Friday, September 18, 2015

The Kindly Old Professor - Mr. Chips 2.0

I'm a fan of  I have a bookmark to it in my browser and I use it multiple times each day.  Once in a while, however, it really lets me down.  A few days ago I did a look up of "tsoris," a Yiddish word that I believe should be part of the American lexicon. fumbled that ball badly.  A quick Google search produces the desired answer, found at The Free Dictionary. Tsoris means troubles or worries.  Ahead of time I would have said it meant problems.  Everyone has tsoris now and then and sometimes in between as well.  Given its ubiquitous nature, tsoris should be a word that Americans know.

What I'm increasingly coming to realize is that college students have tsoris.  I don't know if that's always been true and that I'm only becoming aware of the fact after a very long time or if it's really a more recent phenomenon.  Thinking back to my own college experience, especially the last two years when I lived on Wyckoff Road in Ithaca, it was a time of joy in a friendly and sheltered environment.  It's true I had no plan for what would happen post graduation at the start of those two years, but I was entirely untroubled by that.  I had good health.  I enjoyed the people I lived with at Wyckoff very much.  And the classes I took were for the most part engaging, and entirely separate world from my living situation.  If you abstract from an instance of unrequited love, I had no tsoris at all then.  Whether that was the norm or an outlier, I really don't know.  I wonder what my contemporaries recollect of their time in college.

When I TA'd at Northwestern, my second year in grad school, my impression was that most of the students who were in my sections were from upper middle class families and lived a comfortable existence.  Many of them dressed up for class (meaning they wore something that cost more than bluejeans and tee shirts).  Their attire would have given me tsoris if I had been in their shoes, but they seemed at home doing that.  The bulk of these students were White and I gathered mainly from the Midwest.  I do recall one Black student whom I would see in the Library, seemingly all the time.  Isolated from his classmates, he may have struggled.  But he seemed to be coping with it, admirably so.

My first two years at Illinois I taught typical undergraduates in the fall semester in intermediate microeconomics.  They didn't dress up like the Northwestern kids.  Sweats and baseball caps, while not quite the uniform, were pretty popular.  Otherwise these kids seemed pretty much like the NU kids.  Many of them were Business students.  (There was no undergraduate Business major at NU.  The Econ major was a proxy for that.)  I recall in my second year I got fed up with one particularly obnoxious accounting student and gave him a bit of a hard time in class.  That student surely was from a wealthy suburb of Chicago.  A while later another student, who was from down state, told me how much he liked that I gave grief to the accounting student.  I may not have thought about it that way then, but the down state kids, particularly those from the smaller and less well funded high schools, probably had tsoris about keeping up with the kids from the Chicago burbs.  I'd say the inner city kids probably had tsoris too except that I don't remember teaching them, though perhaps I had a few.  This could just be a hole in my memory; after all we're talking about 35 years ago.

I've come to realize since that you can be quite materially advantaged yet have tsoris.  Most of the administrators I know on campus are in this category.  They are well paid.  But they have worries....lots of them.  Yet I'm still not sure whether those business students in my intermediate micro classes back in 1980 and 1981 had tsoris.  In my way of thinking, if you have tsoris then you are pretty aware.  My sense of those students is that they were pretty insulated.  I've written before about their provincialism.

Nowadays I only have one or two Business students in my class.  The bulk of my students are in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and are Econ majors.  Many seem to have tsoris that is already evident to me.  I'm guessing that many others also have tsoris; they just hide it better.

* * * * *

I bear little similarity to the fictitious character that Robert Donat played in the movies.  Far from being an enjoyable form of recreation, for me hiking in the mountains would be an excruciating experience, one bordering on torture.  I'm not sure when was the last time I wore a cap and gown, but maybe it was graduation from junior high school.  I don't recall whether I went to high school graduation and I'm quite sure I haven't worn a cap and gown since.  The point is that I'm not big on ceremony at all, though I did dutifully go to the graduation ceremonies for my own kids.  I'd have been perfectly delighted, however, if that part of the celebration were omitted.  Circumstance is fine, but I can do without the pomp.

Nevertheless, I find myself falling into the kindly old professor role and to my own surprise there is a good deal of enjoyment in that. Here's a little background as to why.

Of course I have my own tsoris, some of which is a matter of aging and experiencing the senior moments and health issues that go along with that.  I am mentally slower than I used to be.  There is no doubt on that score.  I also have less energy, both mentally and physically.

The last time I went in for a physical I told the doc that I've got all these currently minor problems (for example, a hernia in my belly button) and I really don't know whether I should ignore them till they get much worse or try to be proactive about them and do something now.  I ended up being proactive about joint pain in the knees and got a steroid injection for it.  The treatment made me so hyper I couldn't sleep for three days.  The pain did go away but only for about a week.  I concluded I didn't want more treatment like that.  So now I'm in ignore it as best I can mode.  Ironically, that seems to have moved my mindset closer in attitude to my students.

There is also some angst from looking back at my academic career.  (If I were asked to distinguish angst from tsoris, I'd say with tsoris you still have your sense of humor, the troubles notwithstanding.)   I have performed better as a pinch hitter than as a starter.  It is a painful realization.  This goes back to grad school when I wrote my first paper with Leon Moses.  The topic was Leon's idea.  I was there to beef up the math modeling, nothing more.  It happened again when I took over from Burks Oakley in running SCALE.  Burks had gotten the grant and set up the structure for SCALE.  My job was mainly to keep it running smoothly.  And it also happened at the Learning Technology Leadership Program, where Kathy Christoph asked me to substitute for an ailing faculty member who was unable to serve.

