Wednesday, January 3, 2007

"Student centered" does not mean "At the student's whim"

Just as I was feeling all warm and fuzzy about the impending start of the semester, one bozo does something to put me in a sour mood.

I went to campus today and while checking my mailbox there, the pre-semester stillness of the usually buzzing mailroom offered me the chance to notice a tidy little computer-printed sign that one of my colleagues had affixed to her mailbox, effectively blocking access to the box itself. The sign said something along these lines:

The semester is over. The deadlines have passed.
Don't even think about turning in your paper now.
- Dr. So-and-So

Heh heh. Not something I would have done myself, but I appreciated the tired if sarcastic sentiment of it (especially knowing that the colleague was a composition instructor with a heavy load). But that's not what put me in a sour mood. I then noticed another, smaller sign stapled to the first one, with the following neatly handwritten message in block letters:


Oh for crying out loud. Since when does imposing a strict deadline signify that the professor is somehow not "student centered" (and by implication, supposedly only concerned with him/herself)??

Here's what I want to say to that student: I'm sorry, but when the university talks about being "student centered" they don't mean just you. I know, I know, it's in the singular, but it has a kind of allegorical ring to it -- like "Everyman." Just as he is every man, the "student" in "student centered" is every student. There are actually other students here at Rust Belt, and they turn things in on time, finishing their work in the time allotted to them. Should we be less centered on them and more centered on you? Should we, perhaps, forget our own deadline for turning in grades and let you turn in your work at your whim? Yes, that's right, we have deadlines to meet too. In fact, that's often why people create deadlines -- so that the work that has to be done subsequent to your part can get done on time. And when it comes to grading, most of us like to grade work from a single class all in one bunch; that way, if there's a problem or essay question or whatever that's flawed in some way, we see the patterns and cut students some slack. It's also a kind of norming, giving us a sense of what students in a class are capable of. So see, our silly, whimsical, self-centered deadlines really *are* about students. And exactly how do you think this flexible attitude towards deadlines will fly in, say, the world of law, or at the IRS, or commerce, or wherever? Do you think you'll suddenly and magically develop good habits when you leave school? Are we really doing you a service if we let you do work when you feel like it?


You know, what gets me is that so many of our students are totally instrumentalist in choosing majors -- they want something "practical," that will give them "real world" skills -- and yet so many (often the same ones) miss some of the most fundamental "practical" lessons that college is supposed to teach you or at least give you time to perfect: time management, responsibility, independence, and self-motivation. I could be teaching you the most bizarre, esoteric, obscure subject (and some might argue that I do!) and my class would still be giving you a pretty low-stakes way to hone those skills. And I'm sure my colleague's class is the same.

I don't often rant on this blog, but that little added note rubbed me the wrong way. I mean, if it had said, "The sarcarsm isn't necessary," I might have even agreed with it! But the writer had to go and act like the unthinkable imposition of a freakin' deadline was somehow a blow against all studentdom.



deeni said...

I completely agree with that prof.-- in theory, and on my syllabus. Why is it then that I just emailed 4 students (out of about 80)who were about to either fail the class or get a very low grade because they didn't hand in one assignment? Each one is clearly capable of more than passing work and I felt that I somehow needed to show them that someone is giving them one more opportunity? And why do I feel like a pushover? I just can't fail a student who got a 75 on a final exam. Or give a D- to a student who got an 85 and participated and is so bright but somehow lost.

What Now? said...

Along these lines: Sex Ed in Higher Ed has a great post
from last September with a first-day-of-class spiel about "student centered" ideas of fairness in being strict about deadlines. It was such a great post that I am keeping a copy of it for the next time I teach.

Dr. Virago said...

Deeni - Yeah, sometimes I'm a mush, too. And I especially worry about the students who perform well but then screw something up later. In fact, last semester I had a smart student who was thrown off all semester by a bad case of bronchitis. She turned in her second paper late and while I did penalize the grade, I only did so by half. (Usually I take off a +/- step for each day it's late. This paper was 6 days late, but I only counted 3, so an A paper became a B, not a C.) I did so not because she'd had bronchitis while writing the paper, but because the earlier illness had put her behind in just about everything else. It was a judgement call, based in part on the fact that this student was normally really responsible and on top of things. But I got reamed for it in the evals, where one of her friends wrote "The Professor lets students turn work in late and they still get a good grade -- not fair!"

And you know what, she's right, at least in general. I still think this case deserved some mercy, but maybe not as much as I gave. Or maybe I should've saved it for calculating the final grade. At any rate, it wasn't fair to the students who turned their work in by the deadline.

