I knew something was very wrong toward the end of Freshman year at Wesleyan. I’d begun to withdraw from the circle of friends I’d become so close to over the year that two of them came home with me over Spring Break. I either couldn’t fall asleep at all or slept 12 or more hours a day. I perseverated over every little thing and yet felt like a zombie. I kept my grades up, mainly because it felt like the only thing keeping me going. I wasn’t “me” anymore. It was my first brush with a major depressive episode, one that would last another year and a half and nearly kill me. By late Fall of sophomore year, when I had to meet with my advisor about my schedule for Spring term, I didn’t really feel like I’d make it to Spring term. I broke down in front of this highly respected history professor and told him I didn’t think I could stay at Wesleyan. I don’t remember exactly what he said to me, but I came out of that meeting feeling like someone cared about me and believed I could make it. He got me set up with campus mental health for counseling and checked back in with me a few times. His small kindness felt so very big to me at the time (and even now).
In addition to depression, I had a mean case of impostor syndrome, which was exacerbated by being at such a rigorous university. While I’d gone to a mediocre Florida public school, most of my friends went to the best private schools in the country where they’d studied things like Foucault in Freshman year. Some of my friends’ parents were nobel prize winners or famous playwrights, filmmakers, and authors. I felt constantly out of my depth; I didn’t know how I’d even gotten accepted.
But I was also so excited by what I was learning. I came to college wanting to better understand philosophy, history, and human behavior and I took so many courses that illuminated for me the human mind. I ended up writing a thesis that combined the three, a look at how the philosophical movement in Prussia from enlightenment thinking to romanticism (and the nationalism that came with it) led a tremendous number of the Jews of Berlin to convert to Christianity in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. But I almost didn’t do an honors thesis at all, had I not been convinced to do it by the professor who would become my thesis advisor, Oliver Holmes. He persuaded me that I could do it and that my crackpot theories around this topic were not actually so crazy. He even went to the powers that be to get me registered as a thesis student since it was after drop/add. He kicked my butt all year, made me read insane amounts of content, and made me a better writer than I’d ever been before. And had he not encouraged me, I would have missed out on one of the best intellectual experiences of my life.
Had I thought that either of these professors might have tweeted or shared information about me (even anonymously) on some other social media platform, I would never have approached them in the first place. I approached these two professors because I trusted them. I find the idea of my professors complaining about me mortifying. But that’s the world we seem to live in these days; a world where instructors take to social media to blow off steam about their students for infractions big and small or to share the funny things they say or requests they make. I call it “Dear Student” culture, for the truly awful blog that was a part of the Chronicle of Higher Ed for a while.
Jesse Stommel wrote a terrific piece about the “Dear Student” column and how it compelled him to quit writing for the Chronicle himself. I really appreciated these bullet points and his views on venting about students in public:
What everyone working anywhere even near to the education system needs to do:
- Treat the least privileged among us with the most respect.
- Recognize that the job of a teacher is to advocate for students, especially in an educational system currently under direct threat at almost every turn.
- Laugh at ourselves and not at those we and our system have made most vulnerable.
- Rant up, not down.
I certainly understand the need to vent. My professional colleagues and I vent to each other privately in areas in which we could not be overheard by students. Twitter is not such a place.
The other day, I saw a professor write about a student who had asked for the syllabus for a Fall course in July.
"Hi Professor. I know it's only July, but do you have the syllabus ready that we'll use in the fall? I want to.." pic.twitter.com/thHNCI5EC8
— Charles W. McKinney (@kmt188) July 6, 2017
Cute, right? At many universities, faculty do not have to have the syllabus done until the first day of class (though at other institutions, like San Jose State where I work part-time students can view the syllabus before they select classes for that term). If the syllabus isn’t ready, of course it’s reasonable to say no to the student. I might have sent the student an old copy if one existed, but I’m certainly not suggesting anyone should have to create something to satisfy the student. The original post was certainly not even in the same league of awful as the “Dear Student” articles (though he later argued with me that the students’ request was “utterly unreasonable” which made me give some side-eye), but the thread went on and others tweeted things that were more offensive to students, some of which the original poster agreed with.
