GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Posts Tagged ‘Students’

Listserv Tattletale

In Guest Blogger on 2011/05/02 at 11:02

Guest blogger, Bonnie Kaserman.

“For openers, I don’t think you understand the difference between descriptive and normative statements, and you’ve obviously got a chip on your shoulder about male and female, and who knows what else. Your take on the article is simplistic, and trivial… As it stands, all I hear from you is angry woman in academia who’s mighty self-righteous… Maybe we’ll get lucky and others will say something worth paying attention to.”

A female graduate student contributed to a listserv thread regarding an article published in popular media. Her anti-racist critique didn’t have the nuance of professors with decades of experience, but she made sincere, solid points. The above quote was the response of a tenured faculty member. When she posted a response clarifying her argument, she was met with more vitriol. A few listserv members responded to defend her. The listserv moderators responded with a statement about listserv protocol. Almost unbelievably, the faculty member continued his diatribe.

I subscribe to several listservs: departmental, disciplinary and inter-disciplinary. At each scale of listserv coverage, there are important announcements, calls for papers and opportunities for insightful conversations. However, there have also been disturbing exchanges. I have witnessed threats, derision, and blatant racism, including cad remarks about someone’s presumably non-white last name. The opening example was an exchange between people I’ve never met. Witnessing it made me sad and angry. I can only imagine the personal hurt and public shame that the grad student (may have) felt as well as the impact on listserv members who remained silent.

The faculty member’s posts, seemingly akin to that of Internet trolls, might go as far as violating the sexual discrimination policy of the university server hosting the listserv. There are also (a lack of) political implications. Audrey Kobayashi states “such personal attacks serve absolutely no purpose toward effecting social change. Rather than target a society in which (presumably) we all have an interest in effecting change and improvement, they attack individual people, as though … by undermining the moral qualities of those individuals we also undermine their intellectual position…”

Deborah Tannen suggests that agonistic modes of attack are the prominent route of academic critique. If we look closely at how students engage in the classroom, most are simplifying the points that they or others are making. Class debate and larger academic discourse becomes about tearing down others’ arguments, and it’s a lot easier to tear down than to explore arguments and find nuance. It seems the strategies deployed on the listserv in abusive posts hold similarities to less contentious exchanges. I wonder if agonism is amplified on listservs, where maybe it’s easy to forget that we are speaking to real people?

Research has demonstrated the impact of contention on online group dynamics. Forexample, “women-centered groups whose moderators place restrictions on the number or nature of messages that can be posted, particularly when contentious (challenging, insulting, etc.) messages are discouraged, tend to flourish, with large, active memberships and widespread participation.” Who is less likely to engage from listserv discussion because of contentious or violent exchanges? Those who have been traditionally excluded from the academy?

On several occasions, I’ve read responses to abusive discourse that ask that the conversation take place off the listserv: to send private emails rather than listserv posts. Is it because those comments are seen as unnecessarily clogging up inboxes? Because contention is uncomfortable? Because it’s easier not to know about it? Do these individuals think that all speech is covered by the terms of academic freedom? Do we assume the right to say whatever we want?

My worry: To suggest private exchange as a solution is to propose that abuse is appropriate as long as no one knows about it.

Imagine receiving those emails without witnesses, without a community that will (hopefully) support you. And hierarchies online do matter. If you are a grad student, having a faculty member advocate for you, be in solidarity with you… well, it’s key. I don’t like an inbox full of invective, but I wouldn’t mind an inbox full of messages of support and productive engagement. Doesn’t support and productivity aid in nourishing academic community?

I wonder how these interactions influence how people interact off the listserv. Is this how we are being taught to interact in our departments? To interact with each other in private conversations? If these listserv interactions are partially constitutive of today’s academic freedom, then what does that say about our present state of academic responsibility?

Bonnie Kaserman is a writer, researcher and artist raised in North Carolina. Her blog “(un)becoming academic” is featured on the website for the Canadian higher education publication Academic Matters. In both Canada and the United States, she has been dedicated to Supporting Women in Geography, an organization enhancing the participation of women in the discipline.

Snitches Get Stitches

In Uncategorized on 2011/04/20 at 11:19

Afshan Jafar, writing from Connecticut in the USA.

