Yoga and Don't be an Asshole

This is an old teaching philosophy from several years ago. I've used the mantra "don't be an asshole" a few times lately, when I felt particularly annoyed by certain behaviors from my students. I thought I'd dig this back up.
Writing this statement was inspired by a conversation I had recently with an undergraduate who was preparing for a career in cooking instruction. “What advice do you have for an aspiring teacher?” he asked me. Given our very different fields, it was clearly important to think beyond the strictly sociological (“always teach theory and methods as one”), and even beyond the arts & sciences (“bravely embrace seemingly new traditions”). What could I tell this young person about teaching that would apply as well to him—a chef who teaches others how to cook—as it does to myself as a teacher of sociology?

“Do yoga,” I told him. We were sitting outside of our classroom, before an 8:40am class, having both arrived very early. I had just come from a 6:30am yoga class, and my gym bag was sitting next to my course materials. I took up yoga during my first year as a professor and have found it to be indispensable for classroom preparation. First of all, on days when I have an early class, going to yoga first means that I’m not starting my day by facing 50 undergraduates. Students are a generally amicable group, but each day presents new challenges for them and for me, and I don’t want to face these challenges straight out of bed. I need time to get centered. Yoga also prepares me for the physical demands of teaching. My muscles get stretched, my spine comes into alignment, my neck and shoulders relax and my breathing becomes deep and intentional. As a consequence, I am both calm and authoritative in the classroom. My posture is powerful and I have the energy I need to move about the classroom and engage all of my students. Finally, the closing postures of my yoga class prepare me spiritually for the day. “Experience the effect,” my yoga teacher says. “Visualize yourselves having a wonderful day. Think of one positive thing that will happen today and carry that with you.” I frequently imagine a classroom of engaged learners at that point (though my intentions are also directed at friends, lovers, family members, and world peace), and later I do my part to make this intention a reality.

“Do yoga.” My student seemed both amused and disappointed. “Anything else?” “Yes,” I replied. “Don’t be an asshole.” The philosophical principle of not being an asshole is more complicated than it sounds; which is to say that being an asshole comes scandalously easy. Given the power that teachers wield in their classrooms and in the lives of their students, the opportunities for assholery are ample.

At minimum, “don’t be an asshole” is a mantra. I repeat it in the back of my head during pedagogical moments (teaching, holding office hours, answering emails from students) and roll it to the front of my head at key times. “My paper is finished but the printer in the student lab is busted. Can I email it to you after class?” Well, I have a no late paper policy. And you, the student, are solely responsible for ensuring that you are able to complete and submit your assignments by the deadline. But then, don’t be an asshole. “Okay,” I say. “Make sure you send it by 4:30, so that I can print it before going home.” (I recognize that for some teachers, in some classes, and in some contexts, the above circumstance could have produced very different results without the teacher earning the label of asshole. But for me, for this course, and in this circumstance, not being an asshole meant recognizing that it was easy enough for me to print this short paper later in the day, and that my students have widely variant access to personal printers, and that sometimes the printers in the labs really do go haywire.) The mantra saves me from making justifiable but needlessly mean decisions that only serve to alienate students from the curriculum.

But “don’t be an asshole” is more than mere mantra. It’s also a pedagogical theory that implies a host of policies and practices, several of which I summarize below.

Om 1: Respect the Material
The curriculum is what draws the teacher and students together, whether the course is required or an elective. An instructor who seeks coolness by labeling portions of the material as bogus will only inspire students to treat the course as bogus. But this can be tempting for those of use who teach courses in which part or all of the subject matter is in fields where our expertise is limited. To combat this, we need to embrace the opportunity to gain new expertise.

Conveniently, this puts us in the position of being students alongside of our students—learning a new area together. In my first semester of teaching, I was assigned two sections of a course on ethnicity, a subject I had never actually studied. Though daunting and difficult, I read several books to prepare myself and selected as the primary textbook a history of ethnicity in America. This allowed me to study the important historical components alongside my students, while my lectures provided the sociological elements with which I was more comfortable. The point is that the knowledge produced by a course can transform the lives of students by exposing them to new ideas and giving them new skills—and as such, that knowledge should never be degraded or belittled. When students say the readings are difficult, the concepts complex, the papers time-consuming, and the tests hard, the appropriate response is a hardy “Amen!”