In this role of pinch hitter, the task to be done was already set.  I might tweak it a wee bit, but the structure was in place already and the focus would be to perform the job well.  There is nothing wrong with being a pinch hitter.  It is clearly a necessary function.  But it doesn't capture one's imagination.  When I was a kid I pretended that I'd be the next Mickey Mantle.  That was the fantasy.  Not once did I pretend that I'd be the next Phil Linz.

When I do cast myself as the star of the team I typically come up short.  A case in point is given in my recent Inside Higher Ed piece.  My goal at the outset for the students in the discussion group was to get them to be more creative about their learning in their other classes.  Had I been successful at that, it would have really been something.  But I failed.  Perhaps there was no chance at success from the get go.  Or perhaps our discussions were too little too late in their academic careers.  In any event, it seems I often aim high but then don't get there.  It is pretty much the same with my teaching.  (More on teaching in a bit.)

Being kind to a student with tsoris is a reactive thing.  You are not preventing the problem from cropping up to begin with.  You are dealing with the problem in some manner after the fact.  And here I'm talking about small acts only, something that usually can be addressed in a single face to face meeting, often in only 10 or 15 minutes.  It's not a big deal and afterward when the student says, thank you, the correct response is, think nothing of it.

As a teacher my own personal metric of success is to see evidence of intellectual growth in the student.  Once in a while that happens....maybe.  Perhaps it never does and thinking otherwise is merely self-delusion.  The Campus Strategic Plan has as its second goal to provide transformative learning experiences for students.  The teacher, envisioning himself in the Mickey Mantle role, expects to hit a home run and thereby produce such transformation in his students by himself.  When it doesn't happen it cuts deeply into his idealism.

Recently there seem to have been several pieces like this one, about youngish faculty members who are leaving higher education because of this sort of disillusionment.  I believe I understand that sort of thinking and if I were in my mid 30s I might do likewise.  Indeed, I've considered the possibility of in the future not teaching the one course a year I currently do teach.  Some of the students can be infuriating, with their lack of commitment to their studies and the games they play to get through unscathed grade-wise.  I've had about enough of that.  But then there are the kids with tsoris who indicate that to me and let me help them.  That matters.  Perhaps it matters a lot, even if it doesn't match my preconception of what my role as teacher should be.

* * * * *

There are two bits to the Mr. Chips 2.0 in my title.  You think of the kindly old professor as something of a commonplace at a small private college.  It doesn't quite fit in with the image of a large public university, particularly nowadays where many of the instructors undergraduate students see in their classes are adjuncts and where especially in the high enrollment classes where there are rules that seemingly govern everything and then the student is expected to deal with any problem that may arise by himself or herself.

Indeed, much of the tsoris is a consequence of the institution seeming to be too big.  Perhaps there is somebody on campus who can address their problems, but the students don't know how to find that somebody.  It may be that in the past they tried to address some other problems they had, only to find that they were running around in circles.  Armed with that sort of prior experience, they develop an attitude that nobody cares about them.  The act of kindness then comes as a pleasant surprise.  We learn more when we are surprised.  Perhaps the students learn that decency can happen.  Maybe they can demonstrate they've mastered the lesson by themselves being kind to another student or a friend or family member who could use the help.  I really don't know if this happens or not.  I hope so.

One thing that makes me optimistic about this is something I learned at mentor training for I-Promise students.  There was such a training session earlier in the week. Susan Gershenfeld told the group something that she has also said in previous training sessions that I've attended.  Mentors tend to think that what they do doesn't matter.  Mentees, in contrast, think the mentoring helps them enormously.  This difference in perspective is something to bear in mind.

I also want to point out something I learned many years ago from reading Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline.  Causes are not always proximate to effects.  Sometimes there may be quite long lags between the two.  Just because the instructor offers up a lesson doesn't mean the student is ready to embrace the lesson then and there.  It may take quite a while for the lesson to sink in.  The instructor may no longer be around when that happens.  But that doesn't mean it never occurred.

The other bit about Mr. Chips 2.0 is that some of it happens online.  Rumors to the contrary, at least some students still do email.  These students respond, quickly, to email from their instructors.  Kindness can be expressed in writing and delivered online.  Face to face is not necessary all the time.  Depending on the situation, sometimes email is better than face to face.  Surely it is quicker.

And sometimes a mere expression of concern can matter, with no solution to the problem offered up beyond that.  If you are going to set up a meeting about some issue that a student has, that probably will create an expectation beforehand that the issue can be resolved.  I've got one student now who has a rather serious health problem that forced him to miss class earlier in the semester and potentially could impact his performance later in the term.  There's not one single thing I can do to fix that.  All I can do is assure the student we'll deal with the situation if and when it arises.  That much can be done electronically.

* * * * *

Time abundant retired faculty can afford to be kind to students.  I know many who are and I'm beginning to understand the attractions to them from doing so.  But their absolute numbers are not that great.  So one wonders if those numbers could be buttressed by many other faculty who are in mid career and who therefore are not time abundant at all. If it were possible, then one might ask whether students could experience some of these instructors during their first year on campus.  That's something to keep scratching our heads about.

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