My older daughter, who is in kindergarten, is one of the gentlest souls I know. She goes around our house picking lady bugs off the floor and putting them on window sills so that we don’t crush them when we walk. A few days ago, while in the girls’ bathroom at school, she was kicked by another girl, between her legs. As soon as it happened, my daughter went screaming to the teacher and told her what had happened. Thankfully my daughter was fine, after a visit to the nurse’s office and an ice pack.

I contrast her behavior with that of college students, who often deal with much worse – hazing (and not just in fraternities and sororities, but also in athletics, theater, and even a capella groups!), ridicule, binge drinking, drug abuse, depression, assault, rape. The only difference is that college students suffer in silence, most of the time. It is a sad irony of our educational system, that as our kids go through it, they learn to be silent instead of outspoken, they learn to look away instead of blowing the whistle. One of my students recently gave me the following example from her elementary school years. During “circle time” the children in her school could either report something good that another student had done, or report something bad that another student had done, with one small difference: when reporting a good deed they could state the person’s name but when reporting a bad deed they were not allowed to mention anybody by name. My daughter and her friends, similarly, are learning, from their teachers, that “tattling” on other kids is a bad thing, unless the other kid does something “really, really, bad”. But how can kids make the distinction between what is “really, really, bad” and what isn’t? Given the right conditions, even adults can’t make the distinction – from lay people willing to administer electric shock to strangers, to soldiers willing to torture and abuse prisoners. But perhaps the problem isn’t so much that we can’t make the distinction between good and bad, but that we have many reasons to stay silent. As one of my students recently told me, “Snitches get stitches”. But a five or six year old in kindergarten hasn’t learnt yet that in order to keep her friends she should cover-up their bad behavior. But kids learn quickly.

In a recent lecture at my college, Michael Kimmel, author of “Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men,” pointed out that precisely at the moments that our students need some adult intervention in their lives, we, as coaches, administrators, and professors tend to disappear. Think about the coach, for instance, who tells his/her team regarding “initiation rituals”: “Don’t discuss this in front of me. I can’t know anything about this.” The message from adults is clear. Be silent—at least in front of us. That a five year old has a louder voice and is willing to use it much more readily than an 18 year old, should be of concern to us. And we should ask ourselves: What can we do to change this culture of silence? What is our responsibility as educators when it comes to teaching students to use their voices, to speak up, to refuse to suffer in silence?

I’m not saying that we all need to become intimately involved in our students’ lives and try to change them. But those of us in the social sciences and humanities at least, know that the subject matter we deal with is intimately connected to the lives of our students. The method and message of our teaching can be potentially transformative. Engaging students in the kind of education where their experiences and perspectives matter, and where they are encouraged to speak, question, participate, argue, disagree is one small way of encouraging a new identity in our students: one that is not based in silence, conformity, or passivity.

Once we acknowledge that we as educators have an immense responsibility on our shoulders, to listen to our students, to not treat them as another face in the crowd, to not make them into passive beings, we make the move from education that merely results in a degree to an education that is personal, transformative and meaningful. The kind of education where “life” becomes part of the subject of teaching and teaching becomes a part of “life”. Perhaps this is how we teach our students to regain their voices that we as educators encouraged them to silence a long, long time ago.

Connecticut in the USA

Afshan Jafar is a regular contributor at University of Venus and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Connecticut College. Her research and teaching interests are cultural globalization, gender, religious fundamentalism, and trans-national women’s movements. Her forthcoming book, Women’s NGOs in Pakistan, uncovers the overwhelming challenges facing women’s NGOs and examines the strategies used by them to ensure not just their survival but an acceptance of their messages by the larger public. She can be reached at

Two Lawsuits and a Funeral

In Ponderings of a Peregrine Pinoy Professor on 2011/04/19 at 10:37

Rosalie Arcala Hall, writing from Miagao, Iloilo, Philippines

Recently, two events engendered some serious self-reflection on my “why I am in the teaching profession” question: two landmark sexual harassment cases against colleagues and the sudden death of a retired Political Science professor. They expose the lack of a clear sense of private/public boundaries among academics with respect to their students, and the good or evil that arises from it. In a society such as ours where the power exerted by the teacher inside the classroom is rarely contested by students (nor by colleagues under the guise of “academic freedom”), a significant amount of impropriety in student-teacher relationship goes unnoticed or simply brushed aside.

