27 March 2011

Catching a Lifeline at Office Hours

The last several weeks have been downright ugly. The unions that represent me and my wife have been stripped of most their bargaining rights and, as public employees, we have been called everything from selfish and lazy to bloodsuckers and whores. So, that sucks.

Let’s see… what else? The flagship campus of a great public university, which I uprooted my life and career to attend, is pushing an embarrassing policy to ditch the other public campuses in the state. Bill Cronon – a brilliant, fair-minded history professor – has been targeted with a FOIA request by the Wisconsin GOP for dubiously unspecified reasons. Gas prices are climbing. The largest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history has claimed thousands of lives, caused partial meltdowns at nuclear power plants, and literally knocked the planet off its axis. A-a-and the United States Congress is trying to strip all public funding from Rick Steves and Elmo.

Yes, my friends, it is the Golden Age of Man.

But, somewhere between the end of common sense in Wisconsin and what feels like the end of days, this month hasn’t been entirely bad.

I had just about had it by the time mid-March arrived. There was tension at work. My wife and I were battling some particularly rough, sleepless nights with our toddler. And, as happens every semester, I was beginning to feel like there was no way to get everything done and do it moderately well. Then, in the midst of mounting stress, I had a couple routine meetings with my professors before spring break.

Over the course of those conversations I was unexpectedly told that I was doing a good job. There were and are areas for improvement, of course. But one professor complimented the writing I have been doing here and the other went out of his way to tell me I have shown both understanding and tact during class discussion. The gestures were small but they made things a little easier because these are important issues for me. However, the fact that I feel a bit better isn’t really important. The fact that getting some kindly encouragement was unexpected is.

Education is challenging, as it should be. But sometimes graduate school can feel like an endless routine of looking for weaknesses in others, exposing them to show your own brilliance, and constantly guarding against the predatory eye of your professors and peers. It is rare that the critiques and challenges are malicious, but there are times when the whole experience becomes generally negative. All of us, students and faculty alike, focus on shortcomings rather than strengths.

You know what? It’s not healthy.

Positive feedback is just as important as critical feedback. It lets students know, even though there is much work to be done, they are on the right track and capable of achievement.

Some will criticize this as a hippie-dippy, feel-good attitude that worries about feelings instead of results. And my response would be, if I may be allowed to cut through the niceties I generally prefer to employ, Bite me.

No one expects teachers to be sycophants. Repeated and excessive praise is the educational equivalent of monetary inflation – it throws the system out of whack and decreases value. But, at the other extreme, keeping all your kind words and encouragement stuffed in a mattress prevents reinvestment, growth, and dividends. There needs to be a balance between keeping the system lean and efficient and putting something back into the cycle.

Don’t take this education-finance metaphor too far, folks. It is, after all, only a metaphor. The return on an education is not changes in wealth. (Actually, that’s not true. Education offers all kinds of economic benefits. But that’s not the point.) The major, life-long returns from an education are a profound change in personal growth and agency. And investing in a learner’s sense of ability along the way can provide a reason for him to carry on and try harder. Think about that for a while. Think about the way you support (or should support) your students as they slog through life and coursework in their search for knowledge and success. And, for those who do not work in education, think about the ways educators invest in the wellbeing of your kids or grandkids before you decry overpaid, bloodsucking teachers.

The world is still pretty much a mess. But – thanks in part to some much needed encouragement from trusted teachers – it is a little easier for me to see the potential in spring 2011. Work is a pain in the neck but the project I work for is gathering important information about teaching and learning. Coursework is challenging but I learn new things and talk with interesting people every day. Being a young family on a tight budget and irregular sleep feels like a forced march sometimes but several friends and family members have celebrated the arrival of healthy babies recently. And babies are awesome. So, maybe things aren’t so bad after all…

…Except the politics in Wisconsin and at UW-Madison. We should all feel bad about that.

Image: Taking No Chances! by Pauline Eccles

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