Teaching

The awfulness of awful (update)

(First posted in winter 2017) For more than 20 years I have been teaching writing and research at community colleges and universities in the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington State, and the DC metro area. Students always have had the opportunity to write end-of-the-semester evaluations of my courses, which I dread with open arms. But in recent years they also have been able to express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with me on an extremely popular, high-profile site called Rate My Professors. And these ratings seem to carry as much, if not more, weight than college evaluations do — at least in the court of very public opinion.

While many professors who have received negative reviews on this site might dismiss them as the biased rants of disgruntled students, they would have to be made of granite if they did not feel somewhat besieged or besmirched — not least because these reviews typically appear at the top of the first page of a Google search.

Because I have worked so hard to be a worthy teacher, and because I have done my best to develop respectful relationships with my students, I feel fortunate that I have received largely positive college and online reviews through the years. In fact, if truth be told this has been a source of not a little pride that privately I have held fast to, especially during periods when I have felt less successful in other areas of my life.

Occasionally I will check the site, and from time to time I will find that I have been rewarded with a new, and typically lovely, evaluation. Then, a few days ago I went to it and, to my great horror, for the first time saw the dreaded red scowly face with its corresponding “awful” emblazoned at the tippy top of my list of reviews.

These reviews are anonymous, so I could see only that it was from someone who had taken a course I have not taught since fall 2016. “My God,” I thought. “This student has been waiting to pounce for nearly a year!” My heart was pounding as I read “takes her time” (though this did not strike me as an especially negative quality) and “unhelpful” and “move on if you want an easy A.”

It was painful to know that future students would see this neon red face as soon as they entered my page, and I felt I had to try and do something to protect myself from a faceless, nameless someone who was bent on shredding my reputation. But, I also felt at the mercy of this masked student and of Rate My Professors itself, so my imagination failed me until a small voice from beyond whispered, “Write a rebuttal.” Which I proceeded to do.

Although I did not identify myself as the offended professor (and also was in “Incognito” mode on Chrome), I said that I thought the student review seemed defamatory in light of the other positive reviews, and I also said that there was little of substance to give prospective students a good sense of why the teacher deserved such a low rating from this one student.

I did not really expect anything to come of it, but I felt I had to try something to salve my wound. In fact, having tried years ago, and without any success, to get Google to remove my doctoral dissertation abstract from its search engine, I thought snowballs in Hell would remain intact before this nightmare review disappeared.

Then, the next day I checked the site and saw it had been taken down.


UPDATE: Yesterday, I received my second “awful” on Rate My Professors from a student who dropped a class I am now teaching:

I took the hybrid class, and she gives an average of 3-4 assignments per week. Both of the English classes I took are hybrid, and she makes English class 10x harder than it should be. She is detailed but picky. So if you want a professor that creates a one full page instruction for only a week’s homework, very detailed, willing to help, go for it.

Academic freedom, my ahem

impostor

Academic freedom is the right of teachers and students to express their ideas in the classroom or in writing, free from political, religious, or institutional restrictions, even if these ideas are unpopular. (Source)

Some 20 years ago I began teaching at a community college in northern California, where I made up for in enthusiasm what I lacked in experience and skill. At the time, I taught several writing courses, with their state-mandated emphasis on “critical thinking,” and I accepted the challenge of opening a mind or two with whatever latchkey I could find in my bag of teacher tricks. It delighted me, I confess, to lob a juicy controversy into the middle of a classroom and to see how students would react—though always my goal was to encourage new, and perhaps more expanded, ways of thinking and feeling about a thing.

During those early teaching years, the only challenge to academic freedom that I experienced came as a result of a short-lived edict from college officials demanding that we turn in any student we suspected of being an illegal immigrant. I remember saying to myself, and to anyone else who would listen, that I would go to prison before I participated in such a betrayal.

Some years later, I was teaching at a northern Virginia university, where, because of 9/11, there existed on campus a burgeoning paranoia that apparently frightened the administration. As a result, we were told to keep our noses clean and our political opinions to ourselves. Although I have never been one to express my political views to students, this silencing did not sit well with me, but I did as I was told since I was an adjunct faculty member without the job security tenure confers.

After a hiatus of several years, I have recently gone back to teaching writing part time at a community college, and I am faced with another insidious challenge to academic freedom, one that is “undirected and driven largely by students” and that aims “to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense” (Source).

Now, it seems, one can be called to the dean’s office for using a word like “violate” in the classroom (even if in the context of teaching about the law) because it might “cause student distress.” And one cannot ask another where he or she was born for fear that such a question might somehow suggest this person “is not a real American.” And one might think twice about asking students to read classic works of literature like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby because the former “describes racial violence” while the latter “portrays misogyny and physical abuse,” which “might ‘trigger’ a recurrence of past trauma” in “students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence” (Source).

While this backlash against teachers has received more recent press at four-year universities and colleges, those of us who teach at community colleges will no doubt soon need to begin fearing how an errant remark or a misguided reading assignment might affect the long-term emotional well-being of our students. A few days ago, I sent my students home with an assignment to read an article about why ISIS has been successful in recruiting westerners (our theme for the semester is “identity and belonging”). Now I find I am wondering about when I will need to proceed at my own risk should I again wish to assign a reading like this.

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Montana 1948: a novel

readingSome years ago, I taught a literature course in which, among other works, we read Montana 1948, a powerful novel by Larry Watson. The book sparked interesting class discussions over a period of several weeks, though none more intriguing — to me at least — than the one that took place after I found myself reminding students we were talking about a work of fiction, which meant the story, though written in the first person, was not true.

One student, a very quiet young man who always sat in the way back, seemed not to have understood that the book was entirely spun out of sugar and air until he heard my jolting reminder. When my words registered with him, he looked as though I had punched him low and hard. Because he had all along believed the story to be true, he said he felt betrayed — so much so that he told us he would never again read another novel. Other students said they also felt bamboozled, though no one else vowed to give up on fiction for good.

Even when I was a very young and inexperienced writer of fiction and poetry, I often got twisted around this idea of truth-telling and wondered what it actually meant for me to be an honest writer of made-up stories and poems. Over time, I have come to think that truth-telling is any writer’s true north and that sensitive readers will know an honest piece of writing, no matter the genre, by the way it makes them feel. Judging by the student responses in my class, I’d say Larry Watson’s compass needle was stuck on “N” all the while he was writing Montana 1948.

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