Anyway, that brings me to WN's comment. Thank you thank you thank you. That story about the flexible/rigid vs. unfair/fair line was awesome. I think I'll use it next week in my opening classes!

jo(e) said...

Teaching students that deadlines are something they need to respect is a student-centered approach.

How really peculiar that someone would have taken the time to write that second note and staple it on there ....

Dr. Virago said...

How really peculiar that someone would have taken the time to write that second note and staple it on there ....

No kidding! Hello - passive agressive much?

Dr. Virago said...

(Btw, that "Hello..." was as if I were speaking to the student, not you, Jo(e)! And hi! Nice to "see" you here again!)

Self-Congratulator said...

I'm with deeni (I think). Let's face it, we were all passive-aggressive as students. It's how we got where we are. But now that we're on "the other side," it's a weird mixture of awe, admiration, irritation, contempt, and so forth that we have for those little urchins who populate our classes (and therefore pay our rent). Personally, I love my students, and I wish they were fully self-disciplined. Hell, I wish I were fully self-disciplined. I'm going to do like Deeni and be better about making things explicit on the syllabus. You can't argue with a contract you've willingly signed by participating in a class in which expectations are set out clearly in a syllabus.

deeni said...

Ah. But I set it out in the syllabus but then seem to make a few (hopefully quiet) exceptions for students who I somehow determine deserve that second or third chance. My syllabus is scary though.

Chaser said...

I just wrote and submitted a manuscript on how problematic student-centered approaches for pre-professional education can be, for these same reasons, if we aren't careful about instructional practice. We spend 21+ years telling students they are the center, their peers matter, their creativity matters, their perspective matters, their values matter...and then on the job they get a pointy-haired boss (a la Dilbert) and really nobody cares about you, your identity, or anything beyond whether you are earning your envelope and nobody has to re-do your work. I think it's hard adjustment that we make no easier at the undergrad level if we indulge the notion that "student-centered" means the same as "hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special order don't upset us."

Dr. Virago said...

I just wrote and submitted a manuscript on how problematic student-centered approaches for pre-professional education can be, for these same reasons, if we aren't careful about instructional practice.

Yay! Good for you! And I laughed at the "hold the pickles" reference -- I hadn't thought of that jingle in years. Man, that dates us, doesn't it? (Btw, on the playground in grade school, my friends and I used to sing it as a dialogue in this way: "Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce..." "Shut up, mister, you upset us!" Heh heh. I was a snot!)

Rob Barrett said...

OK, Dr. V., we used to sing the same thing on our playgrounds in upstate New York. How could such viral memes spread across a culture back then? Remember the "Mikey died because he mixed Pepsi and Pop Rocks" urban legend?


Dr. Virago said...

Rob -- Yeah, I've always thought kids' songs, rhymes, etc. were a good lesson in oral transmission and just how far it can go! (I grew up outside of Kansas City.) And who *doesn't* remember the Mikey Pop Rocks legend? (Though in our version it was Coke, not Pepsi.)

Virgo Sis said...

I have to comment so I can make a bad pun on the word verification.

But just to weigh in. As a member of an older generation where we had no "student centered" professors - I think that's why we had the sixties - I am very impatient with colleagues and employees who still expect the world to revolve around them. And as businessperson I like the idea of a "contract" implied in the syllabus. For every action there is a consequence.

podbbd - Bad pod, bad!

Anonymous said...

"Since when does imposing a strict deadline signify that the professor is somehow not student centered"

Since we started paying your bills.

Chaser said...

I wrote the paper mainly (as an old person) because in the past 10 years, I have seen real issues adjusting to the workplace for the students I hire fresh out of college. I get so many who complain about being bored and whatnot....and I'm like...look, I am paying you...I gotta entertain you, too? And just making connecting between the very strong themes of individualism rather than constructivism that underly much of new educational theory and, especially, practice.

All that said, I very much student-centered approaches at the same I critique many of the superficial instructional practices that people are now advocating under the rubric of student-centeredness.

Chaser said...

HAHAHA! I love the old "Since we started paying your bills" line.

I love's so deliciously ignorant, self-important, and easy to refute. Like, OMIGOD, somebody's telling like it is, baby, and we profs best pay att'nshun.

Here's what you pay for when you pay tuition: a seat in a class and some of an instructor's time, for a limited time period, and some level of administrative services, like access to the registrar, etc, for a specific time period, and some collective facilities: a library or bus services.

