For many faculty with school-age children at home, it is a common dilemma that inevitably comes around a couple of times a year: our children’s school vacation dates (e.g., spring break) rarely align with ours. In the grand scheme of things that truly trouble our world, this is not a big source of angst; but it is a real challenge that requires a creative response. This year, for at least two days during their mid-winter and spring breaks, I decided to take matters into my own hands by bringing my daughters, Alyssa (7th grade) and Abigail (5th grade), to my classrooms. It was kind of a “follow your parent to work” day, created out of parental desperation.
Maybe I should have anticipated it, but I was pleasantly surprised by the onslaught of questions about higher education during and after my kids’ visits. Many of these queries originated from my children’s internal frame of reference, imposing their own experiences onto the collegiate experience (“Do your students take a school bus?”; and asked in an incredulous tone, “What do you mean, you have to pay money to go to school?”).
In reflecting on some of the questions that my inquisitive daughters raised, I was once again reminded that those outside of academia, including my own family, often have trouble understanding exactly what it is that we do. Alyssa quipped in the car ride following the campus visit: “Daddy, I am glad I followed you to work today. Until today, I was really confused about what you do. After today, I am only somewhat confused.”
At a deeper level, I was also struck by how their developmentally appropriate inquiries served as occasions for me to ponder a few relevant topics in Christian higher education. Coincidentally, I was teaching Carl Rogers’ person-centered theory1, 2 around the same time that my daughters were directing their questions to me, and I was inspired to connect some of the core Rogerian concepts (extending them from the counselor-client relationship to the professor-student one) with how I might think about the areas about which my daughters were curious.
As such, in this blog piece, I share a sampling of the questions that my children raised. I then provide a “response” to each question and elaborate on my responses, taking the liberty to eventually steer my comments in directions that I think are pertinent for Christian scholars. As called for, I integrate Carl Rogers’ ideas in connection with my assertions (Brief note: Rogerian ideas have been critiqued for their hyper-individualistic emphasis and consequent neglect of cultural and other contextual factors in counseling. In this blog piece, my goal is not a critique of Rogers, but instead the application of his theorizing for various ways I try to relate to my students. Interested readers should see Siang-Yang Tan’s Counseling and Psychotherapy: A Christian Perspective[pp. 145-150]3 on a detailed overview of pros and cons of person-centered therapy).
If it is not obvious, I will note that the questions below are actual queries from my children, using their words as much as possible; but the responses I give here in this blog piece are not the actual responses I gave them. But perhaps I can share this blog piece with them when they are a bit older.
Here are two questions from Alyssa, followed by my elaboration on various themes triggered by the questions. The third question from Abigail and answer will be posted tomorrow.
Alyssa: You only teach two classes? What do you do the rest of your day?
Ah, we get this question often, Alyssa. The short answer is, yes, it is true that I typically teach 2 classes in a given quarter. But teaching well requires so much more than just the time spent in the classroom. For example, when I first started teaching, I was advised to put in three hours of preparation for every 1 hour of lecture; not that I am always able to stick to that rule, but I am sure you can do the math – that’s a lot of hours. And that’s just the preparation part of teaching. There are also the hours grading student assignments, the workshops we attend to improve our teaching, time spent answering questions via email, and the office hours spent with students.
Speaking of meetings – meetings are definitely a frequent and sometimes unwelcome occupant on my calendar. Meetings with other faculty. Meetings with outside consultants. Meetings with research collaborators. Sometimes, my calendar gets so full that I literally have to schedule meetings with friends and colleagues a few weeks in advance to have coffee breaks.
I don’t write this to boast about how busy I am. I know that this type of packed schedule is a shared stressor among many faculty in higher education, and for working professionals as well. But I do lament my chaotic schedule to make this simple point: I wish I could have more time with students.
Alyssa, during your visit, you observed me teaching two 2-hour classes that gather twice a week. I love those 8 hours/week with students. But I desire more time with them outside of those hours.
