In Which I Consider Truth and Deception as Pedagogy
So amidst the avalanche of end-of-semester emails I received this go-‘round (“my grandma’s cousin’s brother’s goldfish died tragically, and I couldn’t write my paper and I know that the semester is over, but I need an extension” – do these kids think that the bills never come due? Things can just be put off and put off without question?), I also received a link to a list of Magna Publishing’s top 15 teaching and learning articles.
There are so many great articles there (ahem, yes, fifteen, indeed, yes, I see that in the link), and I’m reflecting on two in particular right now – the first being the one about students lying (“Research Highlights How Easily and Readily Students Fabricate Excuses”) and the second being the one about mindfulness in the classroom (“Moving from Multitasking to Mindfulness”).
The general take away from the first one is that students lie – a lot – about their (in)ability to complete various tasks they are set for class, regardless of the weight those tasks carry. I have been considering this a bit recently, as I continue to develop my teacherly husk: that thick skin that allows teachers to look into the tear filled eyes of a (usually mediocre to poor) student pleading for more time, some flexibility, just a day or two more for that assignment because my mom/dad/grandma/grandpa/myself has become ill/died/suffered a mysterious ailment/unlucky or lucky event at which said student must be present to give support/weep/provide medication/give away the bride. I know this isn’t new – all teachers have stories of students who have sidesplittingly hysterical excuses, threadbare in detail or as intricately plotted as Sheldon’s Maggie McGarry alibi for Leonard (which failed, I might point out, due to Leonard’s own inability to continue the lie).
I have had students request extensions due to serving jail time (at which point they got bronchitis due to the a/c being too high), deaths of various and sundry grandparents (I myself dread the day my own grandson goes to college, because I am sure that will signal my impending demise as soon as he has an inconvenient due date), and of course the old standby of computer problems (regardless of the fact that all campuses are filthy with computers for student use).
Passing judgment on a student’s honesty is a real problem for me, because I recognize my own weakness in this area. I am very much an empath, and really do understand what’s going on with my students — both the honest issue – that they didn’t do the assignment and now want to avoid the consequences — as well as the student who legitimately has troubles that cannot be avoided merely by planning better. I get it – life happens, and this is just a writing class, just college, just something that they have paid to take part in. So I tend to be very forgiving with my students, and I always go into the semester with the intent to regularly wear my “bitch lips” even to the point of wearing uncomfortable shoes and tight panty hose to help me remember to be “mean.” This rarely works, partly because I try to treat others as I would want them to treat me (honestly, and as helpfully as possible) and also because I fear I’m somewhat of a pushover.
However, with this article’s rather depressing takeaway – that students lie regularly, frequently, and without compunction, I think I have develped a bit more of that teacherly carapace. The research done by the authors of the paper reveal that “fraudulent claim making was utilized by as many as 70% of American college students” and that this places the problem squarely on par with that of plagiarism (“Research Highlights”). I would be (a) lying myself and (b) crazy if I said that I didn’t know students were lying to me when they offered excuses. I recognized before reading this paper that the number of legit excuses I was offered was probably pretty small; however, I didn’t think it was this high.
I’m not questioning the research itself – I’m questioning whether or not I should tighten up my own approach, being less flexible, and engaging in more “no, because that’s the rule” type of dealings with students. That has always seemed to me the epitome of poor form – telling anyone (other than a toddler) that your response is predicated simply on an arbitrary rule seems…I don’t know, petty, I guess.
My own understanding and appreciation for pettiness changes, though, when I am looking at a list of page after page of papers to read that other students managed to create, revise (hopefully) and submit in a timely manner (yes, some so timely that they squeaked in with seconds to spare, but timely is timely). I am troubled by this as it pertains to me and my classes, and my own approach to pedagogy, and I am mindful even more of the learning opportunity this provides to my students – that is, learning that they can pull the wool over my eyes.
This is especially true when we consider the closing paragraph of the article in which the authors specifically address the students’ assurance that their lies will be accepted by the teacher: “the study described here found that individuals do engage in reporting claims in an attempt to deceive their instructor even when motivated by academic tasks with low academic consequences and, possibly more alarmingly, that many students possess great confidence in their abilities to “get away with” reporting fraudulent claims” (“Research Highlights”). If my students believe that they successfully floated a lie down my river with nary a cocked eyebrow from me, will this alter their approach towards their schoolwork in other classes? Will it make them bolder about their lies, and encourage them to move on to other, more damaging forms of dishonesty? Is the excuse that grandma fell and can’t get up just a gateway drug to the intoxication of plagiarism?
I have a Power Point I use at the start of the semester to review the high points of the syllabus and what’s expected, and the final slide says that I will trust and believe in them unless and until they give me reason not to. I think this slide may have to get the axe in this semester’s revision, and that makes me sad. To deal with my students from a framework of distrust seems like the wrong way to enter into the student/teacher dynamic.
This brings me to yet another portion of the article that seems to be underplayed, but that might be the most important part of the article: students say that they don’t believe that their own truth spoken to a teacher will have the result they want – an extension of time to complete a task (or, to put it more simply – an avoidance of the consequences of their actions). On the one hand, that troubles me greatly, that students don’t trust their teachers to work with them rather than to be hardasses about the arbitrary rules.
On the other hand, I return to the ultimate issue here – students wish to avoid unpleasant results of their own actions, and with each lie they tell and pass off, they learn that there are even less repercussions. That’s not what we want school to teach students at all. I vascilate, but I ultimately return to that – I have a responsibility to help students become better people, not just better writers, and that means holding them to what they agreed to do by signing up for class and not immediately dropping it when they read the syllabus.
And in keeping with the theme of my blog, I want to acknowledge the rhetorical choice I have made in choosing to write about this problem using terms eschewed by the original authors of the paper – for me, people (regardless of whether they are students) don’t “fabricate,” engage in “dishonesty,” or make “fraudulent claims.” There is the truth, and there’s a lie – perhaps I am being entirely too strict in my world view, but I don’t see the help in calling this anything other than what it is: a student lying to a teacher. Speaking words that didn’t happen, or that shade the situation to lead someone to believe something contrary to what they would if given all the facts – these are all pretty ways to say that a lie is being told. So yeah, that slide is coming out of my Power Point.