The Weekly Reader
March 5, 2012
An ongoing publication of Winthrop University’s Teaching and Learning Center. Past issues are now archived on our webpage:
What Does That Make You and Me?—Dangerous Assumptions
You know the old line about what happens when you assume. That sad result is not always the case, but often enough, it is. I have been thinking lately about some of the assumptions I have made about students, some recent, some long ago. I want to highlight a few.
This semester, I have a student that I knew was going to be trouble, from day one. Conrad, I’ll call him, since it is possible that not a single current student at Winthrop is named Conrad. Before the first class started, when the students were sitting silently, checking their phones, or talking quietly with a nearby neighbor, Conrad was bouncing off the wall. He was talking very loudly, seemingly to no one, breaking the code of silence that students follow on the first day. When class started, he had a comment at every turn, sometimes with a raised hand, but usually not. Every time I asked a question, he was the first to answer, or to try to answer. After a few days of this, I could see the other students roll their eyes whenever he opened his mouth—which he did all the time. And he spoke so loudly! I just assumed he was impolite, oblivious, and self-centered. I knew I would have to have a talk with Conrad to try to rein him in. I did not look forward to that little talk, having had some version of it with troubling students several times over the years.
Then one day during a group exercise, I heard him tell his group members something. (How could I not hear? He spoke so loud that people in the next class probably heard him.) Just these three words from Conrad changed everything: “I am autistic.”
What? I could hardly believe my ears. In my limited experience with autism, Conrad’s behavior was not what I had come to expect. Soon after, I asked him to meet me in my office so I could ask him what I could do to help him. (Nothing, he told me, and that turned out to be pretty true. He is a very autonomous person, and as it turns out, an excellent student.) I told him that I appreciated his contributions to class, but that I worried the class was depending on him to do all the talking. I asked him if he could wait and let others talk first, then add to the discussion. No problem. And behavior changed the next class period. Conrad’s, but also mine. In short order, the rest of the students changed their behavior too.
Last semester, in another section of this course, I had a student, “Sherman,” who I could tell was totally zoned out. I knew that he wasn’t paying attention in class. He looked either bored or disgusted. As I talked or other students talked, he kept his head down, his face hidden by a hat, his hands doodling instead of taking notes. Early on, they had to write a short paragraph during class, then read what they had written aloud to members of their group. Sherman’s group finished before the others—because Sherman hadn’t written anything. I was furious at his insolence and lack of participation, but I let it go.
At midterm, they had to write an in-class essay. I was busy doing something else, so I did not notice what Sherman was up to. Sherman was up to—nothing. Which I found when I began to grade the essays. I was missing one. Sherman’s. Before the next class, I asked him to come out into the hall. I was furious, with a half semester’s frustration built up, and now he was going to get it from the old man. “Where is your essay, Sherman? Why did you not turn it in? And why did you not do any of the other in-class writing that you were assigned? Is this class just beneath your contempt?”
But he came back to me with a very sad look. And then he said, “Oh no, it’s not anything like that. I just didn’t think anything I wrote would be good enough.” I immediately got off my high horse. Sherman had written the best paper in the class on their first big out-of-class paper assignment. I asked him why he couldn’t write that in-class essay. “I don’t know,” he said. “I just panic. I can write, but not under those circumstances. I freak out, knowing that I won’t be able to write anything good while I am sitting there with the whole class. I knew it was 10% of the grade, so I figured I would just take that deduction and try harder on everything else.”
Another set of assumptions on my part. If I had continued to labor under them, the student who was potentially the best in the class might have made one of the lowest grades. Sherman and I worked that out. He was astonished to find that I would make some accommodations for him. I guess Sherman had made some assumptions of his own.
The final story takes place several years back, maybe fifteen years ago. This student hates me! She thinks I am an idiot! No matter what I do, no matter what I say, she just sits and stares at me with the same disapproving look. I tell a joke. All the students laugh—except for Shelley. She just sits there, with that same disgusted look. Shelley hates me. Shelley thinks I am a joke. Oh well, you can’t please everybody. Let it go.
And then, the next semester, a new class, and who is sitting right in the middle but Shelley? Shelley hates me! Why in the world would she ever take a second class with me?
A few years, ago, I saw Shelley, and she told me this: “Dr. Bird, you were my favorite professor ever.” What?
Sometimes my assumptions are correct. I have a large fund of life and teaching experience to bank on to make correct assumptions—but not all the time. These three little lessons—and many more like them—have taught me to question my assumptions about students. Maybe I’m right, but if I’m wrong…
(end of his post)
Well, there you go. By way of explanation of THIS event, I was the only freshman in an honors class of upperclassmen. I had only recently declared myself to be an English major, and found myself extremely intimidated by everyone else. The class was only about 10-15 students, and we met around a conference-room table, so there was nowhere to hide. I was deathly afraid Dr. Bird would call on me, and I would be a stammering idiot. He and everyone else there seemed light years ahead of me intellectually, but the class was "American Humor and Mark Twain." I didn't WANT to drop it...I knew that being in there would stretch me. I did love him and the class, and couldn't wait to take another class from him. He taught me how to THINK better.
However, it does bring to light one of my interesting recurring life experiences. I have been told more than enough times that someone finds me "intimidating." Huh? In my head, I'm just a goofy, slightly pudgy girl with big brown eyes who likes to read. I do realize that I have two personalities, though. I have the let-my-hair down fun times side, in which I will sing silly songs that make up on the spot...in public, if required. The part of me that likes to cut up, poke fun, be sarcastic, laugh until I cry...
And there's the Type-A Shelley. That's the one that meets a deadline even if it involves bleeding or wailing. That's the Shelley that is intensely focused on producing the perfect product--be it a college paper, work report, logo, etc. The one that will stay up all night to re-do a draft or reprint a paper because it has one error.
I was at a wedding once with mostly people I knew through church. One guy who was there I had seen around casually for at least a year or more. Now, I really like to dance...so when the hip hop gets going, so do I. Especially at a wedding. It doesn't even take any alcohol to loosen me up. I just don't have much shame in the arena of freestyle dance. I tumbled off the dance floor a few songs later and wiped my brow, laughing and probably goofily high-fiving my friends. This guy came up to me and just looked at me like I had three heads. "Shelley?" As if he didn't know it was me. "Um...yeah?" I responded. Seriously, dude. I thought you knew my name at least.
"Shelley?" he asked again. Ok, this was a little ridiculous. I had recently verified my persona.
"I thought you were all button-up and no fun," he explained. I had apparently flabbergasted him with my outburst of throw-down happy-dancing.
It was then I realized, he had probably only seen me in my task-oriented element...getting the slideshow ready before service on the computer or delegating, handing out something, etc. I think Type-A Shelley can be a little scary.
So, in the past few years, I'm working toward merging these identities. In my defense, pretty much everyone who told me I intimidated them has come back to say their initial impression was off, and that I was much nicer once they were actually around me. Whew! I'm going to blame it all on my condition. I have chronic concentration face. Only remedied by fellowship and community. So, you all are my medicine. Here's to keeping me healthy and LAUGHING...and on time and with quality work...with a plan...gosh, I'm a hot mess!