Om 2: Hold High Expectations of the Students
Students may sign up for a course because they think it’s a gut, but proving them right produces neither good course evaluations nor engaged learning. Students are capable of reading at a high level, so long as they are set up to be good readers. (We do this by anticipating challenging vocabulary, making links across readings and lectures, and contextualizing the ideas.) Students are capable of high level discussions. When I pose an open-ended question and a student responds with a reply that misses the mark, I don’t pretend otherwise. I just say “Nope, that’s not what I’m looking for,” and I help him to see why. I also ask him to help me in posing the question better. Students are capable of writing high-level papers, although they will need some preparation for writing within the discipline—preparation that makes clear what standards the teacher is using. I grade papers more on argument than mechanics, but spelling, grammar and syntax are important both in their own right and for their capacity to clarify meaning. So I comment a lot on these word-level and sentence-level issues because I expect students to write excellent papers. These writing standards are explained on my syllabi and reinforced with in-class writing workshops. I consistently find that by using high standards for student writing, the quality of writing consistently improves across the semester (usually from a C average on the first paper to a B average on the last paper). When students are not challenged—when expectations are low—they tend to conclude that the teacher is an asshole. And I tend to agree.

Om 3: Everyone is an Intellectual.
This is a claim I borrow from several sources—Antonio Gramsci, Henry Giroux, bell hooks, and Patricia Hill Collins. The premise is that humans are by nature intellectual creatures (a rare biological universal that I will concede). We all become experts at something, whether it’s academics, family life, sports, popular culture, auto mechanics, electronics, or any of a number of possibilities. As it happens, I am a sociological intellectual. Some of my students share this expertise with me—and I treat them all as amateur sociologists—others are experts at other things. But the classroom is filled to the brim with intellectuals and each member should be engaged as such.

Om 4: Respect Time and Money
Though class participants share huge reserves of intellect, we do not all have the same access to time and money. I try to acknowledge this with careful and responsible course planning. I won’t select a textbook if I don’t anticipate using at least 80% of the text. Textbooks are expensive, for reasons that I think are beyond the control of publishers. But out students should never pay that price needlessly. Required texts should be thoroughly incorporated into the curriculum and alternatives such as web postings should be used whenever possible and appropriate.

Respecting time demands a thoughtful consideration of the curriculum and assignments. I list on my syllabus—under the heading ‘Responsibilities of the Professor’—an expectation that I will provide fruitful information and skills. For my graduate students, this means that they will not write course papers, but instead will submit the first draft of a scholarly article. I then work with them in submitting these papers to conferences and preparing them for publication. As a midterm assignment, I ask them to submit either a publishable annotated bibliography or a lecture outline for use in an undergraduate course.

For my undergraduate students, respecting time means that each of my test questions is held accountable to a larger sense of the big picture. Before finalizing the test, I re-examine each question and ask myself “why does knowing this information matter?” If I cannot answer that question for a given item, it has to go.

Respecting students’ time also means attention to small details like showing up for class on time, never holding students after the scheduled end-time, making sure that I’m prepared, not abusing the opportunity to send emails, and confirming that classroom technology works (still a big struggle for me). But here’s a small detail that has become a big issue for me—I promise to return all papers within one week of receipt. I do this to respect student anxiety about their work and to capitalize on the opportunity for students to learn from returned assignments. Sometimes it is incredibly difficult, and I must admit that I have broken the promise. The first time I broke the promise, I baked a batch of chocolate-chip cookies, as a sort of apology (I also apologized verbally in class). The second time that I broke the promise, I gave my students a lengthier window for paper revisions. (As a policy, I don’t apologize in a way that compromises the material, say by giving an extra credit point or dropping a reading.) These apologetic concessions help to affirm to myself and my students that the basic principle—respecting time and returning assignments promptly—is very important, even as I accept that I am human and cannot live up to every standard.

