On Compassion and Public Shaming: In Support of Jesse Stommel

2015-03-05Recently, 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’sI 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


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12 Responses

  1. Beaker Ben says:

    Your concern about how students would react to faculty making fun of them is not unreasonable. This problem is solved by using a pseudonym. Almost everybody at College Misery does that. Perhaps the writers of the Dear Student letters should do the same. One of my main objections to Strommel’s post was that he claims that venting is bad in all fenues, even private conversations.

    You ask what is gained by venting. There are many possible benefits. I feel better, which allows me to get back to work with less of a frown on my face. The other faculty who hear my rants might be amused and may feel better knowing that they are not the only person with that problem. They may suggest solutions for dealing with the situation that aggravated me. They could tell me that I handled the problem incorrectly, so I learn something.

    To be honest, criticizing a student missing class is pretty weak tea. If the student had approached you afterwards and asked, “Did I miss anything important in class?” or if the student’s mom called you to demand that you excuse his absence, that would make for a worthwhile complaint.

    • Steven L. Berg says:

      Beaker Ben:

      Jesse Strommel and I are in general–but not in total–agreement on venting. In “Venting On-Line,” (22 November 2013), I argue for the cathartic benefits of venting in private; a position I still hold.

      In one of the venues I was reading during the last week, someone pointed out that a student doing an Internet search for his/her professor could find their professor’s postings on the “Dear Student” series. However, I am not sure that posting such items anonymously is the answer.

      In another venue, someone commented that he thinks that one of Stommel’s anonymous critics is a colleague in his department. Although the posting was anonymous, the context made the poster identifiable.

      Another example against pseudonyms is found in the comments section of the College Misery blog that is critical of me. Angry Archie comments that he has been able to figure out the identity of one of the regular contributors on College Misery.

      I agree that sharing our frustrations can lead to suggested solutions, but I am not sure that the on-line venting or the “Dear Student” series facilitates such conversations.

      • Angry Archie says:

        I wasn’t going to comment, but you’ve name-checked me now. I probably shouldn’t have said anything at all, but there is no possible way that a student would make the connection I did. Perhaps someone else who attended the same university when we were there, which was more than 30 years ago now, might have. But it was an absolute fluke, and there’s zero chance that anyone under the age of 40 who didn’t attend that specific school would have noticed what institution was being referenced. And beyond that it was an even greater fluke that this person and I had been in the same room at the same time and that I noticed a brief mention of something in the alumni magazine we both get in the mail. Again, no student would ever make the same connections. No one else on CM would either, I’d wager.

        Since you are clearly still reading over at our blog I could probably stop there, but to repeat what I said over there, there is zero correlation between venting pseudonymously and being a good mentor to students IRL. There may even be some psychic benefits, as Beaker said. There certainly are for me. Both undergrads and grads actively seek me out for unvarnished advice. I do my best to be helpful. And even though my style of help is quite different from Stommel’–in fact, I’d say the absolute opposite of his–they seem glad to have it and keep coming back for more.

        There are a lot of things that bothered me about Stommel’s post, but they all come down to one issue: the absolute arrogance he displayed. There’s the arrogance of thinking he is in a position to tell colleagues what they can say and where. There’s the arrogance of someone who is not even five years out of grad school believing that he knows more about how to engage students than people who have been at this since he was in elementary school. There’s the arrogance of believing that he knows the magic formula for how to be supportive of students and that those of us who don’t do it the way he does it are fools and knaves or worse.

        That’s absurd. It’s pretentious. It’s ignorant. I have tweed jackets that have logged more classroom hours than Stommel. I’ve won teaching awards given by the students (not the admin) at both the undergrad and grad levels, even though I apparently do everything wrong by his enlightened metrics. I’ve been teaching in one context or another since he was in diapers if not longer. And the one and only thing I know for sure based on that experience is that there is no single answer to how to do it. I have colleagues who do awesome things in class that I couldn’t pretend to do because I don’t have the right personality for it. Conversely I do certain things really well that some of them might not be able to replicate. There are so many variables that affect what goes on in the classroom, and students respond to different people in different ways and for reasons (race, gender, attractiveness) that are totally outside of the control of the person standing in front of the class. So when Stommel says grades are a red herring, for example, he’s displaying a profound ignorance based on his own extraordinarily limited experience. So yes, that makes me angry.

        Also, since you seem curious about our little community over there at CM, I’ll say that we have a wide variety of conversations going at any one time. And I presume that each of us gets something different from the site. I discovered CM’s predecessor RYS at a particularly low point for me. And reading the posts and contributing some of my own made me feel less alone, and more optimistic about my career choices. I think that alone justifies the enterprise.

    • sam hays says:

      In a Schoolcraft faculty lounge behind a locked door, I hear repeatedly faculty complaining about students. I react inside negatively towards such faculty members and would rather be with the students I find fellow faculty members more often to be a pain than my students.

