August 21, 2008
Interacting With Students: On Defensiveness
Posted by Gordon Smith

A few weeks ago, I sent my syllabus to the students enrolled in my Business Associations course this fall. I told the students that I had been re-designing my course to increase the level of student engagement. Based on enrollment, I gather that some of the students were not thrilled about this. Prior to the email, the course was maxed out for the size of the classroom, and I have dropped over 10 students in the intervening weeks. (Thus, another benefit of threatening to engage the students: fewer exams at the end of the semester!)

With regard to one student, however, I didn't have to speculate about his reaction. He sent me an email detailing his "issues" with the grading:

(1) With regard to my plan to have each student team "grade" homework assignments of three other student teams, he wrote, "When enforcing the law school curve, I do not believe that students should be grading each others' assignments when they have an overwhelming incentive to give low grades to boost their own. This invites dishonesty and unfairness. I guarantee you that students will not hesitate to slash the grades of others to get ahead. Keep grading entirely in your own hands."

(2) With regard to my plan to evaluate some of the assignments on a team basis, rather than student by student, he wrote, "As we will being ranked in the law school as individuals, it is senseless to base grades—to any extent whatsoever—on the performance of others. I understand the pedagogical goals behind group work, but those can still be accomplished while grading us as individuals rather than as teams."

Later in my series of posts on teaching, I will write more about the student's substantive concerns, but this post is about process. How would you respond to this email? I confess that my initial reaction was not very charitable. My inclination was to invite this student to hit the road. Take Business Associations from someone else if you don't like my class!

Fortunately, I had the good sense to sleep on it. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this could be a great learning opportunity for both of us. I believe the student had some legitimate concerns (though at least the first concern was misplaced, and I have revised my syllabus in an attempt to make that clearer), but his method of expressing those concerns was way out of bounds.

So I responded as follows ...

Prior to sending this email, I have read and re-read your email to me. I have been waffling about what to write or whether to write anything at all, but I was finally persuaded to write by the hope that my reply might be helpful to you. So please read it in that spirit....

In your email, you "guaranteed" that students in the class would be dishonest and unfair, and you called my plan for the course "senseless," even as you assured me that you fully understood my pedagogical goals. You also commanded, "Keep grading entirely in your own hands."

You are the only student who has written to express concern about the team projects, though I am certain you are not alone. While I sympathize with some of the substantive concerns expressed in your email and hope to explain my approach more fully on the first day of class, I am troubled by the tone of your messages. In my 14 years of law teaching at six law schools and several international programs, I have encountered only three other students who have addressed me in a manner comparable to this. You can infer from the previous sentence that these are memorable experiences for me.

I am writing in hopes of encouraging you to reflect on your decision to send those messages. Obviously, you are frustrated by the prospect of having your work graded by other students, but insolence and condescension rarely persuade. As you may know, I am a blogger, and in the heat of an exchange, I am sometimes tempted to adopt a tone similar to the tone of your emails. Indeed, I have sometimes succumbed to that temptation. But when I have gotten some distance from those exchanges, I almost always regret having pressed "send." Those messages may be cheered by my supporters, but they often cause the other side to become even more stubborn in their position. And they make me look petty and immature.

The bottom line is that you are not doing yourself or the causes you advocate any favors by communicating in that way, and if in the future you behave similarly toward judges or senior lawyers, you won't be doing BYU Law School any favors either.

I won't reprint his lengthy reply, but it began, "I am so absolutely and so sincerely sorry about my message." He explained to me some things about the context in which he sent the initial email and why various outside stresses and strains may have resulted in him writing a message that sounded so hostile. He was extremely sincere, and I was really quite moved by his desire to make amends. Far from being on my black list, this student is now someone I quite look forward to having in class, even though we have never met.

Reflecting on my own life experiences, remembering those occasions when someone older and perhaps wiser had gone out of their way to help me by correcting me, rather than just ignoring me or aggressively putting me in my place, I suspect this student learned something meaningful from that exchange. And it reminded me that my job here extends beyond the classroom and beyond corporate law.

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