Tuesday, May 21, 2013

What do I expect from students

Coming to terms with expectations


A colleague of mine at another university is writing a book. I won’t go into details about it for two reasons 1) I don’t know many and 2) what I do know, I seriously doubt she wants put out there in any coherent form lest someone “scoop” her, so to speak. None-the-less, she asked me to write to her about some of my expectations of students. I know she just wanted an email response, but I really think that it is useful to put this out there as a blog. 
This is not the first time I’ve written about my expectations or concerns regarding student behavior. I’ve recently written about my expectations regarding clothes. One of my most popular posts was entitled “The Speech Teacher’s Sermon in the Classroom” and was modeled phrase for phrase after Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, but dealing with classroom issues. I have also already written about what I see as standards for grading at the college level. 
Still, I don’t think that any of this is quite what she is wanting. I believe that she is curious as to the day to day expectations that I have with students. I think she wants the expectations that have come out of my particular thirteen years of lived experience as a college teacher. I think she wants to know what advice I would give to students based on what I’ve seen, what I’ve known and what has made me grow with my students.

My Lived Experience

In many ways, my teaching situation is quite typical. I am tenure-track and well on the way to tenure at a small teaching-focused state university. I started teaching as most professors do, as a graduate student. I have taught at large state schools, small state schools, Christian schools, and religiously affiliated private schools. I have taught where there was no accrediting body, some accreditation and accreditation coupled with state regulations. I have held adjunct positions by various titles and tenure track appointments at three schools. I’ve taught in the east, the west, the north and the south of the United States and for that reason, I really can share what expectations of a professor are at large.

However, my longest appointment has been at my current post which is somewhat unique. I teach at a small, regional, teaching-focused school in the southwest. This school is unique for a number of reasons. It would not be possible to go into all the nuances here, but I think I should explain some things that I think effect my expectations.  They make my institution unique.

First of all, it is an open enrollment institution. That means that we take virtually anyone who applies. We don’t require a minimum GPA from high school or a minimum score on the SAT or ACT. Our students take compass tests when they enter and if their scores show that they cannot read, write or perform mathematics at the college level, they are placed in developmental classes until they can. The unique situation that we have here effects my expectations. I know students are often struggling with college level work. I know that many have found school a struggle for their entire lives. I know that for many of them, this school is a far-fetched last hope at something outside the welfare system and that they really don’t feel any hope for success.

Second, my institution is a “majority-minority” campus. Fully two thirds of the students here are Hispanic (a term much preferred in this region to “Latino”). The vast majority of these are of Mexican and Mexican-American descent, but there are a number of students from the Caribbean and South and Central America. This second group wants to study in the States, but prefers a region where they can speak and hear Spanish in the stores, on the busses, at Church, etc. The final third is made up of (in order of population) ethnically Anglo-American students, Native American students, a much larger than average contingent of students from the Pacific Islands, especially Samoa, various students from Europe, African-American students, and a few Asian students.

This effects my expectations in a number of ways. First of all, while my students are ethnically diverse, the faculty members here are largely ethnically Anglo-Americans. It is a visual picture of white privilege. While many of the privileged ethnicity in other places are allowed to have their privilege be invisible, here we are confronted with it every day. We know the advantage of natively speaking the language of instruction. We know the power we have to get in the car and travel the country and not stand out as different. We know that we are trusted by government agencies and officials. We know that neither we nor our family members will ever be deported for missteps. We know we are blessed. We struggle with the extent to which we need to inculcate the dominant culture into our students so they can succeed and the extent to which we need to celebrate and empower the students within their own cultures.

Finally, there is my financial background and situation. I came from a family that was loving, strong, worked hard, read passionately, had strong moral backgrounds and never enough money. When I went to college I was on my own financially. I made it through the bachelor’s and master’s degrees without incurring significant debt. I did this by working, a lot. I needed to take on what has become significant debt in order to pay for travel and materials during my PhD. My wife only has a bachelor’s degree, but also has significant debt. The economy since her graduation has meant that she has only been able to get low, hourly wage, service industry positions. Of course, when the government looks at need-based aid, they don’t look at what your obligations are, merely income. For that reason, we struggle just to put food on the table and keep the lights on in a rented house.

