Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A jet- and poodle-lagged pedagogy post

In Heidelberg with husband and poodle. So I have not kept up with the thread following this post, and I'm way behind on Sunday Styles and the like. I have, however, seen the cargo areas of the Frankfurt airport - evidently two weeks before our arrival, they'd changed how one goes about picking up a pet, but hadn't told us, so that was a completely unnecessary - if not entirely uninteresting - trip to the parallel universe known as Cargo City Süd. (Even small dogs can't always come in-cabin. Inconsequential dog-welfare-wise, assuming the right breed and other factors, but unanticipated-cost-wise, bureaucratic-hassle-wise, something to consider.)

I have, however, read Flavia's latest post, about socioeconomic differences in students' classroom behavior. As usual, lots to think about. To highlight just one angle: student self-advocacy: "Most of us have probably noticed that while some students have no hesitation asking for extensions or extra help or other special treatment (sometimes justified, sometimes not) others are diffident and won't advocate for themselves even when they have a compelling reason." Indeed, although at this stage - having taught for three years and been in school for 300 - I've seen it more as a student than as an instructor.

But yes. There are certain students who come to a teacher to explain that they're really stressed and thus need an extension, and other who won't tell the teacher that, say, a parent just died, and will come in as if nothing happened. I have found it frustrating, as a teacher, that you can only give extensions/exceptions for students who've come to you with their problems, when for all you know the kid who always gets Cs - but who doesn't seem depressed or troubled in such a way as to allow you to ask how he is - might well be going through a worse crisis that he just hasn't told you about. Or - perhaps more poignantly, the kid who gets A-/B+ grades, and would be a star but for some crisis... that you don't know about, or have any way of finding out about. 

I've also, however, found it frustrating as a student when someone comes to a teacher with an utterly B.S. excuse (in one memorable case from pre-grad-school, a student who felt entitled to an A in a language class on account of having lived for a time where the language was spoken, a fact that somehow hadn't led to As on the assignments) and actually gets somewhere with it (as that student did, who went and got that A). As someone who was not raised to expect teachers to care about my feelings, who was never encouraged to take "mental health days" (or physical health days) or to expect to be able to forget my homework at home without consequences, that one could make a fuss about nonsense and get results has always struck me as unfair. To me, but also to students who had super-legitimate reasons to hand work in late, but still managed to get it in on time. 

On the other hand, it can seem self-defeating when a student with legitimate what-have-you fails to mention it, out of pride or cultural background or who knows. 

There's certainly a class distinction when it comes to self-advocacy, but in my experience, it's only a small number of the wealthy students thinking the teacher cares about their problems. I'd almost go as far as to say that there will be that kid in the class who expects sympathy for her hangover/his upcoming family vacation to Tuscany/her chemistry exam later in the week that will determine if she gets to med school so is it OK if she skips her Creative Writing assignments just these few times with no consequences thanks in advance? 

What leads to this attitude? Much of it could be innocuous, like when a student accustomed to life at a tiny private school (or homeschooling) switches to a large college. Just as it's not the instructor's job to know what other responsibilities/leisure activities each student in a 40-person class has that week, it's not the student's to understand that the instructor has 240 other students that semester. Sometimes it really will come as news to a student that a class of 40 will fall apart if each student has his or her own syllabus. But there are no doubt some upper-middle-class parents teaching their kids that the teacher is always wrong, and that the way to an A is complaining, not working hard. Other times still, kids pick up that message without having been taught it, simply by observing what gets results. As in, sometimes that which looks and quacks like "entitled" has no more profound explanation.

So. Self-advocacy can get grades changed, even without the proverbial threat-of-lawsuit-from-parents. But it's almost never something the top students engage in. The top students may also come from wealthier/better-educated family backgrounds, but they'll have been raised in in the Amy Chua "tiger mom" manner, which is to say, as if they were struggling immigrants, whether or not this bore any resemblance to their actual socioeconomic situation. Or they didn't grow up in the States, and so are unfamiliar with the nurturing, "American" classroom environment. Lots of people who make it to grad school were, not surprisingly, raised to get As without insisting upon them, and so are mystified, if not necessarily annoyed, by this kind of behavior.

