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Cruelty-Free Syllabi

This Inside Higher Edarticle about a particularly punishing course syllabus is extreme, but many college professors have policies that are only slightly less extreme, though they may not think of them that way, may not think of them as particularly punishing, certainly don’t think of them as cruel. (I used to have similar, slightly less extreme policies on my syllabi. I did not think of them as punishing, and certainly not as cruel.)

The tweet that led me to that article is powerful:

Look at that again: A mother who obeyed her doctor’s decree to turn off her cell phone in class and missed the call from the daycare saying her child had suffered an allergic reaction and was taken to the hospital.

(I’ve received a few drop-everything-and-go emergency phone calls in my life. The thought of missing one makes me shudder.)

Here’s my old cell phone policy, for which I received praise from various teachers who thought it was well worded and well conceived:

We will all keep our cell phones off or on vibrate during class.  Of course, none of us is rude enough to text during class, but if we were to be rude enough to text during class we should not be surprised when we are asked to leave class for the day and receive an absence for it.

In its attempt not to be obviously authoritarian — or, perhaps, to soften some qualm I wasn’t admitting to myself — its tone is patronizing. It was also not a policy I actually believed in. Yes, I got (and get) annoyed with students for texting during class, but I never enforced the policy, even in my earliest days of teaching college. If a student was texting for more than a few seconds, I would ask them not to, unless it was an emergency, and they would apologize and put their phone away, and class continued. So why did I create a policy — a policy not required by any university guidelines — that I really didn’t want to enforce?

When I started teaching at a university, I thought this sort of thing was necessary on a syllabus. I’d spent a decade teaching at high schools where syllabi were only a page or two long and utterly uninformative. Some terms, I forgot to hand out syllabi at all, because they were little more than a formality. I remember being shocked when a friend who had just started teaching at a college said she spent weeks writing a syllabus. I’d never spent more than a couple hours writing one. But then when I got hired to teach at a university, I went looking for sample syllabi, because I knew they had a different sort of importance in college than high school, and I wanted to be a good college teacher, not just a high school teacher who happened to be teaching in college. I remembered my own college experiences. I was excited by the opportunity to be free of high school administrative strictures, to be able to challenge students in new ways, to dig deeper into material I cared passionately about. I read the university’s syllabus guidelines. I asked friends to share their syllabi. For the first time in my life, I spent months writing syllabi.

I did the best I could with the knowledge I had, and that’s what I keep thinking back to: The best I could, with the knowledge I had, led to gargantuan syllabi filled with punishments. Thou shalt not was the subtext of most of my policies. My assumption, starting my career as a college teacher, was that college should be punishing.

In my own experience, college had not been punishing. Not as a whole. Certainly, there were difficult moments, some of them truly punishing (the sadistic German professor who caused me to have to spend many hours in the counseling center and not graduate on time was a highlight of my undergrad years), but mostly what I found in college was refuge. I found people with similar interests to my own, I found courses that challenged my knowledge and developed my skills, I found faculty who were deeply compassionate, who treated me like a worthwhile human being. Grad school was tough, too, but not painful, and certainly not an authoritarian environment.

My assumption that a college syllabus should be authoritarian and even perhaps cruel was not, then, an assumption based on my own experience of higher education, but was rather an assumption born of ideas I had received, absorbed, and not questioned — ideas from influences more disparate than my own experience. I’m not sure what all of those influences were, but I know part of it was actually an extension of some of what we used to tell our high school students about college. I worked for most of my high-school-teaching career at a college prep school, so the assumption was that all of our students were headed off to higher ed. Students who skipped classes, didn’t do homework, etc. would often hear something from a teacher to the effect of, “You’re going to be in for a big surprise when you get to college and your professors don’t put up with this nonsense and just fail you.” We’d tell students stories of professors who locked the classroom door one minute after class started; stories of receiving a paper back with nothing written on it except the words “Improper formatting” and a big F in red pen; stories of people getting expelled for plagiarism because of one improper citation; etc. Few of these stories were based on our own experience, which is not to say we thought ourselves to be lying to our students. Certainly, there are professors who lock their doors to punish latecomers, and there are professors who have all sorts of persnickety pet peeves about assignments, and academic honesty is very taken seriously … but the fact is, we used the idea of How Things Are In College to strike fear into our students. We told them scary fables in which college professors played the role of the wicked witch, the cruel stepmother, the wolf, the demon…

And so when I became a college professor, some part of me thought I needed to live up to the spirit of the fables I had spent many years telling students. I didn’t see myself as a villain in a fable, but rather as A Demanding Professor with High Expectations. It was a role I was not suited to play. Not that I don’t have high expectations or want my students to learn more than they ever thought they would. I do. But life is not a fable, and my personality is not suited to the role of the hard-nosed punisher.

My current policies are quite different. (Most of the first half of the policies on that syllabus, and my others, is stuff required by the university to be on every syllabus: course description, objectives, materials, assignments.) The strictest policy is for attendance. I differ from some colleagues with whom I agree about just about everything else on syllabi. I have experimented with not having attendance policies, and I have ended up in situations with students that I didn’t feel comfortable with, and I didn’t feel comfortable because we hadn’t had a clear policy. My attendance policy is now as loose as I’m currently comfortable making it. I want to note something about it, though: It’s premised on communication and conversation.