  2. Steven L. Berg says:


    You are aware of my troubles I had in college and am especially grateful for the second chances. Also, I understand when those second chances were not forthcoming.

    • sam hays says:


      I know from where you have come and am grateful for those who gave you a second chance. For that second chance has paid off in your growth into a teacher who challenges his students beyond the ordinary college minimum to deep academic endeavors.

  3. Burnt Chrome says:

    Thanks for the shout-out, I guess.

    You did apparently miss my point, though–which is that the students who do have real honest-to-god problems get my empathy, because I have them too, as you pointed out.

    The ones who do not get my empathy are the ones who do NOTHING all semester and come to me to ask “What can I do to pass?” I don’t know–build a TARDIS? Otherwise, nothing can be done, because the student DID NOTHING. Made no effort.

    Those are the students who are the target of our derision and “lack of empathy” or whatever you want to call it.

    I have been at this for twenty years as a prof plus another 8 between undergrad and grad school. I would NEVER have dreamed of dealing with my professors the way we are dealt with. I have had a student (who went on to fail my class because he didn’t do any work) tell me, in front of God and the rest of the class “I Pay Your Salary.” No, you bloody well don’t. But that didn’t stop him from saying it.

    BTW, I have had students whose parents died during the semester; I’ve had students who had emergency surgery during the semester; I’ve had students whose children were hospitalized with serious conditions–NONE of those students–NOT ONE asked for accommodation. But do you want to know something? I GAVE IT. For free! Most of them didn’t take it.

    What that has taught me is that the students who need it most often don’t ask, and it’s not because I am an ogre. It’s because they feel like college is work, and should be treated as such.

    The ones who ask for accommodation, and I give it? Very often they don’t complete the work. So it’s not like I don’t “get it,” despite what you think.

    • Steven L. Berg says:


      Part of citing your posting was that it was not as extreme as some of the things I read and I was not interested in setting up a straw-person argument. I also understand the frustration of dealing with students who are irresponsible. It is especially frustrating when students not avail themselves of the assistance they are offered. For example, as you rightly point out, most of the students for whom we make accommodations don’t complete the work. However, I do not see the advantage of public venting or ridiculing students. In part, I find that such postings play into the hands of our critics (e.g. Scott Walker) and demean our profession.

      In arguing against public venting, I am not suggesting that we cannot have blunt conversations with students. For example, I have told students that they needed to decide whether they were going to continue their rude behavior or whether they were going to begin to act responsibly. Acting with compassion or kindness does not mean that we cannot deliver a hard message.

      I would like to cite some specific examples of students whom I think you might define as being worthy of derision; students who can be better helped with a compassionate approach. However, to do so would risk identifying those students. What I would argue you don’t get is that publicly venting about these students or smacking them down does not really teach them important lessons. Such venting is a self-defeating behavior.

      Thank you for taking the time to respond.

      • Ogre Proctor Hep says:

        What I would argue you don’t get is that someone who engages in public, anonymized venting can very well be practicing compassionate teaching in person. These non-mutually-exclusive activities serve different ends, and I don’t think the primary goal of venting ever was to teach students; rather, it is to commiserate.

        Playing into the hands of critics is an interesting point. A possible counterpoint is that someone who is painting the academy with a broad brush while offering as justification these fictionalized sources would run the same risk to credibility as one who cites The Onion.

  4. ProfChiltepin says:

    You’re absolutely right that we have the advantage of life experience. Where did you get that life experience? I got some of mine by trying to pull nonsense over on my profs and being told, directly and clearly, that it wasn’t acceptable behavior. I don’t think I’m equating compassion with lowered standards. Instead, I’m saying don’t confuse “compassion” with “being nice.” Being nice isn’t helpful. It’s actively harmful, not only to the student, but the student’s future professors, employers, and (if you are one of the few left who think we’re not just job-prep factories) other relationships.

    • Steven L. Berg says:


      I would make a distinction between telling a student “directly and clearly” about their behavior and publicly venting about students. Done with compassion, the first can be a valuable interaction to have with students.

      “Being nice” seems to be a loaded term for you and I am not sure how you would define it. It is not a term I use in my writing.

      Finally, I have read many postings concerning this issue during the past several days. Some commenters have equated what I would call a compassionate approach with lowered standards. However, I do not think that everyone who might argue against my position makes this equation.

  5. sam hays says:


    This is a fantastic message. Thanks. I remember having troubles when I was a college freshman and was having troubles. One of my professors called me in frustration because I had not showed up for the final. He told me I would receive a D. I replied that that was ok. Later he became my advisor and more than once commented that he regretted that he did not give me a second chance. I had no regret. I returned to do well in college, and the grade had no known effect on my life. And I understood why he was frustrated. I found out soon after he called me that he had gone off to Helsinki, Finland to ask a former exchange student to be his wife. . They have been married for 56 years, and he at age 92 is one of my 30 Facebook friends. That was well worth the D.