Thursday, December 8, 2011

Learning from the Right Students

I have a colleague...and by a colleague I mean me, and you, and you and you...who has a student who is stubbornly and singularly devoted to challenging my colleague (ahem, me, you) on any point not matter how trivial or profound. This student is indiscriminate in his outrage, or confusion, or, or or... This student does this not in the first week, or first weeks of class, but throughout the term and in several classes. We will all spend stressful and sleepless nights worrying over this student. Worse, I suggest, we think to change our teaching based on his behavior.

Everyone who writes on this blog or who reads it is devoted to teaching and to reaching every student they can. In other words, we are devoted to learning from students how to be better teachers.

Allow me to suggest that we should not learn from this student. We take up so much time - emotional, intellectual, etc. - thinking about how we could have prevented the problems we face with this student, about how we could be more clear, more accommodating, more understanding, etc. etc. By default we think that this student represents our own weakness as a teacher and that we could learn so much if only we could satisfy him.

Here is the bottom line: we can't. The student does not want to be satisfied. He does not want to be a student. More importantly: we can learn nothing from him. We can tweak our speeches about the value and importance of philosophy, learning, time-management, intellectual honesty, writing, etc. in a way that we think accommodates that student. But a different flavor of that student will come along the very next semester and present a whole new menu of problems. Why? Because this student is wholly indiscriminate. You cannot anticipate or satisfy him. Do nothing to prepare for him other than reminding yourself constantly that he has made himself, quite literally, not worth your time.

Here is why he is not worth your time: 1) all he wants is to take up as much of your time as possible, for reasons that have nothing to do with your teaching; 2) much, much more importantly, there are all the other students, who are worth your time, who are neglected because you are thinking of how to teach the class, or advise, or have office hours, to satisfy him.

Better then, to think of all the students who are quiet, who are doing well but not spectacularly well, whom you do not normally notice, who are waiting for inspiration. Spend your time learning from them: pick one or two or however many you have the ability to pick and ask them to come to office hours. Get to know them, tell them that you have been very interested in their work or comments or contributions, even if - maybe especially because - they are, as it were 'C' students. Better to spend time on and learn from these students than on the student who keeps us up at 3am for all the wrong reasons.


  1. Thank you for this reminder. Having only been teaching for less than 4 years, I can say that this is the hardest advice to follow when you start out. In part because you are worried about not doing your job well, it's easy to slip into trying to satisfy the demands of the most vocal students, forgetting that we are teaching to all of our students and that the quiet ones often have the most to gain from extra attention.

  2. Becko - What I hear most poignantly in this post is a sense of helplessness in dealing with the attention hogging student. Are there constructive or imaginative ways of modifying the student's conduct?

  3. Michael, I really am not thinking of a particular student, or even this semester. Both of my classes went really great this semester. I am thinking of a dozen different students over the last ten years - and I suspect we have all had these students and will continue to have them.

    You are right that when this kind of behavior comes up in the first weeks of class, the thing to do is start thinking of constructive and imaginative ways of engaging the student. I was thinking of when this does not work and the behavior continues throughout the semester, with several different instructors.

    The point is that if you and others have tried a few good reliable techniques and it does no good - it is not only o.k. to as it were 'walk away' from this student but, I argue, you ought to. Other students, whom you can really help, deserve your thoughtfulness and time.

    I think I know what you are worried about. None of us likes to even contemplate the notion of writing off a student. My point is that there are some instances (thankfully rare) when you are passively writing off your other students by spending too much time and energy trying to accommodate one student whose real goals have nothing to do with his education.

  4. Becko: Yes, I think we should always think twice about writing off a student, even a disruptive, attention hogging student. But I guess my real worry is that such students impede others' learning. I'm OK with 'walking away' from the recalcitrant student, but in walking away, we still need to figure how to teach the other students with the recalcitrant student present.

  5. Becko,

    Hear, hear, I couldn't agree more - speaking as someone who has worried too much about the wrong students ("Bob").

    I think we can learn a bit from Bob - and that's how to (a) diffuse Bob's effect on others and on learning and (b) how to not get mad at Bob.