“Overachievers finish last and piss us off!!!”
“This ridiculously early email should make up for the lack of interest I’m about to show once I’m enrolled”
“Now if only they were so interested in looking at the syllabus, *during* the semester…”
“…do you have the syllabus from for years ago Spring for my transfer…..Still No”
“My own view (since no one asked)? That is a human being who needs to learn to breathe. Deeply.”
“And then this student will fall silent and send out reply emails the last week of class asking for extra credit for all assignments missed!”
“Doesn’t the dimwit know to download the spring version and to get the quizzes and homework solutions then, too?”
“Hi profesor! Im premed lol kin u tell me bst way 2 gt As n ur class??? Thx uuuu!!!!”
“Some students think that putting a course together takes about as long as they take to write a paper (a few hours)! ;-)”
“this isn’t high school instructors don’t owe your fragile ass shit & neither does the world. Learn that in your four years & u may be ok”
“Plus, they’re really NOT going to get started on that reading. Told my senior seminar students what to read this summer. I’ll bet they don’t”
A student who looked up their professor for Fall and found this tweet would see all of those responses. I would imagine that the original poster is very busy with other work and research-related pursuits this summer. Maybe he is even overburdened with things he wishes he didn’t have to do. I don’t know. I agree 100% that having boundaries is definitely a good thing in academia. I know my first year as a librarian, I was so “students first” that I was answering research questions from students on Christmas day. I learned that I had to set up boundaries to have time with family and friends, because work could easily eat up every waking minute. But that student’s request was not “utterly unreasonable.” It is not utterly unreasonable to request a syllabus. Some instructors might have it ready and others won’t. If they then complained about the “no,” that would be unreasonable, but the question itself was not. And complaining about students or commenting on things they said on Twitter to get laughs or commiseration or whatever is just not a good idea.
I work at a community college now where a large portion of our student population are first-generation and returning students. These populations historically have come into college with a pretty low sense of self-efficacy and without some of the skills of “studentship” because they hadn’t learned them before. They come in not knowing the “rules” of academia and discover that, in fact, different instructors can have very different rules and practices. Even as a relatively privileged individual, I didn’t really understand much about how academia worked when I got to college and I certainly didn’t understand issues of academic labor. I hear from students all the time who tell me they feel like they don’t belong in college because they’re struggling. A lot of the students I deal with have experienced trauma in their lives, so knowing that they can trust the people who are paid to support their success is critical. For people who have experienced bullying or abuse, finding that their instructor wrote about something they said or asked on Twitter could destroy their trust not only in that instructor but in the institution.
Many academics are working at institutions where administration has increased class sizes, cut faculty development funding, and done other things that have made our work lives more difficult and less pleasant. I remember when all of a sudden my teaching load for the LIS class I taught at SJSU doubled from 15 to 30 with no additional compensation. I realized after a term that if I wanted to keep my sanity, I needed to change my assignments to make my grading load less intense. I feel like many faculty are frustrated with the labor conditions they are put under by administrators (which many don’t feel safe openly posting about on social media) that it creates an environment where they interpret even innocuous requests by students through that lens. And see students as adversaries with more privilege than they have. And it leads some of them to punch down, because there are no consequences for it and it allows them to let off steam. The students are not the enemy in these situations and treating them like they are doesn’t fix anything.
I think back to the class on Modern Political Thought I took with Prof. Holmes before I wrote my thesis. I was so shy and insecure that I almost never talked in class, which is pretty hard to do in a class of 10 students. The professor could have interpreted my silence as apathy or laziness or whatever. He could have made fun of my timidity. Instead, he gently tried to get me to talk. He encouraged me. He gave me good feedback on my essays. He believed in me. I can’t tell you what that meant. I was so fragile then that being called out would have wrecked me. And I know I’m not the only one. Jesse Stommel wrote a follow-up piece where he talks about some comments he received from students (btw, I love the post he links to under “student voices”).
