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Tip: Good Teaching is Emotional Work
What can we do when our capacity for emotional work is overdrawn, just when our students & our families need us the most?
Good teaching is emotional work, as Dave Goobler notes. As we reach the halfway point of the (North American) semester, we are starting to emerge from the technology- and delivery-focused muddle of the first few weeks. We are no longer planning for but now are squarely in the middle of doing - even if what we are doing seems to change every few weeks. For some of us, we have a good idea of what the spring semester will look like (more of the same!); we all know that it won’t be normal. As we grapple with where we are now being possibly where we will be until August of next year, I am seeing two themes emerging. Two themes that were juxtaposed in a clear way as I scrolled on the Chronicle’s website this week.
The Chronicle’s Quick Tip suggests that we take time off, choose sleep, and learn to say “no” - after all, our job is only a job. Contrast that with their advice on how to help students get through the semester: be flexible on deadlines, be respectful of students’ privacy but support them in isolation, explain the rationale behind your assignments, and acknowledge “the moment” (here, current events and politics, a fairly loaded “moment”).
These two themes are echoed across conversations I’ve had over the past couple weeks. On the one hand we have the very caring and reasonable voices saying, Oh my God, it’s a pandemic! Be generous with points and deadlines! Work with the students, meet them where they are, be understanding and supportive.
And then we have voices explaining, you have to hold students to some kind of standards, and they have to complete the work in some reasonable facsimile of what meeting expectations looks like, or they really shouldn’t pass the class.
I think this leaves most reasonable faculty - and I think we are for the most part reasonable as well as caring - stuck in the middle of two voices who are talking at cross purposes, because one is concerned with the micro level and one is concerned with the macro level. Neither perspective is completely right, or completely wrong.
When you look at the individual student who is struggling in your course, who perhaps needs extensions on deadlines, who needs more time in office hours, who follows up with many clarifying emails, of course we want to help that student. Of course we want to give them extra chances, more offers of support, more reassurances or more feedback. But when you look at the aggregate, that is where it gets really hard on the instructor. Because now you have maybe 150 students, maybe quite a lot more, and they nearly all are struggling more than usual this semester. I’m certainly finding that more students need extensions on deadlines, with the consequence that students are submitting work on a variety of different timelines. More students are submitting work late or halfway complete, or both. I imagine I’m not alone.
Beyond the challenges of trying to grade and provide feedback to students on widely varying schedules, there’s also the non-academic support that students need. This semester more than ever, they all need extra emotional support. It’s absolutely understandable that they do. We all need extra emotional support right now. The catch, of course, is that everyone is feeling stretched thin just with dealing with the world right now, and everyone has very little to give to other people.
I think this is why Tara Haelle’s Medium article on how our ‘surge capacity” is drained right now sparked such interest earlier this month, because it spoke to how difficult it is to do anything well right now, much less to give more. Too, this is a time when so much more is being asked of many of us; another genre of popular article details the guilt and despair of working moms and the gender inequalities in academic productivity right now.
So many of the experts’ suggestions for right now focus on practicing more self-care, which is a solution that requires resources that many of us do not have. I would like to propose a solution that, in all honesty, I struggle with: lowering expectations. This is hard for anyone high-achieving, and perhaps especially so for academics. Faculty, to paint with a broad brush, tend to work relatively independently and are in many ways intrinsically motivated by a love of one’s discipline. Faculty also are responsible for bringing a new generation of scholars into academia - whether that means mentoring graduate students in their research or teaching first year study skills classes. Finally, for many of us our sense of self in some very fundamental ways is entangled up in our work.
All that said, I think that we need to give our students - and, yes, ourselves - grace this year. The grace of lowered expectations. We cannot control everything. Yes, some students will cheat (but cheating isn’t new and isn’t simple to solve even with more proctoring) or will simply not do very well. But our class is not the only protection against an unprepared student getting out in the world, and we need to let go, just a little, of the expectation that we can inspire every student to discover untapped passion for our discipline.
I will fully admit that this is hard for me, and the way I deal with challenges is to read. Reading helps me to process and reflect, and decide what actions might need to be taken. It might make embracing lower expectations easier if we….
Trust that lots of very smart people are worrying about what all this means for students and working on ways to support students who are struggling the most - and let them carry a bit of the worry for you
If you have the energy - and the privilege - consider calling for our institutions re-think their expectations of us, too
In the end, lowering expectations is something easy to say, and very difficult to do. Perhaps take it one day at a time.