April 28, 2010

Letting the Students Vent

Posted in student stories, teaching revelations at 11:42 pm by profart

My classroom opens up about 15 minutes prior to class, and I go ahead and let the students in and settle. I also get set up and ready to roll, and then often prick up my ears to listen to the latest in the student world. Usually, the conversation is about jobs or kids or movies or whatever. However, it occasionally opens into a student vent session. My ears prick up extra sharp, because I get a good idea of how students view their professors, and policies and practices that may be problematic. Its very , very useful. Although often, the thought that crosses my mind is, “put on your big kid panties and do the work your professors tell you to do”, sometimes all I can do is wonder what the professor is thinking, and what gaps there are between practice and perception.

Today (and I don’t often blog about things really happening right now), I found myself speechless, aghast. The horror stories were just… incredible. Professors who throw papers directly into the trash without looking at them. Papers handed back with “redo” in large letters, but no other comments. Papers given an F because the student used a “bibliography” instead of a “works cited.” It went on. And on. And on.

Now, I am not going to sit in judgement of any of these professors. I have no clue what was going on, no objective context for these events, no idea what instructions were given, no idea what frustrations may have lead to extreme actions. I just don’t know.

I was, however, mightily concerned about what I was hearing in terms of perspective. Whatever the context, the perception of these things was shock, anger, almost tears. I honestly didn’t know what to say. I finally jumped in and said, “Wow. I don’t do these things, do I? Would you please tell me if you feel this way?”

The shock I got back was equally concerning. Mouths dropped open. A professor was asking them to tell her if they were unhappy? It was their turn to be speechless, partly because it was clear that I was serious. What I got was a chorus of “oh, no, we really love this class”, but knowing what I’ve seen on evals in years past, I know that wasn’t universally true, either. But the clear gap between students and professors at my college was definitely a shock.

It can be a good thing to let students vent, and to listen to those concerns with an ear for your own practices. Have I become cynical and frustrated? Or do I help students and stay professional? How are my actions and practice perceived? How do I communicate to students that comments are intended to be constructive and helpful? When I correct something in a student’s paper, I want them to understand that I am telling them these things so they become better writers, not because I hate them.

Because these kids are absolutely convinced that the entire English department hates them- and so they have stopped listening. That’s not good for learning.

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