I never thought I’d be turning to Rousseau or Nietzsche for solace. Yet a colleague has shared with me a couple of articles that tackle the issues I am struggling with: namely, the question of compassion for students (see my previous blogs for elaborations upon this).

In the last few weeks I have had a couple of students visit me to share their view on my teaching practices. These few but vocal students declare me to be a poor teacher and unfair marker who has created stress and unreasonable pain, and consequently damaged their health, their relationships, their jobs and their lives. This leaves me shaken to say the least.

Baker, Brown and Fazey (2006) suggest that such behaviour by students is reinforced by the culture we live in where “the private conduct and distress of the individual is a matter for political intervention” (p. 33). I am fascinated by these turns. I am reminded of one student who accused me of racism because I had awarded a “fail” grade to him (despite the class being 50% international students – including those with the top grades). Another referred to receiving a low grade as a form of “bullying”. I know these are particularities and do not represent the views of most students. I also have colleagues telling me to “toughen up” and reminding me that I’ll be worrying about these things long after students have forgotten my name and most of what they’ve been taught. Yet it still gets under my (thin) skin.

I have a strong commitment to alleviating suffering – it’s why I’m vegan, it’s why I’m an environmentalist, it’s why I fight for animal rights. It’s why I work for social justice and why I do the work I do. Accusations that I might actually be causing someone harm and suffering are not ideas I can easily shrug off.

However there is a counter argument amongst our great philosophers that is worth turning over for a while:

Starting with the work of Avi Mintz, the argument is made that pain is a necessary and therefore desirable component of education. Mintz suggests that too many educators are caught in trying to mitigate pain rather than allow it. In doing so, they fail their students. Building on the work of Rousseau, the argument goes that the suffering we find in students is actually good for them, and instead of being alleviated, it should be promoted.

I’ve been dwelling on this for a couple of days now. Hanging out in a School of Social Work means I bump into so-called “strengths-based” approaches on numerous occasions. If I’ve understood Jonas correctly it would seem that educators, under the guise of a strengths-based approach to teaching, provide students with lots of affirmations – supporting their ideas and rewarding their efforts. Yet a truly strength-based approach to teaching would take a different form. It would see individuals as strong and capable, rather than weak and pitiable. The strength to be celebrated is the strength of the individual to overcome current barriers and hardship to become more powerful and virtuous. Nietsche makes an important distinction in the role of pity in education. He does not reject the concept of pity altogether. Instead he argues against the alleviation of immediate suffering. In other words, if, feeling pity for a student, I alter their grade and award a higher mark, then although I am alleviating their present suffering, I am also eliminating their chance for learning and development. Thus I would be doing the student an enormous disservice in the longer term (Jonas, 2010).

Coupled with this, Mintz (2009) notes the emergence of the “self-esteem” movement within schools, that has sought to make self-esteem the central educational issue. The result has been termed “the new illiteracy” with teachers pandering to students’ interests and sacrificing genuine intellectual interests. Drawing on the example of maths teachers who “rescue” their pupils from pain by supplying answers too early in the stages of problem solving,  Jonas (2010) suggests that what is required is not the end of suffering per se – but the increase in self-mastery in students. Such a skill requires facing hardship and difficulty. If teachers become overly concerned about students’ wellbeing they may avoid challenging their students to ensure that their learning is smooth and comfortable. In turn, students learn to avoid challenges. Mintz (2010) suggests that such a move is anti-intellectual and represents a collapse of the belief in human potential. Taking this idea even further Jonas suggests that to eliminate suffering is to actually eliminate the possibility of virtue and happiness (2010, p. 52). Interpretting Rousseau, Jonas argues that,

“to encourage pity on the wrong occasion is to demean individuals and debase their potential for growth. Pity in this sense backfires because it hurts human beings. The only way to help individuals is not to pity them for their suffering but to help them overcome it.” (p. 51).

In this sense, pity is not a feeling at all – but rather a reasoned decision about how best to assist an individual become more autonomous. For both Rousseau and Nietzsche the goal of the educator is to develop self-mastery in him or herself to such a level that they can overcome their feelings of pity for a student, to enable the student to develop their own self-mastery.

However the problem I have with this is that it starts to feel very paternalistic. Who am I to say that this student needs to suffer in order to learn? Or that this activity – seemingly torturous to a student  –  is actually in their own interest. I don’t know students well enough to make that call.

Jonas extends the ideas of Rousseau and Nietsche, suggesting that we need to focus less on how teachers determine when and how to show pity, and instead to focus upon how students can guide teachers in those determinations. “Students can learn, in other words, how to educate teachers on when to act on their feelings of pity” (Jonas, 2010, p. 57). However as Jonas notes, to do this though, requires a particular kind of classroom – one where the teacher’s role shifts to developing a culture of self-mastery and the desirability of suffering in the classroom.

(“Glorious failure” anyone?)


Baker, S., Brown, B. J. & Fazey, J. A. (2006). Mental health and higher education: Mapping field consciousness and legitimation, Critical Social Policy, 26(1), 31056.

