The Peril of Being Mean

Two things have happened that have caused me to think again about professor-student communications and attitudes, and how they may impact learning.

A couple of weeks ago in the POT Facebook group, I posted this in total frustration, as a response to the student attitudes I mentioned in my last post.

Just an idea…..

Subject: Response failure

Hi student,

Your email could not be answered because it did not contain one or more of the following:

1. a subject in the subject line
2. a greeting (such as Hi Professor)
3. your class name and section number
4. a full explanation
5. a sign-off or signature of your name as registered

As a result, we were unable to fulfill the usual response time. 

Please resubmit your email or Message for a speedier response.

History 111 Online

 I was only half-serious. Yet several teachers began to use it as a template for making actual reponses to students, thanking me for the idea and reporting results.

This is because teachers are frustrated. Obviously I understand that.

Then this week Donna Marques posted this video in the POT Facebook group.

I have watched this a couple of times. My gut reaction to the voice of the professor is negative – he sounds pompous to say the least. The student sounds stupid. I try to imagine a student watching this. The “A” student says “duh”. The “C” student says, “That teacher is mean. This video is mean. It’s making fun of me.” But the gut reaction of teachers is, “Yes! This teaches the student about responsibility!”

I have concerns about the affective domain and its impact on teaching. The video enforces the power relationship between prof and student in the discussion of rules and grades. The underlying assumption is that strict rules, and sticking to them, provides an equitable environment for student learning.

I have three problems with this:

1. Students do not respond the same way to this attitude and message. In fact, the type of student for whom this needs to be said is the exact type of student who will resent the message and learn nothing from it.

2. The attitude perpetuates the dependence of the student (and professor!) at a very basic level of rules and obedience. The prof is now playing the low-level game of carrots and sticks, as if we were training dogs instead of educating citizens. At no point can we engage the larger issues of why one should follow deadlines and be responsible. This level of discussion is great for training hamburger flippers at McDonald’s, but not an educated citizenry.

3. It implies that a student will pass the class if they follow instructions. This isn’t true – some students will be cognitively unable to do the level of work required. And we can’t talk about that because of 1 and 2 above have already caused levels of emotion that make such a conversation impossible.

I cringe now when I hear profs say with pride that they allow “no late papers, I don’t care if they’re in the hospital!” or roll their eyes at yet another dead grandmother as an excuse. I’ve already made the point that we need to treat students like responsible adults, or they won’t behave that way. And, as I noted in that same post, I benefit from the fact that other profs are mean.

This doesn’t mean I’m recommending being a pushover. And keep in mind that I’m writing this while I’m experiencing my own crisis about students not following instructions. I have basic requirements for primary source posts – post an image, the author/artist, its title, date and a link. About half of my students refuse to follow the basic instructions, even to the point where I had another student message me this morning offering to help them do it right.

I can repeat the instructions, and I do, in multiple places. I can grade them down, and eventually I will. And sure, I could create a video or use the one above, thinking it’s designed to teach them responsibility.

But all it will do is cause resentment. And if they’re resentful, we won’t be able to get past their badly cited posts, and into historical analysis. I need the students who are cognitively able to do the work to follow me into doing real history –  that’s my real job. And they won’t follow me if they think I’m mean.


4 thoughts on “The Peril of Being Mean

  1. It’s not just a peril of being mean, it’s one of being demeaning, and extends far beyond students to how we treat people in general, especially ones doing grunt jobs clerking in stores, cleaning up our hotel rooms, etc.

    There is a simple approach that is Golden Rule-ish – do not send any emails, comments, messages that you would not like to receive. I could not agree more with the mode of treating students, especially adult age college students, as adults, not pets, not children.

    I give my online students a lot of work to do, they are overwhelmed at first, but learn I have a clear set of things I want them to attempt. I am not looking to check off that they did everything on a list, I am looking to see that they are making the effort, documenting their thinking, and using their resources to approach challenging work. I’m actually an easy grader when I see genuine effort.

    But I fail students readily when they do not do their part. Thats the bargain.

    My late work policy is flexible as long as students let me know ahead or at the time when they are unable to finish work. If I know ahead, I can work with them on ways to complete the work. I am tougher when they tell me after the fact. I do not see that as mean, I see it as them giving me respect for my time, and I will reciprocate.

    One other thing I find that works, and I know may not always be feasible, is that I am doing much of the same work as examples I am asking them to do (lessons I learned from Jim Groom, Barbara Ganley) — this changes the teacher/student dynamic somewhat that I am not just handing them down work to do.

    I cannot see any value to teaching in being a stickler on rules and points and wrist slaps. I don;t like being treated that way so I don’t treat others that way.


  2. Lisa,

    Thank you for posting this provocative musing. I have the unique prospective of being both learner and educator and understand both sides of the equation – although they don’t always add up I have been occasionally dumbfounded by questions posed by my learners and perplexed by the rigidity of a few, past professors. In the end, I use the compass afforded me by Dr. Jane Bozarth and her CoP, TRAIN. Their mantra is, “Students first, Situation second and Content last. I have come to understand that is essentially mirrors the heuristic approach to Education, especially in DE.

    I believe teaching is one of those noble professions such as with doctors and clergy where we may address the masses but always speak to the individual and their specific needs to the best of our ability. Which most all will acknowledge is challenging.


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