Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mutual Assured Destruction

Last year I was teaching a 1A class that met at 7:10 a.m. (yuck), and one morning when I dragged myself in, I saw an interesting thing: My students were there, but they were in the process of packing up their bags. They were all about to leave.

They seemed stunned to see me.

"Where's everyone going?" I asked, thinking that perhaps I hadn't heard about some evacuation warning.

"We thought class was canceled," a student replied. She was looking puzzled, but perhaps more than that, annoyed. She seemed a little cross at me.

I looked at my watch. I was on time. In fact, a minute early.

"Why'd you think it was canceled?" I asked, setting down my bag and books. At this visual cue, the other students started settling back in.

The young woman who'd answered my first question (I'll call her Jane for now) appeared to take charge at this point.

"Well, your Blackboard site certainly gives that impression," she said. "Your list of office-hour appointments on Blackboard shows that you're meeting in your office with students right now, so you can't be holding class, too."

I hesitated. That didn't sound right. "I'm pretty sure," I finally said, "that I haven't scheduled any office appointments for 7 a.m."

"No, Mr. Scott: You have a bunch of them. I read it last night," Jane said, firmly. "It seemed pretty clear that class must have been canceled."

"Really?" I was puzzled, and pretty sure she was confused. But just in case ... "Perhaps we ought to look at the schedule."

So I turned on the classroom computer, pulled up the schedule on the overhead, and Jane became mortified when there weren't any appointments on the schedule for that morning. She turned beet red, stammering that she must have misread it.

A couple of weeks after the term ended, I got my evaluations: "Mr. Scott really needs to work more on not embarrassing students in class," read one comment, and another from the same class echoed the sentiment. At least one of those comments was not from Jane. (Most of the feedback was positive, but those comments got to me a little.)

This is not an isolated incident. In fact, these sorts of challenges are getting more and more common for some reason. I don't mind challenges per se, particularly when they're correct -- if I've made a mistake, a publicized correction is crucial if students are to learn.

And it's not so bad when the student is wrong, but challenges me in private (by email, or in my office). We can settle those privately. No one needs to know about the student's error, and much embarrassment is prevented.

But when a student issues one of these challenges in the classroom, and the student is wrong, I have a hell of a dilemma. Consider:

Many times, the issue is critical -- something that other students in the class, listening to the exchange, really need to be clear about.

1. In such an instance, I can save the student's ego by allowing the mistake to stand -- and watch the rest of the class leave misinformed about something important.

2. Or I can say, "Gee, I'll check on that, and get back to you," to the student. In that case, the student is corrected, but the class is not -- it walks out the door just as misinformed as with option #1.

3. Or I can clarify the situation, which invariably (no matter how hard one tries to be gentle about it) embarrasses the student who just walked out on that limb, and then read in my evaluations about how I embarrassed someone. I generally choose this option, and tolerate the comments.

Of course, there are situations (like with the "canceled" class described earlier), in which the issue doesn't appear critical to the lessons being taught -- it's something "miscellaneous." These are actually trickier.

1. It's tempting to imagine (particularly if you are not a teacher) that if Jane says loudly in front of others that I scheduled office hours during class time, that there's really no reason to correct her in view of fellow students. One might assume I can say, "Oh, really? That's weird. I'll have to look into that," and simply move on with the lesson. But it's not quite that simple.

2. The problem is that letting Jane spout off makes teaching more difficult: It's an ethos thing. When students hear complaints voiced, but they don't hear the teacher actually confirm that the charges are true or false, they become more inclined to think the teacher has made other, big mistakes as well, and is simply keeping quiet about them. 1 In this environment, students become less inclined to wonder whether they themselves have erred. (When human beings already have one "likely suspect," they are reluctant to look for a second.) Worse, many of those students keep these suspicions to themselves, and mutter them to each other in the back of the room. The teacher, unaware of many of the grumbles, can't address them. At a certain point, it can become very difficult to teach, if the class is convinced you're a goof. The class just stops listening. I've seen this as a student. I've seen it when observing other classes. And in one very, very bad summer-school class I taught five years ago, I saw it happen to me. It's ugly no matter where in the classroom you sit.

3. The problem is that correcting Jane in class risks screwing things up, too. Even if you've tried to be gentle about it, clarity requires firmness, and audiences sometimes mistake firm for cold or cruel. As a result, students sometimes decide you're a mean old ogre (like Shrek, but without the charming accent or sense of humor). They stop speaking up in the classroom. They stop taking risks. They stop coming to office hours for help with problems. But perhaps worst of all, they stop learning -- people simply aren't inclined to listen to people they think will be mean to them. It's another ethos thing.

So, basically, if you're a teacher, and a student makes a public challenge that's wrong, you're in a pickle. Fail to correct him, and you lose confidence. Correct him, and you risk losing empathy. Either way, your ethos is likely to suffer.

The only reliable way, in fact, for a teacher to come out fine when a student issues a challenge is for the student to actually be right. If the student is right, and I acknowledge it, the class becomes more open, more suitable for learning. I wish it happened more often.

But whenever I hear a confident, assertive challenge in a classroom, and I know (or suspect) the student's off-track, I cringe inside. If you ever see this happen, and see me pause, as though I'm trying to figure out how to handle it, the most likely reason for my hesitation is that the student involved is incorrect, and I'm now trying to figure out how to rescue both himself and myself at the same time, in full view of the class. It's not as easy as you'd hope.


1 Telling the class that Jane is right, when she's actually wrong, isn't an option. It's lying, and, even if you think "it's a white lie," those are bad for ethos too.

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