When news about the sexual harassment cases first became available, I was outraged over what appeared to be a culture of silence and denial; it seemed that administrators and colleagues turned a blind eye over swirls of pregnant rumors because there is NO written complaint. This was despite the highly public Facebook comment thread discussion about the practices and multiple victims of the nameless harassers. Because of the emphasis on social harmony, nobody (not even our University’s gender office) has had the balls to confront the alleged harassers although their reputation was widely known. For many years, students were left to navigate this moral land mine by avoiding the teachers themselves; with hapless victims finding no recourse except in the anonymity of Facebook pages. I was equally alarmed by the knowledge that despite the presence of a decade-old legal framework in the university against sexual harassment, certain innocuous “practices” have been allowed to persist despite clear impropriety: dating students, making students submit papers/assignments or “consult” in their homes or beyond official university hours, exchanging highly personal email and SMS communications with students with no academic bearing, the list goes on.

The morass in which the community sunk because of these cases stood in sharp contrast to the testimonies during the necrological services of a former professor who was legendary for his irreverence and eccentric but unquestionable bond with his students. He terrorized students with his Socratic methods; he forced students to question conventions. On the drinking table and out-of-classroom excursions (involving alcohol), he nurtured young minds and built lasting friendships. At his final resting place, many came to pay him tribute: former students now Senators, mayors, lawyers, businessmen flying in from Manila and Mindanao. A Facebook page created upon his death brought an outpouring of sentiments from hundreds whose lives he touched. Here was a man who took the seriousness of teaching to heart– spending money for booze and meal subsidies on students too poor to make it through four years of college. His practices were unquestionably improper by any standard, but he was never accused of a breach of trust.

The harassers and the unforgettable mentor were products of a system that has no clear normative standards of “boundaries” in the relationship between students and teachers. It is also a system that conveniently ignores the inherent power asymmetry in a student-teacher relationship constraining, nay making it impossible for a romantic or friendly bond to exist that is not tinged with malice. There is a misunderstanding that the job of a teacher is to be friends with students. It is not, although one can certainly hope of such as a by-product. At best, teachers should endeavor not to break the students’ trust and to provide useful guidance.

In my two decades in the profession, my students have been no more than a parade of faceless entries in a grade sheet I have the occasion to seriously ponder upon only at that moment. I hardly remember their names, except perhaps if they had written such exceptionally crafted term papers or thesis projects. I take care of my conduct to avoid even the appearance of impropriety; I never socialized with students outside the classroom. I don’t expect to be a subject of a sexual harassment complaint nor would I expect my students to gush endearments at my funeral. Occasionally, I get an ego boost from former students who remember me and say something positive about me years after they graduate. Toeing the invisible line of academic conduct makes for an uneventful life.

Power, Passion, and Pedagogy

In Uncategorized on 2011/04/07 at 22:11

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe, writing from Evanston, Illinois in the USA

Most readers of Inside Higher Ed know of the fracas that followed an x-rated, after-class demonstration for a psychology course at Northwestern. I was not there and leave it for others to judge whether Professor Bailey crossed a critical line between the educational and the exploitative. However, I think the international attention given the event reflects its perfect storm of academia’s greatest sensitivities.

Sex and scholarship persist as a potent combination. Harvard has grappled most openly with the long tradition of physical affairs born of pedagogical relationships. The poster-couple held up to defend these unions as the natural products of shared passions – a opposed to the seductive nature of power whether wielded with guns or grades – remains the illustrious economist John Kenneth Galbraith and his student turned spouse, Catherine. Anyone working in the academy knows more recent examples of classroom conversations concluded between bed sheets.

These heterosexual scholars’ unions play to traditional romantic fantasies of male mentors rescuing shy yet smart girls (Mr. Rochester and his Jane) or honing the rough edges of the precocious but unpolished (Henry Higgins and his Eliza). We may question the power relations in the resulting unions (I intentionally employ the possessive above), but they underscore as opposed to overturn normative assumptions about sex. In the days before such seductions raised eyebrows, a bright young woman at whom no instructor made a sexual advance questioned the attractiveness of her brain and her body.

