Saturday, May 03, 2014

Apologia –A response to a disgruntled customer

It is my custom to end all my links to blog entries on Facebook and in the emails I send to others with an invitation to respond: “thoughtful responses are welcomed.” That invitation was tested when I returned from Europe yesterday to find the following response awaiting my approval for submission:

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "A Tired Instructor’s Midnight Confession":

This is a joke. Students are the ones being taught the information. They are the best source to evaluate you as a teacher. I'm a former student and honestly you rant about how you couldn't teach us things when all your assignments were asking us for answers straight out of a book... No higher level thinking, no ponder what this could me, literally copy paste done. You only care about your thoughts and if anyone else says something you tell them they are wrong and deduct points. I don't get it. You say students can't think outside the box when you don't either.. You have your thoughts and think everyone else is wrong for theirs.

It is tempting to simply delete these kinds of anonymous responses. Indeed, at a basic level these comments are reflective of the very kinds of acontextual, consumerist thinking produced by student ratings each semester that my blog entry was bewailing. Alternatively, it is tempting to simply approve their publication without comment out of a desire not to be seen as a self-serving censor seeking to preserve a façade of fairness for the public. Such concerns reflect a fairly low level of moral reasoning – what would others think, Tribal Stage 3 on the Kohlberg scale.

But this comment deserves more than either of these common non-responses. It raises issues worth discussing and, ironically, brings into focus precisely the concerns on which my original post was focused. Having provided the entire comment above, I will now try to unpack and respond to each part of the comment.

 Dismissal v. Refutation

Beginning a response with “This is a joke” does not signal any thoughtful commentary will follow. It suggests that the commenter is dismissing the argument and its maker rather than responding to the argument on its merits. It’s a fairly common rhetorical move among undergraduates and sadly has become standard fare among political commentators and pundits in the infotainment business and denizens of Facebook and other internet discussion sites.

This self-described former student avoided the particular concerns I had raised in the blog entry which were focused on the confusion of roles as consumers and students. The blog entry also focused on what I described as the “inanity of the student ratings” game played by universities today, a game I argued provided little of value to instructors in terms of feedback on their teaching.

Ironically, this response could hardly have better illustrated that very problem.

Questionable Presumptions

Students are the ones being taught the information. They are the best source to evaluate you as a teacher.”

Given this opening comment, I can see why this student may not have enjoyed the class s/he took with me. What “being taught information” describes is actually neither teaching nor learning. Its closest analogy is the programming of a computer.

Actual learning is about far more than the mere absorption of information. In most versions of what is variously called the knowledge pyramid or the wisdom hierarchy, information is only the second step in a much longer process, just above the raw data it organizes but well below stages of knowledge and wisdom which require understanding, critical reflection and life experience to be attained.

A focus on the mere attainment of information illustrates a common approach to teaching and learning which Brazilian educator Paolo Friere called the banking concept. This is best illustrated by the image of an expert unzipping the top of a passive student’s head, pouring in knowledge and then zipping it shut. The effectiveness of the process is then tested by the regurgitation of the information upon command by the student like Pavlov’s dog. It is a far cry from an engaged pedagogy which involves both instructor and student enjoining a process of critically making meaning out of information considered in the context of the lives of the participants.

In all fairness, one cannot blame the products of the No Child Left Behind disaster of the past two decades for operating out of such faulty presumptions. High stakes standardized testing pedagogies have emphasized a bottom line, reductionist process of  information attainment and disgorgement on cue at the expense of any kind of thoughtful, engaged learning process.

Even so, students in my classes are informed up front that they will be expected to do more than become familiar with information. They continue in the presumption that all they must do is memorize and regurgitate information because that is what they are accustomed to doing at their own peril. Of course, that assumes they have actually read the opening materials on the course site. A spot check of my last semester’s online classes found that only about half of the students enrolled actually did so.

As for such students being the best source to evaluate their teachers, I recognize this is a common presumption in this age of the corporate university but I have yet to encounter a compelling argument as to why this presumption should be taken seriously. At its heart it confuses two different and only distantly related considerations.

The first is the satisfaction of a student who confuses their role as student with being a consumer trained over the years to believe they are entitled to have it their way. The second consideration is the expertise of the instructor attained through years of education and experience and their performance given that expertise.

While students can readily tell you whether they enjoyed classes and perhaps even whether they learned anything in them (a consideration which has at least as much to do with the investment of the student in that process as that of their instructors), they are poorly prepared to discuss the pedagogical decision making of their instructors. The comments which are the subject of this response provide good examples of why not.

Methods to the Madness

“I'm a former student and honestly you rant about how you couldn't teach us things when all your assignments were asking us for answers straight out of a book... No higher level thinking, no ponder what this could me, literally copy paste done.”

Actually, I have never taught a class where data recall was the primary pedagogical approach. I recognize that some information is fundamental and must be memorized as a basis for use in further applications. Memorization of times tables, the planets of the solar system, conjugations of verbs and country names and capitals come to mind here.

However, as a life-long instructor in the humanities and social sciences, my college courses have always sought to present information as a beginning place for discussion. To that end, I have used a wide range of assignments to develop that information and evaluative methods to test student apprehension of the same. Some do focus on information. To wit:

In my lower division courses, I regularly use content quizzes. These quizzes come directly from the readings and test student awareness and comprehension of the content of assigned readings. Frankly, I hate these quizzes and they are often the source of much pointless contention with students wanting to argue why they think their wrong answers should be counted as correct.