So that is what is shaping my expectations which I can put down as a list here, beginning with

I have no expectations. I have been teaching long enough now that I don’t get surprised at anything. I’ve seen students light up cigarettes in class and attempt to carry out drug deals during my lecture. I’ve seen all manner or chemically altered states in class. I’ve seen students show off how they were body-painted at last night’s party. I’ve seen students bring children, dogs, cats, live snakes and marital aids into the classroom. I’ve seen written 17 letters to judges asking that students be excused from prison to attend class, 4 of those requests have been granted. I’ve had students miss class for nuptials, nativities and necrosis. You can’t surprise me anymore. So, while I say I “expect” these things, I don’t. I hope for them, pray for them, and reward those who follow them. I also allow the natural consequences to flow to those who do not.

Expectations regarding attendance and coursework.

  • I expect that when you create your schedule, classes come in first before work, doctor’s appointments, social events, family obligations, etc.  
  • I expect you to come to class, having done the assignments and readings and ready to share them and comment about them for the most part. On the other hand . . .
  • I expect you to skip class. Seriously: it’s right there in the syllabus. Our accreditation system allows you to skip a number of hours equal to the number of credit hours. So, if you’re taking a three credit hour class that meets three times a week for one hour, you can skip that class three times during the semester. It is allowed. And that’s just UNEXCUSED absences.
  • I expect you to tell me why you’re skipping class. If you just say “personal reasons,” that’s fine, but I expect you to let me know before class starts why you’re skipping. That’s why I gave you all those means of contacting me in the syllabus on the first day. Sometimes, if I think your reason is good enough, I may make the absence an “excused absence.” If I do that, that’s really nice of me, but I don’t have to do so and usually will not. Whether or not I do that probably has as much to do with whether you are respectful and interactive in class as much as how good the excuse is.   
  • I expect you’re going to do the reading before class and have something intelligent to say about it. On the other hand . . .
  • I expect you to skip the reading sometimes. That means you’ll have to catch up later in two ways. First of all, you’ll have to do the reading before the quizzes, exams, or performances that test it. Secondly, you really have to prove in the next few classes that you DID do the reading.
  • I also expect that you will get assignments done on time. I will always have full descriptions of all course assignments including due dates on the course website from the very beginning of class. For that reason I will NEVER discuss the assignments in class unless there are specific questions. That I didn’t “talk about it” is no reason not to do the assignment. On the other hand. . .
  • I know that life is really, really hard and at least a few times during your college career I expect you will decide not to do an assignment because you just don’t have time. If that happens in my class I expect that you to accept that I will give you a zero which will lower your overall course grade and that you will accept this and not look for “extra credit” or “an extension.” I don’t do these things, generally and I doubt your situation is so unique as to make an exception.
  • I expect you to be in the classroom before I am. When you are running late, I expect you to do your best to show up anyway. When you enter late, I expect you to enter as unobtrusively as possible. I expect an apology after class if you were class, and if you have not made it a habit, I fully expect to forgive you and count you as “present” for the entire class. However, if it’s happened more than a couple times, I will still forgive you, but I will also mark you as having missed the class.  
  • I expect you to wait 15 minutes for me if I’m not there when class starts. After that, I expect you to call me or the department secretary to see what’s going on before taking off. Life happens to me too. I will not make a habit out of this either. If it does happen more than a couple times during the semester that you have to wait more than 15 minutes, I fully expect you to take it up with my department chair. Clearly I am on drugs, struggling with personal issues or in some other way unable to perform my duties right now and need help.
  • I expect you to be respectful and interactive in class.
  • That means no cursing, swearing or emotional outbursts but lots of talking 

Expectations regarding grading

  • I expect you to accept the grades I give you. You can see mygrading criteria. They have been looked at and discussed by dozens of experts in the field, my supervisors up to the level of the Vice President of Academic Affairs and hundreds of students. They are just and fair and if you don’t like them . . . great! Let’s have a discussion about them BEFORE we have graded material to defend. I am always looking to improve my criteria.
  • I expect that unless you get 100%, that you won’t like your grade. That’s why you work so hard. Good for you.
  • I expect that if you don’t understand your grade, we can discuss it. Remember, this is not a defense of your work. The grade I give will stand unless I made a mistake. It is a chance for me to clarify. If you approach this from any other position, we cannot have a conversation.
  • I expect that I will make mistakes sometimes. I will count correct answers wrong, etc. I will always fix those grades. I will probably also make mistakes that give you better grades than you deserve. Don’t worry about telling me. I’m probably mean enough as it is.