The homo-social nature of many education institutions from ancient Athens to post-war Princeton raised the spectre of homosexual relations hidden among the ivy. This nexus of power, passion, and pedagogy proved more threatening to the veneer of upward mobility via the university. Send your sons or daughters into a homo-social institution and they might stay for the protection of a homo-sexual safety zone. For parents petrified of ‘perversion,’ this possibility invoked terror in a way the prospect of their daughter’s wedding to a respected professor never could. In Germany, such a daughter would bear the lofty title “Frau Professor Doktor.” Her gay brother might be a Professor Doktor, but his partner would never gain public recognition let alone his title. No progeny would secure familial status when the aggrieved would-be grandparents had gone to their graves.

The academy continues to roil with anxiety over permuted passions. David Brooks recently wrote that “people learn from people they love.” The comment contains the best and worst that higher educational institutions have to offer. Students must love to learn; instructors must love to teach; but the line between the types of love is far more fragile than CS Lewis would like to believe. In 1993, an editorial in the Harvard Crimson declared, “One of the biggest sparks for any relationship can come from shared interests. Isn’t it logical that such commonality could be found between an instructor who teaches a particular course and a pupil with enthusiasm for the subject matter?” Physical passions can indeed ignite from intellectual ones, but the differential in power between pedagogues and pupils ought to extinguish the flames no matter how noble.

Allowed to burn, the ring of fire encircles far more than the lovers. The special student’s special relationship enrages peers. The faculty philanderer makes his or her colleagues check every movement and comment for fear that they too will be thought to desire more than a student’s ideas. We talk with doors open and desks between us to avoid the slightest sniff of impropriety.

I think parents’ fear that their sons and daughters will engage in ill-advised sexual dalliances on campus played a greater role in the Bailey brouhaha’s appearance on the BBC homepage than their disgust at those sons’ and daughters’ view of an non-collegiate couple’s ‘deviant’ behavior. Professor Bailey projected the sexual tension that runs through much of academic life on stage in living color. It reminded everyone of the potential for pedagogical relationships to harbor sexual content, and the world squirmed.


The Natural End of Schooling

In Guest Blogger on 2011/04/03 at 02:07

Guest blogger, Susan Blum, writing from Notre Dame, Indiana in the USA

Amy Chua’s endlessly discussed Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift have provoked much questioning: What’s wrong with parents? What’s wrong with students?

What has not really been asked is, What’s wrong with school?

As an anthropologist studying education, I have learned that formal schooling is a fairly unusual way to accomplish something that all societies have to do: prepare the young for their lives. It is true that a kind of formal schooling existed among elites in ancient Greece and Rome, or for the few extraordinary boys in imperial China, and persists for religious Jews or Muslims. Teachers assemble students of a certain age or level of knowledge, with a curriculum linked to specific needs, such as preparation for civil service positions, participation in democratic processes, or religious practice.

Aside from these experiments, most young humans learn what they need to by watching, attempting, carrying out small tasks, or sometimes undergoing an apprenticeship. This kind of learning is well suited to the natural ways humans learn. According to Howard Gardner in The Unschooled Mind and Daniel Willingham in Why Don’t Children Like School?, powerful evolutionary and neurological forces favor imitation and physicality, which we find in traditional forms of learning—or when children learn to play the guitar from their friends and learn to cook from watching their elders.

We fight against them, though, in the two-decade-long school-centered life that we impose on virtually all of our young, and increasingly around the world. Contemporary schooling emphasizes the abstract over the concrete, the mental over the physical, the theoretical over the practical. Students rarely use any of their knowledge. It is for “someday in the future”—or, failing that, for the test.

I have come to believe, though, that even those who are the victors in the testing game—such as “tiger mother” Chua—lose something. They lose the joy of absorption in a task, the satisfaction of learning something they love or need or want. Meaning and motivation are replaced by something imposed from outside: approval, grades, credentials, diplomas.

It is easy to see the limits of humanity coming up against the inhumane edifice of monolithic schooling. We see it in young children medicated so that they can sit still for hours at a time, or in college students skating through their required, and often resented, courses while they immerse themselves willingly in extracurricular activities.

Tinkering around the edges will make no difference. Many recent changes, such as No Child Left Behind or the increasing competitive admissions of the most select colleges, have brought us to the brink.

