My students have told me I’m a bullshit detector and a straight shooter -- that I don’t sugarcoat the truth and can be a hard-ass. I take these as compliments. They are good things to be and perhaps all the more so now, given the current climate of higher education and against the backdrop of the larger sociopolitical landscape. At a time when social forces both inside and outside the academy are making a mockery of higher education and especially the liberal arts, listening to and honoring the hard-asses among us is an important thing.That's particularly important, she notes, at the institutions that labor in the obscurity of the league tables, whilst catering to the more typical collegian.
The trouble is that a sentiment has long circulated in higher education -- especially at teaching-intensive institutions with a greater number of underserved and underprepared students -- that educators need to meet students where they are. It’s known to be the right thing to say on statements of teaching philosophy, in interviews and at meetings. But what does that even mean anymore? Have we possibly taken this too far -- especially when we have students who are not meeting us even part of the way?The best students deserve the same intellectual challenges whether at South Carolina - Beaufort or Northern Illinois or Wisconsin or Princeton, although sometimes it looks like you're working twice as hard for half the recognition if you're not in the rarified parts of the league tables. It's not about unleashing your inner hard-ass. It's simply doing your job.
So, when a colleague told me that I hold the bar too high and should ease up on students, and that I need to teach in a way that is accessible for all of them, what is being conveyed here? Let me be clear; we are not talking about access issues for students with disabilities. My colleague is referring to how I handle the worst-performing students, the ones flunking out of many of their classes, not just mine -- those who are plagiarizing, missing three to five weeks of a semester, being extremely needy with excessive emails, or being disruptive in class and needing to be removed. I don’t pass a student who is failing just so she can graduate, and I’m not afraid to assign a zero to a paper that earned it.
I wound up telling that colleague about the student who earned 46 on her first exam. When she came to my office in mid-February, I asked to see her notebook, and only a third of a page was filled with notes from the first week of school in mid-January. She told me she didn’t have any other notes and shamelessly admitted she’d never read the syllabus or obtained the books. Smiling, I pointed out, “Wow, you got a 46 doing that? Imagine what would happen if you did everything!” I told her I could not and would not be able to help her until she started to help herself.
After the second exam, on which she earned a grade in the 70s, I emailed her to say I was happy to see the improvement and invited her to meet again. I asked her then what she had done differently and what her advice would be to future students and to me in similar situations. She admitted that I’d done all I could and she just needed to do the work -- and that once she did that, the material was actually really interesting and made her want to learn more. Is this the type of student we are encouraged to meet where they are and for whom to modify our classes? Or should we trust and value hard-ass colleagues who refuse to make a mockery of higher education and produce outcomes like those that occurred with this student?