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Humanism

The Humanism in the classroom

Humanism
The Humanism in the classroom

As professors of social science, we hold assumptions about the ways students learn that are based upon research in our disciplines. Most of us expect that students want to learn, that students learn better if they are intrinsically motivated, that positive reinforcement works better than punishment, that creativity can be, and should be, nurtured.

Many times our humanism discourages the very values we are trying to instill, and encourages the very values and behaviors we disdain. Below, let's look at ten examples of this humanism gone awry.

  1. Telling a student "That's an interesting point" when the comment is off the wall. Ostensibly, this handling of student mistakes gives the students a subtle social cue without punishing them in public. However, from this behavior several students will learn not to give realistic feedback to those who make mistakes. The more ingenious students will learn that no matter what they say in class, they will be rewarded.

  2. Telling students grades don't really matter. Rather than allaying students' anxieties as intended, this comment generally increases their anxieties because the statement is so inconsistent with their own school experiences. They just keep waiting for the bomb to drop. Some students may mistakenly take the comment to heart, not study, get bad grades, and fail. Then the faculty member will be doubly punished: once for giving the student a low grade, and once for being a hypocrite.

  3. Being open and honest with students that research counts more than teaching in your own career. Rather than being impressed by your candor, most students will be frustrated that their own interests come so blatantly behind your own. The more perceptive students will recognize this philosophy as the putdown it really is, and as a self-serving justification for being lazy in the classroom. If you're ambitious, you can reinforce this point by randomly skipping classes to go to conventions.

  4. Telling students it doesn't matter if they come to class, as long as they learn the material. Intended to convey to students that they are responsible for their own learning, this stratagem often has very different effects on student behavior. Many will learn from this directive that obviously nothing new is being covered in class, so they can devote their energies to other, more important classes.

  5. Telling students it doesn't matter whether they arrive late or leave early from class, as long as they come. The original idea behind this instruction is to demonstrate to students that you are not uptight about silly bureaucratic details like class days and times. Unfortunately, this statement also teaches students that their time is more important than others' time, that arriving late and leaving early are good manners, and that disregard for mutually set meeting times is no problem.

  6. Giving students all A's and B's. This educational philosophy is meant to put into practice the idea that students learn better if they are unpressured by the threat of failure. Students often learn from this strategy that the faculty would rather tolerate poor quality work than deal with the inevitable hassles of giving low grades. Furthermore, the students will correctly perceive that mediocrity is possible for everybody. The classroom becomes the Caucus Race in Alice in Wonderland: everybody starts where they want, ends where they want, runs at whatever pace they want, and everybody wins.

  7. Running an unstructured, free-floating classroom. Many faculty hope this educational device will loosen students up, unfreeze them from their reluctance to learn, and increase their motivation through participation in decisions that affect their learning. Students often read different messages into this type of pedagogy. Some presume you don't know what you want to teach; others wonder how they can know what it is they should be learning when you don't. A few will think your unstructured teaching style is a cover-up for lack of careful planning and organization. The truly perceptive student might learn that it is inappropriate to be unprepared and disorganized at low levels of an organization, but it's okay to be that way once one gets into a position of authority.

  8. Giving students feedback only on the content of their work and none on their writing style and grammar. Ostensibly, this handling of student papers and exams encourages students to be creative without the distractions of rules of grammar, spelling, and syntax. However, this teaching strategy serves multiple other purposes. First, it teaches students that the way they present their ideas is irrelevant to the evaluation of their ideas in the real world. Second, it gives the faculty a chance to feel superior to all their colleagues in the past who have instructed these same students and failed. Third, it lets the faculty off the hook from taking time and energy to help students write better and ensconces their lack of effort with virtue.

  9. Tolerating sullen and cantankerous behavior from students. By ignoring sullen and cantankerous students, faculty hope students will learn that extinction works: if you keep ignoring the crazies, they will fade or go away. Often students learn a variety of different lessons from this behavior: (a) the squeaky wheel gets the grease; (b) you can intimidate or manipulate authority figures with rudeness; (c) when a classmate gets on a bender in class, you can catch up on your homework in other courses or make lunch dates.

  10. Delegating all test composition and grading duties to your teaching assistants. Theoretically, the point of this behavior is to spare Herr Distinguished Professor from having to cloud his or her mind with the mundane, trivial details of running a classroom. Neatly, however, it allows the faculty to distance themselves from all the unpleasantness of being in a position of authority while reaping all its accolades. Some sophisticated students might also learn that the way managers should maintain their control over a situation is to send their minions to do the dirty work.

      Why, then, does humanism often fail in the classroom? First, some students see it as selfserving and manipulative; the faculty are trying to get students to do what they want them to do, but are conning the students into thinking they made the decision or understand it fully. Second, some students see it as hurtful. Under the guise of openness and honesty, you can say what you want how you want, and if somebody doesn't like it, whose problem is it? Third, some students see this brand of humanism as an unrealistic way of managing in the real world. The fact that many faculty believe hierarchical power relationships and structured work environments are bad does not negate the need to learn how to cope in those environments. Fourth, some students see it as laziness. It can be used to avoid work, and to shift unpleasant burdens onto others.

      The issue at hand is not whether our efforts should be helpful and supportive of students. No matter how curmudgeonly, there is no faculty member who does not want to be interested in, and interesting to, his or her students. The issue at hand is whether our efforts to be humanistic nourish selfrespect and selfreliance or distrust of others and fear of manipulation. Rather than trying to prepare students for a Utopian world they will never face, maybe it's more humanistic to teach students personal responsibility, mutual respect, and realistic standards of performance in the world they're entering shortly.

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