Is the answer simply to be less indulgent across the board (with whichever exceptions for extreme circumstances), or to encourage all students to come by if they have a problem, as in, to actively reach out any time a student gets grade below an A, just to be sure that nothing external and unfair has stopped them from reaching their full potential? I suppose I lean closer to the former. I'm not confident that I'm in a position to rank my students' obstacles, let alone when I know I'll never have the full story. Many really tough life situations aren't ones a student - rich or poor - will want to tell a teacher. While I do hope students are getting whatever help they need outside the classroom, I think it's reasonable that they won't want to share everything in exchange for the possibility of an extension on some assignment, and thus am totally fine with students sharing, or not, according to what they're comfortable with.

Also, class background isn't always so transparent in a classroom setting, especially in this age of scrappiness one-upmanship. You can guess quite a bit by the type of school it is, but at schools with a great deal of socioeconomic diversity, it may well be your students/classmates with the least financial concerns whose financial concerns you'll hear the most about.

And finally, in terms of teaching not just the subject, but Life Lessons, a (good) boss will be understanding if there's a real problem, but will think less of you, perhaps stop paying you, if a non-problem prevented you from doing your work. But you also don't want to be too harsh, just to make a point. Flavia's approach - a strict policy on the syllabus, paired with an insistence that students in genuine crisis feel free to come to you to work something out - does seem the best way.


Britta said...

I had to fail a girl who did 0 of 2 assignments and skipped about half the classes (which was a failing offense in itself.) In the 8th week of class, she told me that she was almost done with the first paper and would have finished it sooner, but she had a BA thesis that had taken up most of her time and wasn't always feeling well. But, oh, BTW, could I not fail her because she needed this class to graduate and was a senior?

She did take being told she would fail pretty much as well as you could ask for though.

Phoebe said...


Good point re: the third category of students - those who do confess to a problem, legit or not or somewhere in between, but only at the end of the semester, when it's too late to do anything about it. Not sure what the socioeconomic explanation is there (are these entitled rich kids? poor kids who couldn't muster the courage to say something when it would have helped?), but it's definitely not behavior teachers are likely to reward.

Flavia said...

To Britta's point: I'm always really clear that the *reason* I need to know if a student is dealing with some continuing personal life drama (e.g., a family member with cancer whose course of treatment might change unpredictably over the course of the semester and require a sudden diminution of my student's free time, if s/he has to take the relative to appointments or whatever) is that I can't do anything at the end of the semester, but it might (might!) be reasonable to adjust some deadlines along the way. And I also emphasize that I don't want gory details, and I'm not the right person to confide in, but that if it's something that affects their schoolwork in a way that's still fixable, I need to know about it. I also spend a decent amount of time telling students that, hey: maybe you just need to drop this class to focus on your family. It's not a badge of shame, or a sign of failure, not to be able to do everything at once.

But as you're suggesting, Phoebe, that kind of advice isn't class-specific: there are crazy overachieving elite kids who need to be told that, and there are working-class kids who worry that taking a semester off, or failing one class, is a sign that they don't belong in college and should just give up now. (And of course, I've had working-class students who make excuses, too: who seem to think that the fact that traffic was bad today--and the previous class, and the previous class-- excuses their tardiness. My response to that is always, "do you think that excuse would fly at work, with your boss? You need to treat this class with the seriousness you treat a job.")

But in my classes I really have about half-and-half working-class/ first-gen college students and more affluent students, and I worry that they're getting different experiences. This is less true for those who start out at RU (as opposed to transferring from a community college) and live in the dorms; they usually get acculturated to the norms fairly quickly. But when we're talking about one kid who lives in the dorms vs. another who commutes, doesn't participate in extracurriculars, and has significant family responsibilities--or a transfer student who does live in the dorms, but is entering RU as a junior and is suddenly in upper-division classes--there can often be a real divide. And those kids in particular DO tend to lack certain kinds of self-advocacy, or simply a more comfortable relationship to the instructor, the class, and the idea of college itself. So I worry about them more, especially when/if I can change something minor to reach them better.

