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Distinguishing between Students as ‘students’ or Students as ‘people’

Example 1: When prompted to answer a question in class, David responds, somewhat unfazed, “oh sorry, i was just spacing out staring out the window.”  While  a little disgruntled at first, I later learned that he has a learning disability.  Because the college doesn’t recognize it, I wasn’t informed.
Example 2: Katie and Rick, a couple, had an argument just outside of my classroom before coming in for class.  They were engaged with each other and their relationship woes throughout the class in such a way that it proved disruptive to them as well as the rest of the class, and myself on a few occasions. 
Example 3: On the day that outlines for final papers were due, Tom asks to speak to  me after class about why he has not submitted his paper yet.  When we chat he painfully explains he is juggling a family with a young daughter, and a full-time job. He remorsefully says he will get an outline to me by the end of the day.  I receive a draft from him by the following class.
Example 4: Allie rushes in at least fifteen minutes late to class looking exasperated and takes a seat.  During independent work I call her up to see why she was late.  She informs that her father was in the hospital overnight for surgery he had yesterday and she, a 17 year old, was the only family member available to sit with him through the night at the hospital.

These examples get at what I consider to be an important tension that exists in the classroom – are students automatically ‘students’ when they enter the classroom?  Do they leave their personhood at the door?  Do we expect them to?  Should we expect them to?

As a new professor i’m still surprised by the issues that characterize the lives of my students outside of the classroom and the multiple hats they wear and responsibilities they have.  As an undergraduate i worked, but ‘student’ was the dominant persona I assumed, and accounted for much of my responsibilities.  Even now in graduate school, perhaps particularly as a doctoral student, my life and personhood have continued to be dominated by my student-hood.  Often times I find that my students are dealing with things that i couldn’t possibly have understood at their age, such as Allie and her father.  Or they may be older and their lives are more complicated by having a family, or a sick spouse such as in the case of Tom.

Though each case must be assessed on its own, my reaction in general has been less then harsh.  I tend to give students the benefit of the doubt and that they are in school because they are trying to head in a certain direction, and ultimately, that they understand and accept the responsibility of being a student.  Should it matter if a student turns something in a few days or week late?  Especially if the extra time help the student engage the assignment more fully?  Perhaps it comes down to our priorities and how we rank our responsibilities as a teacher.  In cases where it comes down to one or the other, do we emphasize the importance and often inflexible nature of deadlines, or should we emphasize engagement with the assignment?

Important to note, I am not saying these priorities (and others) are always in conflict.  Often they are not – and often we wish for both priorities equally (that students would engage deeply with their assignments as well as meet deadlines).  I am specifically referring to instances where there is a conflict between the two.

As a TA for a class this semester, I have had the pleasure of observing another teacher’s style.  She takes a ‘leaner and meaner’ approach which emphasizes, in addition to engagement with the readings, strict deadlines and formalities (using certain language and structure in emails, and hierarchy of command, etc.).  This approach seems to perceive the individual first and foremost as a student, and assumes that this class can and is a priority in their lives – which is should be.

I can certainly see the importance of this style as well.  Though I did feel like students felt a little cut off though, and as though I was unapproachable in the beginning, they have complied with the stricter regime.  When students have confronted the hard deadlines and there is nothing I can do about it, they are still fine, they accept the consequences, and it goes on.  And maybe they learn that deadlines are important.

I guess, perhaps because I’m a new teacher, I’m just having a conflict between seeing my students as only students, or understanding the complexities of their New York City, often transnational and bilingual, and otherwise complicated lives.  I’m interested in hearing what others think and do, and how they balance this – and if its even a consideration.  As their teacher, they are my students, but as I am also a person, are they not as well?



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3 comments to Distinguishing between Students as ‘students’ or Students as ‘people’

  • This is such a complex question. I don’t know if I have answers for you, but I do have more questions! I’m generally quite flexible when students approach me with a personal situation and ask for leniency. I tend to think genuine engagement in the classroom is far more important than hoops of various sorts. And yet if there are others in the class who are juggling many things and who didn’t think they could or should ask for leniency, is that fair?

    Do deadlines cause undue pressure on students with complicated personal lives, or do they encourage them to keep coursework on the table? What would be the costs and benefits of moving towards a self-managed classroom in which assignments are done at any point in the semester that works for the student? Students probably wouldn’t get much out of a response assignment, for example, completed three weeks after the film is shown — but they might write a more meaningful paper if they could choose which weekend in the semester they’d sit down and focus on it.

    As someone who has far too much work to juggle throughout the semester, deadlines help me manage grading. I can’t be constantly responsive to students’ timelines; getting a big stack of papers all at once helps me organize my own work. As a student myself, deadlines sometimes really help me put my nose to the grindstone and get a task done. And yet, as I find myself tracking down late papers and offering generosity to students who have extenuating circumstances, I wonder if it might be better for all of us to throw deadlines to the wind. Would that teach/allow a different kind of time management? Do deadlines help me as a student because I have so much practice using them as a structuring device for my work?

  • Caroline, thanks for such a thoughtful and thorough response. I love the idea of a self-mananged classroom (at least for some assignments, as you point out). Inherent in this idea is that students are able to manage on their own and with some of my students I find that they are lacking these skills. In fact in one of my classes I have a paper assignment and the deadlines are actually meant to help the student break the project down into manageable parts so they don’t put themselves in a position of trying to do it all last minute. As with everything else, I’ve given really soft deadlines here knowing that they are meant to help rather than create stress – but inherent in this example are the tensions we’ve raised are the topic. Maybe with respect to deadlines the question is, what is the purpose of deadlines.. and from there our disposition develops..?

    One other thought, you point out the professor side of all of this – our lives extend beyond the classroom as well, and are complicated and intricate – and for many of us, overextended. Where does this fit into the puzzle. I guess I do try to actually relate to my students on this level. I recognize you as a person, and you respect me as a person, and we come here and do the best we can to make this interesting, educative, and worthwhile, and then we go on with the rest of our lives.

    As you pointed out, it is a complex question, and one that I think perhaps never resolves itself because really we need to ride the tension between two – student and person and perhaps, constantly be negotiating on the matter.

    Anyway, thanks so much for such a thoughtful response!

  • Carol Elk

    I don’t have the answer either but I have some thoughts for consideration. Coursework, deadlines and life are all necessary elements to juggle. Students make a commitment to college work but clearly they have other responsibilities as well. They should make good choices but sometimes they don’t. I feel as a professor there is the side that needs to guide, to be there for the student to talk to and to help balance the responsibilities. I don’t think an assignment is done better because the pressure was on to complete it by a deadline. I don’t think less was put into it when it is submitted late. I expect students to share a time constraint with an explanation if something interferes with submitting an assignment on time. I allow a late submission with a grading penalty. This way I believe they choose to submit the work on time if at all possible but will take the hit on the grade to submit the work done more comprehensively if more time is needed. Each person functions differently. I believe we need to make accommodations for these differences.

    The self-managed classroom with respect to assignments is an interesting concept. My only concern is that the assignments sometimes rely on one another and feedback given on one helps the student do better or understand how the professor grades in order to do better on another. In addition if too many students leave the assignments to the end then it will be very difficult to give quality feedback in a very short period of time for us to meet the grading deadline.