Wednesday, June 24, 2009


One stressful component of teaching college students - teaching anyone, I suppose, regardless of learning environment - is the reality that professors must demonstrate, at a minimum, the standards of excellence they expect of their students. A reasonable presumption, yes? And yet many professors surely share my occasional anxiety about failing to live up to those standards. So much of our teaching, assessment, and evaluation activities are packed into tighter and tighter timelines, particularly as faculty duties include ever more non-classroom related tasks. It's hard to ensure that our responses to students are entirely and utterly free of error.

"Stop right there," a reasonable reader might warn. "Call the Whaaaaambulance! Tell me that you're not complaining about such an easy job!" No, on both counts. The job is hardly easy, believe me. But you'll never hear me complain (without earning rightful rebuke) about this job, either. For all the stresses that come with this profession, I know how lucky I am to enjoy the freedom and flexibility that come with this gig.

Still, I think it's fair to add that people who don't teach may not recognize how much of a professor's time is repurposed (not often by our choice) to activities that do not appear to affect the individual and time-sensitive needs of students in our classes right now. Later, maybe in a big picture way, our non-class work improves the lot of students. But that future date can seem mighty distant when we're faced with a stack of papers to grade and little time to read them carefully.

Such was the case today, and such was the demand for a predawn rise to tackle those papers with the infectious gusto and lofty goals demonstrated by my most outstanding students. And thus emerges the challenge that animates this post. As my own confidence and competence regarding the art of writing has grown, I feel it fair to expect a suitable degree of clarity and correctness in my students' writing efforts. I am not perfect, a lament I share with them perhaps once a day, and so I expect no similarly unrealistic standards of them. But if I provide a rubric, a model, or some other unambiguous statement of my expectations, should I not hold them at least somewhat close to those measures? As I jotted numerical references and comments in the marginalia of my students' efforts to summarize Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward this morning, such a question swam in and out of view.

Initially, I emphasize my tolerance for obviously unique and irregular errors, those that suggest mistakes closer to "acute typo" than "chronic problem." I make typos, you make typos, students make typos. A little forgiveness goes a long way when it's my turn to account for some silly error. And yet I still feel anxiety whenever I deduct a point, write a classwide letter, or upload a blog-post about the need to fix semicolon use or differentiate between "use" and "utilize," or some other writing topic that risks demonstration of a holier-than-thou attitude. All of my tolerance and attempts at gentle reminders mean nothing if my students or other readers sense that I am not willing to meet my own standards. Merely by posting this note, one that practically begs for some anonymous tweak, I am hardly freed of my responsibility to get it right.

I recognize that tension elsewhere in my teaching, too.

As a fairly frequent instructor of public speaking, I lay out a strict set of standards that are manageable, measurable, and verifiable. Students are expected to demonstrate coherent organization, correct oral citation, meaningful platform movement (no podiums in my class...), audience-appropriate language, and all the other necessities that come with informative and persuasive public address. I assign a textbook, I provide written examples, I show video demonstrations. But the day that matters most is our second meeting. That's when I give my gradesheet to the students and perform a speech exactly as I want them to craft and present their own speeches. I encourage students to ask about the criteria, clarify their roles as evaluators, and grade me with the same kind of precision that I promise to provide them. I swear I lose a pound of sweat on those days. With 19 years of competitive public speaking, coaching, and teaching experience, I still am terrified on those days of looking foolish in front of my students. And it's inevitable that once in a while I'll screw up. I remember one day in particular that did not reflect my best efforts and which haunts me even now. It wasn't a nightmare - I simply got a bit lost in stating my point for about seven seconds - but it was a fairly rough example for my students anyway. Oh, how I dread repeating those sorts of mistakes.

But the bottom line for me is the belief that students deserve for their professors to show them not just tell them, to illustrate by personal example how to meet classroom expectations, whether in public speaking (and no, classroom lectures and discussions hardly count as models for the formal rules of public address - at least not in my class) or in written work. The cost is anxiety and the real risk that we'll screw up and reduce our ethos, at least temporarily. The long-term benefit is that we humanize ourselves and open the opportunity for meaningful dialogue. Better yet, we can learn something along the way. On one illustrative occasion, I was graced with a student who pushed back on my negative assessment of one picky detail about her citation style. I deducted a point incorrectly due to my ignorance of the specific rules of that style pertaining to her cite. I was wrong, but I wasn't so detached from her that I couldn't gain new understanding about a writing tool necessary for my professional livelihood. Daring to reveal our limitations to our students, oddly enough by maintaining high standards, offers students and professors chances to improve.

Sharing this blog with a larger audience - the world? Heck, that's just a larger number of people who can say, "boy, you screwed that one up. Here's how you can get better."

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