Plenty of students, of all income levels, don't assume the professor wants to hear their sob story. But less affluent students are more likely to actually fail the class, to drop out of college, and/or not to have other kinds of academic safety nets in place (supportive or understanding parents/peers, familiarity with the academic advising system on campus, etc.). And professors, I think, are more likely to think such kids are just not up to the work, and shrug their shoulders. When a lively, articulate student starts flailing, you notice. When a kid who never spoke much anyway stops coming to class, you don't.

Phoebe said...


I'm curious how you know which of your students are, for example, first-generation college students. This isn't immediately obvious upon meeting someone, and plenty of middle-class-seeming white people fall into that category. The classes I've taught have had a real mix, but it's only extreme examples in both directions that will be obvious. Maybe part of this is that I'm teaching in a foreign language, which makes it harder for students to discuss their yachting expeditions or their jobs at Burger King. I might know which students live in dorms and which commute, but this can be for so many reasons, including religious, socially-conservative families, or simply a decision on the part of not-poor parents against paying for a kid to live in the West Village. Students' outside jobs are sometimes unpaid internships. The only way I could see knowing who fell into which category is if some of the students were non-traditional ages. Otherwise, it's mostly a mystery to me.

I definitely agree re: relative comfort with the educational system, and think this ought to be addressed, and can be even if it's not always clear to an instructor which individual students fall into which category. Teaching French, for example, I keep in mind that not all students are about to go to Paris, or vacationed in Provence in high school, and plan lessons accordingly. But I'm not sure the question of who comes to the professor/TA with personal issues is a very good barometer for this, given that (if my experience speaks to something broader) the vast majority of privileged kids will suffer in silence.

Flavia said...

That's a fair question. I know these things (when I do know them) for several reasons:

1) I know the overall stats--that 60% of our students are first-gen.

2) many of our students who are notably economically underprivileged are enrolled in a special program (not all such students--I think they have to apply--but a sizable number), and their counselors send me progress reports to fill out on those kids at midterm every semester. There are also certain achievement awards that students are eligible for, based on being first-gen, or economically disadvantaged, or the like, and lists circulate to the faculty with all the eligible students identified so faculty can, if they wish, nominate or write on behalf of a particular student.

3) I have electronic access to extremely detailed transcripts and basic family records for every student, and I do use that access. Those records don't tell me about family income level, but they do tell me who's a transfer, who's a returning student (if they took classes at RU 5 years ago and took a break and came back), and where they live, if their parents are local, or if they've declared themselves financially independent of their parents.

4) They say stuff or do things that are revealing.

So you're right that I don't always have specific knowledge of each and every student who's a self-advocator or a self-negator, and I can't say (and would never claim) that every student who behaves in a certain way is necessarily from a certain economic background. But I have a good sense of the overall patterns, at least in my own classes.

Phoebe said...


From what you describe, you certainly have far more such knowledge than I as a TA ever could, probably more than I've ever known about my own classmates as well. I might know general things about a university, but Item 4 is all I've got, and like I said, it tends to reveal only the extremes. Unless yachting or Burger King employment are mentioned, it's hard to say. (Also, students do write personal essays, but I instruct them not to feel obliged to write about their own lives. So I assume that many 'my fancy vacation essays are not about actual fancy vacations.)

That said, I'm still interested to hear that many of your more privileged students are comfortable asking for extensions. It's been my experience that the kids who are comfortable doing so are indeed better-off, but that they're a very small minority of the better-off kids. A small but salient minority, to be sure, and instructors certainly complain amongst themselves about this sort of thing.

Flavia said...

Well, I'm not talking about crazy extensions or special favors or haggling over policies (or not usually--those students exist, but they are indeed a minority).

