Civility and Student Resistance

At the end of the semester any conscientious teacher is invariably confronted with a series of challenging moral and ethical decisions. Students are panicking, feeling significant pressure, and everything is due (almost by definition) at the same time. The scenes are the same all over the country. Stressed, exhausted, panicked, and flailing students arrive during office hours and ask for some kind of hope. For the better students, hope comes in the way of reassurance that we recognize their hard work and it will produce desired results. For students who have struggled, however, the negotiations become more complex and invariably desperate.

Recently, some of my colleagues and I have noticed that the more desperate negotiations have increasingly deviated from that most slippery quality of truthiness. In fact, in a number of cases, students have just lied to us. As often, students over promise and under deliver in ways that are clearly tactical. The end of the semester, then, brings about a series of wholly unpleasant interactions with our students and can sour the memory of an otherwise good learning and teaching experience (for both parties). 

To mitigate the unpleasant endgame negotiations faculty seem to take two approaches. I have tended to use increasingly soft deadlines for my courses to discourage students from turning in “late” papers by making it more difficult for a paper to be actually late. The only firm deadline is the end of the semester and that is non-negotiable, but the responsibility for the ending date of the semester is beyond my control shifting the responsibility for due-dates from me to the rather less personal institution. The other approach, which is perhaps more common, is to be inflexible about deadlines and enforce increasingly draconian penalties for their violation. 

Both approaches seem to me to be a response to the break down of any sense of community in the classroom and at the university. The air of desperation at the end at the end among students assumes a certain degree of inflexibility on the part of faculty. At the same time, the willingness of students to connive to get extra time acknowledges that the very limited opportunities for real conversations about the root causes of missing due dates, performing poorly on assignments, and end of the semester panics, and the lack of confidence in faculty taking these issues seriously.

Of course, the reasons for this lack of confidence may stem from a kind of classroom “tragedy of the commons” where students have used opportunities to negotiate and shape the course to undermine the pedagogical intent of the course. The failure to recognize and respect the course structure and how it creates an environment best suited to student learning suggests that there is a disjuncture between student and faculty expectations. In this context, negotiations for extra time or exceptional treatment are not compromises between an accepted and appreciated pedagogy and the recognized realities of student life, but something entirely more desperate and misunderstood. Students feel willing to subvert the intent of the class because they don’t accept that the course serves their purposes.  In this context, faculty look to reinforce deadlines using stricter penalties that reinforce the power differential between student and faculty. This then leads to the idea that the class structure serves as a basis for faculty power and the classroom and the interaction between faculty and students becomes an arena for student resistance

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