    For me, some of the learning-impact on the classroom that Bob has is due to Bob's own acts, but a lot of it comes from the fact that Bob throws me off my game because I get angry and defensive when he is around. Not that I show this externally, but I can tell that I'm off my game, and it's my internal state that is making it that way. In a sense, Bob disrupts teaching "flow" and makes everything I do too intentional and artificial. I can't be funny because I don't feel funny around Bob. I can't relate to my students well around Bob because Bob makes me feel impersonal, and so I start teaching that way.

    Essentially, I don't have a problem writing Bob off, save for remaining open to Bob if he decides to "come around" at some point. However, we really can use Bob as a training ground for calming ourselves and not being affected by him in the way I just described.

    Easier said than done, of course, but it's still true!

  6. Chris, you are exactly right. This is exactly what I was thinking but wasn't able to articulate.

    What tricks can we use to do A and B?

  7. I've had a student this semester who is sort of like this, though not a "challenger." (I'm not sure I've had a student who is quite like the one you describe.) This student just has lots of ideas, but they aren't always clear, s/he takes a long time to articulate them, and there are lots of other people who might talk if given a little time to think of a comment or question. Every once in awhile I just say that I want to hear what others have to say, and I could probably just do that more often than I do. Presumably, you could do that with the "challenger," too, and if you let it come across in a patient, respectful way, then that person doesn't really have grounds to complain. Plus, you've made the issue one of fairness to the other students (equality of opportunity to contribute).

    I also think that it's worth saying something about this in the syllabus under the conduct section (if you have such a section)--that being respectful in class means policing your own interactions and keeping in mind that there are other students who may have questions/ideas, too.

  8. I recognize this situation and agree that it can be very taxing. It is hard to not spend disproportionate time and energy on this student. The flipside: less time for rest of the students.

    I'm curious on this: "devoted to challenging my colleague (ahem, me, you) on any point not matter how trivial or profound."

    How do those challenges happen? We should pinpoint a list of situations and think up fitting actions.

    Does "Bob" speak out loud in class? Implement hand raising.

    Is "Bob" always quick to raise his hand? Wait for more hands and distribute the word more evenly. First come first served is no absolute rule for word distribution in class! Hand raising speed is trumped by the goal in class to enable all students to engage in thinking and discussion.

    I have talked to some Bobs before/after class saying roughly "I know that you're quick to raise your hand for questions but it is important that all other students get equal chances to participate with their questions." No one has objected to that.

  9. Thanks, Becko.

    This is such a great topic, and it has forced me to drag myself out of my own busy work and get back to ISW. I have been working on a post about a vision for teaching and learning that would attempt to handle the ways in which I ultimately communicate to our students, not only on the summative work they do (their tests, papers, and overall knowledge of the course material), but also on the formative processes involved in their work (the skills they are learning as they are in process and the dispositions they are cultivating while working).

    My point, in brief, is that students should not only be held accountable for the work they turn in, but also the processes they take in doing the work, which includes the dispositions involved in the work they do. The dispositions are not relative, nor are they arbitrary, but they come from the kind of dispositions that are required for a professional in the field. What are the dispositions that make a professional philosopher: listening to others, taking all arguments seriously, paying attention until understanding has occurred, addressing all parts of an issue, etc.? If we hold students accountable to such criteria in addition to the final work they do, then the "Bobs" in the classroom will be given adequate attention and a fair assessment that will reflect negatively on their grade if they do not participate in the basic expectations of professionalism of any philosopher.

    I am still thinking through these issues, but my department has made a commitment to this type of assessment, and it has been fascinating to see the positive results in our students. Thanks, again, Becko.

  10. Jason, this really opened my eyes. I never thought about it this way. What you say seems totally right and justified...but isn't it controversial? Don't both students and teachers make an assumption that students will be judged solely on their work? What's nice about the way you put this is that you are counting their approach to work as *part* of their work - collapsing what might after all be a dubious distinction.

    But I think we've had conversations before about whether we ought to be considering behavioral characteristics in our evaluations of students - I'd be very curious to hear what other ISWers have to say about this approach.

