Sympathy

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.

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6 Responses to Sympathy

  1. Tim McNeil says:

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. jonrozhon says:

    Hi Heather,
    Your post reminds me of a question that I have pondered and changed my position on several times during my teaching career: to what extent should the instructor focus on student concerns and issues? I believe that if goals and expectations are clearly presented at the outset of the course, students should abide by those goals and expectations or make clear to the instructor why they require some leeway. Stating, negotiating, and agreeing to terms constitutes a contract as far as I am concerned, and since most of our students are 18 and older, we should expect them to abide by contracts. In your case, you were clear in your expectations, but some students did not hold up their end of the agreement. It is difficult for me to be sympathetic to the students, especially when one (or more) of them tried to blame you for loss of a scholarship. If the student honestly believed his accusation, then he had failed to look in the mirror. If the student did not believe it, then he was engaging in nasty tricks, trying to pressure you into giving him what he wanted. Either way, it makes one wonder whether or not he was living up to the intellectual and moral standards expected of a scholarship holder.
    On the other hand, we as instructors are dealing with people that may be adults legally but are still developing their character. At times we need to show compassion. That you chose this topic for a blog post demonstrates that you think along these lines; you are concerned about your students and wish to help them. So, yes, as you suggest in your post, one way you can help is to carry on the dialogue throughout the semester, restating your expectations and listening to student reactions and concerns. You can continue to encourage them to visit you during office hours, too, but some may simply feel intimidated dealing with an accomplished, intellectually high-achieving instructor on a one-on-one basis (Even if you believe you are a down-to-earth individual with a good heart, some students may perceive you as being much more impressive and difficult to approach).
    You handled the student athletes in a perfectly acceptable manner, Heather. I do not think I would have shown the same grace, especially when accused of being the sole cause of the student’s low grade and the one major impediment to his future success in life! By taking an ongoing considerate approach, you would likely avoid unpleasantness at the end of the semester — the students would have less reason to say you were uncommunicative or too stern. Hopefully, by that point, they would learn about the subject matter and also figure out a thing or two about life from your principled example.

    • Heather says:

      I often feel the same way, Jon — sympathy is important, but coddling or enabling would ultimately be counterproductive, since students may find their difficulties increasing as they progress through their degrees. So at what point are we inhibiting through too much sympathy?

      I think it’s worth trying to check in more–if possible! Sometimes students don’t respond. This past semester I had a student whose work was a little off-beat, and I encouraged him more than once to get in touch, but never heard from him. At least that way there’s a paper (email) trail to point to if anyone gets upset.

  3. shuyu says:

    Thank you so much for sharing.

    Having TA’ed for an ENGL 201 class last semester and having dealt with a similar eclectic collection of students, I understand both your frustration towards these students as well as the residual emotions. After all, I think most people who go start teaching hold on to hope that they will have a positive impact on their students and that the end results will be satisfactory for all parties involved.

    Having worked with Aruna, I’ve adopted a general philosophy about generosity: a desire to think of the best of students, and to do what is necessary to help them succeed, but to remember that these students are not owed anything. But, just as important, it is important to remember this academic generosity needs to be a reciprocal relationship, with the students being willing to give and to learn.

    I look forward to your case study presentation in the near future; I think there will be so many interesting things to talk about in regards to empathy/sympathy and the complementary relationship between students and teachers.

  4. shuyu says:

    Thank you so much for sharing.

    Having TA’ed for an ENGL 201 class last semester and having dealt with a similar eclectic collection of students, I understand both your frustration towards these students as well as the residual emotions. After all, I think most people who go start teaching hold on to hope that they will have a positive impact on their students and that the end results will be satisfactory for all parties involved.

    Having worked with Aruna, I’ve adopted a general philosophy about generosity: a desire to think of the best of students, and to do what is necessary to help them succeed, but to remember that these students are not owed anything. But, just as important, it is important to remember this academic generosity needs to be a reciprocal relationship, with the students being willing to give and to learn.

    I look forward to your case study presentation in the near future; I think there will be so many interesting things to talk about in regards to empathy/sympathy and the complementary relationship between students and teachers.

    • Heather says:

      Thanks, Shu. There’s a balance to maintain for sure. I think I *have* become more sympathetic as I’ve gotten more experience. I think it’s because I’ve become more comfortable and confident in my role as teacher. The students’ struggles aren’t always a reflection on my teaching but on their own lives, and leniency doesn’t harm me while it may help them considerably. So I’m less worried about the authoritarian crackdown for principle’s sake these days.

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