Nov 17, 2010

Pleasure in Student Failure: An Aristotlean Perspective (part 1)

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran what turned out to be a very provocative piece Monday (ok, not as provocative as their tell-all The Shadow Scholar earlier today).  

The short article was called The Pleasure of Seeing the Deserving Fail, ostensibly by an Alice Fenton.  In it, she admitted to a range of positive affective states when certain students fail in her classes -- deservedly fail.  As the short essay it is, I would actually rate it quite well as a contribution to discussions about moral psychology, desert, and the profession of teaching, not least because she sets out a typology of differing types of bad students and associates different responses in emotion and action to the pattern of actions (or lack of actions) of those students.

As I've been writing this, harvesting from the rich trail of 109 comments responding to her essay, I realized that for blogging-brevity's sake this will have to be the first of two entries.  This one leads reflectively through the comments, reviewing them and the arguments as an Aristotelian like myself does.  Aristotle actually has a lot to say about this sort of controversy over pedagogy, student failure, and emotional responses, and in the second installment, I'll carry out the more systematic and exegetical work that I skip over in this post. 

Fenton's essay provoked immediate controversy.  Wouldn't one expect it to, having read it?  She lays blame and responsibility on failing students, rather than shifting it to herself, to her modes of teaching, to the institution, to their class-, ethnic-, gender-, etc.-disadvantaged background, to their generational status as "millennials".  And worse, in some of her critics' eyes, she feels certain emotions (joy for instance) and pleasures which right-thinking educators should never allow themselves (except perhaps in their past, as anecdotal material trotted out to show how far they have come) to feel towards students, whether those students are really hardstruggling, or are gaming the system, or simply refuse to meet the rather minimal, dumbed down requirements (in comparison to past generations) set in front of them and patiently explained in multiple manners.
[S]tunningly negative
This essay is the product of a warped mind
She sounds like a bit of a sadist to me, taking pleasure in others' shortfalls
Petty and malicious
Fenton's approach is simple-minded and hateful. If we cast a student's failure as a teaching victory, we do not belong in the classroom. In fact, we shouldn't be working with people in any capacity
I want to take a shower after reading this piece. What's bad is that it's filled with pettiness and schadenfreude.
These typify one set of responses to Fenton's essay, her admitted emotions, her arguments, and her implicit proposal that it ought to be all right, even good, that in some circumstances educators feel emotions like pleasure, joy, hope, in relation to student failure. It would be a mistake to attempt to classify all such responses as deriving from one set of motives or stances, but in the main those criticisms seem to reflect not only unrealistic assessments of roles and responsibilities in education, but also PC-ideological moral evaluation of rightness or wrongness of emotions felt or expressed. 

Interestingly, though these critics would charge Fenton with deficient moral sensitivity, their immediate gut-responses reveal a lack of moral sensitivity or sensibility permitting them to distinguish rightness or wrongness of emotional responses.  From their point of view, she should not feel the positive emotions she does experience towards any student failures, and she's a horrible person for feeling those ways.  If she feels anything about student failure, only a certain range of stock negative emotions are appropriate. End of story.  The Pollyannas have spoken.  One response to them is particularly worth looking at.
The mean-spirited professors are the holier-than-thou goody-two-shoes--bet they make the same pessimistic presumptions about their students. They sure seem to me to be far more likely to be the aggressively competitive type than honest Alice.
Now, we shift to other sides (for there are more than two here), and in the case of certain comments other extremes.  (And as you remember from your Intro to Philosophy or your Ethics class -- if you only remember one thing about Aristotle's moral theory -- what's good is much more to be found in the middle than at the extremes, right?)  

There were no responses that would be a clear mirror image to the Fenton-is-horrible judgement, and by this I mean comments indiscriminately laying in to current-day students, indulging gleefully in verbally tearing them down (as some of Fenton's critics appear to do to her), and arguing that one ought to feel positive emotions about any student failure.  The lack of such comments is not surprising, since this is a discussion ongoing in the Chronicle.  Have this discussion in some other forum, and I think such across the board criticisms and justifications would pop up like mushrooms.  That type of  response would advocate what they incorrectly assume Fenton's position to be:  Flunk them all!  Crush their little spirits! 

Instead, there were many responses admitting to emotions, pleasures, desires similar to those Fenton discussed.  These responses regarded her affective responses as all too human, and made excuses for her (and by extension, themselves).  Feeling positive emotions over student failure, whether that failure is deserved or undeserved, is bad from that perspective, but understandable, perhaps unavoidable.  Fenton then is only exposing a darker side (or corner-nook) of education
 Professors are human, and human nature is not all compassion and warm fuzzies
Do not try and tell me that you have never secretly felt relief or pleasure when a student failed. Human nature is to feel good when an irritant in removed
Instructors *aren't* saints; we aim daily for saintly behaviour perhaps, but we're still human, and that's okay. I know I do my very best to teach everyone in every class, on every assignment, at every opportunity. But the feelings described here are not, let me admit, unknown to me.
Considered solely as expressions of viewpoints, contributions from all sides to an interesting ongoing discussion, there's nothing wrong with the three stances set out so far.  We might summarize them thus: 
1) Feeling or expressing positive emotions about student failures is always bad and a sign of a vicious character
2) Feeling or expressing positive emotions about student failures is always good, as a good response to students' bad character or actions
3) Feeling or expressing positive emotions about student failures is bad, but understandable since as human beings we aren't perfect.
From an Aristotelian perspective, there are several things wrong with all three of these responses, and they stem from oversimplifying moral matters bearing on emotions and actions.  In each case, the teacher's positive emotional response to student failure is evaluated without any attention to or interest in the circumstances or the person feeling the emotions.  The teacher infected by schadenfreude, happy to see any student fail, is evaluated just the same as the teacher who feels positive emotions about student failures only when the student deservedly fails.  The masochistic self-loathing teacher, or the teacher who is so burnt out that they rarely consciously feel anything is evaluated just the same as one who on a particular day just feels sadness at deserved student failure.