Increasingly, people are fed up. Parents are homeschooling or even “unschooling” their children—removing them entirely from the realm of schooling. More high school and college students are taking “gap years,” desperate for relief from the relentless grind of schedules and competition and external judgment. Anya Kamenetz in DIY U argues that many don’t even need college for economic survival and success. Economists wonder if higher education contributes anything at all to students’ lives. Students continue to drop out, or fail to complete degrees.

Having spent my entire life in school, as student and professor, and now as a parent, I have watched some children and young adults thrive and many struggle. I used to think the good ones succeeded and the ones who failed “deserved” it. Now I worry about those who succeed in a system that rewards docility, pleasing others, always doing things in the hopes of getting a gold star. The rebels have a stronger spirit, I think. In my own teaching I am more compassionate about the ones who resist and more skeptical about the ones who go along.

I still love learning, reading, writing, arguing. I work hard to connect my students’ lives to material I have spent my own life investigating, and sometimes individuals catch fire. There is nothing more remarkable than the transformation that happens when somebody begins to see the world in a new way. But I no longer think that schooling has a monopoly on this, and I am encouraged by all the ways our young find to manage their own energies, curiosity, and passion, often outside the walls of our institutions or our classrooms. I am awed by the fervor with which students devote themselves to justice or art, devoting hours and days to things they really care about.

But it should also give us pause, as we think about schooling as the sole path for all. It is no wonder that students are “academically adrift”; the academic path has not compelled them, so they wander off in search of more genuine learning, not just exercises that are imposed from above.

If we open the gates, how many roads will be available?

Susan Blum is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, having taught in every time zone in the US, and having been in school all her life. She turned her anthropological eye from the study of China (ethnicity, nationalism, truth and deception) to the study of student authorship in the context of college in her book My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture (2009), but now is obsessed with the study of education and its underpinnings. Her current project is titled Learning versus Schooling: A Professor’s Re-education.


I Didn’t Expect to Make Friends

In Graduate Studies & Students on 2011/03/29 at 05:52

Deanna England, writing from Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada

I’m currently in a class entitled Children, Desire and Fear; this is in addition to my Erotica Special Studies course. The two frequently overlap, and as the year has progressed, the entire cohort now knows that erotica is one of my research passions. I no longer hide behind the much safer interest in “cultural inscriptions on the body as text,” a la Susan Bordo.

I also created a Facebook group for the cohort so we wouldn’t have to bore our non-academic friends with constant class discussions on our walls. This has turned out to be one of the best things I did for myself this year, and I didn’t even realize its benefits at the time. Not only has it allowed me to actually embrace the group and interact with them on a more social level, but it has also given me a space to see what they’re thinking and feeling.

For both courses I’ve been assigned films to watch – if you’re interested: Chloe for the porn class and The Good Son for the other. As I’m sure you all know, after endlessly staring at the same piece of writing for hours, days, weeks (months?) on end, it is easy to lose perspective on whether it makes any sense. I lamented something like this to the group and found that not only were they willing to read over my paper, but they were genuinely interested in doing so.

I had distanced myself from the group to such an extent that I had forgotten the basic fact that people are developing relationships during this time. This is an amazing group of individuals who share similar research interests, and not only might they find it interesting to read someone else’s work, it may also be useful to see how someone else puts together a project that they themselves have to do.

What a delightful revelation. And what fantastic feedback: from “uh Deanna – where’s yourthesis for this paper?” (Oops!) to “you may want to consider looking at Chloe’s hair, and what that represents…” Absolutely. Not only can I envy that hair – I could write about it too!

And then personal trauma and the inevitable (according to my advisor) fear of failure and the accompanying melt-down occurred. I’d convinced myself that I’d made a mistake, I couldn’t handle this degree. I used to have a life. And friends. And no back pain. And TV! I miss TV. And why am I so obsessed with porn anyhow?

This week I didn’t go to class. I met with my advisor to discuss The Delta of Venus and The Bloody Chamber then begged to go home. She gave me leave to eat chicken soup, watch girly movies and relax. I went home and I cried. And tried to figure out what I was doing with my life. I read a bit of The Lost Girls and cried some more. And I ate cake.

