I’ve sat on this post for a while, not sure what to do. It began as a letter to my students, but it didn’t read as one. It wasn’t exactly helpful to my students and would probably just bring them more pain. It was clearly written for you all to read, but I couldn’t stop addressing the students I wished I could reach.
I started out angry. So, so, angry. But now I’m just sad. Well, tired and sad.
I hate my job.
Obviously if asked, in person, I will say that nothing I write is 100% accurate because I cannot in a set of coherent words express all of my feelings and all of the nuances I carry in my mind.
I want the people I work with to think this is about them in as much as I want them to think about how their actions affect others. I don’t, on the other hand, want to be accused of starting smear campaigns or going after people or being vindictive. I’m not about spite. In fact, I’m about restorative justice.
But mostly I’m about not being silenced.
So it’s a delicate balance between truth and fiction, keeping my job, and keeping my promise to always be honest with you.
Still, I have learned many things I did not know.
- I do not believe that I or any other human has the right to pass judgment on others.
- I do not believe that I or any other human has the right to ask, encourage, or set someone up to sacrifice their health for capitalistic goals.
- I will not accept being ignored or gaslit by my instructional supervisors, especially when I am trying to protect students.
- I will not allow undue suffering of the many in order to protect the theoretical journey of a few.
- If I am forced to choose between students and professors, I will choose students.
- Professors routinely abuse students in the name of meritocracy and I will not agree and will not play nice and I will not cover.
- The reason we have the legal right to assign as much work as we want, the reason we can roll our eyes at student excuses, the reason we can require a student to prove they haven’t cheated, the reason cheating is even a concept involved with learning, the reason it is so easy to ignore what passes for student feedback, is that we are the oppressors walking around reveling in our supremacy which we think we earned via surviving the very oppression we perpetuate.
- I cannot be the good cop.
Without further ado, my not-actually-to-my-students letter to my (now, former) students.
Breathe in, breathe out. (Writing this makes me anxious; I will take breaks.)
I do not know exactly how to do this, because I do not want to upset or demoralize anyone who is doing okay right now. It is okay if the current system works for you. Each of you deserves to learn calculus and have a good experience. Just like I’ve met the rare person who enjoyed an emotionally unsupportive grad school, I am certain that some number of you are really into the material and are good with how it’s presented and enjoy the freedom that comes with the anonymity of remote learning. I do not want to take anything away from that. The problem is that I know that a sizable number of students are struggling. And I know that I am struggling. And I know that we are being lied to.
Think grounding thoughts… Five things I see: headphones, dinosaur, bean bag chair, ipod (yes, ipod), textbook…
Students, I have always said that you cannot trust your professors: we are people with unearned power in a system that feels no obligation to prioritize anyone’s health. Imagine deciding how much homework to assign, and all you know is how much homework you had as a student. Maybe it was awful, but look at you now! Or maybe you want to be more reasonable, but you see the results from professors who overload their students and you want your students to be just as successful. This is just a small example where we make decisions that have huge impacts on you and generally we make them off of experiences and information that literally have nothing to do with you personally. At research institutions many of us run on rumors rather than education research (maybe that sounds ironic but there are actual math professors who are paid actual money and yet don’t believe in math ed).
That you can’t trust your professors is already known in terms of sexual misconduct data, by the way. I don’t know why we don’t talk about this. Since I’m here, I might as well tell you to Stay Away from charming professors.
Stay. Away. from Charming Professors.
Professors who allow you to think highly of them while they casually cross boundaries because they’re so comfortable with you?
I routinely use my vulnerability as a tool to empower others, and I’ve seen that many students respond in a caring way. It is flattering, and I would love to think that we’re all just humans sharing in the struggle, but we are not. Not as long as I have unearned power over them. And I know 100% for a fact that there are professors who feed off of student admiration and concern; they will be vulnerable for a special student and that student will care about that cool professor who is sad about the thing, and that professor will use this to meet their own needs, with little regard for the harm this causes.
Abusive and toxic professors are very real and they get tenure and they keep tenure and the system just keeps going and we let students in and we know it’s not safe. Abusers get grants and give public addresses and sometimes they organize workshops on diversity and inclusion.
Being employed by a top university does not mean someone is a worthwhile person. Being allowed to hold office hours for students does not imply this is a person a student should ever be alone with. And it’s going to stay that way for as long as universities have a conflict of interest between status and education.
But I digress.
