Bad Students Or Bad Teaching?

Okay, so here’s a story I somehow missed from a few months ago. A lecturer of writing at Dartmouth created quite a stir with a threat (then removed, then reinstated) of suing her students and some colleagues. Why? Discrimination. (Honestly, though, who knows of what kind. Even after reading everything, I’m at a loss.)

There have been a bunch of writings on the topic, most of which I’ve read, but you can get the overview with this initial article, and then chase it down with a much more interesting interview with the lecturer herself [1]. She alleges, when it comes down to it, that her students were bullies because they didn’t agree with or show sufficient respect to her and the ideas she was proffering.

The reason this controversy spoke to me is partly because the lecturer was teaching a class on Science, Technology, and Society. That’s my undergraduate major and an interest of mine in graduate school (and an amateur interest of mine today). And teaching STS to undergraduates is tough. Believe me — not only did I take a number of courses where the professors and their TAs had their hands full, but also because in graduate school, I TAed for a couple courses which were on STS or STS-themes.

It’s hard work. Here it is laid bare. Getting students to understand the concept that perhaps Science should be spelled with a lowercase ‘s’ and that it doesn’t necessarily always progress to Truth with a capital ‘T’ is mind-blowing for them. It takes a long time for them to even grasp onto that idea. That science is somehow intimately related to culture is contradicted by everything they’ve been taught. Many initially rail against these ideas because they think of science as this Objective thing which can’t have anything to do with culture. It deals, they think, with mathematical equations and physical laws of the universe, and has very little to do with the people who are writing the equations and deriving the laws of the universe

The lecturer notes in her interview:

So there was immediate friction, because basically the concepts that I was trying to bring to them were concepts I was not inventing on my own. They were concepts that were part of the field, and I was trying to bring it to the table. It offended their sensibilities, because the whole course of “Science, Technology, and Society” was about problematizing science and technology, and explaining the argument that science is not just a quest for truth, which is how we think about science normally, but being influenced by social and political values. Now I’m not telling you this to convince you of this. I’m just saying that this is the framework with which I approached the course—that I wanted to bring this view that science and technology; there’s an ethics behind it.

Once you can get them to cross over to the human side of things, you generally can then start talking about scientific innovation, paradigm shifts, and the cultural side of science. It’s hard work. And you can’t win over every student. But the best and most fruitful conversations that I had with my students as a TA, that I had as an undergraduate in my many STS classes, that I had in graduate school with other graduate students, was fighting over the framework. Disagreeing with it, playing around with it, falling in love with it. It’s controversial stuff, not the least of which is because some of it’s hard to read, some of it is hogwash, and some of it goes beyond being radical.

What reading the interview with the lecturer indicates to me, however, is that she probably just doesn’t know how to teach well. Who knows? I wasn’t there. But some choice-quote indicators:

I think that sometimes when you have some students and some instructors they mix like oil and water…

The whole integrity of the course, the whole academic integrity of the course was undermined because it never became about the students meeting my expectations, it became about me meeting their expectations. They abrogated that right. They abrogated, they turned the tables around. Bullying, aggressive, and disrespectful.

I talked about ideas that were strange, I came off as very eccentric. I can’t make things up, I can’t read their mind. So they would use any type of vulnerability. They would use this and write these horrible evaluations that hardly reflected my efforts and quality of my teaching.

I said what you did was unacceptable. They started arguing with me. I said fine. You think you know everything. You think you know everything without the knowledge base to boot, without the training, you think you have a command of all the knowledge in the world at this stage in your life, then I’m sorry, that is fascism and that is demagoguery.

That’s very arrogant because frankly, and I’m not trying to be an academic elitist, but frankly, they don’t even have a B.A. They’re freshmen.

I think a lot of professors are like, I’m the boss of the classroom and you listen to me, and that’s probably the norm. I’m a little more lenient, I’m a little more liberal, and I think this was kind of taken advantage of. I think also that many times when I was lecturing, many of the students would take over the class.

While they took over the class, the students that were questioning me would not question the student, but they would consistently question me.

She was probably the most abrasive, the most offensive, the most disruptive student. She ruined that class. She ruined it. She ruined it. That class actually had a lot of potential, there were some really bright kids there, but every time she would do a number of things that were very inappropriate… One of the things that she did, this is also really interesting, was that she would always ask me how to spell things. That was her thing. She would say how to do you spell this? How to you spell that? I mean—what am I supposed to do?—so I would tell her.

Yeah, I think professors are not immune from being questioned. I’m not saying that these scholars I’ve studied should not be questioned, but the comments I was getting on my papers were like “Oh, this thinker is like, the worst writer in the whole wide world,” or “This thinker thinks they know everything,” and I would be getting irrational things from them.

So yeah. I’m not sure she is knows how to teach. My sense is — and again, who am I to know? — she didn’t introduce the concepts slowly enough for the freshman. They’re hard concepts. She might not really have a (good) classroom management style, so the students ended up taking over the class. And the biggest thing that drives me nuts about this? She didn’t capitalize on their questioning, their dissent. That’s where the learning takes place, because it’s in the dissent that their confusion can be seen. Their assumptions teased out. And the truly academic dialogue can take place. She seemed to want her students to get it because she said so.

Academia isn’t about teaching. At least not at the big research universities, where research is privileged. That’s one of the huge reasons I had to leave grad school. The blame probably should be spread out a bit more. Still, a fascinating case study, tying together my interests in teaching and my interests in STS.

[1] A whole slew of links are here.

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