Jonas, M. E. (2010). When teachers must let education hurt: Rousseau and Nietsche on compassion and the educational value of suffering, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 44(1), 45-60.

Mintz, A. (2009). Has therapy intruded into Education? Journal of Philosophy of Education, 43(4), 633-647.

Image Source: Sculpture from my garden.

Anyone following this blog will have seen the recent theme: the difficulty I have with the assessment side of the teaching role. Support and development I can do. And I don’t mind challenging students either. But placing a grade on someone and then watching their response to that (inevitably one of disappointment) is torturous.  I struggle with the “judgement” part of the role. I think the difficulty is that the grade distracts from the learning. No matter how much feedback I give, students still react to that little number in the corner –as though their life depended upon it, as though that defined them. And the problem is that I can relate to that.

There’s still that little voice deep inside me that asks “Well, who am I to judge this person?”

There are of course a number of ways of responding to this voice:

  • One could for example, respond through role theory: I am teacher, you are student. This is part of the relationship dynamic. It is also part of the role of teacher to assess.
  • One could try the choice ideology: you chose to come to university, these are the conditions under which one studies. Being judged and graded is part of the experience. You chose this.One could respond through a developmental frame. Part of the process of developing skills is benchmarking progress. Grades are merely a benchmarking exercise to acknowledge levels of competence and to identify areas for further development.
  • One could respond through credentialism: my degrees are evidence of my mastery of the field and enable me to sit in judgement over others.
  • One could respond via industry standards: my peers have judged me to be competent and deemed me of a high enough standard to evaluate the skills of others.
  • One could respond through a cold power play: the university has hired me. This is my job. What I say, goes.
  • One could try logic: if we didn’t award grades there would be no way of assessing who was competent and who was not. This would render your degree no more than an attendance certificate, thus making it relatively worthless.

But this is not about logic, it’s about ego. In the last few weeks I’ve had so many meetings with students who have cried, debated, defended, justified and questioned. I’ve even had one student explain that I clearly didn’t know what I was doing and went on to offer me teaching tips! (For the record and just in case any of my students are reading this, this strategy is unlikely to lead to a higher grade).

However no matter how I explain it, I tie myself in knots over this aspect of the role. No one teaches you how to do it. It’s not like you can take a course in “’how to mark a paper”. There’s no training. If you are lucky (as I have been) sympathetic peers may mentor you for a while. And if you are resourceful you can employ the assistance of institutional experts, like TEDI at UQ, to help build stronger courses and ensure highly relevant marking criteria. But there comes a point where you have to sit down in front of 3500 words and decide if this warrants a 7 or an 8 out of 10. Was this a strong and persuasive argument with the need for additional theory to help provide rigour, or merely a good start with sound arguments but much room for further improvement?  You’d think it would get easier over time. But this is my sixth year teaching at university and I’m still struggling.

In the 1984 text, Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class, Jake Ryan and Charles Sackey wrote of the experience of working class people studying in US colleges. What they observed was a lack of confidence for lower class students, based on real or perceived weaknesses in preparation. Although motivated to do well and extremely aware of the value of education, they lived in silent fear, wondering, “When will they find out that I am a fraud?” Apparently this is vastly different for students from upper class backgrounds, who tend to  have a greater sense of belonging or entitlement in the university system.

I always thought when I  finished my PhD I’d finally have a sense of mastery: a field or endeavour to call my own. Once I was a “Dr” then I could finally relax and stop worrying about being “found out”. But all it did was deepen my paranoia making me so aware of all that I haven’t yet read, all that I still don’t know. So go on, ask me a question: I can almost guarantee you I won’t know the answer!

(on the other hand I probably have a great little process..)


Ryan, Jake and Charles Sackrey, Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class (Boston: South End Press), 1984.

Die computer die

May 13, 2010

I’m having a love-hate relationship with technology I confess. I’m pleased I set forth on this mission and have had the chance to explore a few innovative ideas. And I know what I have come across is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m excited about the possibilities it has presented and would like to do more – but I also have some reticence – which I’ll explain.

As is obvious from my previous post, I’m in the midst of marking assignments. I thought I’d be super clever and use the Turn-it-in function on Blackboard, which enables students to upload an electronic copy of their assignment. It’s incredibly handy: I can instantly verify date of submission, check word length, I have a copy saved in a central place and I don’t have to manage files, it checks for plagiarism and it means students don’t have to take half a day off work just to drive in to uni and lodge an assignment.  It also allows you to mark online which the Greenie in me celebrates. Imagine a completely paperless process. We dreamed about such things. Previously I have had students email assignments in – but there’s always the inevitable “I swear I sent it”  excuse – or in my case the day lost hunting for my student essays among the gazillion of other emails I receive and don’t get to attend to. This turn-it-in thing seemed like the answer to my prayers.

So I did all the right things : I went to the training course, practiced in advance on fake essays, ran my marking criteria past TEDI for feedback, I set up rubrics for easy marking, and trialled the process on a smaller assessment piece. I thought I was being so clever. And students seemed to cope OK overall once I ironed out a few kinks in the process.

