Thursday, November 8, 2007

Playing favorites

Well. Y'all don't toss softballs, do you?

Today's question comes from Katie J., who asks:
For you, what makes a favorite student a favorite student? Are you ever surprised by who your favorites are? (Don't tell me you don't have favorites--I won't believe you.)
You're right, of course. I do have favorite students, and I'm usually not shy about admitting it. That might seem strange, but the subject usually comes up when a colleague asks about a particular student. "Oh, I absolutely love her. She's one of my favorites," I'll often enthuse.

But I've been accused on and in course evaluations -- only a couple of times in eight years, but every negative comment rankles -- of favoritism. It happened last spring, I believe; one of my evaluations stated that I gave breaks to my favorite students, implying that I was easier on them or paid less attention to others. That was a shock to me because the class in question was small (ten students) and I had been particularly happy with how much personal attention and individual praise I'd been able to lavish on everyone.

In the context of the whole evaluation, it became clear that the complaint really had to do with my failure to stop a few outspoken students from implying that others had less taste, or that their taste was superior. (This was the class on pop culture criticism that I premiere last semester.) The commenter interpreted the lack of censure coming from me as favoritism toward them, and presumably felt that if different class members had displayed this behavior, I would have called them down. Of course, from my point of view, the situation was quite different; while I did like the students in question, I actually became annoyed with their attitude in this class, and they ended less in my favor than they began, while others rose in my estimation. My laissez-faire approach to their discourse, however, had everything to do with the robust nature of the class discussion. In such an intimate setting, I felt confident that their behavior was indicting itself. I rarely missed a chance to question their blanket dismissals of genres or artists that they felt were beneath notice. But since that questioning was conducted in the spirit of inquiry and consciousness-raising rather than with authoritarian judgment, I suppose, the student who registered the complaint did not feel that the violators had been sufficiently humbled.

Yes, we all have favorites. My favorites are the ones who know what they don't know, and are driven to find out. A welcoming attitude toward the world, a wide-eyed wonder in the face of its riches, a determination to develop the discerning capacity to make use of what is found -- these are the stances that endear a student to me.

And yes, it's sometimes surprising who becomes my favorite. Usually I know from the very first time I meet a student. There's a spark to which I instantly respond, a spark of curiosity and eagerness. Most of the time I can count on those student to become the ones who always meet my eyes in class, who can't wait to ask a question or try out an idea. And most of the time, they don't lose that drive for discovery, although they might get fatigued with some particular approaches or processes to which their undergraduate course of study subjects them.

The surprises are the ones who start off scared, shy, or intimidated, then blossom into fearless seekers sometime after they arrive. There are the ones who can't seem to shake a fading dream or a misspent path -- who have always thought they wanted to be pharmacists, or who get married as a way to cling to a relationship that's going south -- and then once they find their way beyond whatever mistake has been dragging them down, turn out to be more dedicated to the liberation that education promises than any of their fellows. And a very few, maybe the most special ones of all, who start out as arrogant bastards bent on showing me how little they need guidance or instruction, and by some miracle develop the virtues of humility and graciousness before they leave my purview.

I think what I mean by "favorite," nearly always, are the ones I can treat as my colleagues. That's our aim with all our students, but it's the ones who earn and grasp that trust early who really stand out. And maybe that's why I didn't crack the whip the way that student who accused me of playing favorites wanted me to. It's been a long time since I wanted to exert my professorial authority to do anything but set a tone, a structure, an expectation, leaving the students responsible to each other more so than to me. The only way such collegiality can emerge is if room is left for it. And although it may be the population with which I have the good fortune to work as much as the methods by which we work together, I have to say that it happens quite often. I am surrounded by my favorites, more and more of them as the years go on. I don't think it's that we happen to be recruiting more students of the type I tend to like, although that may be true. I think it's because the kinds of classes I'm inviting them to build with me tend to elicit the attitudes, pursuits, and relationships that I find attractive.

Thanks for the question, Katie. Who's next?


Justin Ray said...

That course was almost as much of a seminar as a class. I wish the students who blame you for playing favorites would have exercised the gumption to speak up in defense of themselves rather than expecting you to do it for them. You are a very fair professor.

Jenn said...

I've always thought you very fair. And also a great professor! It's nice to discover that I now have a friend where there was once a sort of nervousness of authority figures--as I grew up, I found out that they weren't interested so much in being over me as rooting for me. I nope I'll be a professor that students will come to consider as a friend and mentor.

Timothy said...

i appreciate your correct spelling of 'y'all.' variations in spelling annoy me.

i have favorites in my class this semester. i find that i want to grade their papers harder because i know they can do better.

the secret knitter said...

That conference has brought out the best in your blogging. Catching up with all these teacher/administrator-related posts has been a pleasure. You've given me a lot to think about.

My favorites aren't necessarily the best or the smartest. They're the ones willing to work hard, who learn to think for themselves yet value advice. I suppose the Protestant work ethic is ingrained in me so deeply that ultimately I favor those who will plug away and try to do their best, not The Best.