The Professor and the Pea

I’m sure many of you have heard the old fairy tale published by Hans Christian Andersen about the princess and the pea, but forgive me as I take a short, literary sidestep to review it.

In the tale, a prince is looking to marry a princess, but is unable to find one in the neighboring kingdoms. He searches high and low and cannot find a bride who can meet his royal expectations. One dark and stormy night, a stranger knocks on his door and asks to spend the night in the castle. The stranger is a beautiful, young woman and claims to be a princess from a distant land. The prince is taken by the stranger’s beauty and falls in love at first sight. But the prince’s mom is suspicious. She doubts that the stranger is really a princess and devices a test to determine whether the young woman is really royalty. In the guest room, the mother prepares a bed with a stack of mattresses and feather beds so the stranger is comfortable. To test the stranger, however, the mother hides a single pea below the mattresses and feather beds. The mother believes that if the stranger is truly a princess, she won’t be able to sleep because of the presence of the pea. The next morning, the stranger announces that she’s had a sleepless night. The kingdom rejoices because that stranger is really a princess and the prince has finally found a bride. They get married and live happily ever after. The end.

I was reminded of this story recently after a few of my colleagues shared student comments from their teaching evaluations on their social media pages. One colleague shared a picture of several of the anonymous student comments and asked her followers, “Guess which one will keep my awake tonight?” Among a series of amazingly positive student comments was one that read something like “This professor is the worst.” Sure, the student provided no context or basis for their assessment and it was buried under a number of really positive comments. But like the pea in the fairy tale, that single student comment was going to create some sleepless nights for my colleague.

The post generated some conversation among my co-workers. Some commiserated that they also tended to focus on the infrequent negative comments more than the numerous positive ones. I work with a lot of caring, inspiring, and motivated colleagues. I know they want to support their students’ learning and it pained me to see them agonize over these student comments. And then I remembered that I do the same thing. While I haven’t received a negative student comment in a few semesters (not a boast), I still agonize over them when I do. Which makes me wonder, why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we agonize over the negative comments, despite receiving positive comments that should act like mattresses and feather beds to cushion the blow?

Before starting this post, I googled “The Princess and the Pea” to make sure I remembered the story correctly. Within the list of links that Google provided, I couldn’t avoid one with a really clickable title: “This Popular Fairytale has a Hidden Meaning You Never Knew About.” In a post from 2017, an author identified only as “Mary” writes:

“The pea is the symbol of our truest selves. Despite the layers of the socially-acceptable, the princess passes the test because she feels so intensely. She cares and is authentic. She’s not afraid to face up to her own issues and discomforts. Ultimately, the prince recognizes her for the princess she is because above all, she doesn’t give up on herself.”

And maybe that’s the message here. Agonizing over negative comments shows how much we care as educators. It shows our true selves. We’re reflective, curious, motivated educators who want to reach every student. Like the pea that reveals the true princess, our agony reveals our true passion and desire to be the best teachers we can be. That may involve some sleepless nights, but we haven’t given up on ourselves. And that’s no fairy tale.

Dealing with Due Dates

I teach online a lot. I know the pandemic forced many educators into online modes of instruction over the last year or so, but I taught my first online class over a decade ago. I don’t say that to be boastful or anything. I offer that information more as a way to explain how long I’ve been tweaking my classes and trying out different aspects of my courses. It’s been a decade-long journey of experimentation, reflection, and revision.

Most of my online classes are asynchronous in nature. Since I work a lot with adult learners who have family and work commitments, I recognize the flexibility that asynchronous classes offer. Students can work at their own pace and at times of the day that work best for them. Looking at student log-in data from my classes, I see that there are groups of students who prefer to complete coursework in the wee hours of the morning and other students who prefer to work late at night. It’s clear that asynchronous classes help to accommodate for students’ different work schedules and let them have some control over their pacing.

Over the last decade of online teaching, there’s one aspect of my asynchronous classes that I’m constantly questioning and revising: my use of due dates. I have some colleagues who release all of the modules at the start of the semester and allow students to work through course content completely on their own schedule. I have other colleagues who require their students to log into their online classes daily or have them complete daily assignments. If those are ends of a continuum, I would place myself someplace in the middle. I release new modules each week and usually break up each module into two due dates, one midweek and another at the end. My rationale with this structure is that I want to slowly scaffold course content over the course of the semester and don’t want to bombard students with content at the start of the semester. Also, despite their different work schedules, I still want to foster a learning community in the class. Having them discuss content together and share ideas with one another helps to build that larger learning community. The multiple due dates prompt students to engage more regularly in the course, but I’ve often wondered whether this is the right approach. Would it be better if I just released all of the modules at the start of the semester and allowed students to set their own deadlines? What impact would that have on student learning?

