July 25th, 2011

Hate Springs Eternal: Teaching in a Disharmonious Classroom


A few weeks ago I did what professors all over the land did: I logged my students’ grades and handed them in. This capped the end of an academic year in which I have never been more reviled and hated. In fact, this semester I gave my students permission to hate me to the fullest, and I in turn allowed myself the drunken freedom of “hating” them as well.

Before I stand accused of holding all kinds of warped pedagogical attitudes and beliefs, I want to make clear my belief that most learning, whether in kindergarten or graduate school, is built on a foundation of love and trust.

But as in many relationships, things can go askew, and within the love matrix negative feelings, even hatred, can develop. Good teachers and students deal creatively with strong negative feelings.

One might think: what kind of animosity can develop in say, a classroom of first-graders or at the other end of the educational spectrum, graduate students in a doctoral program? Experience tells me that there is plenty of it to go around.

For example, in the graduate school of psychology at the university where I teach, we studied such topics as psychopathology of childhood and analysis of group processes this past semester. It was a large class of bright, appealing and motivated students. They were as good as you will find in most places. Yet even in these seemingly intellectually-laden precincts, an exciting palpable sense of hatred started to brew.

A significant number of students found the class was not what they expected. “Too much free-floating discussion, not enough text-driven material” was what a few said. This seemingly minor quibble erupted into full-fledged despising and white-knuckle stare-downs. Although satisfying compromises were seemingly reached (we could talk about actual situations with children and refer verbally to text), there were holdouts.

One particularly bright and articulate student wrote to me in her weekly log (a requirement for each class session) “This class has just dragged on and on. This is not what we paid for. I won’t talk about how I feel during class and if you ask me to do it, I will disavow that I wrote this!”

And so the semester haltingly progressed. Students did learn, but the educational flow was impaired. It was a bit of a slog.

Of course, at the end of the semester came grading time. I had always found grading students to be joyless and depressing, and on occasion it would bring about periods of self-loathing.

Brooding about this semi-annual task, I came upon an idea. Why not share the burden with the students? On the last day of the class I asked everyone to divide into groups and grade each other. After brief discussion they handed in their grades. Not surprisingly, they gave each other A’s. I said I would take their recommendations under advisement.

I came to understand that many, if not most, of these students expected to get A’s almost as their birthright. They walked in with that expectation even before the class began. After all, they were “great” students. They were young, bright and articulate. One had the sense that they had been told that all their lives and what’s more, they had the scores to prove it. Their silent demands of the academic world were potent and powerful. It was if they were saying I am an “A.”

Editor’s Note. Coming tomorrow, part two of this article in which the author describes his final lesson for his students: “You do not get an A in life for just showing up and complying or even for cooperating.”

Simon Yisrael Feuerman, PsyD, LCSW, is the director of the New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies (NCAPS), and an adjunct professor of psychology at Kean University.

  • JDK

    The students aren't there to learn, they have come to collect on their tuition money. Essentially, they are customers who have done well on the standardized tests that have previously measured their achievement and that minister to their own self-satisfaction. The instructor is there only for credentialing purposes.

    What I find interesting and somewhat more disturbing in this account–and which I have encountered in my own classes–is the belief that the students (unlettered in the discipline) will determine the content material of the course and will assign their own pre-determined grades. They know better than the instructor what the content should be; the instructor must live up to their expectations. It's remarkable to someone older how smug and lacking in self-doubt these 'students' are.

    After graduation, it's likely to be an extremely bumpy landing.

    • ckubota

      Students have more power in High School than they have ever had before. I can not believe how many students are in "Honors Classes". This used to be an elite group of students who were very bright and were an exception to the rule. Many high schools give their students the idea that they already have what it takes to go to college. Many high school teachers hand out "A"s without requiring "A" work. When these students arrive at our doorstep at the university level they have been told over and over that they are bright. Some of them can not deal with rejection. They don't have any respect for their professors and feel that they already know the material that is being presented. The problem is that they can't even write a research paper, their grammar is not the greatest, and their topics don't go beyond technology. High school teachers need to bear down on their students. Don't make it easy for your students.

