on Talents

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Piper, Lukianoff and Haidt, is Chris Ulmer, a Florida special education teacher who recently posted a video on his “Special Books by Special Kids” Facebook page showing his distinct way of complimenting his elementary school students before the start of every class. He writes that “instead of focusing on deficits, I focus on talents.” Ulmer reports that, over time, practicing overt positive reinforcement creates better results in his students’ schoolwork. In addition, the positive environment develops support among the students.

Ulmer’s practices for elementary special ed students may not be the answer for higher education, but there is something to be learned from him here. Being positive allows students to accept teaching more readily. Rather than condemning his students for being self-absorbed, Ulmer raises their self-worth before introducing the day’s lesson plan. If he teaches challenging material one day, he has built strength in his students and they are better equipped to handle it.

As a theater professor and stage director, I have adopted similar techniques in my acting classes and play rehearsals. In his 1984 book A Sense of Direction: Some Observations on the Art of Directing, William Ball writes that actors (and, by extension here, students) carry with them a “starvation for approbation.” Ball says that we, as mentors, must discipline ourselves to “praise ceaselessly” and to “praise whatever is there.” Since “habitual admiration is not usually a natural tendency,” Ball recommends that we become “purveyors of praise.” If we want the best out of our students, he says that “fear has to be superseded.”

That is not unrealistic, overly optimistic advice. It is a reminder that we tend to overlook the positives because critiquing and criticizing come much more naturally. We must strike a balance. We must work at learning how to recognize the positive stuff in front of us. Pushing a fledgling out of the nest is not the only way to promote strength. Building self-esteem has its merits and should not be ignored.

Whiplash’s Fletcher tells his students, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’” I disagree. We are not coddling our students if we compliment, affirm and recognize their strengths.

I am not advocating for trigger warnings or easing up on provocative course work in order to make students’ lives less stressful. But we should look more carefully at those students who are demanding these protections. If a student struggles with personal issues and asks for help, public shaming will not teach the student to cope. It is a cruel world out there. Must we model that cruelty in order to “toughen up” our students?


Domenick Scudera is a professor of theater at Ursinus College.


Back to Top