Amplification of Thoughtlessness

I’ve been taught by, met, taught and am colleagues with a wide range of educators. The more people I meet, the more I realise how similar people are and the more I realise that one of the key differences in educators is how much they care. Caring more about your students is generally a good thing, as is caring about your commitment to scholarship and ethics, but caring is also a terrible amplifier of thoughtlessness and, regrettably, people can be truly thoughtless at times. When people are thoughtful, then being a caring educator is fantastic because you get that great feeling from finding out that people valued what you did, the effort that was expended and the final result that was achieved. I love it when students get back in touch with me, sometime down the track, or send me e-mail to let me know that something has really resonated with them. Sadly, the people who are thoughtless, or attempt to be unpleasant in some way, seem to stick in my mind a lot more than the success stories do.

In a way this makes sense because a successful student, or a successful course, doesn’t require any changes to be made. However, given that my job is to educate, anytime something goes wrong, it not only means that there is something to be fixed, it means that I didn’t do my job properly – or, at least, someone is perceiving that I have not done my job properly. You don’t have to care much to feel that fairly deeply. Caring about what you do is great because it makes you take work seriously and responsibly, but it also leaves you vulnerable. It saddens me that I have seen a handful of students who have gone out of their way to exploit that – but it saddens me more that they could have been through the educational experience that we still have to offer (it may not be perfect but it is still pretty impressive) and come out the end so determined to make somebody else unhappy or so utterly ignorant of the impact of their thoughtlessness.

I can clearly remember the first time years ago that a student’s relatively thoughtless act had a big impact on me, when I received a really nasty student evaluation for three students in a group of 140+. I had enforced some penalties for plagiarism and, mysteriously, a number of my students equal to the number of plagiarists had decided that I was awful, that I hated my students, I had acted unfairly and I was bigoted and discriminatory. It really shook my faith in my ability to teach. Overall, my figures were fine but I usually attribute the depth of passion to the extremity of the commitment and the fact that three people took the trouble to label me as a completely unacceptable teacher hit me hard.

When I first applied for Federal research funding, I received a reviewer’s comment that was so manifestly unpleasant, dismissive and vindictive that I went to the head of school pretty much assuming that I would have to resign and go and find other work. The reviewer all but told me to get out of academia or, maybe, in a decade’s time, I might not bring down another grant too badly. Those words, which I would laugh off in other arenas or at other times, came through a channel and at a time when I was going to place great import upon them.

There is a lot of difference in how you can say things and, the older I get, the more I realise that some things just don’t have to be said. There is no shortage of people who are happy to tell people things “for their own good” when, in reality, they are telling them for far less altruistic reasons. I have seen a lot of vindictiveness over the years dressed up as thoughtlessness, pretending to be an accidental overstatement. Of course, being human, I’ve sometimes made the mistake myself and I unreservedly apologise to anyone that I ever offended – if I haven’t already found you to apologise!

I sometimes wonder what some of my students want. If I didn’t care, if I showed up with the same slides from the last 20 years and rattled through them, never updating, handing all marking off to inexperienced TAs, failing people just because I’ve classified them as ‘dumb’, then I would be untouchable. I’d be untouchable because I would have divided the world into people who matter and people who don’t, slotting myself clearly into the ‘matter’ while leaving all of my students elsewhere. My students couldn’t matter to me and have me still teach them so badly. The problem arises when you do care about your students and some people, for whatever reason, decide that this is a weakness. Something to game for their own advantage or for their own amusement.

I suspect that I have taught less than 10 such people over my years in education, which is great in a way because it means that there aren’t that many of them, but it’s terrible to consider that such a small percentage of the students I’ve seen could still stick so much in my mind. However, these students, despite themselves, help to make me better at what I do. Yes, they get under my skin but I turn around and work out if any of what was said was valid. Could I improve? Could I help other people? This doesn’t defend unpleasantness- a positive outcome ascribed through moral accident is no validation of vindictiveness. But, by digging through the comments, sometimes I looked at myself and thought “Well, I’m not that bad but I could make some improvements here.”

Despite everything, we probably never will give up on these students. They may not understand that and they will probably never appreciate it, but the community of educators is one of the most inclusive, forgiving and amazing groups I’ve seen. Because we know what it’s like to learn and some things take longer than others, and sometimes people do dumb and thoughtless things. Fortunately, it turns out that caring can amplify thoughtfulness just as well as it amplifies thoughtlessness.

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