  11. Jason and Becko -

    Couldn't agree more. I tried to raise this issue once at my school, and received "have you gone nuts?" looks (my department head agreed, though).

    I remember a talk a while back at AAPT by the former AAPT president - Daryl Close, I think - who argued against this sort of thing. I thought his arguments were unconvincing but it was interesting to me just how many other philosophers were viscerally opposed to this sort of assessment. To be honest, this is typical of philosophers, and in my opinion part of the reason why we have gender issues in this field.

    Unfortunately, it's hard to get people on board with this sort of thing, I've found.

  12. Chris - Why do you think this is connected to the problems our field faces with inclusivity, including gender? I'm not disagreeing with you, simply curious. Is it that when we sink our energy into this student we miss out on others? My own sense is that this student is often a male student (though with the numbers we have, that is not surprising). My own sense is also that some of the very quiet and possibly overlooked students are women. Is this what you were thinking?

  13. Becko -

    Bob is almost always a male student, and I definitely think the majority of quiet and overlooked students are women.

    Unfortunately, academics tend to think that the way a student does or doesn't contribute to the overall class atmosphere, or the way that they dispose themselves towards the field or other practitioners, shouldn't be graded or assessed. So other than complaining about the students who do these sorts of things, we lack a way to actually institutionalize what we're complaining about.

    I've had many conversations with colleagues who think that "being a philosopher" is perfectly compatible with any way of conducting yourself. The reason: after all, "truth" is what we're after, so arguing and being pointed, rude, aggressive, dismissive and non-constructive is seen as acceptable because such persons have disassociated "knowledge" with "being a practitioner in a community searching for knowledge".

    Personally, I think our field seems to actually encourage this separation, and thus this sort of non-professional behavior, and I think it puts many female students off. There's a kind of "advancement by assassination" mentality in our field that is juvenile (surely ours is not the only field with this view, but it's also true that not all fields have it - I'd also be curious to know if there's a correlation between gender participation in a discipline and the acceptance or even promotion of this kind of approach to class behavior).

    In short, there are lots of kinds of Bobs. Some Bobs are just being disruptive for disruption's sake, whereas others are philosophical Bobs, who are looking to "score points" because that's how they see advancement in the field working. In both cases, they fail to express virtue as a practitioner, and a classroom really is a place in which you partly train people in being practitioners. To recognize this aspect (which I think would be helpful with the gender concerns in philosophy) I think it would be a great thing to institute a professional behavior component to grading a student, underscoring the necessity of cultivating not only your knowledge, but your skills _as a joint practitioner_ of the pursuit of that knowledge -- either in philosophy or in education as a whole.

    Why not?

  14. Chris, I think that the way you have put things here is really important and intriguing. Can you use the last three paragraphs of your post to make a new post so we can have a larger conversation about it? I'd love to get a discussion going about this, especially about the ways in which it contributes to an overall atmosphere of the practice of philosophy that extends way beyond the classroom.

  15. This is a fascinating discussion and I want to play devil's advocate here for a bit. If we're evaluating which dispositions we should encourage in the classroom, shouldn't we ask ourselves whether we want to encourage the dispositions that lead a student to excel in the profession (assuming this is an advanced level class) or those that will allow the class as a whole to learn? I'm afraid that given what sorts of dispositions are rewarded by the profession, the dispositions that satisfy the former aren't necessarily those that satisfy the latter. I'm thinking here that some Bobs might do quite well as philosophers and that perhaps our job then is to encourage the shier students who are posed to go on to graduate school to develop the skills they need to "compete" with Bobs. However, this would lead presumably to even more Bobs in our profession. But if we shield students from the kind of atmosphere they might encounter in the profession, aren't we doing them a disservice? Again, I'm playing devil's advocate here. And this is assuming we are talking about an advanced level class, I don't think this argument could really be made at the introductory level.

  16. Jennifer: exactly! This is why I want a new thread on this. As a teacher, I want to make sure my students are ready and prepared for grad school, if that is what they desire. But doing that might enculturate them into behaviors that I do not endorse...

  17. I'll get something up by this weekend - I just need to get this 800 pound gorilla (recs and grading) off me first. :)


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!