Traveling back from a beach vacation last week, I binged through a backlog of podcasts and discovered a research-based answer to my due date ponderings. In a recent episode of Hidden Brain, host Shankar Vendantam interviewed behavior scientist Katy Milkman about how we can use our minds to do what’s good for us. In the episode, Milkman shared research by Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch who studied the impact of deadlines on performance. In the first part of their research, Ariely and Wertenbroch studied groups of students enrolled in two sections of the same class. In one section, students were given fixed, evenly spaced due dates for three papers. In the other section, students were allowed to set their own deadlines which they had to schedule with the instructor early in the semester. Surprisingly, when given the choice to set their own due dates, most of the students spaced out their deadlines throughout the semester. Only about 25% of the students scheduled the due dates for all of three papers at the end of the semester. This demonstrated to the researchers that most of the students “are willing to self-impose deadlines to overcome procrastination.” While this seems promising from a self-regulation standpoint, what was the impact of the different deadlines processes on student learning? To study this, the researchers looked at students’ grades on papers and their grades on a final project that was scheduled at the end of the semester in both sections. In both cases, grades were significantly higher in the sections with instructor-imposed deadlines.

To examine the impact of deadlines on student performance a little more deeply, Ariely and Wertenbroch conducted a second study. The researchers sought student workers who were willing to act as proofreaders. Volunteers would be paid based on the number of errors they found in three selected papers. The novel aspect is that volunteers were broken into three groups. One group was required to proofread a single paper each week for three weeks. The second group were required to submit their work for all three papers at the end of three weeks. The third group were allowed to choose their own deadlines for the work during the three-week window. The researchers measured the number of errors the proofreaders in each group found and whether the volunteers missed any deadlines. Consistent with the findings from the first study, proofreaders in the group with assigned, regular deadlines outperformed the volunteers in the other groups. That groups also found more errors and missed fewer deadlines.

Considering the research from Ariely and Wertenbroch, I’m more confident that my due date choices are educationally beneficial to the students in asynchronous classes. It’s cool to find research to support a pedagogical decision that I just happened to stumble upon after years of tweaking and revising. Now I just need to find research on the hundreds of other pedagogical questions that bounce around in my brain.

References:

Ariely, D., & Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, deadlines, and performance: Self-control by precommitment. Psychological science, 13(3), 219-224.

Being Hospitable

Note: I’m taking a week off to spend some time with the family. As a rerun, I’m sharing this post from December 2019, which I wrote after a difficult interaction with a student. With so many of us traveling this summer to make up for lost time due to the pandemic, I thought Parker Palmer’s perspective on “hospitality” would resonate with you. It certainly does with me. Enjoy.

I’m a Parker Palmer fan. I know there are lots of people who aren’t that into Parker Palmer, but I don’t know of any other educational scholar who touches on the emotional aspects of the teaching profession quite like Parker Palmer does. I’ve read The Courage to Teach probably five or six times over my career and each time it feeds my “teacher soul” in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. In my interactions with students and other teachers, I find myself trying to channel my inner Parker Palmer and tap into my own courage to teach. My class last week was one of those occasions.

Earlier this fall, I wrote a post about how I was teaching an undergraduate class after several years of teaching graduate ones. It has been a great experience. I’ve gotten to know some amazing preservice teachers and help them develop evidence-based understandings of assessment to support student learning. More than the content of the class, though, we’ve shared a lot of great conversations about our trajectories as students and how our experiences as students can inform our identities as teachers. We’ve talked about becoming advocates for change and how we need to be champions for our students, both in words and deeds. Our final class met last week and it was definitely an emotional experience for many of us.

As I sat in my office after the class, I reflected on the overall experiences of the semester for the students and for myself. While I wanted to revel in the joy of the students’ reactions to our time together, I kept thinking about one student who had made a dramatic shift during the semester. Through the first few weeks of the class, Dave (not his real name) presented himself as the model, engaged student. Dave arrived early to class, participated thoughtfully in class discussions and always contributed valuable insights in his papers and online posts. But midway through the course, Dave became more reserved. He didn’t participate as much during class and started arriving late. His work wasn’t the high quality he had once shared.

During our last class, I had the students write short reflections on their work during the semester. Drawing on some of the activities I shared in a blog post last fall, I wanted to provide some “meaningful course closure” by “engaging “students in reflection not only about what they have learned but also how they will use these ideas in the future.”  While many students wrote in-depth, thoughtful reflections, Dave’s was sullen, dark, and, at times, disrespectful to me, our class, and our university’s whole teacher education program.