What I listened to most intently during the aftermath of “Dear Chronicle” were the student voices, a number of whom commented anonymously on my piece:
“Part of the reason why I never asked for help was because I saw what my professors thought of those who did.”
“I dropped out of college, in large part due to the hoops I had to jump through to get my disabilities recognized. I was always so tired of having to justify myself and I didn’t want to have to argue ‘but I’m not like those students’ because then I’d be no better than the people judging me.”
“It’s a lot easier to stay motivated when you’re not made to feel like you’re stupid or a liar. It’s a lot easier to focus on studying when you’re not focused on having to justify yourself.”
This is where the conversation starts. By listening seriously to the voices of students and recognizing that students can be drivers of the conversation about the state of education. Teachers have anxieties. Teaching is one of the most emotionally difficult jobs I have done and can imagine doing. Of course, we need to vent. But it is not productive for us to continue creating spaces for teachers to vent that students can eavesdrop on but feel excluded from. I agree that we need to talk openly about real concerns, but there are better ways to have those conversations than by stereotyping, mocking, and shaming.
I have definitely had moments where I’ve felt overworked, under-appreciated, and burnt out. I’ve had moments where I’ve lost sight of why I was doing this work. I’ve felt annoyed with students at times. I’ve vented to colleagues, as I mentioned before. I don’t think that I’ve ever badmouthed a student on social media, but I’m willing to imagine that maybe I slipped up at some point. We all get into these negative head spaces sometimes, but we should remember that students are not the enemy and our role is to be their champions; to do what we can to help them be successful. My role is to facilitate their learning and help prepare them for the rest of their lives. My role is not to nitpick them, not give extensions when they are dealing with terrible things or are ill, assume they’re liars, or make fun of them for the amusement of my friends.
Do I think the faculty member who posted about the student’s request for the syllabus is a bad instructor? Of course not! I’m sure he cares very much about his students and did not mean any harm with what he wrote. I think in this era it is a very human thing to vent on social media about how busy we are, and it’s not a stretch to do that in such a way where you use a student’s question to that end. But writing about students on social media in any way that is other than positive is a bad idea. I would say that the same cautions apply to talking about students that way at conferences (which many of us learned from the ACRL Conference) and in articles.
When a student makes a request of an instructor, we often don’t know what issues and external stressors in the student’s life are behind the request. Just like they don’t know about the issues and external stressors in our lives. Approaching student requests with compassion rather than lumping them in with “all the students like them” builds the sort of student/faculty relationships that support student success.
Other articles/posts that have influenced my thinking about this issue:
- This Conversation is Sort of About That, But Also Really Not: ACRL Reflections Part 1
- I want your fight: On shame and #ACRL2017
- Do Better
- Dear Student? How about Dear Provost?
- Venting About Students: Punching Up or Down?
- When Teachers Talk about their Students on Facebook (some of the comments on this — which ranged from students deserve it and should toughen up to Ratemyprofessor justifies it! to I work hard and get paid peanuts and deserve to let off steam this way — made me want to barf)
Thank you so much for this, Meredith.
july is when i was home working my summer job, desperately putting dollars together to buy textbooks. july is when i was deciding if i could keep all the credits i signed up for (and could pay for them). july syllabi were cards in the decision making game of whether i would work overtime at the sandwich shop or not (to afford the textbooks on the syllabus). july is when i could read ahead so i could also keep a part time job and an internship during the school semester. i felt that i had to overachieve (and early) to feel average during the most stressful parts of the semester. an as an instructor now, i fan the embers of these memories in finding patience when i think i have none left for challenging students. thank you for your post. our work is a privilege and a choice!