Wednesday, January 27, 2016

On Hurting Teachers

There have been a few times when I enjoyed complete and total authority over my syllabus.  I decided how many conferences I would have with my students.  I decided how many films they would watch, the nature of the assignments, their length, the readings.  I do not want to discuss any theoretical questions as to how my authority would be questioned by the limitations of discourse in a university setting...blah...blah...blah...For all intents and purposes, I controlled a lot of what happened in a room with 22 students for four hours a week.  That's an enormous amount of power.

Of course, that sounds disturbing, but the truth is I design my classes so that my students have enough space to take as much ownership over the class as is necessary, with myself serving as a guide.  My classes involve a lot of group work.  I often start class discussions by refusing to talk at all for five minutes straight, forcing them to talk amongst themselves while I just sit there in listen.  Sometimes that works.  Sometimes it doesn't.  It depends on the group.  So what I really mean to say when I say that I have an enormous amount of power in that room is this: I decide what's on the agenda.  I decide how we initially frame discussions.  My students, in turn, decide how they will handle that agenda, and how they will respond to that frame or, in some rare wonderful cases, change the frame altogether.  So I have power but not total power.

Still, the power is there, and I think it can be toxic, and I hate having to use it, as when I tell my students on the first day that I am a hard grader so that they will be encouraged to work hard.  That power creates a barrier between them and me.  And by my responsibility to grade my students, I have an even greater power both over my students' career trajectories in college as well as over their emotional well-being.  I hate grading.

I'm the kind of person who can hold a grudge for decades over a slight, but I realized recently that I have never had lingering rage at the very very few students who have behaved terribly in class and disrespected me in appalling ways.  A teacher can hurt a student in ways a student can never hurt a teacher.  That is something to remember and never ever forget.

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What I just wrote should be true, but isn't in the current climate in which student evaluations have become a more popular method of determining a teacher's employment.  It's not true in an environment in which an off-color comment that offends a student may earn you censure from a higher authority.  It's not true when a student can demean the teacher anonymously, with no threat to his own well-being, with nasty comments on evaluations, which sometimes veer into vicious racist attacks or attacks on the teacher's gender or the teacher's looks.

So maybe there's a better way of putting things: Just as a teacher can hurt a student in ways a student can never a hurt a teacher, a student can hurt a teacher in ways a teacher can never hurt a student.  If I've never felt any lingering rage against a student for any slight, it may be because they have never managed to hurt me in ways that they have hurt some of my colleagues.  Maybe I'm just lucky.

It's a miserable system.

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