As I read Dave’s reflection, I wondered how Parker Palmer would handle this. In The Courage to Teach, Palmer talks about how effective teaching requires the development of “relational trust” which is “built on movements of the human heart such as empathy, commitment, compassion, patience, and the capacity to forgive.” Someplace along the way, I lost some relational trust with Dave, and I didn’t want our time together to end without a chance to rebuild some of it. To do that, I’d need to channel some of that “compassion, patience and capacity to forgive” with Dave.

So, I emailed him and invited him to meet to chat. While he was initially hesitant to talk, when we finally sat down for a few minutes to iron things out, he was much more receptive. We discussed his engagement as a student and his work in the class. We discussed his written reflection and the emotional journey he had taken during the semester. More than that, however, we discussed his future role as a teacher and how teachers emotionally react to the students with whom they work. I’m happy to say that things definitely left on better terms than they had during our final few classes together.

Besides relational trust, Parker Palmer also explores some other critical elements that inform our work as educators. In situations like the one I shared with Dave, one aspect that I try to remember is the need for teachers to “be hospitable.” Palmer writes:

Good teaching is an act of hospitality toward the young, and hospitality is always an act that benefits the host even more than the guest. The concept of hospitality arose in ancient times when this reciprocity was easier to see; in nomadic cultures, the food and shelter one gave to a stranger yesterday is the food and shelter one hopes to receive from a stranger tomorrow. By offering hospitality, one participates in the endless reweaving of a social fabric on which all can depend—thus the gift of sustenance for the guest becomes a gift of hope for the host. It is that way in teaching as well: the teacher’s hospitality to the student results in a world more hospitable to the teacher.

While my hospitality was toward Dave, it was also a gift a hope for me. Through our conversation I was hoping that maybe someday in the future, when Dave works with a student like himself, he’ll have a better example of how to deal with it. That he’ll be patient. And empathetic. And be willing to forgive.

Communication Convergence

I don’t know why or how this happens, but sometimes I’ll be flooded with common stimuli from seemingly disparate sources. For example, a few years ago, I heard Joni Mitchell everywhere I went. I’d turn on the radio and there was Joni Mitchell. I’d go to Target and hear a Joni Mitchell song. I’d watch television and there was a Joni Mitchell song being used for the soundtrack of a show. I took it as a sign to listen to more Joni Mitchell.

Over the last week, the same sort of thing has happened. This time, however, hasn’t involved any singer songwriters. Instead, I’ve been flooded with quotes about communication and listening. Again, these have come from different conversations and from different sources, which I’m taking as some sort of sign for me to work on my communication and listening skills.

I came across the first quote in a discussion post written by Andria, a graduate student in one of my classes. Writing about the importance of communication in teaching, Andria drew on a speech by Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Realize and be humble to know you do not know everything and do not be afraid to say you do not know. The goal in communicating is not to show everybody how smart you are, the goal in communicating is to have people understand what you’re talking about.

– Dr. Anthony Fauci, speaking at Cornell University

A few days later, I was recording a podcast episode with my collaborator, Dr. Scott McDonald. We were discussing the role that dialogue plays in our teaching. Scott shared a quote from a book by Oren Jay Sofer that he was reading.

We need to learn how to reperceive our world with fresh eyes, beyond inherited historical and economic structures of competition and separation that can so easily determine our relationships. True dialogue is more than the mere exchange of ideas. It is a transformative process based on trust and mutual respect, in which we come to see another in new and more accurate ways.

– Oren Jay Sofer, Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication

And then, this past weekend, my wife and I went on a road trip to New York state, which gave us a chance to get caught up on some podcasts. We were both taken with the definition of listening that Susan Piver shared.

The best definition for listening I’ve ever heard is from a friend and fellow writer named Catherine MacCoun who said, ‘listening is when you stop thinking your thoughts and start thinking mine.’ So, instead of thinking about I think about what you’re saying, I listen to what you’re saying and trust you and trust myself and give myself to listening. That’s a very underrated skill.

– Susan Piver on the 10% Happier podcast

So, what does it all mean? I don’t know, yet. Or maybe I do, and I’m not sharing. Either way, I’m offering these quotes for you to create your own bricolage and find your own meaning.