But what actually made me pick myself up and realize that I wanted to carry on? I received an unexpected visit from three of the women in my class yesterday. They showed up in my office ostensibly with additions to their travel grant applications – but also because they were concerned. I tried dodging the question when they asked how I was, but I failed. They are intelligent and perceptive. Dodging didn’t work. They insisted that I attend the party being thrown that night and would take no other answer – they would pick me up and that’s all there was to it. One of them rubbed my back and hugged me while the others closed my office door and let me cry a bit more.

I didn’t expect to make friends in this program. I thought I had to distance myself from everything in the spirit of avoiding conflicts of interest. I’m glad that it didn’t work out that way.

Communication, not Edutainment

In Uncategorized on 2011/03/06 at 12:48

Guest blogger,  Melonie Fullick, writing from Toronto, Canada

How do we, as tutorial leaders or professors, deal with the revelation that students find classes or entire subject areas “boring?” And to what extent is it our responsibility to get them “interested?” These were questions that came to mind as I read Itir Toksöz’s recent UVenus post about “academic boredom”. While she was discussing the boredom she experiences in conversation with colleagues, my first thought was that boredom is not just (potentially) a problem for and with academics, but also for students.

I see boredom as something other than a mere lack of interest. I think of it as a stand-in for frustration, which can, in turn, stem from a sense of exclusion from the material, from the discussion, from the class, from understanding the point of it all; ultimately an exclusion from the enjoyment of learning. This can happen when the material is too challenging, or when the student doesn’t really want to be in the class for some reason.

Boredom is sometimes about fear, the fear of failing and looking “stupid” in front of the instructor and one’s peers. In other cases it can also be a symptom that someone is far beyond the discussion and in need of a deeper or a more challenging conversation. All these things can be called “boredom” but often they are more like communicative gaps in need of bridging.

In other words, boredom is often a mask for something else. We need to remove this mask, because of the negative effects of boredom on the learning environment and process. It causes people to “tune out” from what’s happening, and in almost every case it creates or is accompanied by resentment for the teacher/professor and/or for the other students. As a psychological problem, this makes boredom one of the greatest puzzles of teaching, and one of those problems that most demands attention.

It’s even more important to uncover the causes of boredom now that many students have access to wireless Internet and to Blackberries and iPhones, in the classroom. Professors and TAs complain that students are less attentive than ever while in class, because of this attachment to their devices—something I’ve encountered first-hand with my current tutorial group.

I think the attachment to gadgetry comes not from the technology itself, but from the students. In my blog I’ve written about the issue with students using technology to “tune out” during lectures, and they do it in tutorial as well; they’re “present, yet absent”. To understand this behaviour we need to keep in mind that the lure of the online (social) world is reasonable from the students’ perspective. Popular media and established social networks are accessible and entertaining, and provide positive feedback as well as a sense of comfortable familiarity. Learning is hard work, and the academic world is often alienating, difficult, and demanding. It’s all-too-easy to crumple under the feeling of failure or exclusion. Facebook is welcoming and easy to use, while critical theory is not.

The other side of this equation is that in the process of negotiating and overcoming “boredom” there’s a certain point at which I can meet students halfway, as it were—but I can’t go beyond that point. Like everything else in teaching and learning, boredom is a two-way street, and the instructor is the one who needs to maintain the boundary of responsibility. I’m not there merely to provide an appealing performance, which leads to superficial “engagement.” I’m not “edutainment”.

However, I think it’s part of my job when teaching to “open a door” to a topic or theory or set of ideas. I can’t make you walk through that door (horse to water, etc.) but I can surely do my best to make sure you have the right address and a key that fits the lock. And that means using different strategies if the ones I choose don’t seem to be working.

Holding this view about boredom certainly doesn’t mean I’ve solved the problems with student attention in class; I’m reminded of that frequently. It just means I have an approach to dealing with the problem that treats their boredom as something for which there’s mutual responsibility. In an ideal learning environment there must also be mutual respect—but unfortunately mutual “boredom” is easier and often wins the day. My hope is to help cultivate the former by finding ways of unraveling the latter.

Toronto, Ontario in Canada.

