What Are We Telling Our Students?

I’m gonna come right out and say it. Do. Not. Do. This:

This morning, my professor handed me back a paper (a literature review) in front of my entire class and exclaimed “this is not your language.” On the top of the page they wrote in blue ink: “Please go back and indicate where you cut and paste.” The period was included. They assumed that the work I turned in was not my own. My professor did not ask me if it was my language, instead they immediately blamed me in front of peers. On the second page the professor circled the word “hence” and wrote in between the typed lines “This is not your word.” The word “not” was underlined. Twice. My professor assumed someone like me would never use language like that. As I stood in the front of the class while a professor challenged my intelligence I could just imagine them reading my paper in their home thinking could someone like her write something like this? 

Tiffany Martínez, a student at Suffolk University, was subjected to a gross display of pedagogical malpractice a couple of weeks ago, and described it in a blog post, which quickly went viral, poignantly titled “Academia, Love Me Back.” Anyone who teaches, or works with students in any capacity, needs to read it. Inside Higher Ed has a nice summary of the issue here. Many of you have already seen the story, and perhaps even read Ms. Martínez’s post. And I’m sure your reactions were probably a lot like mine: anger and sadness that a student would have to experience something like this and absolute bafflement at how that instructor thought it was a good idea to handle things in that manner.

This episode is a profoundly instructive one, but not just for the obvious reasons, however. Now, I’ve never heard of an instance at GV where an instructor brought a student up in front of class and publicly accused that student of cheating, and did so out of clear racial bias. I want to believe this is an outlier, but I know that I may be overly optimistic in that regard. Let’s look, for example, at how this blog entry starts:

As a McNair Fellow and student scholar, I’ve presented at national conferences in San Francisco, San Diego, and Miami. I have crafted a critical reflection piece that was published in a peer-reviewed journal managed by the Pell Institute for the Study of Higher Education and Council for Opportunity in Education. I have consistently juggled at least two jobs and maintained the status of a full-time student and Dean’s list recipient since my first year at Suffolk University. I have used this past summer to supervise a teen girls empower program and craft a thirty page intensive research project funded by the federal government. As a first generation college student, first generation U.S. citizen, and aspiring professor I have confronted a number of obstacles in order to earn every accomplishment and award I have accumulated. In the face of struggle, I have persevered and continuously produced content that is of high caliber.

We read this, and think to ourselves, “Wow! How could such a good student be accused of cheating?” But I would ask why this student felt like she had to start her essay by publicly announcing her credentials. The answer comes in her next sentence:

I name these accomplishments because I understand the vitality of credentials in a society where people like me are not set up to succeed. My last name and appearance immediately instills a set of biases before I have the chance to open my mouth.

And you know what? That’s on us.

By “us,” I mean higher education in the collective sense, in that there are clearly structural biases that affect students of color and/or lower socioeconomic statuses in ways quite similar to what Martínez experienced. It’s absolutely imperative that this change. But I also mean the “us” who are instructors, advisors, confidants, mentors to students. We may not be trying to publicly shame students, or accuse them of cheating because Latinas can’t possibly use the word “hence.” But can we assure ourselves that our classrooms or the spaces in which we interact with our students aren’t places where privilege and power operate in more subtle–but equally damaging–ways?

I think, for instance, that an understanding of “microaggressions,” and the very real ways that they damage student learning, is an essential part of our pedagogical toolbox. What are we saying to our students about how we perceive them? Do we approach our survey-level classes with what’s been termed the “tyranny of low expectations” and then act surprised when our students do mediocre work? Do we automatically think that our students who come from poorer urban high schools need extra help, and even coming from a place of good intentions, act like we’re here to “save them?” Sometimes the most aggravating microaggressions are inflicted unintentionally, and even from noble motivations. But what we think we’re saying to a student, and what we are actually telling them can be entirely different things.

Last night, at a campus event where we screened a film and held a community panel discussion, I noticed one of my students texting on his smartphone. I shot “the stare” in his direction, which he didn’t see. I performed perhaps the biggest internal eye-roll ever, grumbling to myself that of course he’s texting. They’re addicted to texting. They can’t stay off their damn phones even in a public event. WTF? Grumble grumble grumble. The student eventually left, between the screening and the panel talk. Good. He’s embarrassing himself in front of our campus guests.

After the event was over, I came back to my office to pack up my things and saw an email from that student. I’m very sorry I won’t be in class tomorrow, he wrote. I got a text from back home; my cousin was just killed in a car accident. Can I email you my assignment and catch back up Monday? I have to go home tomorrow morning.


What stories do we tell ourselves about our students?


What are we telling our students that we think of them?


I’ve found the following resources really helpful in thinking about what I’m “telling” my students, not just with words, but with things like pedagogy, and course and assignment design–and in pushing myself to do better.

Shaun R. Harper and Charles H. F. Davis III, “Eight Actions to Reduce Racism in College Classrooms: When professors are part of the problem,” a new article in the upcoming AAUP magazine.

Kim Bobby argues that “Individual Acts of Inclusion Have the Greatest Impact” in Higher Education Today.

Writing in Inside Higher Ed, John Warner takes on the fraught topic of “trigger warnings” in an eloquent and nuanced way.

And in Vitae, from the Chronicle of Higher Education, Stacey Patton has an extraordinarily valuable discussion of microagressions in our campus climates.

2 thoughts on “What Are We Telling Our Students?”

  1. In reading your comment about the student texting, I have to remind myself quite frequently that millennial students use their smart phones in more ways than I know how to dial it. It has become their security blanket, that we have allowed them to take from home into their every day life. This relates to your posting, as it also means we tend to jump to conclusions about generational differences, whether it be from their writing styles or their use of smart phones. It is important that we, as faculty, recognize our bias and be cognizant of them before we open our mouth or double underline in red ink!! Yikes.

    1. That’s a great point! Mobile technology is one of those areas where our students are bringing a completely different set of experiences with them than what we had as college students. But, as you suggest, we need to be careful not to overgeneralize about these generational differences.

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