My dissertation traces the path of the English folkloric devil in popular literature from the Anglo—Saxon period up through Milton’s characterization in Paradise Lost. One of my favorite finds was the discovery that there was a Patron Demon of Writers— Titivillus, a demon often blamed for scribal mistakes in manuscripts. I remember reading a blog a while ago about the term “devilling” and I keep returning to this idea— specifically the ways in which we, as PhD students, as scholars, devil ourselves. Particularly at the end of the semester, reflecting on the ways we “devil” ourselves seems worth spending some time one.
This past summer, there were numerous conversations on Twitter about what we did in our classrooms, and the impact this has on students. While there were many conversations, two really resonated with me— Kevin Gannon @TheTattooedProf thoughts on policing in our classroom, and the numerous conversations that revolved about #ExamHowlers, and the idea of shaming students, which Jesse Stommel has so eloquently revisited.
Now I’ve always considered myself a good teacher, deeply invested, worked hard, caring. But I have struggled as a teacher. I have struggled because as a loud, opinionated, woman I can rub students to wrong way. I’ve had students not like me. I’ve had faculty not like me. This semester, not feeling liked, or supported, led to some serious struggles with anxiety, which I’ve talked about elsewhere. In a lot of ways anxiety is the perfect example of the ways in which we devil ourselves.
I’ve always used a lot of technology in my classroom, so you wouldn’t think letting go of this would be a big deal. But letting go of the idea of policing these things was huge. The amount of energy, and anxiety, that was suddenly freed up once I stopped caring was HUGE. I still encouraged students to bring them to class, used Google Docs for activities, taught them how to do things. But I stopped policing it otherwise. And here’s the thing— it was never an issue. Never once did I have a student disrupt class. I’ve long held the belief that students will rise to the level you expect of them. I thought it when I taught Beowulf to freshmen in a Brooklyn high school. I still think it. But thinking it, and living it I determined this semester are two different things. By stopping policing my class I was also able to stop devilling myself.
This started a cascade, when I freed up time by not policing, I realized I thought differently about my class. What would happen if the focus of my class, particularly the first day of class, was not rules? What would that look like? I shifted my thinking of my syllabus as a “How To” do well in the course, and less a set of rules to enforce. I made a funny two—part video that covered the highlights of my pet peeves from the syllabus. That first day I showed the students where it was, what it was, and why they should watch it. Then I spent the next seventy minutes of class NOT talking about the syllabus. Instead I talked about what we’d be doing that semester, the ideas we’d explore, the projects we’d work on. And guess what? I never, not once, answered a “it’s in the syllabus” question. Changing the focus of the class from that first day on affected class culture, how students viewed me, the material. The most repeated comment on end of semester evaluations was my enthusiasm and how invested I was in them and the class.
I’ve never understood people who made fun of their students. Who belittled them. Who condescended to them. I mean, if you hated students that much, why are you a teacher? It’s baffling at the K-12 level. But at the college level I notice there’s a lot of push back about this— I’ve been told that professors are there for research, not teaching.
As though that’s an excuse for treating students poorly. Whether it’s Vitae’s insulting Dear Student column, or Inside Higher Ed’s Exam Howlers these institutionalized forms of insult and condescension are harmful for several reasons. Now having said that, I will confess to venting when I shouldn’t. To having a knee jerk reaction to student questions. But all these conversations got me thinking, if I or you was a student and we read these things from your professor, how they felt about teaching, us, our work or worse if we saw our work made fun of, how would we feel? Your students Google you as soon as they see your name on the schedule, read your Twitter feed.
This semester I stopped any negative comments about students. Not just on social media, but out loud. In the copy room, with friends. When I had students I struggled with (and I did) I made sure to phrase it as “I don’t understand…” or “I’m experiencing this, what have you done…” I wouldn’t have considered myself mean before but I think I fell into a habit a lot of teachers do. It’s easy to complain. It’s easy to focus on the feelings, not the solutions. But that becomes a habit and that habit taints how you deal with students. Many times when I got a student email or had a conversation my first reaction was defense— how dare you. Question me. The work. Your grade. And that’s an awful place to start anything. I think part of that for me was coming from teaching jobs where I wasn’t supported, so defensive was the default position. So I had another paradigm shift, understanding that a lot of time students need to be taught how to interact.
I remember way back when I first started teaching, an experienced teacher, whose name I don’t remember, said that all decisions in the classroom should be about what is best for the students, not easy for the teacher. I don’t think these two are mutually exclusive. I think when you base decisions around what is best for your students things are easier for you. Me giving more detailed feedback, asking questions in comments on side, then giving holistic comments at the end of the paper means I answered fewer questions about justifying grades. This semester I allowed students to revise all assignments for higher grades, stressing that what we covered was important, and if it was important for them to learn it then IT WAS IMPORTANT FOR THEM TO LEARN IT told them that my focus was on them. But I also made sure that I told them that prioritizing work, and choosing not to do this was okay too. I had students tell me that while they didn’t always take advantage of this, they appreciated it. This showed them how to make adult choices, helped them do it, and them let them do it. I let students pick what they would write about which had a lot of benefits like never worrying about plagiarism because assignment design is the number one way to prevent that. And reading drafts, at any stage, or multiple drafts, didn’t end up creating more work. If anything, it was less. Because by the time I graded their final drafts I’d seen the whole process. I could read faster because I’d seen sections before. I could identify exactly where they misstepped. The gaps they still had to fill. Where to move forward with the next assignment. I also let them pick between essays and projects. And read drafts on anything, up to 24 hours before deadline.
Once you identify the things that are devilling you— your teaching, your planning, your students, and make moves to stop these things, it’s amazing the changes you see.
And the things that’s great about what we do is this. Every semester is a chance to start over, to try something new. To figure out what is devilling us and then try to fix it. Our jobs can be hard, in so many ways. But we owe it to ourselves and our students to make it better, make it easier, where and when we can.
As for me, I’m teaching a 70 student online Shakespeare class in the spring, and I’m using all I’ve learned this semester. But I’m also going to focus more on Grading with Grace, particularly towards the end of the semester. Usually those last assignments receive less feedback because I’ve seen them as the end, nothing afterwards so little reason to comment. But I’m shifting my focus. I’m choosing instead to not see it as commenting on the last thing, but commenting as though it was the next thing. The next English class. The next essay. The next piece of writing they can improve on.
So I suggest you take some time over break to think about what devils you. Then pick something, it can be just one thing, and see what you can do to fix it.
Let me know how it goes!