Melonie Fullick is currently a Ph.D student working on research in post-secondary education, policy and governance. She previously earned a BA in Communication Studies (2006) and an MA in Linguistics (2007). She can be found in virtual space on Twitter [@qui_oui] and in the blogosphere [ and

Tiger Mothers and Superficial Scholars

In Uncategorized on 2011/03/04 at 23:30

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe, writing from Evanston, Illinois in the USA

In my role as a fellowships adviser, I have a motto: think laterally – not literally. “Tiger mothers” as described by Amy Chua enshrine literal thinking of the kind that dooms overachievers when tested outside the realm of the rote. Such tiger cubs are the “superficial scholars” of whom Rhodes Scholarship selector Heather Wilson complains and with whom I work to overcome the soul-shattering terror imposed by tiger parents of whatever ethnicity. I think the replies Dr. Wilson labels superficial reveal tiger cubs’ inability to offer their own opinions. Petrified of getting the ‘wrong’ answer about something as fraught as “what is worth killing for,” they say something simplistically ‘right.’ To a tiger cub, “I don’t know” means I don’t know Dr. Wilson’s answer, because she, in loco tigris parentis, conveys the authority to determine what is correct.

Practice makes for a particular kind of perfection. Repeat your multiplication tables until you memorize them and read historical time-lines until you remember the Americans revolted in 1776 and the French in 1789. However, the interpretive spark that makes a brilliant mathematician or political theorist does not ignite from memorization alone. You need to master the rules in order to break them. Tiger parents cultivate the former without opening their cubs’ eyes to the possibility of the later. The memorization and mastery of some preexisting ‘correct’ method and answer offers academic means without an educational end.

Practice scholarship interviews for tiger cubs typically close with the interviewee stating in frustration, “I didn’t know what answer you wanted.” She cannot imagine a question to which no ‘right’ answer exists and for which she therefore cannot prepare by memorizing it. I have to teach the cubs to answer based on what they know, think, and even – shock – feel. Anecdotes from the play dates Professor Chua prohibits offer better fodder for a fulsome answer to a query about the human condition than endless hours pounding out chords on a piano. We have all heard child prodigies play with technical precision but an emotional tin ear. I offer a crash course on the possibilities tucked within the ‘wrong’ answer for the honest, the innovative, and even the right.

Thus, I agree with New York Times’ columnist David Brooks’ assessment that “Amy Chua is a wimp.” She protects and prescribes a form of emotional coddling amidst her abuse. A child can physically survive being locked out of the house in the snow and being called “garbage.” The child will learn to practice and to please mommy in order to avoid insults to body and soul. Tiger cubs have this form of tenacity in spades. If I just work hard enough, I will succeed. I owe the one who ‘helped’ me for everything I have. Unfortunately, they are wrong.

You can work hard and fail – think Sisyphus. When you succeed, no one person deserves the credit – think Armstrong on the moon. Children learn these lessons through interaction with their peers – in clubs, on teams, at parties. Novel situations force us to cross-apply what we do know onto the unknown (lateral thinking); it is scary. Nothing disturbs me more than when a student who says she wanted to win something for me, because I worked hard to prepare her. If a student says that, I know she missed the point of the exercise. I want to make my advisees trust their own instincts, their own worth, their own ideas, and their own limitations while valuing those of the people around them.

In my role as a mentor to fellowship applicants, I experience something similar to a mother of multiples. I wonder how Professor Chua would feel if she had twins and only one of her cubs could be top of the class. No doubt she would expect them to share in equal glory, but there are circumstances that proscribe such an outcome. How would she handle the child who came second in a fair match? I work with multiple candidates. Some win; some don’t. As a result, I want each candidate who sits across a table from Dr. Wilson or some other selector to leave the conversation with the confidence that she answered each question true to her own essential self – not with an answer she thinks her mother, her interviewer, or I would give. Someone else’s answer will sound superficial and is alwayswrong. Just ask Professor Chua, who admits her parenting techniques not only break cultural norms but quite possibly the law.


Faithfulness and Personal Integrity

In Graduate Studies & Students on 2011/02/26 at 23:58

Deanna England, writing from Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada

I remember my first class as an undergraduate: Intro to Psychology. Wide-eyed and ready to vanquish the world from psychological trauma, I eagerly anticipated the first life-altering words to come from my professor’s illustrious lips. I waited with bated breath as he introduced himself and asked us all to settle in – and then? After a brief mention of the syllabus, he carried on about plagiarism and cheating and the like.

