Demanding or Officious

As part of my summer reading adventures, I’m rereading The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You About College Teaching (Gooblar, 2019). This is the third time I’m reading the book and I’m noticing that different parts of the book resonate with me each time I read the book. A few colleagues got together last summer to read the book as a group, and I wrote a few posts then about the different things that stood out. It seems different parts are getting lodged in my brain this time through.

Maybe it’s just based on some recent experiences I’ve had, but this particular passage has forced me to reflect on my decisions as an educator. In Chapter 4 of the book, Gooblar writes:

“I think it’s possible to be a demanding professor without being an officious one. You can care about your students and make allowances for them without fear that they’ll walk all over you. It is precisely because our students are not young children that we can be lenient sometimes, allowing extensions and makeups on a case-by-case basis, showing them that we care more about their learning than about whether they checked all the boxes.” (p. 123)

I’ll admit that I had to look “officious” up. Here’s a definition I found online:

officious (adj) – assertive of authority in an annoyingly domineering way, especially with regard to petty or trivial matters.

That definition outlines one of the challenges I wrestle with as an educator. How can I be demanding without being officious? But Gooblar’s quote presents another challenge I often wrestle with. How can I be empathetic and offer grace, without having students walk all over me? I’d like to say I have the answers, but if you’ve been reading my posts for the last ten or so years, you know that I don’t. Take this situation with a graduate student I worked with recently.

This spring, I taught a capstone course in our graduate program which involves students creating and implementing an action research project. The course is a six-credit class which involves a ton of work. The students develop research proposals, complete trainings in research ethics, write literature reviews, collect and analyze data, and report on findings. It’s a sixteen-week course that I’ve compared to “eating an elephant one bite at a time.” To that end, I’ve attempted to build a comprehensive, scaffolded experience for students that makes the huge task a little more digestible (if you’ll pardon the pun).

The students in this graduate program are all practicing teachers. If you know any teachers, you know how difficult the last year or two have been. Teachers were dealing with increased pressures and stresses due to changing schedules, changing modalities, learning loss, COVID outbreaks, administrative changes, and so much more. And those challenges and stresses regularly spilled into my graduate classes. Throughout the semester, I’d offer extensions and grace to students who were having difficult weeks.

One student, Jamie, was having a particularly rough semester. Besides their teaching stresses, Jamie (not their real name) was also dealing with some family issues. I won’t describe the issues here, but they were significant enough that I offered Jamie several consecutive weeks of grace in the capstone course. At one point midway through the course, Jamie emailed to request that they be excused from all remaining deadlines for the semester. They would work on the course and the action research project as they were able, but promised they’d finish by the end of the semester.

Recognizing the monumental task of completing the action research project independently, I explained that their plan would unlikely lead to their success in the course. Instead, I offered Jamie the option of an incomplete. They declined, which is where the real challenges for me began.

How do I be demanding without being officious?

How can I be empathetic and offer grace, without having students walk all over me?

I’d like to think that I navigated these challenges well, but I’m certain Jamie would say otherwise. As I tried to steer Jamie back to “eating the elephant” in a more digestible way, my overall focus was on their success in the class. I’m happy to report that Jamie completed their action research project and got an A in the class. But it certainly wasn’t an easy semester for them or for me.

Later in Chapter 4 of The Missing Course, Gooblar writes:

“The authority to unilaterally decide on how we teach our classes, I would argue, comes with a responsibility to explain and justify those methods to our students. I view it as an ethical necessity—I’m going to take up a substantial amount of their time, ask for a substantial amount of their effort, and assess them on my terms. At the very least, I should have good reasons for doing what I’m doing.”  (p. 127)

It’s interesting that this quote shows up in a chapter titled “Teaching the Students in the Room.” I just wish Gooblar had offered more advice for explaining and justifying our practices when the students in the room are dealing with a global pandemic, family issues, health crises, or more. Especially considering that while words like demanding, officious, empathy, and grace may be easy to define, they look differently depending on which side of the teacher/student exchange you’re on.

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