Priority Expectations and Student-Faculty Conflict

There was a kerfuffle in academic social media a bit earlier this week, kicked off by an anonymous Twitter feed dedicated to complaints about students (which I won't link to, as it's one of those stunt feeds that's mostly an exercise in maximizing clicks by maximizing dickishness). This triggered a bunch of sweeping declarations about the surpassing awfulness of all faculty who have ever thought poorly of a student (which I'm also not going to link, because they were mostly on Twitter and are now even more annoying to find than they were to read). It was a great week for muttered paraphrases of Mercutio's death speech, in other words.

These opposite extremes are sort of interesting, though, in that they both spring from the exact same core problem, namely that each side of the faculty-student relationship thinks they should be the other's top priority, and are annoyed when they're not.

Faculty complaints about students missing class, not handing in work, etc. in the end trace back to the feeling that class work-- and specifically their class work-- ought to be the single highest priority for students in that class. I realized this a few years back, when I had a horrible experience with a couple of pre-med physics classes, who were infuriating even by the standards of pre-med physics classes. What I found most maddening about this particular group was that they didn't even try to hide the fact that my class was their lowest priority. It wasn't just the constant requests that I adjust my due dates to work around the organic chemistry class running the same term-- those are a constant with the pre-med crowd. This particular group would come to a physics recitation section in a first-floor classroom that ended ten minutes before my lab on the third floor, then leave the building to go get coffee in the campus center, and roll into lab 10-15 minutes late. The colleague who taught the recitation section was usually back in his office down the hall well before the students in the class he'd just finished teaching would stroll by on their way to lab.

(I eventually lost my temper with them, and started locking the door at the beginning of the period, only letting them in after I finished the pre-lab lecture to the students who cared enough to arrive on time. This... did not end well.)

On the student side, a lot of the complaints about faculty practices and policies boil down to the same thing in reverse-- the idea that faculty need to have the needs and wants of individual students in their class as their absolute top priority. One of the most common complaints about faculty is that they're "not available enough" and "too slow returning graded work," both of which implicitly assume that the faculty don't have anything else to do that's more important than grading papers and waiting for student questions. That's not remotely accurate, even if we restrict the scope of activities to professional duties alone, leaving out personal and family concerns. There are research papers to be written or re-written, grant proposals with hard deadlines, committee and department service tasks, and lots of other things that take faculty away from working on that specific class.

And a lot of things that seem like perfectly reasonable requests from an individual student perspective have very real costs for faculty, and for other students in the class. I'm pretty flexible about due dates and the like, but I can't wait on one student's homework indefinitely, no matter how good their reason for needing extra time, because it harms the other students in the class. My general practice is to make solutions available to the class as a study aid, and I can't do that until I have all the homework that's going to be graded.

Are there faculty whose draconian policies are an unfair imposition on students? I think so, yes. Are there students who feel entitled to excessive deference? Absolutely. (The go-get-coffee-and-come-to-lab-late thing was beyond the pale...) For the most part, though, everybody has priorities they're trying to balance, and we're all doing the best we can.

It's important for both faculty and students to recognize that members of the other group are people trying to balance multiple competing priorities as best they can. Students who really like the class and want to do well can end up having to give other courses, other activities, or their personal well-being a higher priority for part (even most) of the term. And faculty who want to do right by their students can nevertheless have any number of valid reasons for drawing a line and saying "I can do this much, and no more."

We all want our thing to be everybody else's top priority, that's just human nature. It's not always going to work out that way, though, and recognizing that is the key to avoiding a lot of needless conflict.

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This particular group would come to a physics recitation section in a first-floor classroom that ended ten minutes before my lab on the third floor, then leave the building to go get coffee in the campus center, and roll into lab 10-15 minutes late.

I can understand your frustration with this group. A little bit of advance planning, e.g., getting their coffee before they came to the physics recitation, would likely have avoided that problem. I say "likely" because there may have been some in that group who had another class on the same side of the quad immediately before the physics recitation. In that case the logistics get a little harder. But even in such cases, Thermos bottles exist and would alleviate the problem.

In the unlikely event that a student has a good reason for such behavior, she can discuss it with the appropriate dean, and if no better solution is available , said dean can take you aside and explain what's going on. That's how I was expected to deal with it in my student days. But in those days undergraduate students were assumed to be fully adult--helicopter parenting wasn't a thing for kids in our generation. Would one of today's students in this situation make the effort, or would she assume that it would be taken care of?

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 30 Mar 2017 #permalink

I am lead to believe that is the result of three generations inadvertently teaching their darling offspring that the world revolves around them.
In a Philosophy 101 class I was exposed to the idea that the student should not be too comfortable lest they begin to believe that they need not work as hard to get through the material. On the other hand, there seems to be a desire to get through a course and degree in order to get to work and start on that almighty career path.

By william stoudt (not verified) on 06 Apr 2017 #permalink