In terms of your bill-paying analogy, handing in a term paper after the term is like trying to walk in and use the facilities in a gym a month after your have stopped paying your membership, or trying to download things from during a month when your credit card was refused, or trying to stay an extra day at a hotel you haven't paid for, or expecting a personal trainer to keep working with you long after you stopped paying them. In fact, I suggest you try that whole "but, but I pay your bills!" line on the guy who refuses to serve you a pizza you haven't you paid for simply because you bought some pizza before.

BTW, you don't pay our bills. We pay our own bills because we work for a living, just like you, just like your parents, just like everybody else, and we pay taxes, just like everybody else.

I'm really nasty about students turning in late work. You have to get used to working to deadlines--you have to. And the work habits you develop or don't develop when you are young stay with you.

Dr. Virago said...

"Since when does imposing a strict deadline signify that the professor is somehow not student centered"

Since we started paying your bills.

Anonymous, when you pay your tuition and fees, you're not paying for the degree or the grades you get in your classes. You're not paying for a product. Rather, you're paying for the *opportunity* to learn from people with expertise. Think of it this way: if you pay a personal trainer but don't do the exercises in a regular, timely, consistent matter, do you expect to have a better or stronger body at the end of the training period?

Plus, your comment misses a couple of my points: 1) that giving you extra time to finish a paper is actually *unfair* to the other students, and therefore *not* student-centered (but rather, simply *you*-centered; and 2) that letting you slack on deadlines is actually doing you a *disservice*. I've worked in professions other than academia and I can tell you there are fast and hard deadlines in those professions, too, with much higher costs than getting a paper in late. Take law, for instance. If you have a deadline to file a legal claim and that deadline passes, the court clerk isn't going to give a damn and isn't going to file that claim. In that case, you're quite simply SOL -- or your client is. And you're paying the court clerk's salary, too, through your taxes.

So why should my world be any different?

Dr. Virago said...

Hey Chaser, I think you and I were responding to Anonymous at the same time, because I didn't see your response before mine posted. I think it's hilarious that we both used gym/personal trainer metaphors! And I think for this particular topic -- late papers -- yours is even better. You can't expect a gym to let you in after your membership has expired. I think I may use that in class when I talk about paper deadlines. Excellent!

Chaser said...

Well, actually, when you think about it, the idea that people should never have deadlines in a student-centered world is a little like this scenario.

You make a hotel reserveation for the 19th. They charge for no-shows. You don't show. Instead, you show up unannounced on the 30th and demand a room. BUT I PAID FOR IT!!! IT SHOULD BE THERE WHENEVER I WANT!!!

Education is all about you. Nobody cries for the things you don't learn but you, just like nobody grieves for the miles you don't run or the nutrients you don't eat but you.

k8 said...

I've been know to do something that 'might' be construed as cruel, but here it is:

My composition courses have end of the semester portfolios. Students know the due date and time from the first day of the semester (it is printed in bold on the syllabus). If, for example, portfolios are due at 3:00pm on day 'x', I will leave the office by 3:02. Every semester I get several frantic emails, but it does teach a lesson (I hope) about turning things in on time. This year I did feel a little guilty, though - one student told me that one of the late students was crying outside of the building at 3:20. I do make allowances for students who contact me beforehand, though, or who have had life intrude on them in unpleasant ways.

The 'student-centered' attachment sounds pretty immature. Sadly, I somehow doubt it was a student who wrote it - how many students would actually use that phrase?

Dr. Virago said...

K8 - Crying? There's no crying in college! (Of course, I know there is. But I couldn't resist the League of Their Own paraphrase.) As for whether a student wrote that...Hm, yes, maybe it wasn't a student. But then the phrase is all over the place on our campus: the mission statement, posters with the mission statement in it, the web site, the student union, etc., etc. So it's *possible* it's a student. But I hadn't really thought of the possibility that it wasn't! Hmmm!

Rufus said...

There really is a difference between those who see pedagogy as having an elevating function, and those who see it as having a therapeutic function. I suspect the people who agree with the latter view feel the same way about parenting.

Dr. Virago said...

Rufus, it took me a minute or two to parse your comment, so I want to be sure I get it right: are these two types of views student views or instructor views?

Adjunct Kait said...

The 'student-centered' attachment sounds pretty immature. Sadly, I somehow doubt it was a student who wrote it - how many students would actually use that phrase?

K8, I get elementary ed majors all the time who throw around jargon like that - and probably don't even know what it means. So it wouldn't surprise me if it were a student.

Dr. V, great post! Glad I'm not the only one who feels this way.

Dr. O. said...

GREAT post! And now I have all sort of metaphors for stopping the "I pay for a product" whine. Priceless!