I also expect students to respect my time. I state on the syllabus it is the students’ responsibility to show up for all classes on time, and to be on time for all scheduled meetings outside of class. Further, I state an expectation that they will be prepared for all classes and that they will ensure their ability to submit all assignments on time. In practice, I am flexible with many student circumstances—unexpected difficulties arise and I don’t want to be an asshole—but I also don’t tolerate asshole treatment from my students.

Om 5: Don’t Obscure the Information
In this age of anxiety about grade inflation (perhaps I should say this age of grade inflation, but I think the jury’s still out on that), it can be tempting to ‘fix’ grades by making the questions obscure—two steps away from what the students found in the readings and heard in lectures or discussions. It seems to me that this is a really sad mistake that misses our basic calling to educate students. I try to present the information in the clearest possible terms, and to make it seem real through the use of life-based examples. I give my students a review sheet for tests that comes darn close to directly stating the test questions. But this is not spoon-feeding. We deal in difficult and complex concepts. The material is sufficiently challenging when presented in a straight-forward manner. I feel far more comfortable with being a demanding grader because I know that I have presented this material as clearly as possible. The difficulty of the material has, thus far, prevented any situation in which I might be deemed a grade inflater, and yet students do not accuse me of being unfair either.

Om 6: Diffuse Unearned Power and Seek Earned Strength
This concept comes from Peggy McIntosh’s investigation of white privilege, in which she suggests that white people, like all people, should feel empowered in their everyday lives. But their empowerment should be derived from earned strength—their skills and training—and not from unearned power, specifically their race. She lists the many ways that whites benefit from their race on a daily basis—ways that they are often oblivious to. The concept applies broadly to a number of areas. In the classroom, I want to be a powerful and authoritative teacher, but I want that authority to come from my knowledge of the material, my skills as a teacher, and my commitment to my students. I don’t want authority to come from a title in front of my name or a particular classroom demeanor. I am proud of my doctorate—I worked hard for it—but I didn’t earn it from my students. So I don’t ask them to call me Dr. Kidd. They call me Dustin, just as everyone else in my life calls me Dustin, and I call them by their first names as well. I also don’t particularly dress up for class. I dress professionally, but still somewhat casually (trousers, yes, but no tie or jacket). I’m not trying to be ‘cool’ or act like I’m one of the students. I am the professor, but I earn that authority through professing the wisdom of my field, not through a title or a tie. And I actively discuss this distinction between unearned power and earned strength in the classroom, so that my students are very aware of why they are calling me Dustin and why I wear no suit.

Om 7: Be Kind to Yourself
By ‘yourself’ I mean myself. I do not abuse myself in my role as a teacher. I work hard, but not too hard. I make sure that I am actively engaged in my relationships, my research, my personal and physical needs, and my spirituality—never sacrificing these areas of my life to the demands of teaching. Frankly, that would just make me a worse teacher. I am sure that I would be an asshole then. I design my syllabi carefully to fit the ebb and flow of my own life. I try to avoid collecting assignments in more than one class on the same week. If I have to break my promise of returning papers within one week of receipt, in order to stay sane, I do so—and I simply explain my difficulties to my students and apologize for letting them down (I find that students are happy to forgive, if given the opportunity). In being kind to myself, of course, I also ask that my students be kind to me. I think this reasonable, and I return the favor by trying to respect the ebb and flow of their lives—avoiding major assignments around holiday periods, respecting the ways that their own religious beliefs conflict with the academic calendar, and so forth.

