In a recent essay, “Can't or Won't: The Culture of Helplessness,” published on Inside Higher Ed, professor Lori Isbell expressed frustration with what she identified as “the culture of helplessness” among students. Isbell cited students asking her too many questions about course content and logistics as an example of this behavior. In addition, Isbell pointed out what she considers to be “institutional acknowledgement” of students' lack of “academic agency,” by referencing the existence of first-year seminar courses, which are widely offered at colleges and universities to help new students acclimate to campus and build tools for future success.
Not surprisingly, Professor Isbell's essay sparked a passionate response. In his essay, “Against Student Shaming,” also published in Inside Higher Ed, professor Joshua Eyler argued that essays like Isbell's place blame on students who are simply trying to navigate the new terrain of the college culture, and that by airing complaints about students in a public forum, student-teacher trust, a foundation of the learning relationship, is violated. Again, Eyler's essay received a great deal of attention and comments, pointing to widespread interest in the topics of student success, institutional responsibility and classroom culture.
In over a decade of work in higher education, I've unfortunately encountered many individuals who blame or disparage our students. These often come from well-intentioned educators who seem frustrated and unclear about possible solutions to their challenges. In any case, these are difficult conversations to have with our colleagues. Read on for several strategies you can use when encountering negative comments about your students.
1. Acknowledge and Support
Responding to student shaming with professor/administrator shaming only continues the cycle. Instead, interrupt the blame game: “It sounds like you're really frustrated. I'd like to help. Can we set up a time this week to brainstorm solutions?” Ignoring people's frustrations will only breed further resentment. Rather, bring their concerns into the light and work together to find positive solutions.
2. Point Out the Positive
Create space for educators on your campus to celebrate student success. For example, in my former role as the director of student success at a community college, I asked faculty to provide me with the name of one student in their course who they wanted to recognize for hard work. I then contacted the students with warm notes of congratulations. Both faculty and students responded enthusiastically to this small initiative. Help your faculty and staff to notice how many of their students are thriving and succeeding.
3. Talk About Teaching
Do you create space for educators to openly discuss the gifts and challenges of their work? If not, frustrations can often fester. Professional development is important, but make sure there's also ample time for unstructured and open-ended conversations about the challenging work we do in higher education. Consider hosting coffee hours for educators on your campus or create a bulletin board in the faculty lounge with a theme like “What I Love About Teaching.”
4. Translate Theory to Practice
Consider creating workshops on your campus for faculty and staff to learn theoretical foundations of student success. Paulo Freire, in the classic work Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968, 1970), provides a critical response to what he calls the “banking model” of education, where students are viewed as empty vessels to be filled by their teachers. He identifies praxis, “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it,” as an alternate model. Rather than viewing students as subjects who must assimilate to our campus culture, Freire argues that we must instead see students as partners in their education.
William Tierney's cultural model of student success is another theoretical framework that challenges the model of assimilation in higher education. Tierney's research argues that institutions must be redesigned in such a way that encourages students to hold onto their own cultures. He emphatically challenges the model of blaming students for their failures and critiques the power structure of higher education. Opening up conversations on campus using established theoretical frameworks can create structured conversations that lead to positive solutions, rather than letting blame and anger lead the way.
5. Have an Attitude of Gratitude
Finally, expressing gratitude toward faculty, staff and colleagues can go a long way to shifting the culture of your campus away from shame and blame. In my own work, I try to send a thank-you email (or express it in-person) whenever I notice someone working hard or creating positive change. Many of us have gotten into the habit of only reaching out to others when we have a complaint or concern. As such, by only focusing on the negative, we've inadvertently created a negative culture. Make sure you're expressing gratitude to someone on your team at least once a day and watch how that small step creates a powerful shift in your campus culture.
Talk about these five steps with your team today and consider additional ways that you can open up the conversation about student success, institutional responsibility and classroom culture. By taking positive action to create space for these challenging conversations, blame and frustration can be countered with intelligent discussion, thoughtful analysis and teamwork. By supporting one another, we'll be better positioned to support our students.