Making moral evaluations well involves making certain distinctions, and applying them well.  In this case, the first distinction we have to make is on the part of what the teacher has feelings about, i.e. between students who deserve to fail and students who don't deserve to fail.  Those who deserve to fail can be further separated out into different groups, depending on what we mean by "deserve to fail"  here.  

There are the students who fail while making an effort because of outside events of forces beyond their control.  There is another type of struggling students, like those this commentator discusses:
But all of the students I've had who have failed were not cases I was happy about. Yes, it usually meant they weren't putting effort in, but they also weren't bad people...they just usually had health or outside issues that were keeping them back, and it was disappointing that we couldn't pull them together before it was too late.
Notice two key elements of this description:  These students weren't putting effort into their classes.  They weren't bad people.  In such cases, an Aristotelian might say positive emotions about the failure are unwarranted, or should be felt to a much lesser degree, mixed with other emotions like regret, pity or compassion.

Then there are the types of students Fenton's essay discusses.  Some of these students, from an Aristotelian perspective, are bad people -- that is, they are vicious, they have vices, bad, habitually expressed, and in some respects chosen, character traits, types of badness that are characteristic of their personality, their relationships, their actions and emotions in public forums whether these be in the classroom or the later workplace. The student whose narcissism expresses itself by consuming class time with posturing, off-topic questions, comments, and speeches fits this bill.

Some of those Fenton discusses might be vicious or might not. The joy involved in pushing through to actually teach some material when the students are not responding to structured Socratic questioning -- that could be felt in response to students who simply are not "with it," and able to contribute, to hold up their end that period, or that week.  Or it might be felt in response to a class full of entitled, chronic slackers who have vicious habits of not doing work assigned to them. 

What really matters is which kind of students one feels the emotions towards.  If an instructor takes positive satisfaction, pleasure, joy in, even engages in hopeful imagination of seeing students drop out, fail, go away -- and one feels this about students in general, then that instructor is vicious. He or she is a bad person (or at the very least emotionally uncontrolled, which is a whole other topic to address).  As one respondant asked:
Why is everyone pretending as though the author makes no distinction between a student who struggles with genuine effort and a student who is simply lazy, disruptive, or actively trying not to pass? Surely this is the key to understanding the difference between a pleasurable withdrawal and a lamentable failure.
It also matters, from an Aristotelian perspective why one -- the professor -- feels this way.  If one feels joy in being able to assign Fs because one simply enjoys giving them, there's something deeply wrong with that professor.  If one feels joy in distributing Fs to those who deserve them precisely because they have earned them, that would actually be a sign of a good character, properly disposed emotions. There are other qualifications, for instance the degree to which one feels the emotion, but I'll discuss those in the second, follow-up, more exegetical blog post.

Its in this that a really interesting distinction ought to be made, one whose various sides can again be found in the differing directions and tones of the comments.  Some of the comments indicated a willingness to countenance negative emotions felt towards deservedly failing students or to their failures, but not positive ones felt as responses to student's deserved failures:
I certainly feel relief and perhaps validation in the scenarios described in the article. In some instances, I genuinely dislike problem students.
I agree with Dr Fenton. i do think perhaps her emotions are misread - i do not feel happy when I fail a student, but some amount of relief, yes. Sadness at both of our time lost, yes 
To take pleasure in these cases, however, is both immature and unprofessional
One other saw emotional responses as irrelevant:
If you grade everyone meticulously by the same standard and process, then it shouldn't matter how you feel about someone's failing.
Another response, well-aligned with the insights of Aristotelian moral theory about emotions and justice, not only recognizes a legitimacy to positive feelings about deserved student failure, but also diagnosed why some negative emotions could in some cases be out of place, signs of an underdeveloped moral character.
The question that most of the comments fail to ask . . . is, 'What is the *appropriate* response when a 'deserving' student fails'? . . . I suspect that many responses--including sadness, disappointment (in self and student), frustration, compassion--are inappropriate projections of the teacher's insecurities onto the student. Many folks believe they can reach each and every student, and when they don't, then the blame falls on their shoulders, not the student's. If this is your take, then of course finding pleasure in a student's failure is going to seem like an illegitimate (spiteful?) response. But if there is such a thing as a just grading system, then it follows that there *should* be pleasure when that system operates justly.
Setting aside that interesting but complex question about whether feeling certain negative emotions itself signals of a lack of moral character, I'll end hereby noting that Alice Fenton is, whether she knows it or not, a fairly decent Aristotelian in her essay.  Aristotle thinks that we ought to have positive emotional responses to the failure of those who deserve to fail, especially those who do so through their own poorly formed and viciously developed character.  He would also say that condemnation of such judicious responses itself betokens some moral or intellectual failures.  Neither he not Fenton counsel schadenfreude, sadism, cynicism, indiscriminate hostility or suspicion evinced towards students.  In the next installment of these reflections on The Pleasure of Seeing the Deserving Fail, the discussion will go deeper, and use Aristotle's voice and texts rather than those who posted comments this week.