This evening I have been part of a round robin of e-mails. Technically, I’ve only been copied on the e-mails since the matter of the discussion involved one of my instructors; nonetheless, I’ve followed with rapt attention. Not just as a supervisor, but also as someone who rarely sees instructors from different departments, all of whom have different philosophies, interact and communicate to try to solve a problem.
The problem is this: a student who “arrived” in class late in the semester (recall that I teach entirely online, and so arrival is a relative term), and who has had various complications during the last weeks – I gather she was sick, and that a nephew was killed in a car accident – is now asking for an Incomplete so she might have a good chance at passing her classes. Three separate classes, three different instructors. Each of the classes, of course, places unique demands on its students; likewise, each of the instructors has his or her own requirements for satisfactory performance.
Apparently, the student has not done well in either her social sciences or her physical sciences class; however, she’s done satisfactorily in her English class. During the flurry of e-mails this evening, some of which half-accused the student of indolence and dishonesty (the student was “confused” – not my quotation marks – and the nephew’s death was apparently convenient to missing a make-up test), the English instructor has contributed very little, saying that the student is welcome to her Incomplete if she really can see no other alternative. The Social Science and Physical Science instructors have been less accommodating, primarily – and not unreasonably – based on the student’s performance in their respective classes.
As much as I’d like to ask the questions that burn in my brain about whether or not the sciences courses are designed truly with the student in mind, or whether there might be reason for confusion and poor performance, I’m much more interested in this other question that’s picking at me: When we have to, how do teachers talk to each other?
In my experience, teachers like to be more autonomous even than artists. In fact, I can only think of one other group who enjoys more self-authority than teachers, and that’s parents. Generally, we don’t like to be told what to do with our “kids,” and I’ve heard seniority, philosophy, even wages thrown around the room in order to defend an instructor’s authority when that authority is threatened. I have been at peaceful conference breakfasts and confronted by an instructor who believes she is the only one who knows how to teach that cornerstone of composition, the research paper. What’s more, she insists, “if you ask me to teach it any other way, I just don’t think I’ll be able to.”
Not that I can’t sympathize. I absolutely can. Please, please never tell me I have to teach Intro to Creative Writing based on someone else’s syllabus! Please never ask me to use quizzes in my composition classes! And rubrics (with a nod to Mr. Burrell)… You may as well ask me to clean toilets for a living (which, by the way, I’ve done). The point here is not whether or not I can sympathize with instructors who don’t want to teach in any way besides their own. The point here is that I don’t know what happens when these folks who are so used to being autonomous suddenly have to cohere.
It’s been almost painful this evening, watching the two sciences instructors verbally wrestle the student to the ground while the English teacher vanished into the e-mail background (perhaps feeling a bit verbally wrestled himself). When the dean finally stepped in, hours after the volley began, it was to recommend a solution; but until she made this recommendation, the fusillade showed no signs of letting up.
The example here is a hard one, because there has been no real resolution; there’s been only a confused flow, staunched by a verdict from on high. Not unlike a playground tussle nipped in the bud by the playground monitor (that pesky adult you have to obey no matter who you think is right or wrong).
It’s only gratitude I have for Clay Burrell (and now Mr. Watson, too) for letting so many people know I was out here in the ether writing my little fingers off; but to be frank, I find myself wondering now that I’m out in the public sphere talking about teaching: how do teachers talk? When I wasn’t a supervisor of them (of us?), I tended not to talk to many of my colleagues – that is, until I found those colleagues whose philosophies agreed with mine. As a supervisor, I find that expressing my philosophies in an attempt to get dialogue going only results in murmurs of agreement or online silence.
I’m like any teacher I know. I want to talk about teaching – how would I not want to? – and I also don’t want my mind changed. Beginner’s mind? Sure, no problem, in the isolation of my own classroom. In a crowd full of otherwise-opinioned teachers? Hm.
Any thoughts from the ether?