If your university and your professors won’t keep you safe, who will? How can you tell if you’re being appropriately challenged or merely exploited?
I have no idea. We keep you at a disadvantage. No part of the traditional North American education gives you the tools necessary for critically assessing what a teacher or professor is demanding of you. Furthermore first year students are often told repeatedly that they don’t know what college is or should be. To paraphrase a student’s retort to this attitude “is this not a first year class? Who else would be the main group to offer critique of this course?” In fact, I have no idea how we decide if a first year course is good. Do we care about students who are only with us for a year? To be honest I can’t say that there is much evidence that any of the (R1) math departments I’ve been in care about how any of our students feel if that isn’t coupled with unsatisfactory numbers. Which is to say, I’ve seen no evidence that they care about how students feel.
Four things I feel: the bed, the keyboard, a metal nightstand I ordered online thinking it was wood, my hoodie…
Here’s the thing. I really want to talk about what we’ve been put through this semester. The syllabus, the website, the course design, the mixed messages, the don’t email your professors, the typos, the bad problems, etc. I have been so unhappy with so many aspects of the course. Yet, when I talk to my friends, I realize it’s not that any one thing in particular is so bad or unforgivable. It’s more like things are bad in multiple ways that coalesce in potentially devastating ways for some number of students. The only thing I know for sure that was missing was heart.
I wasn’t sure how to discuss the course publicly in a “safe” way. Fortunately, a friend sent me a seemingly anonymous article titled Contrarian Decisions in Online Teaching , which I will quote from below. My intent here is to share some of the attitudes I faced and frankly could not fight. My hope is that these attitudes will stop passing as acceptable and maybe this discussion will give you the confidence to demand better, or at least to know you deserve better.
Like all other course coordinators preparing my calculus course for online delivery was my life during the summer of 2020: every decision was carefully considered, thoroughly researched, and discussed. I became well-versed in the research, conversations, and recommendations for teaching online. In the end, however, I made a few decisions that went against what are seen as common “best practices” for teaching online.
This excerpt from the introduction sets the tone. At face value it sounds great. This person did a lot of research. I love research! The last line indicates that the author went against that research, so one would hope for an understanding of why general “best practices” did not fit the author’s specific situation. Instead, we get a controlled narrative in which the author is telling us to trust them. I’ve gone back and forth about whether the article is about the author’s personal journey or about the pedagogical choices they made. Either way, this journey does not contain the research, the context, or how to evaluate these choices. The intro tells us that the author’s views and choices are to be trusted because of all the energy the author put into it. As if the decisions only impact the author and not potentially hundreds or thousands of students.
From the section “Synchronous Lectures are Not Recorded”:
Many teaching and learning centres (at least in Ontario) recommend recording synchronous lectures so that students can watch them if they are in a different time zone or if they have issues that prevent them from attending live. Along with the other first-year calculus instructors I decided not to offer lecture recordings (except for cases of academic accommodations) because of the way classes were designed.
I believe that these recommendations assume that the online class experience is pretty comparable whether you watch it live or at a different time. Our classes, however, are largely built around student activities …
While it would be very easy to post a video recording we wanted to send this message to students: your contributions to class matter.
Maybe this is a well-known rhetorical device. The bait-and-switch? The deflect-and-respect? At any rate, let’s dive in.
Under COVID restrictions, we may no longer assume all students can attend synchronous lectures. It is recommended that lectures thus be recorded so that students who cannot attend may still benefit.
Synchronous classes will not be recorded.
Recordings cannot replace live lectures given the design of the course (for instance, a flipped classroom scenario)
The last word:
We want students to know they are valued.
I banged my head against this tactic for months. There is a stated problem “not all students can attend live lecture” and there is the suggestion “we should record lectures.” This suggestion is rejected not because there is an alternative solution for students who cannot attend, but because such a decision would violate some kind of sanctity of something. The fact that recordings cannot replace live lectures is meaningless to students who can’t attend. The reason we are throwing away the concern for those students is because of the group of students who could attend, but might not if they felt like they had the choice. It is more important to restrict student’s choice than to support students who are already at a disadvantage. And then the last line is manipulation. It means you can’t possibly argue. Am I saying I don’t want students to think their contribution matters? That’s not very inclusive!!
From the conclusion:
As with most decisions that come down to following your beliefs over popular opinion I received criticism, most aggressively from others at the University who worked with students but did not take time to understand the context of my decisions. The critics assumed that I didn’t know enough about online education or that I was not thinking about the interests of students.