Communication and conversation is how I try to reconcile my own need for students to be in class consistently with their often hectic lives. I could probably boil my attendance policy down to: I need you to be in class for your own sake and for the sake of the class as a community, but I know life can throw obstacles at us, so if you start finding yourself facing a bunch of obstacles to consistent attendance in this course, let’s keep the lines of communication open. It’s a little more strict than that because in practice I’ve found that I have limits, and I think it’s only honest to let students know as much about those limits as I know myself. A number of times last term, I found myself saying to students, “You cannot pass a course you don’t attend.” So I added that sentence to the syllabus. That seemed more honest than pretending to be tougher than I actually am … or pretending that I don’t care if students are in class. I do care. It matters to me a lot.

Right now, I’ve just begun reading Joshua R. Eyler’s How Humans Learn, and there’s a subsection in the first chapter (a chapter about curiosity) that struck me: Don’t Be Scary. The section begins:

Our first step in fostering our students’ engagement with or rediscovery of their curiosity should probably be simply to make sure that we are not doing anything to inhibit their curiosity. As it happens, anxiety of all kinds has an extremely detrimental effect on the willingness of our students to explore new ideas and to ask questions. … As novelty increases, so do both curiosity … and anxiety. At a certain point, the degree of novelty is such that curiosity wanes but anxiety continues to rise. When the anxiety is great enough, and the risk of pursuing the stimulus is perceived to be too high, people will withdraw rather than continue to press further.

Pointing toward insights in a later chapter on emotions, Eyler says: Students cannot learn if they are fearful or anxious.

Now remember what Jesse Stommel said: I wish it went without saying that syllabi should not be instruments of abuse.

When I was beginning to teach college courses, I wrote syllabi with the express purpose of being scary — syllabi that I know inspired fear and anxiety. (Students told me so. It was what began my journey toward trying to create cruelty-free syllabi.) I don’t really think they were instruments of abuse. But … I’m not sure. And I see that uncertainty in the development of my syllabi over the years, each one growing less and less authoritarian. I didn’t like the hint of sadism I sensed in myself.

Has anybody done research on discourses of sadism and education? Something not quite so theoretical as Foucault writing about schools and prisons. I like Discipline and Punish as much as the next guy, but I’m thinking more practically, less theoretically. I mean investigation into why people want teachers to be cruel. What it is in our conception of teaching that draws out a sadistic streak even in the meekest of us. (And, for that matter, we ought to think about why some sadists are drawn to being teachers. I know it’s not the majority of the profession — there are an astounding number of great and compassionate teachers — but most people I know have at least one harrowing story about a teacher whose only pleasure seemed to come from humiliating and degrading their students. Here, we might insert Pink Floyd’s “The Happiest Days of Our Lives” and “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2”…)

Eyler’s statement that students can’t learn if they’re fearful or anxious should not be controversial. Yet so often we seem to need to view school as necessarily punishing and “good teachers” as instruments to carry out that punishment. What desire makes us want education to have a streak of cruelty?

You see it on social media all the time, both from teachers and non-teachers: the celebration of cruelty, of teaching those kids a lesson. Just the language of that saying is tinged with sadism: If I teach you a lesson, in contemporary American English at least, the implication is that I have schooled you, I have beaten you somehow, I have humiliated or degraded you. Even our language expresses this commonplace idea that education is inherently cruel.

We need to work against these discourses of sadism. When our friends post stuff on social media about how great it is to punish students, or tell stories about the punishing force of education as if those stories are fables with good moral lessons, we need to ask them, “Why do you want education to hurt? Why do you want it to be filled with fear and anxiety? What desire within you does this idea satisfy? Why do you want to promote cruelty? Who hurt you?”

I wish somebody had asked this of me long ago. (I would have been shocked, incredulous.) I wish somebody had even recognized it a little bit, the strain of sadism in my own approach to education. It was no good, folks. It didn’t help my students, and it certainly didn’t help me as a teacher. Without realizing it, I was frequently at odds with myself, frequently trying to teach in a way that would lessen the punishments I myself had instituted with my policies and attitudes. So much of the student behavior that I sought to control, discipline, and punish was a result of the environment I myself had created as the teacher. I don’t think I was ever particularly cruel; indeed, I think I was less so than some of my colleagues. But still. That’s not enough. We can be better.

Hippocrates was onto something: “I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing. … Into whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick, and I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm…”

I think again about the mother who missed a phone call about her child being taken to the hospital.

Are there places where cell phones should always be turned off? Sure. Theatres and cinemas, courtrooms maybe. Not my classroom, though. I don’t want to be that cop. I want students to use their judgment, and I want to talk with them about the choices they make and the choices I make, and see where we agree and disagree, and why. Conversation, not decree.

Maybe you do want all cell phones off in your classroom. I can understand that. Truly. But I can’t stop thinking about a parent missing a call saying their child is in the hospital. Or a student missing a call saying a parent is in the hospital. Or … any number of other emergency scenarios.

Is your cell phone policy cruel? I don’t know. It’s for you to investigate your own motivations, your own desires. Are you indulging your taste for sadism? (Which may be fine in some places and circumstances, consensual ones. But is your classroom an appropriate place for that? Have your students consented to your cruelty?)

We can disagree about all sorts of details of pedagogy, about the structures of institutions, about educational reform, about so many other things — but shouldn’t we be able to agree to some basic principles like Don’t be scary and Don’t be cruel.

It’s remarkable what happens when we apply such straightforward ideas to our curriculums. It doesn’t require being a genius teacher, it just requires remembering that students are human beings, and that we ought to be compassionate toward each other and treat each other as we, ourselves, would like to be treated. It really is as simple as starting from there.

Don’t be scary on your syllabus or in your classroom. Don’t be cruel.

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