Today I’ve been thinking about how sympathy affects my teaching.
I remembered an incident that happened the first time I was the instructor of record of ENGL 201. Following protocol, on the first day of class, I announced that anyone who anticipated difficulty in completing assignments should come and speak to me–that is, those who needed accommodations or those who might be missing class for legitimate reasons, including players on varsity sports teams. As it turns out, I had about five varsity players in my class: three on the women’s soccer team, and two on the men’s football team. I told each of them that if they were going to be away, they could get in touch, and please come to my office hours if they needed to catch up on the course material.
For the three soccer players, this seemed to work admirably–or maybe it didn’t. I don’t recall that they ever got in touch over missing class or needing extensions, so I assumed they were coping with their course load and my own requirements. Maybe they weren’t; I don’t know, because I believe they did well in the course, whatever challenges it presented.
For the two football players, however, there were difficulties, and these were compounded over the course of the semester by what I saw (at the time) as the students’ lack of communication. These students were more likely to miss class, but rarely came to my office hours to follow up. When they requested extensions, I took their varsity schedule into account and granted them. But at the end of the semester, both students were struggling. Their assignments were poorly written, not necessarily in terms of writing skill, but, it seemed, in terms of understanding what I was asking for. Since I’d spent entire class periods going over the assignment requirements, not to mention one class in three working on grammar and writing conventions with the students, I was ready to throw up my hands.
It was only at the end of the semester that each student came to me, with their C- averages, and told me that they were likely to lose their academic scholarships because of my class. (Not, I note even now, because of their work in my class.) When I explained to one student that I’d noticed his absence during class when we’d focused on how to structure essays–a skill he clearly found challenging–he burst out, “That’s because I was travelling with the team!” As it turned out, for weekend games, he was regularly out of town on Fridays: the day I’d consistently set aside each week for writing instruction.
At the time, I felt there wasn’t much I could do for him. His writing was borderline, at best, and I felt I’d already been generous in not failing him on assignments where what he’d written and what the assignment called for didn’t match in the slightest. I told him about the appeal procedure, but let him know that I wouldn’t be changing his grade myself. I know he was upset, but I felt righteous, justified: hadn’t I explained on the very first day of class that student athletes needed to be responsible for their own catch-up work? Didn’t my week-by-week schedule explain what part of essay writing we were going to cover every Friday of the term? Other varsity players–the soccer team members I’d never heard from–had managed. So surely this first year, non-major, Fall semester student was in the wrong, and I was in the right.
Yet it seems to me now that there was a failure of sympathy on my part. I think it came from several directions. First, I’m sure the narrative of “the jock” resentfully expecting better grades simply due to athletic skill affected me. Second, there were incidents during the semester that coloured my impression of him. He’d come in five minutes late for a reading quiz one morning, scribbled a few incomplete answers, then left class as soon as the quiz was over, missing the discussion entirely. In another moment, a football coach had come to my class to hand in this student’s assignment on his behalf. Both moments certainly made me feel as though my class–as though I–was a nuisance and a bother.
My expectations came from my prior knowledge. As a graduate student, I knew the value of office hours. Undergraduate students as a group aren’t always confident enough, or even aware enough, to know what office hours even are, let alone how to take advantage of them. It was my first time crafting assignments of my own: it’s entirely possible I didn’t meet the students where they were, and that the instructions were unclear. And, of course, I never reached out directly to these students, despite knowing that they were falling behind.
I don’t have a solution for this, except to say that too often, I suppose, teachers presume that students are malingering. The “rash of dead grandmothers” that we expect around mid-term time is proof of this. (My own grandmother died during midterms one year. And yet–) My students were struggling and I didn’t react with sympathy, but with defensiveness over my teaching and my own worth as a teacher. I like to think that the next time I have athletes in my class, I will speak to them more gently and more often, and take the onus on myself to find out what their schedule really means to them. Certainly it may mean more to them than a must-pass first year English course. I should accept that reality for my students.