Recently, I received an e-mail that essentially said, “Let the irresponsible student fail;” a position which is consistent with the prevailing attitude in the “Dear Student” series currently being published by The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Instead of following that advice, I went another route to get help for the student. On the same day I was getting assistance for this student, I was also able to get three students appointments with academic counselors; students who would be defined as “irresponsible” and worthy of ridicule by the “Dear Student” series. On that same day, I also held conferences with several other “irresponsible” students. Maybe some of these students are truly so irresponsible that they were not worth my efforts to assist them, but I would prefer to err on the side of compassion
As a result of the “Dear Student” series, Dr. Jesse Stommel published “Dear Chronicle: Why I will No Longer Write for Vitae.” Since Stommel published his open letter to The Chronicle of Higher Education, he has been the subject of some vicious personal attacks in the comment section of his blog, on College Misery’s “I Just Feel So Baffled and Blue about Jesse Stommel” as well as on other venues.
Although I do not understand the defense of public shaming I have been reading from colleagues around the country, I am most baffled by those critics of Stommel who equate compassion with lowered standards. I do ask that students take responsibility for their behavior and to give me an adequate opportunity to help them, but I do not lower standards so that they can succeed.
One of the students I recently assisted had fallen behind in the class because she was having trouble managing her personal affairs. BurntChrome, one of Stommel’s critics, acknowledges that some students “have serious [expletive deleted] going on in their lives. And they need to deal with that [expletive deleted] and it might mean dropping my class so that they have time to deal. I totally understand that life happens, because it happens to me too. I have health issues and kids and a bunch of stuff going on. I get it.”
Unfortunately, I don’t think that BurntChrome really gets it. Because he writes anonymously, I cannot know his situation, but many of us—especially those of us with full time status—have advantages that our students do not enjoy: sick days and bereavement days and personal business days and colleagues who will cover for us. Furthermore, we generally have more life experiences than do our students; experiences that allow us to more easily deal with situations where life gets in the way of our academic responsibilities.
I am not arguing that student behavior is always acceptable or understandable. Often, it is not. However, I find it much more fulfilling to provide even the most irresponsible students the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. Regrettably, students are not always willing to accept their responsibilities or they choose not take advantage of the opportunities they are offered. For example, I have had students fail classes because their schedules were just too busy to free up time to meet with me.
Not even the student who complained to the Dean that she was unable to successfully complete a class the semester my mother died because I was not on campus during 12 hours when I should have been available to her—even though my colleagues volunteered 99 unduplicated hours to work with students who might have needed to meet with me during those 12 hours—does not deserve ridicule. Her complaint is evidence of someone who has serious problems; someone more in need of counseling than public shaming.
Most of Stommel’s critics would have supported me if I had vented about a student who explained that he had missed class because he had run into some high school friends in our college cafeteria and lost track of time while talking to them. But what would have been gained by venting or painting this student to be a fool?
I did use this example when I commented in one of the many forums in which Stommel’s article is being discussed; not as a vent but as a boast. I am proud that my classroom is one in which a student can take responsibility for an honest mistake without fear of repercussions. Stommel replied to my boasting with the observation that we have all lost track of time. He rightly, “‘lost track of time’ seven times in a row probably means there’s a deeper issue that a student is more likely to talk to us about if they feel trusted and safe.”
Such students would not feel safe approaching most of the professors whose snarky comments were included in the “Dear Professor” series. They would not be comfortable approaching most of the professors who vent on College Misery. I hope to create a classroom culture where they are comfortable talking to me, a place where they can take responsibility for their behavior and receive guidance on how to improve.
The “irresponsible” student whom I was advised to fail might eventually fail my course, but my classroom culture provided him with the opportunity to take care of his problems so that he could achieve success; not only in my classroom but during his academic career. Even if he fails, it was not a mistake to show compassion and to provide guidance.
- –Steven L. Berg, PhD