I remember being sceptical of the entire concept of plagiarism. I mean, how would they really know if I was doing it? (Not that I ever would of course!) They can’t have memorized every article about everything. Impossible. However as a consequence of many repetitions of this speech, I did spend a large part of my undergraduate career in mild apprehension that I would not attribute a quote accurately or sufficiently and be accused of such.

I look back now and find it laughable that I could have possibly considered my own writing to be of such high calibre that it wouldn’t be immediately apparent if I engaged in such behaviour. But even more than amused, I’m actually kind of sad. This topic seems to have encroached on my domain with increasing regularity of late. From punitive letters I’ve recently had to file, to research on the topic for our graduate studies policies, to this article written last month by one of our UVenus writers.

While reading that UVenus post, I was reflecting on it both as a student and as an employee of the University. I found that even in both roles, I was quite surprised by both the content of the article, and even more so by the comments.

I am exhausted. Working full-time and taking two courses this semester is sapping my energy and making me a significantly less delightful person to be around. And yet, I took it on – which means that any regrets must be swallowed and I remind myself that it’s temporary and the reward will make it worthwhile. The thought never occurs to me to ask for paper extensions, to complain about a grade, nor to feel I’m owed any kind of special consideration.

So to see a comment on that post implying that the writer is in some way responsible for the multiple acts of plagiarism that she experienced is appalling to me. Seriously? This is what students have been reduced to? Innocent children who don’t know that cheating is wrong? Wow.

What are we really teaching them? Is our concern for their self-esteem more important than teaching them the valuable lesson of consequences, deadlines and pride in their work? Once they leave the education system, it’s certainly not the responsibility of their future employer to nurture them through behaviour that is damaging to the organization. It will come as a real shock to these students when the real world sends them to the unemployment line, gives them poor credit ratings, or sends them to jail for missing deadlines, missing payments or cheating.

It seems to me that these cheating students are missing the point. It’s not to get an A; the point is to learn; to be enriched by education; to hand in a piece of work and to know that they earned that grade. Something inside of them created that scholarly work, a work completely unique to them. This is work that was reviewed and assessed and critiqued by someone who has been through the same experiences, someone who does have wisdom, someone in whom they should place their trust that whatever feedback they receive is worth weighing and internalizing and responding to in turn.

It’s the journey, not the destination.

So to all you instructors out there who are lenient with your students in the spirit of offering them nurturing guidance –I urge you to re-consider. Do you really think that students don’tknow that cheating is wrong? I think laying down firm consequences is actually teaching them – perhaps not a lesson that you had on your syllabus, but a practical life lesson that will help them no matter where future paths take them.

Messy Lives

In Information Minoration on 2011/02/24 at 11:16

Heather Alderfer, writing from New Haven, Connecticut in the USA

A big part of what I like about being a Registrar is bringing order to chaos. Whether it is tackling room scheduling for dozens of classes for an entire semester or de-mystifying degree audits, I can usually bring my experience and framework of advice from trusted colleagues to offer solutions. I’ve written about battling the culture of “no” in my profession, but increasingly, I’m finding it more and more difficult to see my interactions in black and white.

Perhaps it is because I am working more with students and less with the abstract, easily containable curriculum that leads me to feel there are fewer right answers and more nuanced interpretations. Perhaps it is because my current school is a small world within a larger university, and it is likely the student I am facing across the counter will be in the coffee-shop I frequent, or (more likely) back in my office sooner rather than later.

I’ve stayed away from Student Affairs issues and positions, remembering what a Dean told me when I was still a student: “I deal with 10% of the students 90% of the time.” As a Registrar, I get to see the whole careers of students laid out on transcripts at graduation. I get to sort and pivot the whole curriculum, seeing patterns and finding errors. It’s the human side of things that gets messy. From plagiarism to failures (yes, despite grade inflation, there are still “F”s) to complex family financial situations, students often willingly tell us more information than is necessary for the question they are seeking to resolve – in loco parentis. We are also the ones who help faculty deal with “ghost students” once grades are due.

Read the rest at Inside Higher Ed (link here)


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