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On the Emotional Perils of Teaching

April 22, 2009

I put almost all of my available energy into teaching. I’m a perfectionist. That doesn’t mean that I’m perfect, but it means that when things don’t go perfect I’m devastated. (It doesn’t help that I’m still recovering from generalized anxiety disorder too.)

Recently I’ve been dealing with complaints suggesting that my courses are too difficult, either because I assign too much work, or because I assign too much reading, or the level of the assigned reading is too high.

I find myself pulled between four different commitments:

  • I have a commitment to the students, particularly a commitment to meet them where they’re at.
  • I have a commitment to my goals—there are certain things I think are important and that I want to accomplish in the course.
  • I have a commitment to my discipline—there are certain academic standards I’ve inherited from the discipline of the study of religion that I should meet.
  • I have a commitment to the university—both to meet student expectations and to have high standards.

The biggest problem is the gap between my goals and my student’s expectations. I expect a lot from them and, in comparison to other professors, apparently I expect too much. I have independent verification from many different students that my 100 level courses are much more advanced than other 100 level courses.

Since I put so much of myself into my courses, this crushes me. I feel like I’ve been hit with a ton of bricks when I hear these criticisms.

On the other hand, I try to remember that the university does want me to push my students. I’ve heard that “this class was tough” is actually a good thing to have on course evaluations. But I wonder if I should expect “this class was absurdly difficult” this semester …

I also try to remember that my best students say my classes are not too tough. But maybe they’re teacher’s pets, in which case they might not be the most reliable sources …

So, as you can imagine, in my mind I go back and forth between thinking “I love teaching!!!” and feeling destroyed.

Any suggestions? Other than Prozac?

iz-mah-prozac

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. JTV permalink
    April 22, 2009 7:24 pm

    Summer’s coming. Right now is crazy, and I’m telling myself that ‘it will all be over’ in two weeks, at which time I can focus on new tasks. Sounds like a great time to put all of your anxiety-induced workaholicism into writing and publishing.

    BTW, you’re ‘crushed’ because you care and put so much work into your courses. That more or less puts you automatically in the top 25% bracket of college profs.

  2. Mystery permalink
    April 22, 2009 8:00 pm

    Relax! Don’t take everything so seriously! They are students and only squawk when they’re not happy! When they are happy, which is most of the time, they just go happily along their merry way! Shed your tears, have your freak out and remember that you are a good teacher!

  3. N. T. Wrong permalink
    April 22, 2009 9:27 pm

    You’ve had some complaints about workload? Only some? I think you should aim for at least 75% of the class complaining. Until then, you’re just being too soft.

  4. April 23, 2009 5:48 am

    I also try to remember that my best students say my classes are not too tough. But maybe they’re teacher’s pets, in which case they might not be the most reliable sources …

    They’re almost certainly the students who are actually engaging with the material and giving the subject the amount of attention it theoretically deserves. When I was teaching first year sociology in Australia, I came across some footnote in the course outline that said full time students were expected to devote something like 9 hours each week to each of their four subjects, like a contractual obligation with an employer. This, of course, never happened except when essays and exams came due (and was far more time per week than I was being paid for). But still that gap in understanding, interest and application (and marks) between students who engaged with the subject and those who didn’t was enormous.

    So even if the idea is to meet students where they’re at, there’s the problem of any given class of students being all over the place. My solution was to engage with individual students to the same extent as they were prepared to engage with the subject. Meeting enthusiasm with enthusiasm and indifference with benign professional neglect.

  5. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    April 23, 2009 12:19 pm

    NT Wrong: I’ll try to convince myself that’s the case. I don’t think I have 75% complaining yet …

  6. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    April 23, 2009 12:20 pm

    Meeting enthusiasm with enthusiasm and indifference with benign professional neglect.

    Yes, I like the sound of that.

  7. momentary de lurking permalink
    April 24, 2009 2:41 am

    “I expect a lot from them and, in comparison to other professors, apparently I expect too much. I have independent verification from many different students that my 100 level courses are much more advanced than other 100 level courses.”

    Based on recent studies of how prepared students are for college, the quality and type of education they receive in high school, and the expectations that they have of their workload and how it will be assessed…I’d guess that you’re classes aren’t “too hard” for many/most of the complaining students, but that many of them do not have a clear understanding of what is expected of them in college, both in terms of work and quality.

    I am studying political economy at a small public school in my home state, and when selecting classes I check ratemyprofessors and generally don’t take classes from people who aren’t listed as “tough” or “challenging” or otherwise “hard”. Strict Graders are a favorite. This isn’t because I’m some sort of teachers pet superstudent; I nearly flunked out my sophomore year of high school and have gotten a couple of “no credits” in college. Classes where the teacher engages with the students, challenges us, and works with us through difficult ideas keep me motivated, interested and turning in work. When a teacher assigns a heavy reading load, or gives complex lectures I want to impress that person, and to go beyond just doing the homework to finding interesting things to say about it. The example of a professor who is really into their subject helps me stay focused.

    My view isn’t widespread, but there are a lot of us who care about good teachers, and challenging classes that expect students to hit a level of improvement, rather then giving them the automatic gratification that comes with getting easier work “over with”.

    Don’t give up, and don’t turn to Prozac. Know that there are students who appreciate challenging coursework without brown-nosing, and that the challenge benefits even those who do not enjoy it.

    …Sorry to appear from lurker-obscurity to babble at you. I blame the tree pollen.

  8. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    April 25, 2009 8:49 am

    momentary de lurking: Thanks for your comment, and thanks for reminding me that there are a few students like you out there. You should come out of lurker-obscurity more often!

  9. April 26, 2009 10:19 pm

    I am barely able to keep up until it is all over in a couple of weeks, myself but I am really glad that I am not the only one who has concluded I am a abject failure at my chosen profession. I, also, have to remind myself of that every year at this time–for twenty years. Don’t make any decisions about “what to do differently” until its all over and the recovery is underway–that is what I have learned. Maybe, I should say “that is what I re-learn…every year”. Can you tell how worn out I am? Don’t answer that.

    Thanks for sharing. I really feel a little bit better.

  10. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    April 28, 2009 11:10 am

    Glad you found this valuable. Soon I’m going to make another post in this vein: whenever my students do poorly I always assume it’s because I’ve prepared them poorly.

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