Against the Student Grain

As a part of my job as an online teacher I’m required to attend a yearly conference with my fellow full-time faculty and to participate in several online workshops each year. I enjoy it; it’s a chance to feel a bit more like a member of a department (not that I miss that too much!) and to think about what I love to do. Sometimes, though, it really makes me crabby and irritable, professionally and intellectually speaking. The problem has its roots in the rejection of the so-called sage on the stage.

Once upon a time, the legend goes, professors stood up at the front of the room, or lecture hall, and talked for the entire class. (I am sure that was, and is, still true, but I also think it’s partly a fairy tale.) Students had little say in their educations, much less a chance to tell the professor what they thought or how well they were learning. About four decades or so ago these students began to become teachers themselves and resolved to correct what they saw as an injustice rooted in bad teaching methods.

This student empowerment, as it came to be known, did a world of good insofar as it made professors pay more attention to their teaching. Of course, in the most elite institutions teaching is only rarely rewarded as well as research, if at all, but that’s a story for another day. On the other hand this empowerment helped to lay the basis for a consumerist model of education, particularly in the form of student evaluations, which too often become the main yardstick for teaching. It’s a boon for administrators but a disaster for teaching.

Too often, these evaluations were designed poorly and subject to all sorts of manipulation; they distort more than they reveal. Hopefully, their luster has begun to fade. More insidious and difficult to weed out is a kind of obsessison with positive feedback and affirmation. That’s what often drives me so batty about these conferences and workshops; it’s the Oprah school of pedagogy. “I tell students to visualize success,” one teacher said, “until they have their diplomas in hand.” It sounds harmless until you lokk closely.

I have a 40-something drill seargent in one of my classes for example; he’d probably (and rightly) take that as either nonsense or profoundly patronizing. This way of thinking turns students, even if they are young adults, into helpless, dysfunctional children, always in need of reassurance. Apparently, we can’t tell them that a successful education might be very difficult to achieve, that they might have to make sacrifices, or that there might be unexpected losses along with the gains. They’d melt like sugar in the rain.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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