It's more a basic comfort with approaching the instructor and getting answers about policies and assignments. So in my experience students who are more affluent/not first-gen are much more likely to say, "hey, I have to miss class for a thing. Can I make up the quiz/will that count as one of my absences?" It's not that they EXPECT me to be flexible or sympathetic, or for there to be no penalties attached to late work; they're just comfortable presenting their case and speaking to me as if I might have an interest in them as a human being (including as an intellectual human being--they also tend to be more likely to believe that I'm interested in their ideas, and to come to my office hours or email me to discuss their papers).

Class differences don't account for all such differences--there's personality, life circumstances, etc.--and it's generally a good policy to be aware that, hey, students react differently to things, and whatever a teacher might regard as "normal" behavior for an attentive, diligent student isn't, necessarily. I spend a lot of time trying to draw out smart-but-shy kids, for example, regardless of what I might know or presume about their backgrounds. But I'm especially sensitive to differences in behavior when they seem to be based on class because the consequences for those students of being overlooked can be a lot more serious.

Phoebe said...

OK, now I understand what you're getting at much better. It's not the student who expects you to go to their dorm and pick up the homework they forgot on their way to St. Tropez, but just a more basic level of assertiveness.

My new question (for you, or for myself when I'm next teaching) is how to approach this in a classroom setting when it's not clear which students fall into which socioeconomic category. It seems like something like what your university does (what you describe in Item 2 above) could potentially do more than a nuanced pedagogical approach, because there, there's some kind of systematic assessment of who's who. Otherwise, I've found (again, mostly as a student myself), there will be students who self-present as scrappy, while the ones who actually are scrappy are just focused on - and often successful at - blending in. (Thinking of another pre-grad-school example now, of a very class-sensitive, self-proclaimed-blue-collar instructor whose preferred student fell definitively into the former category, whereas the ones in the latter category were not so much on the teacher's radar.)

But yes, in a case like yours, where you do know quite a bit, it's another story, and you can do quite a bit more.

Flavia said...

Well, as I suggested upthread, I suspect it's less of a problem at a place like NYU (assuming that you're teaching the general undergraduate population), because when everyone is basically the same age, attending full-time, and in-residence (not necessarily in the dorms, but nearby), the force of that common experience helps establish what the norms are, even for students who enter with less of a sense of how to negotiate college. I believe I've read studies that suggest that first-gen students from less-advantaged backgrounds still tend to have a harder time settling on a major, getting academic advisement, and that sort of thing, but communal living exerts a pretty powerful force.

And I agree about the "scrappiness" thing--many of the first-gen/financially disadvantaged kids I can think of were working hard just to blend in and get by. My best advice is to be super-clear about policies, assignments, availability, etc., and to keep reiterating those things. For example, before and after each paper or exam, I explicitly say that anyone with questions should talk to me, remind them of my office hours, identify the kinds of questions they might want to ask me and what kind of feedback I typically give, tell them how often I check email, etc. The thing is, some students don't really know what "office hours" are, or what kinds of questions they can come to me with, so detailing what I'm available for--if they have questions about how best to study for the exam; if they don't understand why they got partial credit on a particular question; if they want to bring an outline or even a draft of a paper--demystifies what's available and what it's reasonable for them to ask me to do. This is surely good for all students, including those who are merely shy or intimidated, but it also helps me feel that I'm leveling the playing field by being sure everyone has access to the same information and potential advantages.

I also think it's useful just to be aware that often when students seem to be projecting discomfort, disconnection, mild hostility, or unwillingness to participate, it's usually about something else. I mean, it's always good advice not to think that such things are about ME, the teacher! But in my experience those blank-faced, possibly-hostile-seeming kids are more often trying to cope with feeling way out of their depth (at a 4-year college, in a 300- or 400-level class, or with subject matter, like Shakespeare, that they've preemptively decided is too hard for them). Knowing this makes me more tolerant of behavior that might otherwise just irritate me or cause me to write a student off.

But, YMMV. This is what seems true at my institution/department, and what seems to have worked there.

Phoebe said...


This is all helpful. Especially the part about explaining what office hours are for. "Availability" means not just having the office hours, announcing them repeatedly, and actually being there, but also making it clear why they're there.