Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The perils of teaching

One of the unexpected traits about college professors -- and perhaps teachers at other levels as well, though I don't know for sure -- is that we are deeply needy people.

The professors that students see as the best are charismatic and confident performers. They confront their students with difficult questions and crystal-clear insights, and they lead their flocks with superior knowledge and a talent for letting students feel like they've been let in on a great secret.

Yet those larger-than-life personalities to which students are attracted cultivate this persona precisely because it gets them what they need -- the adulation of their audience. They're like actors, a group famous for their fragile egos and temperamental love-hate relationships with their public. How is such a person ever to step out of the limelight, down from the podium? They cannot be what they've been praised for being, what they've based their entire self-image on being, without that class full of admiring undergraduates. In reality, there is very little to us except what we're given by our crowd of disciples. Take that away, and we panic.

Our reaction to the failure of our students to worship us comes in two basic forms (with variations). We can decide that they are lazy peons -- so much worse than when we were undergraduates, a different and inferior breed altogether, and going downhill every year. Naturally they don't appreciate our genius; naturally they moan at our increasingly arduous assignments. We become the bitter antagonists to our students.

Or we desperately try to win their love with open-book tests, non-research assignments, loose structure, few requirements. We become the easy prof who teaches the fun class. If they grumble, we give in. Our chief goal is the glowing student evaluation at the end of the course.

Being a good teacher when you're a needy person is a counterintuitive procedure. Both of the reactions above are natural, but neither of them is conducive to good teaching. In the first reaction -- bitterness -- you attempt to take back the control over your ego that you've ceded to the students, by asserting your complete control over the class and pretending that you neither want nor care about their love. In the second reaction, you give up any pretense of authority and allow the students to run roughshod over you, admitting that they are in complete control of your happiness.

The trick involves a kind of reversal. Control is not the issue. A class is not about who's in charge, where the authority should lie. We cannot stop caring about being loved -- but we can stop acting as if that were the only motivation for our teaching.

I have a mantra that I repeat to students. Our relationship is a collaboration, I tell them. That means that your success is my success. I cannot succeed unless you succeed. And the definition of success is contained in the objectives for the class -- learning, appreciating, creating. The list most definitely does not include "having fun" or "acknowledging my genius."

Only by helping them succeed on the terms of the class -- and on the larger terms of academic values of inquiry, scholarship, and contributing to the community -- can I succeed as a teacher. So I must become their cheerleader on the sidelines of a set of tasks designed to fulfill those objectives.

The biggest reversal is in the direction of praise. The needy teacher craves the praise of students flowing toward her, collecting in a file of student evaluations that confirm over and over how great she is. But the successful teacher directs praise toward her students. Think about how stingy most academic experiences are with approbation. A few grades, maybe a felt-tip "good work" at the top of a paper, a nod or smile of appreciation from the teacher for a penetrating question or insightful comment (and all of these are colored by the relationship between the teacher and the class, such that they can be devalued or overvalued by being connected to the over-dependent reactions enumerated above). What would it be like to be praised frequently and sincerely -- as a class -- by a professor whose learning your respect and whose rigor cannot be gainsaid? Would it give you the confidence to attempt great things? Would it make real that relationship of mutual success, where the teacher who has yoked his accomplishments to you assures you that his investment has not been foolish or fruitless?

I often say that the most surprising thing I've learned as a parent is that you cannot overpraise your children. Assuring them how wonderful they are gives them the strength to be wonderful -- to be smart and strong and brave, in the words of the litany Cady Gray likes to repeat about herself. Of course I don't mean flattering them at others' expense; we've all seen spoiled children whose parents assure them that the only reason they're on a pedestal is that everyone else is milling around in the muck. But while I haven't bought into all the attachment parenting psychology, I do believe and have observed that children that are loved and praised unconditionally tend to believe in themselves and their capacities to achieve.

I've started to apply that methodology to my students. At regular intervals in the class -- after they've turned in papers, as they're working on group projects, often early and again often late -- I tell the group, with great seriousness and emotion, how extraordinary they are. (Because my students are extraordinary, I mean it every time). Except in extreme cases of disappointment, I save my corrections for individual meetings, and I always temper them with praise for the student's capabilities.

I see them looking back at me during these talks, earnest and vulnerable, and I know that they may not believe me. But as the class goes on, they come to know with certainty that I am going to act on my high opinion of them. I'm going to give them the power and authority to create and lead in this class, because they're so accomplished and because their potential is so great. They may be fearful, but they have no choice but to try to rise to the occasion -- after all, they have accepted my praise. I am only asking them to be what they've acknowledged publicly that they are. And maybe it's my unusual student population -- I'm sure it is -- but ninety percent of them come through. Then they can't write off my praise as flattery, because they actually did it. The praise starts with me, but they confirm it. And I think they take it with them as their own.

Because you see, the students I work with are just like me. They are deeply needy people. They need the A, the felt-tip "good job," the nod of approval from the professor, the 4.0 transcript. They are used to an economy of scarcity in academic rewards, where only a few get the goodies. I try to change the environment altogether -- an economy of abundance, where the rewards are copious, but the expectation is that they be invested in new construction, new infrastructure. If they accomplish something real, beyond the A paper and the 4.0 GPA, then the dependency relationships changes. They are not empty, waiting for me to fill them, bereft without my praise. They have done it, and they can do it again.

The irony is that this can't happen unless I make real and explicit the needy relationship that is at the root of our problem. We are dependent on each other -- but not because I am failing in my job to control the situation. Because, instead, we can't succeed without each other. As a teacher, the vulnerability that comes from admitting that, rather than disguising it under a power grab or a naked plea for affection, is profound. It does not come easily. And I wouldn't do it if I didn't think it was the only way for me, with my deep neediness, can turn this pathological relationship into something that can fulfill its supposed academic purposes.


momof3gr8kids said...

This is a very insightful post. I find it interesting from two perspectives: my current student status and my desire to teach. (I thoroughly understand the need for the 4.0 or the "Good Job!") Now I wish I could take one of your classes!

Adam Villani said...

Isn't the flipside of giving kids confidence, though, giving them a sense of entitlement? How do you avoid this? I see all sorts of people on TV who seem to think they're the greatest person in the world when it's evident that they're not. What's the line between too much self-esteem and not enough?

the secret knitter said...

You earn a gold star in Google Reader for this post. It gives me a lot to think about in regard to how I deal with students, especially those who, I say reluctantly, are lazy and unmotivated.

As Adam suggests, there is a flip side to this, one that I see in how some students are when they arrive at college. They expect to have everything they do be considered the greatest thing ever.

I'm in a position to evaluate but not grade, so perhaps it's different for me. I try to meet them where they are. What would earn high praise for a beginner's project would probably be looked at as a disappointment from someone with a couple years of experience.

I owe it to them to be encouraging and to maintain standards they will be judged by outside academia. I suppose it helps that I don't play the needy role among the three of us where I am, even if I need it too.