Expectations Regarding Communication

  • I expect that you will communicate with me, regularly, outside of class.
  • I expect that anytime you don’t understand an assignment, a grade, a policy or a concept from class, you will communicate with me about it.
  • I expect that you will never show up for my office hours, but it would be so awesome if you did. I have them there for you and get so lonely and bored during this time. I will also schedule special office hours to talk just to you.
  • I do expect, however, that I’ll probably get emails, texts and even phone calls from every single one of you during the semester. I expect to hear from most of you once a week or more. That’s fine.
  • I expect when you send an email, text or leave a message on my phone that you will include, who you are, what class you’re in at what time. I have 100 students in four different sections of public speaking, for instance, and I need a reminder. I expect this with every text, sorry; I don’t save your number unless I also know you from church or other social activities. I actually think it would be creepy if I did.
  • I don’t expect you to contact me through social networking sites and will never contact you that way unless you initiate it. If you do initiate it, however, that’s fine. I am not afraid of students on Facebook, but you’ll be subjected to my religious, political and personal rants if you decide to become “friends.” If you decide afterwards not to be “friends,” feel free to leave no explanation. It’s actually less awkward that way.
  • I expect that we will all share our religious, political and personal positions in class too. I just expect that we’ll do so in an accepting and curious way, rather than demeaning the other side.
  • I expect that issues of sexuality and social deviance will probably come up at some point during the class and I expect you to comfortable discussing these concepts in an adult way. On the other hand . . .
  • I expect that your particular sexual acts or criminal acts will not be discussed, nor will mine.
  • I expect that if you have wildly heterodox opinions, that you know that class is not the best place to express them. This includes racism, homophobia and general bigotry. It also includes the belief that you can read minds or that your pet cat is the second coming of Christ. Those opinions should only be discussed among a select few, including your therapist.
  • I expect that you will refer to me by my title, (Dr. Cline, Professor or Prof. Cline) or by my name (Benji or Benjamin). I really feel weird when students call me “dude” or “dawg” or “homes (sp?).” If you forget my name, “sir” is fine. “Sir” or “ma’am” is what I use when I forget your name.

 Expectations regarding my time.

  • I expect that you know that I care about my students, want the best for them and work hard on their behalf.
  • I expect a certain amount of patience. I will usually answer emails or texts within 24 hours, except on weekends, when I might not answer until we are back in session.
  • I expect, perhaps unfairly, that you realize that teaching is only part of my job (45%, according my job description). I also have to do research, perform administrative duties and represent the university in all kinds of community activities and government functions. I am also expected to continue my education and spend more time in faculty development classes and doing reading than you do in your classes if you’re taking a normal load. Teaching is my favorite task, but it is a tiny bit of what being a professor is.
  • I expect that time set aside for grading and preparing for classes is respected, so that you’d never ask to turn in something “late,” meaning I have to have a special time to grade just your piece.
  • I expect that if we make special arrangements to meet, that you come or at least text me if you cannot make it.
  • I expect you know that I have a wife, child, pets, parents, grandparents, etc. with whom I want to spend time too, not just on you. You are important to me. These people are more important. 
  • I expect you know that I have faith obligations and that time spent with God comes first for me. Work is just one way to get money.

Expectations regarding our “relationship”

  • I expect that when the semester ends, so does our relationship. If not, that is great and I have some wonderful friendships with former students. That friendship, however, could only develop after the class ended.
  • I expect that when we hear about the big events in each other’s lives (weddings, births, funerals, birthdays, graduations, promotions, retirements, children’s quinceañeras or Bar Mitzvahs), appropriate verbal acknowledgements will be given. However, I will not give or accept gifts and will not invite you or accept invitations to celebrations.
  • I expect that if we see each other in public, at restaurants, shopping or at a bar, we will smile and nod at each other. If we come into close proximity during these events, we may greet each other. We will not “hang out.”
  • I expect that if we are with others during these greetings, we may introduce the others.
  • I expect that you aren’t going to hit on me nor that I am going to hit on you. If you ever do perceive that I am hitting on you, I expect you to point out the behavior so that I can apologize and stop. If I do not, I expect that you will follow our university’s policy regarding sexual harassment. I will do the same with you.
  • I expect that if we have a relationship outside of class because of religious, social or civic interactions, that this relationship will not be used to gain special favors in the class.
  • I expect that no one, not your parents, priest, spouse or friends will discuss your situation in the class with me. If they do, I will only acknowledge that you are in the class and will probably say that I “enjoy” you being there or something else particularly meaningless.

The final expectation.

I expect that these expectations have exceptions. 

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