Against Student Shaming

We can talk about teaching and student success without cherry-picking anecdotes that demean those who populate our classrooms, argues Joshua Eyler.

March 29, 2017
 
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The “Careers” section of this august publication has featured some troubling essays this semester. First we were regaled with Howard V. Hendrix’s “Trigger Warning: Academic Standards Apply,” in which he used choice adjectives like “unqualified” and “underprepared” to describe students in general before discussing one nontraditional student “whose main academic deficit lay in the fact that her writing did not demonstrate anything like college-level competency.”

More recently, one by Lori Isbell appeared on the “culture of helplessness” among today’s students. She recounts tales of students who do not bring their books to class and relates a story of one student who emailed her basic questions about the course material. To be fair to the author, she uses other examples as well, but most are drawn from anecdote, and all were carefully curated to support a subjective argument about the perceived deficiencies of students.

There are, to my mind, at least two major issues with student-shaming essays like these that reflect poorly on our profession as a whole. The first has to do with the public airing of our frustrations. Certainly, we experience moments of frustration as college instructors -- sometimes many more moments than we would like. Yet the question is not whether such moments occur (they do), but whether we should ever take steps to make these occasions so very public. It’s one thing to ask a trusted mentor for help with a particular situation, but it is quite another to blast students’ awkward incidents or areas of need out into the world of higher education just to get something off of our chest.

Even anonymized, these stories are embarrassing and give the impression that faculty constantly see themselves in opposition to students. Such narratives about students are often little more than straw men used for rhetorical effect, but they convey a powerful message to readers, especially any student readers: despite the stated desires of faculty members to help students, here is what we really think.

Although essays like these certainly do not speak for all faculty members, this genre of student-shaming pieces often takes on a life of its own. We can talk about teaching and student success without cherry-picking anecdotes that demean those who populate our classrooms. Stories of individual, anonymous students can only polarize, because they lack nuance.

That brings me to the second issue presented by student-shaming essays: these authors don’t seem to make an attempt to understand where the students are coming from -- or at least they haven’t addressed that in the articles they’ve written. Perhaps the student who emailed Isbell was genuinely confused, struggling in the class or even lonely. We don’t know. The woman in Hendrix’s piece, the one with the so-called deficit, could potentially be compensating for insecurity about returning to college later in life by questioning the fairness of his academic standards. Maybe, too, she is masking frustration with the material. There could be lots of reasons, but again we don’t know. Did the authors ever even ask?

Our students are human beings. They deserve to be treated as human beings, with empathy and positive regard for what they may be going through. That does not mean that we abandon our standards or that student accountability should take a backseat. But it does mean that, before we blame or shame them, we could at least try to find out what is driving their behavior.

More important, before we write an essay about our students, perhaps we could think a bit about how we are portraying them. Jesse Stommel wrote a widely read blog post a few years ago on a similar subject, and I would encourage readers to consider some of the suggestions he makes in the piece regarding the ways we talk about our students.

Ultimately, I think the teaching-learning relationship is a powerful one. It’s actually a difficult thing for a student to say, either in concrete or in less obvious ways, “I don’t know something. Please help me to learn it.” Students trust us, and it seems to me that we violate that trust when we write essays that call them on the carpet simply for struggling through the difficult process of education.

Bio

Joshua Eyler (@joshua_r_eyler) is the director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an adjunct associate professor of humanities at Rice University.

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