      • JDK

        There's something else to consider that lies behind some of the comments here: the teacher is no longer seen as an authority figure ("elitist crap"?). Therefore, the instructor may no longer be entitled either to courtesy or automatic respect. Students have always questioned the 'relevance' of subjects outside their vocational goal, which they view in the narrowest terms.

        I think that instructors in the social sciences may have even more difficulty here if they have been acculturated to a therapist-patient relationship which can sometimes be construed as a peer relationship.

        For myself, I have found it vital to establish in the first couple of weeks exactly what the class requires and my expectations of students. And I also make clear how knowledgeable I am in my subject. Since I worked in business for several years before becoming an academic, I make connections between my subject–English–and success in the 'real' world, of which the students know less than they realize.

        It's not just writing, kiddies, it's showing someone you can think–but can you? Show me. And I recall more than a few teachers encountered in earning three degrees who were expert in their disciplines and almost completely unable to explain to the students.

        High school teachers have no ability to make their students do anything, for the teachers are now seen pretty much as useless scum in the public view, to be punished if their students don't have high scores on the standardized tests which are now the greatest achievement of education at that level.

        Like many another panacea for the ills of education, standardized tests will pass, too, when the failure becomes evident and the next sure fix appears on the horizon.

      • yisrael feuerman

        Your description is extremely apt. Many students feel that "they" are the "A" –it's not what they produce it is their intrinsic being that "demands" an A — and they cannot accept the rejection

  • Dr.JOE

    Students today fall short in preparedness, attitudes and willingness to learn. Far worse than that, is the facility with which they villify and demonize professors who are trying to teach not just the text, but the interconnections between the text material and other subjects/life/professional experience. Our students do not appreciate this. They want nothing outside the text, and want to be held responsible only for the text material for the "A" grade. They enter expecting the "A" without having learned or earned that honor.
    The students can HATE me, villify me, but hey, I'm tenured! They write awful, untrue, hateful statements on evaluations. They complain to my superiors. They refuse to even say hello in the hallways, and carry that chip on their shoulders right through to graduation. My sympathies to those who are not tenured/tenure-track. They suffer all the same indignities.

    • J. Turner

      As an adjunct, I do at times envy those who have tenure for just this reason. But, on the flip side, I'm paid virtually nothing, and thankfully, don't depend on that small amount of pay to survive. This gives me a certain freedom. Take it to the dean and get me fired? Go ahead. (Guess what? The dean needs peasant-wage adjuncts like me.) But the funny thing is that even though I teach an intro-level core class to those who are not majoring in my field, and, as my students will attest, I grade pretty tough, I don't really get many complaints. I'm never apologetic for my expectations, and somehow I get away with it. And believe me, I'm truly grateful for that.

      This has not, by the way, always been my experience at other institutions, so the culture of each particular university matters a great deal, too. I've found that those at the "better" schools can be the most obnoxious when it comes to their sense of entitlement and their lack of respect for professors.

  • Dr.JOE

    I also serve as division chair, and watch as my junior faculty are savaged by these students. I regularly must defend faculty, junior faculty, and adjuncts as students take their "issues" to the Dean, Provost, etc. Lately, I'm more concerned if a junior faculty or adjunct has NOT had any complaints to the Dean. I'm proud to stand side by side with any faculty being villified for trying to teach in the era of the student/client/customer. The customer is always right, "let me talk to your supervisor" has no place in academe.

    • Michael

      I agree. I have been heavily criticized both publicly and to administrators because I bring in real-world clinical examples for my nursing students or that I use illustrations from a textbook other than the one assigned in the course. And God forbid the textbook should have an error that I correct. After all, the person who wrote the text was a person of great intellectual stature and I am just some nobody the college hauled in off the street to stand up in the front of the class (pardon my sarcasm).

