Admittedly, this is only tangentially related to our Academic Integrity course this semester, but it is something that I feel is important to address.
Earlier today, Jesse Stommel took a stand for the ethical treatment of students, teachers, and job seekers when he wrote his “Dear Chronicle: Why I Will No Longer Write for Vitae” blog post. His words prompted me to ask this question: What is our ethical responsibility to our students? Throughout this course, we have considered our role as students and members of the academic community to create an atmosphere that discourages academic dishonesty and encourages equality and fairness. But how much does (or should) this bleed into our current and future roles as instructors, researchers, and administrators? I would argue the answer to this question is “a lot” and the answer to my previous question is largely “we should be setting a good example.”
This is one of the issues that Stommel has with the “Dear Students” series on the Chronicle Vitae site, but his disgust with their blatant students shaming goes deeper than that, and I have to say I agree with him. Let’s talk about some of the layers that are problematic about the “Dear Students” series.
1) Airing dirty laundry
2) Reinforcing stereotypes
3) Poisoning the applicant pool
4) Discouraging honest (or any) communication with students
Airing Dirty Laundry
First ( and most obviously), this is publicly posted on the internet and is associated with an extremely popular organization in higher education. Openly airing grievances, while possibly cathartic, does not have a place on this public resource for teachers and students.
Second, it is a fact that all teachers are not heartless slave drivers who give no shits about students or their problems. Instructors are, however, tired, over-worked, busy, and bombarded by complaints and excuses. It is easy to see how instructors might be tempted to write sarcastic or passive-aggressive (or outright aggressive) letters to the students who may have just been one complaint too many during a busy week, but that does not mean we should support it. As idealistic as it sounds, maybe, instead, we should support each other and our students. The struggle is real on both sides. Possibly more than ever before, students are struggling with the financial, physical, and psychological stresses of higher education. Again, I may be idealistic, but isn’t it our job to help them and not to belittle them? I would like to think I am here to help.
Poisoning the Applicant Pool
Despite the job shortage that many, especially in the humanities, seem to be feeling right now, we will need more teachers in the future. We will not live forever as professors in our dream jobs. By talking about our disgust with these student excuses, we may be poisoning our applicant pool. Would you want to be part of a group who supports publicly shaming people they are asked to help? It reminds me of the stereotypical popular clique in high school. Sure, you want them to like you because they have some power over you, but you don’t really want to be like them. I don’t want the possible future of higher education to be dissuaded by our complaints about their classmates, the workload, or our research. This doesn’t mean that the periodic tweet or Facebook post can’t be used to vent our feelings, but it does mean that we should do what so many writing teachers ask their students to do, think about your audience.
Discouraging Honest (or any) Communication with Students
If students know that you may go online and complain about them and their questions/issues/etc, I would venture to say that the will think twice about raising them at all. Though that might decrease the number of emails in our inboxes, I don’t think that would be progress. Shutting down communication is not the answer. I want my students to succeed. This doesn’t mean accepting any excuse or handing out grades, but does mean establishing reasonable and appropriate expectations and making sure your students know what they are. If they violate your expectations, you should tell them, but you should tell thousands of your “closest friends” on the internet. Things on the internet have a way of getting around, and if students find out you are talking about them “outside of school” the quality of communication in your classroom culture is bound to breakdown.
I’m certainly not writing this because I think I have all the answers. I am just a pedagogically savvy graduate student, and I’m not writing it because I want to shame the shamers. I write this as a reflection and as both an internal and external challenge. Let’s challenge ourselves to be ethical instructors as well as participants in the academic community at large. I think we can do it.