So why do I use them? Simple. I have learned from experience that without them students not only will not read the texts, a number of them won’t even rent or buy them. Remember, they are well trained consumers and practiced strategic learners. If you are going to teach these students, you must meet them where they are. Content quizzes are the carrot and stick of teaching consumerist undergrads these days.

On essay exams I sometimes require students to find material in their texts and cite it as example of a given idea being considered. It is quite possible in such circumstances to do exactly as this student suggests – copy paste (though not done). Again, the initial consideration here is to insure that students have actually read the assigned texts.

But it is also telling that the student then complains about losing points for that behavior. When I use this method, the location of the quote is just the beginning of a fully creditable answer. The important aspect of the response is telling why this quote was chosen, how it reflects the concern the question is raising, and what its strengths and weaknesses are. If a student only answers half the question, they should not be surprised when they only attain half the credit for their answer.

Of course, such pedagogical decision making is at best implicit in most cases and thus invisible to most students unless instructors explicitly lay out their reasons for their requirements. While it probably is a good idea to do so whenever possible, that is ultimately a secondary consideration for instructors whose primary duties of choosing materials, creating assignments and grading the same for over 200 students a semester are already quite formidable. Either way, pedagogical decision making always remains the duty of the instructor and not the students who are neither making those decisions nor are prepared to do so.

Thinking outside the box

Finally, these comments:

You only care about your thoughts and if anyone else says something you tell them they are wrong and deduct points. I don't get it. You say students can't think outside the box when you don't either.. You have your thoughts and think everyone else is wrong for theirs.

 In all honesty, it’s a bit difficult to take the first assertion here seriously as I recover from jet lag at the end of a two week visit to four different countries for the primary purpose of learning new ideas and expanding those I brought with me, all on my own nickel. Indeed, this pattern of traveling, ongoing study and reading is the mark of the life-long student I have always been. While I certainly care for my own thoughts, they are hardly all I care about. The online student who wrote this assessment clearly knows very little about me.

However, I do take seriously the implied accusation here that my opinions somehow color my grading. Given my emphasis of awareness of one’s hermeneutical lens in all my courses, I am hardly one to deny that such could occur. Indeed, I’m not sure how it could be completely avoided.

Even so, I can say that I work very hard at consciously separating my responses to comments students make and the grading process. Indeed, if anything I tend to err on the side of generosity when dealing with my antagonists. While this particular student has made every attempt to remain Anonymous here, writing style and content almost always betray us. And I can say in this particular student’s case, the hermeneutic of generosity was definitely employed in assigning that student’s final grade specifically because I sought to temper my own reaction to a semester’s worth of dealing with the student’s brittle, black and white thinking.

Taking students seriously

But, contrary to the student’s assertions here, I also take student comments very seriously. A major part of the problem here is that while many undergraduates have worked hard to leave behind the black and white dualism that William Perry’s hierarchy of cognitive function places near the bottom of his pyramid which marks adolescence, they often become lodged in the uncritical relativism that succeeds it. In such a world, everyone is entitled to their opinion and they’re all equally valuable and valid.

The problem is, that’s simply not true. An opinion that is grounded in at least a modicum of fact, capable of being supported by reasoned argument and marshalling evidence to back it up will always be more persuasive than mere opinions which are not. When instructors tell students their assertions are questionable if not simply wrong, they are not merely expressing a different opinion. They are doing their job.

To use examples from the class this student is critiquing:
·         The reality is that “the Jews” did not kill Jesus, the Romans did.
·         Catholic and Christian are not mutually exclusive categories except in self-serving Protestant constructions.
·         Jesus did not read “the Bible” because it did not yet exist
·         Nor did he found a church, a Christian institution a Jewish Jesus had never heard of.

Whether one likes them or not, these are the facts of the matter. It is not merely a function of the instructor’s opinion to point out these historical inaccuracies. Nor is it a matter of bias when at the end of a semester instructors deduct points for students who continue to make such assertions thus indicating a failure to actually learn the basic facts of the course.

While it is true that I definitely have my own thoughts and have developed them over 60 years of life which has produced three graduate degrees, a wide range of recognitions for my accomplishments and travel to 21 countries, it is simply not the case that I care only for my own understandings. Indeed, I have spent a lifetime of opening myself to other views and readily change my own in light of what I have learned.

That definitely includes the views of those I teach. I learn from my students every semester. Indeed, as Freire noted, in a healthy learning community, all the parties always learn from each other.


Though similar in its root to the word apologize, which by definition includes an admission of wrongdoing, an apologia is designed to be a reasoned explanation and thus a defense of one’s position. While I clearly find the comments left at my blog site to be troubling, I am in the debt of the student who placed them there. They have provided me not only an opportunity to critically reflect upon my pedagogy but also some very pointed examples of why student ratings are not terribly valuable in providing feedback on the same.

Students do have things to say which should be taken seriously. And their feedback on classes is worth considering. But we should not presume that they have the required expertise to assess college level pedagogy when in fact they simply don’t. And until we are willing to separate consumerist surveys from valuable feedback from students, student ratings will remain what I observed them to be in my original post – lacking in valuable information for instructors and thus unworthy of serious consideration.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div. Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Third Order Society of St. Francis (TSSF)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
Osceola Regional Campus
University of Central Florida, Kissimmee

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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