    • Adjunct

      Sadly, our own administrators are the people continually telling students they are the "customers" and we're here to serve them. Even if we did use a customer model, the primary paying customer in public universities is the state and federal government. At community colleges many students pay absolutely nothing out of pocket, and yet they are told over and over by administrators they are the "customers," meaning faculty are the hired help. If we want to use a customer model for education, it's the student who is the one being paid with an education, and the customer is hardworking taxpayers who expect students to learn something.

  • Lecturer

    I encountered international English language learners with this very attitude, knowing more about grammar and syntax because they learned it in high school classrooms in their native country. Perhaps institutions providing higher education should assess whether the students are getting the best bang for their buck, and then distribute this assessment so the students will be assured that their money is well spent. In turn, any such well-informed student who feel that he/she knows more than instructors skilled in the discipline should be considered disruptive and dealt with accordingly.

  • Guest

    All I can say is: ditto. __The problem, I think, is not necessarily with today's students, though. As post-secondary educational institutions (at least in Canada) are increasingly relying on cost-saving measures, most notably by gradually restructuring their educational labour force to lean more and more on part-time/contract and less and less on full time, tenured (and hence more secure – but also more expensive) employees, they are also creating a climate in which teachers are becoming much more insecure and vulnerable to student criticism, particularly of the savage, malicious type. Such teachers, in turn, are more likely to ease up on the standards and lower the expectations

  • Guest

    [Continued…] after all, the simple act of granting (say) a B instead of an A+ can oftentimes trigger a vicious backlash from a student that can endanger those teachers' very livelihood, without producing anything positive on the flipside (say, from administration.) No wonder, then, that students who have gotten used to inflated marks suddently feel 'traumatized' when they get a grade that actually relfects the true value of their work; and based on their (indubitably valid, if grossly limited) experience, it is little surprise that they lash out at the teacher who gave them such a 'sub-standard' grade.

  • Guest

    [Continued…] I cannot count the number of times I have received (as Dr. JOE put it) 'awful, [patently] untrue, hateful' feedback from students; the most frequent such feedback (for example) making statements to the effect that "the instructor deducted major marks for grammar and spelling… I wrote plenty of university essays in history and English and none of those professors ever had any problem with my writing!" I used to doubt such claims, but experience has taught me that they may be closer to the truth than anybody would like to admit…

  • Guest

    [Continued…] Needless to say, once these very same students get a taste of real life (a few years of hard core industry/business experience) many of them turn around and start bashing their university/college, of course, for "not preparing them for real life" – but those remarks do not make it back to the educational institutions, nor to their once-viciously-criticized professors who have (usually) long been let go by then, of course…

  • Patti

    Student accountability and responsibility have taken a nosedive within all levels of our education system. In my previous position as an Assistant Professor, I noticed students today look out for their own interests and no one else; they disrupt the entire class by arriving 20 minutes late and think nothing of how their actions impact the other 25 or more students who also pay tuition. I also observed that more and more students are cheating on exams and papers to make their way through college. We only know about the ones we catch. What does that say for our future generation? In the next 5-10 years traditional student enrollment will be declining and universities will be competing for students. When dealing with difficult students, faculty support can only get worse.

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  • Elizabeth

    I teach in both academic and commercial settings.

    The students in commercial classes are much more motivated and appreciative that someone is helping them learn what they need to know to continue and succeed in the world of work.
    Many students in university settings believe that they are paying tuition to get a grade, not just an opportunity to work toward a level of understanding of the material expressed in a grade. The best students at the university level are motivated to work hard and do very well, and the rest of the class is just along for the ride. Extending adolescence through university attendance is not a great way to prepare for the non-school world, but on the other hand, those students who do mix work and school are not valued as highly by the university.

  • Sarah

    Agreed, agreed, agreed. So what do we Do as teachers of these students?

  • Professor

    We become like Kingsfield, the law professor in Paper Chase. He saw things are they are when you're dealing with snotty, spoiled Americans.

    Catering to the whims of students began with good intentions but was quickly overtaken by the more powerful forces of nature, eat or be eaten. It's a game of dominance and we have become the game.

  • Professor

    My apologies for the typo: I meant to say 'He saw things as they are'

    A sign that I've been up too late grading and answering emails from crazy students.