I Have Decided to Stop Being the Michael Scott of Academe

Image available from Kristin Dos Santos on Flickr

In addition to being a librarian, I am an adjunct instructor at a small liberal arts college. I teach English 101, an introductory writing course.

Recently, a few students asked me if I will be teaching English 102 next semester. This happens in every class. It is a moment I look forward to. I like their disappointment when I answer that, sorry, I don’t teach 102.

It means they like me. They really like me.

This year, one student took things a step further, confirming a suspicion that had long lurked behind this end-of-semester ritual. The student said he wished I taught 102 because . . .

He had read this on my RateMyProfessors page. It was why he signed up for my 101 class.

I have taught at this college for nearly ten years. My student evaluations are always positive. My boss keeps giving me classes. There are no complaints on my record.

I haven’t looked at RateMyProfessors in years, but there was a time when I did, scanning its Yelp-style hubbub for usable feedback. There were comments about my clothes. My voice. My sense of humor.

And, yes, comments about being easy.

In an ideal world, I would have kept reading these reviews, using them to get better. However, to get better in the classroom means to get tougher, and I have been reluctant to get tougher. I like it when my students like me, vie for spots in my class, and mope when they can’t take me again.

I am, in other words, the Michael Scott of academe.

Writing is, for me, a beloved pastime. I’ve done it for years, and with success, publishing in Ploughshares, The Millions, The Missouri Review, and other places. My first book, The Accidental Law Librarian, appeared in 2013.

You might assume that good writers are, a priori, good teachers of writing. Not necessarily. Teaching is a different skill. It’s leadership, actually. And the best employees don’t always make the most effective leaders.

Michael Scott, for example. He won Salesman of the Year at Dunder Mifflin for two consecutive years, and there were episodes of The Office where he closed a sale when no one else could. Clearly, the guy was aces. As a salesman.

As a manager? Craptastic. Tone-deaf. Spiteful. Weirdly intimate. Exhausting to work for but not challenging. He was, you might say, an easy boss.

I am not easy like Michael Scott, but I am easy. I know I am. How?

Each of these alone isn’t so bad. Taken together, however, they make me a softie. A term paper-tiger. A Ph.Dandelion.

Let’s look closer at my troika of tenderness.

Ending class early

Generally, I teach one class in the spring semester and one in the fall. Each class is scheduled to meet once per week, usually on Mondays, from 6:00pm to 8:50pm.

Nearly three hours.

I sometimes end class early. Why? Night school is hard. Nineteen-year-olds are crazy and indefatigable, yet even they start nodding off around 8:00.

But I don’t let them off scot-free. (Scott Free? That’s what I need to be.) I assign them plenty to read, which we discuss the following week. Or I give them essays by previous students to revise. This is in addition to their half-dozen graded assignments.

What are the best ways to learn to write?

These are solitary activities. Makes sense to have students do them in solitude.

The downside: Too many early nights can make me seem disengaged, and students won’t take me seriously.

Lenient grading

It requires an act of will to fail my class. One would have to submit no assignments, attend no class meetings, flame me on Twitter, murder my cat, and send me a package containing a woman’s severed leg.

Even then, you might end up with a C. (A low C, in my defense.)

You might think I’m a lenient grader because I fear student complaints. Adjuncts famously have no job security, and those who are too tough, or who piss off more than a few students, can find themselves looking for work.

Complaints don’t bother me, however. I have had my share — who in ten years of teaching has not? — and nothing came of them.

In theory, a low grade on an essay will have one of two results:

  • The student will be motivated to improve.
  • The student will be discouraged.

In my experience, those who want to improve do so independent of grades. My feedback on their writing is motive enough. (I give a lot of feedback, more than other instructors. It’s why it takes me forever to grade a set of essays.)

Those who don’t care to improve — i.e., most students, for whom writing is lockjaw-level misery —will assume that, if their first grade is a C, all their grades will be C, so why bother? C is good enough to get by, so they’ll show up, make the minimum effort, and get by.

(Was it Woody Allen who said 80 percent of success in life is showing up?)

Besides, have you seen how people write in the real world? When the president of the United States can’t get 210 characters right . . .

The downside: Good writing leads to success in a number of workplaces, and I may be the last instructor who cares deeply about it that many of my students will have. Plus the creator of “covfefe” is no one to emulate.

Saying yes to students

Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar, the famous yoga instructor, once said that a good teacher “comes to the level of people,” understanding “where they are, what their position is.”

To me that means treating student circumstances with respect. It means allowing late work (with a grade penalty), repeating instructions (don’t we all have to be told some things more than once?), and setting reasonable boundaries — concessions other instructors refuse to give because they don’t want to look effete or not in charge.

Being in charge doesn’t mean never bending rules. It doesn’t mean gainsaying all requests. It doesn’t mean making everyone miserable. It means using professional judgment to maximize productivity for myself and my followers.

How many good ideas in the business world came not from management but rank-and-file employees? (Here’s a list of some.) Education can work this way too.

For years, I have had my students turn in a book review, on a book of their choosing, to give them practice in critical writing. Some turn in re-purposed high school papers (no nineteen-year-old voluntarily reads The Great Gatsby), and I didn’t know, short of banning specific books, how to solve that problem . . . until a student last semester suggested movie reviews.

Heck, I could let them write about a song instead of a movie. With extra credit for anyone who can explain “Bohemian Rhapsody.” (Is it about a murder? About coming out? About Albert Camus’s The Stranger? Students, get to work!)

The downside: There is a fine line between being student-centered and being a pushover. Maybe too fine for healthy exploration.

The most important question for any instructor is: am I offering the kind of education students need?

I am not sure I am.

At this, I can improve. I have to.

Look, if students learn nothing in my class, it is partially their fault. Learning is active, not passive. Students aren’t vessels to be filled; they are hungry animals on the prowl. The environment provides food, and it’s up to them to go get it.

But I can be a better environment. I can provide richer, more abundant food. It’s easy to rationalize not having done so all these years by saying I’m just an adjunct, and adjuncts have no job security, so you’re lucky to get anything out of us.

However, that’s begging the question.

So are my practices on class end times, grading, and giving students what they want. The practices themselves are valid, and I will continue using them — in moderation. Leaning too hard into them can become an avoidance technique.

I don’t want that. My students don’t need that. They don’t need an instructor who, to paraphrase Michael Scott, makes friends first and education second.

So watch out, RateMyProfessors. Things are about to get real.

Writer. Editor (www.conventionscene.com). Librarian. Lover of books, cats, and comic cons. Hater of vegetables. Tweet: @anthonycaycock

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