Why Being a Hard-Ass Prof is Bad for You and Your Students


by P.D. Lesko

I was the kind of faculty member who believed that students rise to meet the high opinion a faculty member has of them. More often than not, my students rose to the challenge of having a teacher who approached our working relationship from the perspective that they were honest, thoughtful, hard-working and would always try to do their best, even if their best wasn’t good enough to merit a high grade. My approach often startled my students, and I think they wasted time waiting for the other shoe to drop, for me to refuse to accept late work, or to refuse to answer their questions about course logistics, but instead refer them to the syllabus, while gritting my teeth. In my classroom, no question was unwelcome or ever went unanswered. I saw my primary responsibility, at a bare minimum, as a mission to help my students master the course materials sufficiently well to pass the course. In reality, I wanted them to look forward to class, to be challenged by the course materials, surprised by their own creativity and to take pride in their accomplishments.

I was a rigorous grader who viewed comma splice sentences and sentence fragments as unwelcome in any student essay. When I read through AdjunctNation’s social media feeds, I’m often surprised by adjunct faculty who confuse rigorous grading and high standards with behaving like a hard-ass professor. “No late work!” “Here are the policies and I don’t deviate from them.” “No phones in class.” Really? Isn’t the point of a college course for students to meet the lesson and course goals so they can do well on the summative assessments and add knowledge to their academic tool box?

To be sure, every syllabus includes rules, such as outlining when assignments are due and the consequences of plagiarism. That being said, why do so many faculty members view teaching college as an opportunity to impose and enforce “the rules” of the course? Students who break the rules suffer the consequences, obviously, but this brings me back to the first sentence of this piece: “I was the kind of faculty member who believed that students rise to meet the high opinion a faculty member has of them.” Approaching instruction as a platform for enforcing “the rules”—whatever they may be—means a faculty member who approaches the working relationship from the perspective that students need to be wrangled then hog-tied by rules.

Being a hard-ass teacher puts the instructor in an adversarial relationship with her/his students as opposed to fostering a collaborative and collegial relationship. The hard-ass adjunct faculty member (any faculty member, really) is waiting for students to make mistakes. My students made mistakes, including plagiarism, but I looked at those mistakes as opportunities to teach them, to reach them and to show them that a mistake was nothing more than a building block. Part of what made this strategy work was repeatedly answering the same questions and reviewing the guidelines. I demonstrated consistency as well as flexibility.

For example, before each written assignment, I gave a short formative assessment (an ungraded quiz) on what students remembered about what constitutes plagiarism. I reviewed the college’s policies on cheating and encouraged students to use the words and ideas of others—to be scholars—by using scholarly tools (citation). I gave students failing grades for stealing the words or ideas of others, but then took the time to work with those students individually to revise the failing essay for a grade and averaged the grades of the two written assignments. I also worked individually on the next written assignment with those students. Together, we walked through the process of incorporating the materials of others the correct way. In a decade of teaching college, I never had a student who plagiarized twice.

On social media, adjunct faculty on Facebook and Twitter deride their students for not reading the syllabus after they have been advised, cajoled and commanded to do so. First and second year college students are often overwhelmed and even lost in their academic transitions. A recent post about expecting students to read their syllabi on the AdjunctNation Facebook page produced some interesting replies about whether student questions should just be answered:

“Sometimes you just gotta shake your head and say ‘bless their hearts’ and just go ahead and tell them.”

“I answer the question, but I remind that I follow the syllabus and maybe they should too.”

“Asking for clarification is perfectly fine and should be answered thoroughly.”

Other faculty disagreed:

“I have four different classes with three different schedules… I could look it up, or… here’s a thought… YOU could bring up the convenient little calendar that sits on the classes website.”

“There’s an easy solution to this. Come up with a nice statement like: ‘Before asking any questions about course logistics, please be sure to check the syllabus to see if the information is provided there.’ Then put that statement in the syllabus.”

“As an instructor, I like to make connections to real world applications. I’ve taken courses myself, been given important paperwork or directions (emails), and was lazy or quick and didn’t read them and was given ‘It’s in the document.’ It’s our responsibility to read and review so let it start in college (HS?).”

“One thing we want to remember is we are here to prepare students for future careers, we are not their parents or friends, while that may sound cold college is a time to prepare for adulthood. If instructors continue to baby students and hold their hands, they are going to end up not being able to deal with the real world because they won’t read information there either.”

How is being a hard-ass prof bad for the faculty member? Do you find yourself routinely stressed out because your students don’t follow the “rules” of your class?

What we’re looking at is whether rigidity and/or intolerance contribute to poor personal outcomes. Not surprisingly, decades of psychological research show that being a hard-ass, being rigid with your students, in other words, leads to poor psychological outcomes and higher levels of stress and anxiety for both the student and the faculty member. Dr. James Collard writes in a piece titled, “Rigidity versus Flexibility The Key to Mental Health,” that “such rigid language includes the use of concepts such as shoulds, expectations, musts, have to’s, needs, and oughts.” Inflexibility and rigidity, according to Collard, “lead to emotional distress.” Collard goes on to write: “In recent decades Steven Hayes and his colleagues have shown the negative consequences of ‘rule governance’ in their study of language. Such associations have also been shown in literature by Daniel David and his colleagues. They have shown a pattern of research demonstrating the relationship between rigid forms of language and dysfunction (emotional distress…).”

Research shows an “implicit relationship between rigid forms of language and negative evaluations.” In other words, being a hard-ass prof isn’t good for your mental health and it doesn’t improve student outcomes. It may also contribute to poor student evaluations. The answer is not to be a pushover or a doormat who allows students to ignore reasonable rules and expectations. The answer is to incorporate flexibility into your teaching, your lesson and course goals, as well as into your working relationships with your students.

Think about how you could incorporate the following kinds of “flexible” language into your teaching, your syllabus and your interactions with your students. According to Dr. Collard, examples of flexible language include statements such as, “it would be better if…”, “I would like it…”, “it is likely to …”.

Let’s take a common statement in a syllabus that, “students should respect others.” This is a closed statement that may influence a person’s behavior, but leads to judgement when people do not adhere to the rule. Based on the rule, there are no if, buts or maybes about it, it’s just the way people must behave (or else they’re less worthwhile). If this is reframed as, “it would be better if people respected each other,” this results in more specific and more nuanced attributions that the problem with respecting classmates is something within the person, but that it is not that the person is the problem (i.e. they are still worthwhile despite having a problematic habit).

If you let up on the rules and double down on the flexibility, academic research tells us that this will help improve your student outcomes and improve your own experiences in and out of the college classroom.

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