Recently, the New York Times published an in-depth article investigating the dismissal of Dr. Maitland Jones, Jr., a chemistry professor who taught at New York University. Prior to coming to NYU, Dr. Jones taught for decades at Princeton. Reading the article, it’s clear that people hold different perspectives on Dr. Jones and his teaching practices. He received awards for his teaching and NYU students rated him as one of coolest professors on campus. Dr. Jones authored over two hundred peer-reviewed articles in his career and wrote an influential text on Organic Chemistry.
But he also taught a large lecture class which many students found challenging, especially during the pandemic. In response to their failing grades, a group of students started a petition to highlight their concerns to the administration.
“We urge you to realize that a class with such a high percentage of withdrawals and low grades has failed to make students’ learning and well-being a priority and reflects poorly on the chemistry department as well as the institution as a whole,” the petition read. After receiving the petition, the university terminated Dr. Jones’ teaching contract. His termination has created lots of conversation online.
While I sympathize with Dr. Jones and his students, I also recognize that groups of people can hold contradictory perspectives about the same event or activity. Take the feedback I’ve received from some of my students over the last few weeks. In one class, a few students remarked that they thought the mindfulness technique that I use to start each class was becoming tired and routine. They suggested that I mix it up each week. This advice is in stark contrast to the students in another class who felt that using different opening techniques each week wasn’t as effective. They suggested I just use the same process week after week.
These contradictory perspectives apply to other areas of my teaching, too. After handing back some papers recently, I received an email from a student who thanked me for the lengthy feedback for improvement I provided while another student communicated that I hadn’t provide enough information so they understood the grade they had received. In one class, I asked students to reflect on the process for selecting their research topics. One complained that we had selected the topics too quickly. Another suggested that students should select topics at during the first week of the semester.
My initial reactions to these different perspectives are confusion and paralysis. How can these contradictory perspectives both be true? What can I even do with this information? How can it inform the work I do?
While I’d like to say I have it completely figured out, I don’t. I do recognize, however, that since teaching and learning are relational activities, those relationships can be experienced differently by the students in my classes. Despite my best efforts to recognize my students’ needs and account for them in my teaching, it’s possible, maybe even probable, that students will perceive my classroom differently from one another. Some will see the class as moving too fast, while others will see it as moving too slowly. Some may see the class as being too rigorous, while others may see the same class as being too easy. My class can be both boring and engaging from different students’ points of view.
So, where does that leave me? Confusion? Paralysis?
Here’s where I’ve landed. While I may not always be able to account for these dichotomous perspectives, it’s important that I inquire about their experiences. Sometimes, the end goal with seeking this feedback isn’t to make substantial changes to my class. Sometimes, it’s just to check in with my students so they know that I value them and how they’re experiencing my class.