But when it came to marking a 3500 word assignment: it was DISASTROUS! It was a really clunky process, I couldn’t just flip pages – I had to keep scrolling – I seemed to forever be searching for items. I couldn’t approach marking the way I normally would: flip to the back to check out reference lists, see if there are any appendices or attachments, get a sense of the overall layout – instead it commands a very linear process. By the end of one day hunched over my keyboard, staring at a screen and tapping comments, I had managed to get through a mere seven assignments. My back hurt, my eyes stung and I was in a foul mood from being stuck in front of a computer. And I found it wouldn’t support my marking sheet anyway. It can only handle simple rubrics – I must have spent two hours trying to think up ways to get around the system. So that was a day wasted.

So I went to work and printed off all 50 assignments, one by one. Double checking I had them all – writing down word length and submission dates etc. So that was day 2.

Day 3 borrowed a flat from a friend up on the Sunshine Coast, I jumped in a car, marked the remaining essays in a much better frame of mind, sitting on a sunny balcony overlooking the sea. I managed 14 essays that day and found I provided twice as much feedback. Clearly I’m never going to be a true Geek-Girl. All of which leaves me unsure what to do in the future.

It’s not just Turn-it-in. I went to a presentation recently on alternative technologies – and I was originally going to a do a whole blog rave afterwards – I was so inspired by the possibilities. However in the meantime I’ve had a chance to try them out. I have spent hours trying to get them to work for me. They seem so very slow on my machine and I can’t get them to do what I want them to. I want a computer program that will let me do everything I can on a piece of butcher’s paper with some coloured pens and a bunch of post-it notes. Until I can do that I think I’ll remain unsatisfied. I can see the potential – I love the collaborative tools and I’m excited by the possibilities – but I don’t find the programs particularly intuitive or user-friendly. Maybe I’m impatient, but if I can’t get them up and running within an hour I’m not inclined to keep playing. Maybe it’s my old lap-top.

I think it was Mark Twain who once said to beware of enterprises requiring new clothes. I feel similarly about the IT world: beware of programs that require a whole new computer!

Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kmevans/399406599/ (creative commons license)

I don’t remember thinking much about the marker’s experience when I submitted my undergraduate assignments. I was too fixated on getting my own work back to care about any pain they were in. If I had thought about it I would have rationalised it as Karma: you caused me pain – you deserve pain back again. As I sit looking at the 20 assignments I have yet to mark today I wonder what I can have done in my life that was so awful to have been deserving of this fate. I don’t remember taking a life, dishonouring my mother or father, or coveting my neighbour’s ass…yet here I am…in hell.

The act of marking is different from the act of reading assignments. The assignments are a joy. I love seeing people’s ideas tumbling onto the pages, with varying degrees of detail and clarity. No matter what the quality of the work is, you can always see the purity of the idea and taste its sweetness on the page. I marvel at the boldness, creativity and courage of the students – the incredible work some have done, and the brave heights some have scaled. I am so humbled by this work. It’s all I can do not to paste them all over my door and cry, “See? See how brilliant these people are? How bright and utterly hopeful they all are?” It’s an antidote to a weary world. It’s a long weekend and I’ve spent every day submerged in beautiful ideas of changing the world for the better. Such a privilege.

But marking? Having to put a cold finite number against each paper? To rank order them and define one as better than another? To judge them as objectively as I can, knowing all the while that subjectivity will and must creep in. Is this worth 2 or 2.5 marks? I struggle to feel generous towards the student whose paper is in 9 point font – at 3am my eyes feel the strain. If nothing else I am jealous of anyone with such perfect vision. It takes effort to mark with a generous and open heart. And I struggle not to feel too much sympathy for the international student who I know must have sweated and laboured over their writing to ensure it was clear and precise despite the seemingly random rules of the English language. I want so desperately to encourage them – and to let them know, that underneath the errors of syntax and grammar their ideas shine clear. .  I open the paper and can see their faces clearly. I know exactly who the student is and I can remember the conversations we’ve had and the questions they’ve asked.

I wish for some other way that this process might be run.

I recall being a first year student – receiving my first university paper back with a 52/100 scrawled across the top – with a tick on the last page. I had gone from a straight A student in my highschool days, to a bare scrape across the line. And I had no compass for three years. I want desperately to save my students from that pointless, impersonal, life wasting experience. My partner shakes his head watching me, saying I spend way too long on each paper. I know I do. I measure it so that neither I or the students will be in doubt about how long I’ve spent thinking it through, and making sure I tend to each paper equally. I want them to know that I have taken this seriously.

It doesn’t matter that they are all adults with a lifetime of experience and their own ways of understanding success and failure. I know that no matter how old we are disappointment stings. I want to hug each student before I hand the essay back and say with sympathy, ‘I’ve been there. I know it.’ Writing is a personal and private act. I want to honour and uplift that act. But my role demands that I act as judge and weigh the worth of their work. And ironically this course is all about taking the private into the public. And how we do that is the skill we are here to develop. Including me it would seem.