Monday, November 15, 2010

Provocative essay asks whether teachers should take pleasure in seeing "deserving" students fail

Wow, rarely have I seen a column in the Chronicle of Higher Ed provoke so many reader comments as this one entitled "The Pleasure of Seeing the Deserving Fail."  Here is an excerpt followed by a sampling of those reader comments.

As teachers, we rightfully celebrate our positive victories in the classroom: the poem well taught, the student for whom light dawns in the middle of the semester, or the freshman who starts out unable to string two words together but becomes a writer of supple grace by senior year.

. . . .

But equally pleasurable, although much less discussed, are a series of what might be called negative victories—moments when our worst fears or lowest expectations are fulfilled. Gore Vidal once said, "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail." And in these straitened economic and intellectual times, it may be a little cheering to make space for the grimmer wins of teaching. Here are a few such moments.

The iritating student who drops out . . . .

The bad student who writes a bad paper . . . .

The student who richly deserves to fail and does fail . . . .

And here are excerpts of some reader comments:

1.  Why did the Chronicle publish this? It is mean-spirited and demeaning.

2.  This really depressed me. This sort of post reminds [us] exactly why students feel that teachers are unsympathetic and school is toxic.

3.  I want to take a shower after reading this piece. What's bad is that it's filled with pettiness and schadenfreude.

4.  I couldn't disagree more. [the author's] approach is simple-minded and hateful. If we cast a student's failure as a teaching victory, we do not belong in the classroom. In fact, we shouldn't be working with people in any capacity.

But some readers had a different response as typified by these comments:

1.  It's naive to think that ["bad" students] don't steal our time and energies and their fellow students' time and energies. The worst student evaluations I've ever had were direct comments about my failure to control a couple of these students. I learned my lesson about patience-- and realized that my efforts to be patient were stealing valuable instructional time from other students.

2.  There are students I don't like: the ones who are blatantly disrespectful and put in absolutely no effort. Also, anyone who cheats. So yeah, I guess a part of me is glad when things don't go their way (e.g. doing badly on a test.) So if that's what's meant by the student who "richly deserves to fail" then maybe I agree. But all of the students I've had who have failed were not cases I was happy about. Yes, it usually meant they weren't putting effort in, but they also weren't bad people...they just usually had health or outside issues that were keeping them back, and it was disappointing that we couldn't pull them together before it was too late.

3.  I glory in the success of my students; I don't gloat or wish their failures, but I certainly recognize some of the scenarios [the author] describes, and she's not asking us to let loose daily with our negative emotions, but simply allowing us a minute or two to sheepishly admit to one another that we do sometimes have petty feelings, and that it's perfectly natural.

Instructors *aren't* saints; we aim daily for saintly behaviour perhaps, but we're still human, and that's okay. I know I do my very best to teach everyone in every class, on every assignment, at every opportunity. But the feelings described here are not, let me admit, unknown to me.

4. There are the feelings we own and pontificate about, the happy self-justifying images we build of ourselves and what we claim to others...and then there is the set of feelings we don't like so much, or can't face, or refuse to admit and never talk about publicly.  [The author] wrote about the latter; the majority of the posters are talking about the former. Both are equally true, folks.

You can read the rest of the original essay, here, and if you scroll down the page, the very interesting readers' comments.


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