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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's Resolution: Stop trying to be perfect

The other day I described the image I have in my head of the perfect professor. Realistically, I know that such a person doesn't really exist, at least not all in one body. But somewhere, deep down, I think I believe that such a person could be real; more disturbingly, I've realized that some part of me believes I should be able to become such a professor.

I began thinking about this when I found myself getting all worked up about a series of emails I got from a particular student at the end of the semester. There was nothing particularly surprising about these emails - the student was upset to have received a B+ when he felt he 'deserved' an A. Of course he had to tell me that this is the ONLY class in which he got less than an A, and pointed out that based on his performance on exams, he clearly knows the material (he did have very high scores on his exams). But he was missing a couple of assignments and had missed enough classes (i.e., had clicker scores of zero) that his overall score for the semester was an 89%. The student insisted that he actually did those missing assignments, they just weren't recorded by the computer (one was a Blackboard survey from the beginning of the semester and one was an Aplia experiment). To be honest, if the student's attitude were not so entitled and demanding, I would probably have been happy to make an exception and be done with it. Instead, every time an email from him showed up in my inbox, I found myself getting very anxious and annoyed.

How does all this tie into my belief in the Perfect Professor? Well, I began to wonder why I was letting this student - and others like him - get to me. I mean, sure, his attitude is immature, but he's also 19 and used to getting straight A's without working very hard, so what do I expect? But I couldn't just shrug it off, and something about my reaction felt personal, like I was taking this all as a personal affront. And the more I thought about it, the more I kept coming back to one thought, "This would never happen to B." B. is a professor who is known for being an amazing teacher, the kind that gets the highest ratings in the department while students tell other students that his class is the hardest they've ever taken but they learned a ton. I'm not saying he's the perfect professor I described before but I realized that every time I encounter difficult students, some part of me thinks that if I were as good a teacher as B., I wouldn't have these problems. And so every time I encounter difficult students, I do take it personally - I take it as an indication that I am not the teacher I want to be.

Now, is this realistic or logical? Of course not, on many levels. But it's there nonetheless, and I've realized that this may be one source of my high levels of stress this fall. However, now that I'm more aware that this is part of what's been driving my stress, maybe I'll be able to do something about it. At least that's the plan - we'll see if it lasts past the first week of classes...

Happy New Year!


  1. I think that nearly every professor who cares about their students, even your Professor B, gets emails from students like the ones you describe.

    Last month, I got an email from a student in my first year seminar who said,

    "I don't understand how I got a C+ when I did all the work, came to class, and participated."

    I got another one from a student in my research methodology course asking how he could have received an F.

    The C+ student engaged only superficially with the course, though I think she believed she was working hard. The student who failed came to class about half the time, turned in about half the assignments, and wrote a research paper that was only mediocre, accumulating 50 points toward the final grade.

    I think the common element in all these cases is a disconnect between what students think is required in a course (or what constitutes A, B or C-level work), and what the instructor thinks.

    The solution is to find a way to mold students' expectations with the reality of your courses. Barbara Ganley (late of Middlebury College) modelled this process well in her composition courses, where she essentially calibrated students' expectations with her standards by helping her students explore what good writing is.

    We all need to think about ways to do that with our own students in the contexts of our own disciplines. It's not necessarily easy, but it is worthwhile.

  2. Yes! I have definitely seen that disconnect about expectations! It makes me realize that one thing I need to do is think harder about what exactly do I think should constitute A, B or C work, which I obviously need to have clear in my own head before I can even begin to try to convey that to my students.


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