Climbing the Mountain

Note: I’m taking a week off to spend some time with the family. When I take a week off, I always have a tough time selecting a post from the archives to rerun. I decided on this post from August 2019. I chose this one because I have some colleagues who will be receiving their promotion decisions in a few weeks. In addition to that, I feel like I needed to remind myself to channel my inner “Sherpa guide” in the weeks and months ahead. Enjoy.

This post has been in development for a while. I’ve been reflecting on my thoughts and emotions over the last few months and working through how to capture these reflections in some sort of coherent way. So, here goes. Hopefully this actually makes sense and doesn’t come off sounding self-absorbed or anything.

Last fall, I applied for promotion at my institution. Getting promoted to a higher rank is a challenging process at every university and I prepared myself for the potential let down. I even used this blog as a way of writing a letter of encouragement to myself in case I received bad news. But here’s the real challenge, I didn’t prepare myself for the success.

Two months ago, I received notification that I was promoted to full professor. In academia, this means that I’ve reached the highest rank of professoriate based on my service, scholarship and teaching accomplishments. This notification also means that it is the last academic promotion that I’ll work towards in my career. While I’m tremendously excited about this achievement, I’m experiencing an odd mix of emotions, including ones that I didn’t expect. First, I’m tremendously proud of this accomplishment and extremely grateful for all of the support and guidance I’ve received over my career. I know that any professional success I’ve achieved is due in no small part to the mentors, colleagues, co-authors, co-researchers, friends, and family that have helped me along the way. To me, my promotion embodied all of that support and sparked a wave of gratitude that manifested itself in a host “Thank-you” cards, texts, and emails.

After the initial excitement and joy, however, my promotion also ushered in a mixture of emotions that I didn’t expect. While I anticipated the relief, I didn’t expect to feel a sense of existential confusion or loss. I’ve been working and striving towards this huge accomplishment and, after achieving it, I felt a tremendous loss of purpose. Not that I ever really did any work specifically to get promoted, but now that I am fully promoted, what do I do now? After achieving this huge, lifetime goal, what does the next face of my career look like?

After talking with some of my friends, I guess these emotions are not unique. Once someone achieves a long-term goal, it’s hard to replace that focus and dedication. I would imagine that people who prepare for marathons or climbing expeditions feel this same odd mixture of relief, pride and loss. When someone works for months or years to accomplish a goal, that goal becomes a regular fixture in their life. The goal acts as a beacon. A motivator. A North Star.

And then suddenly, the goal is gone.

So, I’ve spent a few months this summer working through this odd amalgam of joy, loss, pride, gratitude, excitement and relief. I’ve thought a lot about where I am in my career and where I want to go. Weirdly, I received comfort unexpectedly from Maureen Dowd and John Oliver. Let me explain.

In mid-July, Maureen Dowd wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times explaining a fight between four junior congresswomen and the Speaker of the House. Midway through the article, Dowd included a quote from Alex Toussaint, a Peloton instructor, that gave me pause.

You climb the mountain to see the world. You don’t climb the mountain so the world can see you.

I’m sure Maureen Dowd didn’t include this quote to force some mid-career professor to reflect on his life and accomplishments, but that’s what it did. The quote made me question why I climbed “the mountain” of promotion and what I was seeking with that goal. I certainly didn’t seek promotion so the world could see me. My close friends know that I’m uncomfortable with public recognition. But I also didn’t seek promotion to achieve any sort of divine or professional clarity. In reflecting on the Toussaint quote, I marked myself in the “neither of the above” category for climbing mountains.

While I was in this “mountain climbing” headspace, I tried to distract myself by binge-watched some old episodes of This Week Tonight, which is hosted by John Oliver. If you’ve never watched the show, John Oliver often takes a meandering and critical look at different topics that he feels deserves more wide-spread attention. Surprisingly, one episode I watched discussed the challenges of climbing Mount Everest.

As John Oliver describes it, climbing Mount Everest is one of the most difficult and dangerous pursuits in the world. While over 4500 people have summited the mountain, almost 300 people have died trying. Because it’s so challenging, Sherpa guides often help climbers ascend the mountain. The Sherpa guides carry supplies, set up camp, cook food and fix ropes and supports to keep climbers safe. Over the course of their career, a Sherpa guide can summit Mount Everest a dozen or more times in service to others. And they usually accomplish this without public recognition or fanfare.

The concept of the “Sherpa guide” really resonates with me and gives me a different perspective on my career.  Maybe, I need to channel my inner “Sherpa guide” and write a better rationale for goal setting and achievement, one that is more in line with my cherished roles as a teacher, mentor, and parent.

You climb the mountain to help others climb it, too.

With this new perspective, I think it’s time to get back to work.