Om 8: Admit to Mistakes
I am a big believer in the power of apologies and forgiveness. Clearly, I have already alluded to this belief earlier in this statement. I experienced this most powerfully when I was still a graduate student and serving as an adjunct faculty at the University of Virginia. I had a class scheduled to meet early on the morning of September 12th, 2001. I have never been so profoundly aware of my own lack of wisdom as I was that week. In my sadness and confusion after the morning events of September 11th, I decided that I would still hold class the next day. It was a terrible class. I had a lecture that was well-prepared, but I just wasn’t present in it. Attendance was low as well. I didn’t even acknowledge the events of the previous day. I think there could have been lots of good reasons for holding class that day, but I didn’t lay claim to any of them. My reasons—stubbornness and confusion—were wrong. On the last day of class that semester, I finally got up the nerve to apologize. On my final evaluations, in addition to some comments indicating that students were actually glad to be in class that day—were other comments thanking me for the apology and outright forgiving me for the mistake. As teachers, we often feel that our students want us to be perfect, but we only feel that way because we invest so much into making them think we really are flawless. As I said earlier, students have deep wells of forgiveness that we draw on too rarely—not because we don’t make mistakes, but because we don’t admit to mistakes.

Om 9: Make the Changes that Need to be Made
We don’t inherit perfect disciplines or perfect curricula. To me, this is most clear in the ways that our material is dominated by men, economic elites, whites, heterosexuals, and the nondisabled. As a teacher, I can either reproduce these discriminations, or I can transform them. I never studied queer theory, but when I was first assigned to teach social theory I knew that queer theory had to be included. So it was up to me to survey the field and to present it to my students. When I was a student, my classical social theory classes never included works by women. But women have obviously long held innovative ideas about society, so it was up to me to find and teach these theorists and theories to my students. I am a terrible candidate for this kind of transformative work, but as the teacher in my classes, I am the only candidate.

Om 10: Communicate
Assholes don’t communicate. Teachers need to communicate. Communication comes in many forms, from a comprehensive statement of course policies in the syllabus to thorough feedback on assignments. Good communication begins with a clearly stated course purpose and a list of course goals. These should be presented in class and listed on the syllabus. Such transparency allows students to make the best decision about whether the course is appropriate for their own goals and purposes. One of the most important ways that I communicate with my students regards the participation component of my courses. This aspect of the course is very important to me, and it is crucial for student understanding of the material. Students are often intimated by this grade, and I suspect it often seems like something that is just made up at the end of the semester. To avoid this concern, I give my students a midterm participation feedback form. On the form, I list the many expectations that I hold for student participation. The form provides them with an estimation of their grade so far, and it indicates which of the expectations they should focus on in order to improve the grade.

I also use evaluations as a form of communication. I hold an evaluation about a third or halfway into the semester. The evaluation questions are simple—what helps you learn in this class, what hinders your learning, and what suggestions do you have. The feedback from these forms is typed up, and quantified in various ways. Quantifying the results helps me to put it in perspective. I might feel very upset about a particular comment, but the quantification reveals that it was an isolated concern. The results are shared with class, including a strategy for how I will respond to the feedback, and a request for how I want them to respond. In addition, I provide my own evaluation of how the course is going so far.

The issues of cheating and plagiarism raise some important questions about communication. On the one hand, I don’t want my students to cheat by accident because they don’t realize that a particular action constitutes cheating. On the other hand, I don’t want my students to miss a good learning opportunity—such as sharing their papers with each other—because they are afraid that it might be construed as cheating. The best way to avoid these dilemmas that I have found is to state a clear policy of what constitutes cheating on each assignment. This gets beyond the vagaries of the generic code of conduct and clarifies which actions are encouraged and which are forbidden.

Finally, I state clear communication policies on my syllabi, indicating how and when to email me, when to expect a response, when it is okay to call me at home, and how often I expect students to check their email.

These ten Oms should not be confused for being a teaching philosophy. They are rather, a teaching philosophy statement; a lengthy introduction to a short teaching philosophy: do yoga and don’t be an asshole. My philosophy is premised upon these two commands. The second is like the first. Not being an asshole is, in many ways, the root of yogic philosophy. Kind people everywhere are yogis in my eyes—whether they exhibit this kindness by feeding the poor or by conducting thoughtful, careful research into issues that matter. To my readers, my students, and kind people the world over, I close simply...

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