More time to mull over the course materials. More time to catch up on how students are doing over coffee and make organic connections to course content. More time to pray for and with students. More time to attend chapel and worship alongside students.
Carl Rogers argued that a key ingredient of a successful therapeutic relationship is the meaningful interpersonal contact that occurs between the counselor and the client. It is a simple but powerful truth that the strength of interpersonal connection is fundamental for everything else that follows in counseling. Extending this argument to the classroom setting and the teacher-student relationship, I long for more quality and quantity when it comes to my interpersonal contact with students.
This longing, of course, is not to be interpreted as pointing the finger at one entity entirely. I think there are several contributing factors underlying the difficulty in getting quality time with students. We can think about structural and cultural issues, especially in Christian colleges and universities, where faculty are expected to do many things exceptionally (e.g., teaching is highly valued, but we are also expected to do research and service, including “above and beyond” service that is subtly framed as a measure of faithful Christian living). We can also think about generational and cultural shifts in how young people view interpersonal contact – Alyssa, did you see how literally 100 percent of my students took out their smartphones right when their 10-minute break started? I can only remember a few times when I was able to have an in-person conversation with a student during breaks. Of course, I can also see how I am a contributor to the problem. When push comes to shove and I have to choose between attending chapel and looking over my lecture slides one more time before class, I might have chosen the latter more often than I actually needed to; when students invite me to attend an evening event on campus, I might have too easily thought of reasons why I could not attend, instead of exploring ways that would allow me to show up.
As you can tell, I do not have much to offer in terms of solutions to this particular problem, Alyssa. But I just wanted to articulate how I desire to be better in this area.
Alyssa: Do you get grades in college? Can you fail college? I thought grades were supposed to be so that you can get into college, and after you get in, you just learn.
You just learn. I am struck by the simplicity yet profoundness of that statement, Alyssa. Unquestionably, I have had those uplifting moments in the classroom when I felt that my students were just learning. I think teaching faculty can relate to those thrilling highs when the course themes take center stage (Parker Palmer4 calls this “subject-centered education”), and students are right there with the faculty in the learning process. I love these stretches when the intrinsic motivation for learning takes over.
But the reality of our educational system, and the larger culture, is that intrinsic rewards are not always going to be sufficient. This is why we assign grades to our students as a form of extrinsic motivation. And yes, to answer your question, this is also why one can “fail college.”
Like many faculty, I experience cognitive dissonance about the endeavor of grading students. On one hand, I tell students that they are more than their exam scores; to help them destigmatize academic help-seeking, I even jest that I do not see their exam scores hovering over their heads when they come to my office hour.
But the reality is that I behave in a way that implies I differentially value my students. In Carl Rogers’ world, when I assign letter grades to students’ work, I am essentially placing conditions of worth on these individuals. Even though I might not say it, my action might convey the message that my students’ worth as human beings are correlated with the single letter from the English alphabet assigned to their work.
I am also mulling over this phrase that you used – “fail college.” I know you were asking about a student who is unable to get their degree because of substandard academic performance. But do you know what else would be like “failing college”?
It would be a travesty if a student was so consumed with letter grades – internalized the conditions of worth, as Rogers referred to this – that they did not take time to discover and ultimately expand their understanding of God’s world and God’s people. It would be a “failing of college” to progress through their liberal arts education without exploring all that higher education can offer.
It is my prayer that I will not create a classroom environment that fosters conditions of worth. Instead, I pray that I will be an instrument to help students achieve that difficult balance between enjoying the fruits of their hard labor and realizing that their inherent worth as human beings are not contained in their grade book; that they are cherished and infinitely loved by the Almighty God, unconditionally.
- Carl R. Rogers, Client-Centered Therapy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1951).
- Carl R. Rogers, On Becoming a Person (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961).
- Siang-Yang Tan, Counseling and Psychotherapy: A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing, 2011).
- Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (San Francisco: CA: John Wiley & Sons, 2017).