This is yet another thing I’ve come up against, and is a common tactic of people refusing to dismantle their own privilege: a complete dismissal of the existence of valid complaints. An assumption that critics are merely insulting/attacking/devaluing/undermining the person in charge, rather than looking at how students and/or marginalized mathematicians are impacted.
How do we face this?
A question I have asked the chair of my department is what can an instructor do if they feel that students are being mistreated by faculty? I don’t have an answer. What can a student do if they feel mistreated? If they aren’t personally targeted, if they are suffering anti-student oppression? Probably not much. I mean sure, you can complain. Tell your TA, tell your instructor, tell the chair. Is there anyone able to care? To help? What if the problem is the conscious decisions made by experienced teaching stream faculty? What then?
It is hard for me to fight course designs and pedagogy. I am not an expert in either. My experience is limited. My interest, if I’m honest, is limited. I am however an expert on being mistreated, neglected, manipulated, and made to doubt myself. I am an expert on struggling to accomplish things I “should” be able to do. I am an expert on being told explicitly and implicitly that I am not wanted in math.
When I see that happening to my students I am going to fight for them. Period.
I learned this semester I cannot work with people who refuse to value all students.
Three things I hear: my laptop trying too hard, a child asking for food, breathing…
I sat on this letter in part because I felt it was important to detail what I had to endure… but I also felt strongly it was not safe to do so. Now that the semester is over I can more easily prioritize and summarize what I want to describe.
When a student misses a deadline and emails me to accept something late, what I think about is how I have no childcare and no help and how I have anxiety and no therapy, and how I can go hours without being reminded of a deadline or scheduled event. When students are told they have to attend a synchronous lecture or live office hours, I think about all of the talks I’ve declined because I cannot commit to anything live while I am without childcare. I think of all the meetings I’ve been forced to attend and how awful it is when a child is having a meltdown while I am really trying to say or hear something. You may say you do not mind interruptions but you were never my concern.
My child does not consent to being ignored for an hour while in distress, and I can’t think properly when I’m constantly interrupted. We can’t just pretend that working from home is merely a change in location.
Two things I smell… okay, is this real? Are people always surrounded by smelly things or am I supposed to sniff nearby objects? I chose to sniff my coffee and I have zero regrets. Also leftover muffin. I’m going to go back to the coffee, if that’s okay.
In the days since my duties ended I have been unpacking the trauma of how I was treated. Usually when teaching ends I’m excited to take a break and then dive into research. That’s not where I am at. I’m still processing how little I mattered to anyone. How little you, the students, mattered. How the existence of students succeeding rendered meaningless any suffering from a “minority” of students. When a real person’s suffering is dismissed as anecdotal, I just really question the morality of remaining in this system.
My experience this semester was that instead of having my needs accommodated, I was condescended to. My energy was demanded. I was told that they knew of my writing and they wanted me to fight for the students. They wanted me to challenge them, but only on their terms. I was asked to do things I couldn’t and when I explained that I couldn’t, I was made to feel bad.
One thing I taste, guess I’ll go with coffee again…
Students, nothing is more important than your physical and emotional health and safety. No calculus course is going to be designed to meet everyone’s needs. If a course is failing to meet your needs, that is the course’s fault. Learning should be wonderful! Life in a pandemic is hard. Being isolated is hard. It’s not fair. None of this is fair or right or just. My personal opinion is that we should have thrown out everything and focused entirely on communal support. But then again students need degrees and jobs and none of us can put everything on hold. But I wish the judgment and cruelty in education would finally die. I know that standing up for yourself and demanding more is a risk. I am not someone who can organize a student strike or even design a better course.
I can only tell you that you are being mistreated. I know it because I have been mistreated. I can only tell you that you are being disrespected. I know it because I have been disrespected.
Some day I hope to be able to talk about it more openly.
For now, I leave you with a few well wishes to all the students out there from some educator friends:
“This system is obviously, horrendously, and in every way that matters, failing you. Some of that is beyond our control. Some of it isn’t, and for that, we need to do better because we owe it to you. Not as customers but as people.”
“You matter more than this class. Your mental health, your access to material resources, who you love, what you enjoy should not be sacrificed ever. You have a right to be a human first and a student second. You should be trusted to do your work in community with us.”
1. I have been informed that the post doesn’t show up on search engines, so I am including the link here, but please only comment/engage with that post if you are supportive of it. Any critique of that post should stay here please.
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