Our Metaphors Matter: The power of the words we choose.

December 9, 2014 § 1 Comment

I was recently in a meeting with a colleague who described my proposal for enhancing student feedback as “giving [her] students weapons.” I fell silent. I honestly think my jaw dropped. I knew what she meant, but I just listened in disbelief to her explain– using what I can only describe as an adversarial tone – how giving students badges in the digital environment (the equivalent of gold stars from the days of old) would empower her students to dispute her assessments. Her words were saturated with a sense of perceived, possible betrayal as she described how this badge would be used against her future feedback that was intended for her students’ growth. Once she finished her explanation of how her opponents (read: students) would use this badge, I did my best to not seem rattled by her distain-ridden metaphor and tried to convince her that student pushback was an opportunity for growth-based conversation, not conflict. The worst part for me was the realization that this wasn’t the first time I’ve heard a professor, including myself, use adversarial language when discussing the student-teacher relationship.

Word WeaponWar imagery, sports clichés, predator/prey analogies, and their ilk seem to creep into the language many professors use to describe their classroom environment. Using these metaphors in such situations has been a topic that has bothered me for years, but I struggled to find the words to express my distaste with this practice. When I talk to any of my colleagues about their classrooms, it seems most will eventually rely on a phrase like “fight for a better grade,” “use <insert feedback type here> as a weapon,” or identify students as “winners” or “losers.” Some will refer to the academic environment or even their own classrooms as “a dog eat dog world.”

When I first started teaching, my focus was on fitting in with my new group of peers, so I assimilated some of their interests, their language, and even a few of their mannerisms in the hopes that I would been seen as an equal and no longer as a student. I referred to my students as “kids,” even though I taught adults. I found myself lamenting faux pas made by students with an air of superiority befitting of an expert. My words scoffed at all manner of behaviors, and my negative elitist talk increased steadily during my time as a TA – desperately wanting to fit in – and my first year and a half of teaching after grad school, trying to establish credibility as a rigorous professional. Then, I heard my voice echoed in my students’ stories of their previous teachers and professors. And I felt sick.

You see, like many of you, I had always been curious enough to have the privilege of enjoying school and learning without having to work extremely hard at it, so I never noticed or was the target of negative teacher talk. Instead, I usually internalized any negativity as a challenge to overcome (“No one has ever gotten an A on my final” said one science teacher. He could have been lying, but I was determined to prove him wrong.), or I received praise for my work, praise that may have stemmed from any number of privileges that I have in our society. And to most professors’ credit, I learned that much of that negative talk was reserved for casual conversations between colleagues and not their classrooms. However, I also noticed how that talk altered their assignments, lectures, body language, and more. Many of my students picked up on these negative attitudes without the professor ever overtly confessing them.

So there I was, one semester – more like 14 weeks – into my first fulltime teaching job at my undergraduate alma mater (an opportunity of which I am very proud), realizing the impact of these harmful perspectives that I once thought were a sign of authority, credibility, and professionalism. I heard it in my students’ voices, saw it on their faces, and read it in their writing. I went home and ranted to my wife about how awful I had been to my students, and I vowed to remove as many of those harmful practices as I could. Slowly, I am improving in these areas, and my classroom is growing into a community-focused learning space. I still slip up and call my students “kids,” especially when I talk to my K-12 friends and peers (but for them, their students are their kids. It’s different. I acknowledge that). However, no adult learner deserves to be patronized in that way in our university classrooms.

And even though I now attempt to refrain from taking an elitist can-you-believe-what-my-students-did-today attitude when discussing areas of struggle in my classroom, I too often am still silent when frustrated faculty criticize their students’ actions with a mocking tone and air of superiority. An instructor and graduate of the same master’s program as myself frequently posts on Facebook about all the “dumb” things her students do in her classroom. She is frustrated. I get that. I can empathize with having to repeat myself too many times, being ignored or disrespected by student’s language and/or attitudes in and out of my classroom, and feeling overwhelmed by a sense of futility when students treat coursework as a barrier and not a learning opportunity; we all have had those things. As I struggle with my own situation, I have learned that mockery benefits no one, so I don’t confront her, condemn her for her actions, or practice her form of stress relief. Instead, I choose to say nothing at all, trying to focus on all of the good traits she has rather than this particular behavior that I dislike so much. Maybe that’s wrong. Maybe I need to speak up, call out, and confront her out of respect in hopes to encourage her growth as an educator.

Though I loathe the gatekeeper mentality held over from post-secondary practices that should have died decades ago, I am still finding my voice when challenging those who “wield” those attitudes against their students. In the case of the first colleague I mentioned, I struggled through the shock and disappointment that I felt about her words. I tried to challenge her thinking as politely as I could. And yes, I was probably too soft, too kind, and too silent when I tried to help this colleague to see feedback as not a weapon but as an opportunity for learning. What I wanted to say was “Can you hear yourself? Do you really fear your students so much that you see your classroom as a battlefield rife with weapons? Why do you insist on creating conflict? How does treating your students like the enemy help you teach or help them learn?” Instead, my words were focused on expressing compassion to her and about her students. I don’t know if any of what I did say sunk in. I don’t know if I made the right choice, if I made a difference. All I know is that I chose kindness.

So why am I sharing this with you all when I know that some of you see the best in your students every day and that this disparaging practice by professors is not universal? I share this because, though it may not be universal, it is common and because I don’t have the answer even though I can see the problem. I share this with you as part of my own reflection, as part of holding myself accountable by making my views public and my silence more difficult to keep. I share this because I wish the best for both you and your students. I share this because learning should not be a job, a chore, or a battle. Because curiosity is not the prey of the achievement monster (grades, degrees, and accolades). Our students are people, not adversaries, and it is long past time that the university classroom culture changes to reflect that. I share this because cultural change in our classrooms begins with us.

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§ One Response to Our Metaphors Matter: The power of the words we choose.

  • Damren says:

    Interesting post with good ideas that could easily migrate outside of the classroom. Professional assessments and feedback are normal in most companies interested in growth for their staff and overall organization. Often, some level of conflict can creep into such settings as well, becoming fights for raises or recognition or choice assignments. How we manage these interactions in both academic and professional settings can be vital in the development of successful relationships between all members of the group and could ultimately lead to more successful professional and academic outcomes.

    Learning is not just about what’s delivered in the classroom, there are a multitude of nuanced learning opportunities that exist in the academic milieu, with assessments and feedback being two notable examples, and both educators and students should do everything they can to maximize the experience for the benefit of all members of the academic (or professional) community.

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