Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Heartless bastard? Guilty as charged!

Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, an American academic in the UK is horrified to discover that British academics are nasty to their students. 'You're all going to fail', one professor told his students - a sentence which reminds me of Lorna Sage's primary school head lining up his rural charges and going along telling them all 'you'll be a muck spreader, you'll be a muck-spreader'…

Oh no! A little provocation to add some urgency to studies - not, I think, intolerable mental cruelty. As those of you unfortunate enough to have been under- or miseducated by Yours Truly may remember, I'm not mocking or contemptuous of your efforts. At least, not to your faces. Though I have been known to Tweet gems extracted from essays ('The Victorians invented luxury technology. Like furniture').

But to listen to Emma Thornton, you'd get the impression that we're all vicious sadists who despise our students and live to express our scorn for them. Not true. I have two objections to this accusation: I don't think it's true, and I don't think that an unalloyed diet of praise ('what a wonderful D grade that was, Johnny: one more push and you'll get a First') is helpful or progressive. We're not here to validate students' self-esteem: we're here to encourage them to do better than they already do. Neither fawning nor abuse are of any use.

I hope my students and colleagues know that I support and encourage struggling students to the highest degree. There is a group which doesn't earn my respect: the cheats. I understand the pressures on students which may lead to cheating. I know that certain forms of academic misconduct stem from misunderstanding what university work is about, but there's still a core of students who are so focussed on getting the certificate that they will lie and steal to get there. After an initial period of education, I have no compunction in communicating disgust very clearly indeed.

Nor do I think that telling students what they don't want to hear is abusive. Thornton cites this conversation.
 "Have I really not improved in six months?" she asked, her eyes wide with worry. "That's what my other professor told me."
Not a nice thing to hear, but if it's a) true and b) said diagnostically with the intention of helping, there's nothing wrong with it. I have students who haven't improved in their years here. They depress me, and my failure to help them improve depresses me even more. I feel awful when I have to deliver bad news, but the fact is that I don't fail students: students work fails students. It's not a punishment, it's guidance. A little empathy is what's needed. A teacher who takes pleasure in a student's failure shouldn't be here, but neither should those - and I know several - who enable mediocrity and distort standards by never speaking hard truths.

Thornton has some perceptive things to say about British academia:
Teaching in Britain is a grueling business, so bureaucratized that it makes one weep for the paperless society. There are endless self-monitoring forms to be filled out; syllabi not only have to list the course goals and assigned texts, but also state precisely what "outcomes" will be achieved by the end of the term, and what "transferable skills" students will acquire. I suppose there isn't much time leftover for caring. Still, the lack of it among professors here seems more pronounced than has been my experience among American academics.
She's absolutely right to point out that at conveyor-belt institutions like mine (massive classes, few rooms, diminishing resources, understaffed), it's hard to find the time for proper pastoral care, and that the REF exercise means that teaching is the poor relation, at least in Russell Group élite institutions. It's hard to learn students' names, which is why you won't find the Prime Minister's or Secretary of State for Education's children coming here - but she's dead wrong to imagine that there's some kind of cultural divide between Nasty Cruel Emotionally-Stunted British Academics (though I am emotionally stunted, as numerous friends will testify) and Lovey-Dovey New Age Yankademics. At least I hope so. I like most of my students. Some will be friends for ever. But that doesn't mean that they shouldn't be pushed. They're already disadvantaged: they're mostly poor, working-class, from ethnic minorities with below-average prior attainment. What many of them need is a tyranny of High Expectations. I don't see them as something getting in the way of research: they're my life (sad, I know) - and I wouldn't dream of belittling them in the way that Thornton's anecdotes indicate - but there are more ways to relate to them than treating them like adorable little kittens.

Thornton's perspective is revealed in this sentence:
If I told most people that I was going into a profession in which I'd produce a very small product aimed at very few people, and I'd concentrate on doing so to the neglect of a vast number of potential purchasers who would buy a slightly simpler but infinitely more valuable and desired product, they would no doubt suggest I reconsider my strategy. 
My students aren't purchasers. They're colleagues in the pursuit of enlightenment. Some are lazy bastards. Some are cheats. Most are motivated and hard-working, although not all will reach the highest grades. In sum: they're human. Thornton's approach is the synthesis of the market with the charlatanry of self-help nostrums about self-belief. My students aren't customers and I'm not trying to flog them some piece of tat by oiling up to them in a shop. My students are (hopefully) intellectual explorers and I'm their guide. I don't need to patronise them and they shouldn't want to be treated with kid gloves. I need to understand their starting points and their capabilities, and be able to push them when they're inclined to stay in their comfort zones. I shouldn't be afraid to tell them the truth in case they take their custom elsewhere, because then we won't be universities, we'll be degree mills.

Maybe there are a few academics who treat their students with contempt, but I find it hard to believe. Most of us are rendered insecure enough by the constant surveillance and judgement imposed by appraisal and REF to have much energy for treating others the way the system treats us. I suspect that many of us - including me - have developed a black and exclusive sense of humour for dealing with the repetitive and more gruelling experiences of our professional lives, like nurses, coppers and doctors (such as our delight in 'howlers'), but I'd be inclined to suspect that Thornton hasn't quite grasped the British sense of irony, in which what is said doesn't always exactly match what is meant.

But that's a very stereotypical view of our American cousins, for which I apologise.

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