Wednesday, November 07, 2007
I have momentarily returned from my absence. Rest assured that I have not reappeared with my right hand mysteriously shriveled and blackened.
In the midst of an unusually busy time for me, I noted to myself again that students are funny. I don’t mean “funny” in the sense that they show up to class in a Groucho Marx mustache and entertain me with jokes (Though I certainly wouldn't be opposed to that). I mean “funny” in the sense that they sometimes misconstrue our relationship as professor and student.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean students any disrespect. Lord knows that I had similar misunderstandings when I was an undergraduate. Indeed, I would not like to have the freshman/sophomore version of me as student (though I would be delighted to be my professor as a junior or senior (Mmmmm – Me)).
Students frequently overestimate our level of familiarity. Some students imagine that their profs are out to harass them and make their lives a living hell. Others imagine that we wait moonfully over their every word. Neither of these things are true.
I respect my students and want to provide them opportunities to build new skills. In particular, I have classes where students can experiment with thinking about race, gender, and sexuality in the past. To that end, I give them some readings and background information to enter into an informed conversation. I also provide them feedback on their writing to help them better communicate their own ideas about race, gender, and sexuality in the past. We aren't friends. We aren't adversaries. We are in a professional relationship.
If all of my students put the effort into the class and earn “A’s,” I think that is great. If, on the other hand, they all blow it off and earn only “F’s,” I think that is a darn shame. I don’t really lose sleep either way, though. My paycheck will be the same.
Because I tend to teach classes on the holy triad, I think that students sometimes imagine my knowledge of them is much greater because the subject matter seems much more personal. After all, we all have racial, gender, and sexual identities that we have struggled (and continue to struggle) to understand. Often times, my classes are the first time in their entire education where they get to learn about these things (This was more true in Texas, but still fairly true here). This, it seems to me, makes my classes feel more personal than (I'm guessing) Chem 203.
Whatever the case, a student's pursuit of an education is always more of a personal experience than educating them is. After all, when they are in class there is only one of me. From my perspective, though, there are hundreds of them.
This comes up because the past week was the last opportunity for students to drop classes (with their professor’s approval). Coincidentally, it was also the week that I returned many of their midterms. As you might imagine, several students have come to seek release upon realizing their score in the class. Several showed up and apologized profusely about dropping. It was a sweet sentiment which is why my next statement will sound harsh. I don’t really care.
That is not to say that I don’t care about them as individuals. Nor am I saying that I don’t care about their education or the classes I teach (which I care about a great deal, actually). Indeed, I actually really enjoy being around young people and talking with them about the past. I simply don’t care, though, if an individual student decides that my particular class doesn’t work for him or her. It will affect their lives much more than mine. Unless students have been rude or disruptive, they have no reason to apologize for leaving.
Beyond the apologetic students, a couple others showed up to my office clearly expecting a fight. I was baffled that they imagined that I would be so invested in their presence or absence from my class that I would challenge their departure. Did they think I would greet their request for a signature with pistols and a duel? Why the defensive edge? I also wondered why (or if) other professors really do deny students the option of dropping a class.
It could be a form of “tough love,” I suppose, to make a student get the “F” on his or her transcript. To my mind, though, I actually respect a student more who has the good sense to get out of a class that he or she is failing. It at least shows enough self-insight that they are in a bad spot and are looking to fix it. Besides, if they stayed enrolled in the class, it would just mean that I would have to read more poorly written papers by students who didn’t have time or interest. To be honest, I would rather focus my energy on the students who are able to commit to the work.
In the end, I think its an individual student’s education and it should be more important to them than it is to us. I am around to help them and offer my own insight. If some decide to leave at half-time, that’s cool.