Sunday, June 12, 2011

Checking Our Presumptions at the Door

A contributor to the Mama Ph.D. column (an always provocative column at the Inside Higher Ed site) wrote the following last week:

My dance teacher had been absent the previous week and had engaged a substitute. A number of students had reported for the class, noted the sub, and left. "That was incredibly rude," he admonished us. "She [the sub] was so offended, I don't think she'll be willing to take the class again."

My improv class starts at 6:30; students tend to trickle in until around 7. Last week, the teacher announced, "Look, this is a real problem, and it's unprofessional. Six-thirty means just that -- not 7:00 or even 6:35!"

I was surprised, initially, at the level of my teachers' frustration. After all, I thought, we are adults with busy lives. We pay good money for these classes; shouldn't we be allowed to decide, on learning that a favorite teacher is out, that our time would be better spent catching up on paperwork or walking in the park? And shouldn't we get the benefit of the doubt re lateness? Many of my fellow students have demanding day jobs and aren't always in control of when they can leave work. And it's not as though the teachers were earning less because of the students who come late or leave early--nobody is demanding a refund or prorating for time missed. What is the problem?

The problem, I realized, is that I have started to think of these classes as purely commercial transactions, rather than the transmission of knowledge, and even wisdom, from a dedicated expert to an enthusiastic pupil, which it is necessary to support financially.This is exactly the sort of attitude that drives academic friends to despair. I have always been sympathetic to their stories of arrogant, entitled students who think that their tuition payments give them carte blanche to abuse or dismiss the teacher and subject. This is no different.

How did I fall into this trap? I'm still asking myself that question. The best I've come up with so far is that the commercial model is everywhere, it is insidious, and it infiltrates the consciousness of even those of us who know better. But that seems more like an excuse than an explanation.

The fact that students of any age are able and willing to be this critically self-reflective in the commercialized context of higher education today is gratifying. And the insight that perhaps the problem in both of these situations lies in the presumptions that students bring to the situation is particularly encouraging. Hence, my response to the columnist:

I appreciate your ability and willingness to reflect on these questions, Mama Ph.D. That, alone, sets you apart from the vast majority of your classmates.

Clearly, the bottom line in this story is respect. And this is not even necessarily the deferential kind of respect that should be shown our teachers as a matter of course (see Confucius’ Analects). Rather, it’s a matter of common courtesy, the kind that should be shown anyone, the kind that is, sadly, more often observed in the breach than in practice. Where did we ever get the idea that we had no duties to demonstrate common courtesy to those we encounter?

But what struck me was the comment about the substitute. You ask “We pay good money for these classes; shouldn't we be allowed to decide, on learning that a favorite teacher is out, that our time would be better spent catching up on paperwork or walking in the park?” As you note in your reflection here, that evidences a major presumption that this interaction is strictly a commercial transaction with consumers deciding what they will consume with no regard for anyone or anything else.

Of course, such a presumption is based on yet another major presumption: that these self-styled consumers have the knowledge and expertise upon which to make such a decision. Of course, that is not the case in the scenario you laid out. While this may not be the student’s favorite teacher, the substitute may well be at least competent if not perhaps skilled in teaching the subject matter at hand. The student may well learn from a different teaching style, a different set of skills and expertise. This might well be a real gift before it’s all over. The bottom line is simply this: the student doesn’t know. And therefore, making a decision based in ignorance is a risky if not stupid move from the beginning.

This is the same problem that underlies the consumerist approach to instructor evaluations. Upon what basis does a college student evaluate the pedagogy of a college instructor? Clearly there are aspects that can be evaluated by students – Was the instructor intelligible? Did the instructor demonstrate punctuality in class appearance and regularity in office hours? Did the instructor engage in ad hominem attacks on students? These are all issues that go to the professional conduct of teaching that are observable by anyone. And feedback on such questions might prove helpful to both instructor and student.

Unfortunately, most instructor evaluations are consumerist in nature and therefore of limited value for instructors. Questions about workload presume that students have an adult work ethic and the experience of being required to live into it. Studies suggest that neither is the case hence comments about “too much work” will reflect this. Questions about perceived respect for students often produce responses grounded in resentment over being required to think critically. Students often cannot distinguish critique of their ideas from attacks on their person. And questions about grading often produce responses based in entitlement. End-of-term surveys in my classes over the past three years show that over 80% of all my students come into my courses believing they should get at least an A-. In cases where grading reflects this expectation, what do As even mean?

If we instructors teach students nothing else than the need to consider their presumptions, as Ph.D. Mama did here, we will have taught them something of value. Thanks for your thoughtful reflection.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)

Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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