Good Deeds That Are Most Punished, Part 1: Teaching

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

February 06, 2012

High on any Top 10 list of the most frequent advice offered to young faculty members is this: No good deed goes unpunished.

The aphorism at first seems cynical, pessimistic, dysfunctional. Doing good, as members of a higher-education community, is our job. What if everyone just looked out for No. 1? The entire promotion-and-tenure system—which depends on altruistic volunteerism—would collapse. Nevertheless, there are many situations where taking too much time, trying too hard to do good, or doing good for the wrong reasons or for the wrong person can lead to career trouble, or worse.

In short, people who model themselves after Shel Silverstein's "giving tree" don't get tenure.

In a series of columns starting with this one, I want to discuss the good deeds that are most punished, especially for the probationary scholar, in different facets of the faculty career. I begin with teaching—a briary pasture for the virtue-minded tenure tracker. The idea here is not to neglect your students or avoid helping them but, rather, to focus on things that will truly benefit them while not derailing you from the tenure track:

Accept that you are not their top priority. You can be punished for a good deed in teaching if the recipient really doesn't want or need your help. An early lesson I learned in graduate school was that my course, my subject, and I were not necessarily the center of every student's world.

My first tutor in that deflating but practical lesson was an undergraduate in a course for which I was a TA. He came to me struggling with a particular assignment. I eagerly laid out an ambitious program for extra assistance, study, and readings that would, I promised him, if he fully applied himself, not only reveal the wonders of the course material but almost certainly guarantee him a great grade. His response shocked me: He was taking five classes, working 30 hours a week, his mother was in the hospital, and he was majoring in another subject. He was taking this course only for a distributional requirement.

In other words, as he put it, "I don't have time for anything but a C."

Over the years, I have come to understand that that attitude is perfectly acceptable, and not a sign of a student's failure or our own. Just like us, undergraduates and graduate students put different priorities on different classes. You will stumble and be continually disappointed as a teacher if you imagine yourself a missionary who must win every single native to your god. Teach as best you can, treat the students with rigor but also with humanity, and recognize that you may not be their primary interest or focus.

Saving advisee Ryan. The assistant professor sat back and reflected on the narrative of tragedy and frustration in which he had participated. A year before, he had joined a prestigious program at a research university. Within weeks, a doctoral student had come to him seeking an adviser and, their interests being similar, they had agreed on a match.

That's when the nightmare began. Continuous problems with lateness and inattention, poor draft after poor draft of a dissertation proposal, and mysterious absences dogged the efforts of his first mentoree. No matter how much attention the assistant professor paid, no matter how much encouragement he offered, it was clear that a mutual fail was at hand.

Many tenure-track faculty members come to understand that they can't inspire every student to greatness. But some students, of course—our advisees most of all—play greater roles in our career and lives than others. Here, too, the wise teacher acknowledges the limits of goodness.

We live in an era when expectations are vastly increased for, and financial necessities demand, the high retention of students. But the fact is that some people shouldn't be in college at all, and even more aren't cut out for a graduate program—just like some people aren't destined to make it as police officers or electricians. There is a point when the perennially failing advisee, whom nothing or no one seems able to rescue, would be better helped by your being a kind, encouraging, nonjudgmental, and creative exit counselor than by your continually accepting one more missed deadline or badly written draft.

There's a difference between teacher and therapist. Trying to save a student from academic failure may be a noble undertaking—and sometimes it works. But students are human, and academic problems may be only the symptoms of much deeper emotional issues that you, unless your degree is in clinical psychiatry, have no ability to solve.

Again, our best instincts as teachers can get in the way of doing real good. When the problem is how to understand sword imagery in Beowulf or the evolution of mollusks, then college professors can indeed help. But what about a freshman, who desperately misses his family, having panic attacks walking across the campus? Sympathy and good cheer should be offered, as long as it is accompanied by direct advice to go to the counseling center.

Do good by professing what is in your area of expertise but then admitting your limitations and connecting students with experts who can actually help.

Too much time on one student shortchanges the rest. What happens when you can make a difference in the success of one student? Even then you should gauge the cost of the help to others.

Take a typical case of a student who is struggling in your class. On the positive side, he comes to your office hours—always. He seeks extra help outside of office hours. He asks lots of questions in class. And you are doing good: The problem child is improving.

But after a few weeks, you begin to notice that: (a) other students resent class and office-hour time being monopolized by one person; and (b) your focus for the curriculum becomes more and more weighted toward anticipating "What will Kevin want?" than toward the needs of the whole group.

A senior colleague of mine once related that a delegation of students had come to him and complained about a similar situation. They put it bluntly: "We're paying for this class, too." That professor was lucky: Most such mass resentment simmers until it can be expressed through student evaluations and parents' complaints to the dean.

You are a college teacher, not a private tutor. Try to give individual students as much help as you reasonably can, as long as it doesn't undermine what you owe to the rest. Remember the code of Mr. Spock: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." Spending too much time on one student is not a virtue; it's poor classroom management.

The new prep from hell. My first semester on the tenure track was, blessedly, my worst. My greatest frustration was teaching a course on a subject I had never studied. I probably devoted more time preparing, catching up, grading, and writing lectures in that course than in any that I have subsequently taught.

The exercise, however painful at the time, helped me learn another lesson about the relative goodness of deeds we do in the act of teaching. As many master teachers will tell you, you can put an enormous amount of time into preparing for any class. Young professors get into trouble when they don't understand that just as they need to set limits on any aspect of life or work, they must also limit how much time they devote to one course.

Sometimes the problem is not with course preparation but with the number, and depth, of the assignments you make. The purpose of an assignment—whether it's a quiz, a paper, or some sort of group exercise—is to develop and test students' understanding of the material and to help them focus on its most important aspects.

Unfortunately, some young faculty members seem to think that quantity of assignments equals quality of instruction. I've seen many a first-time syllabus that was absurdly crowded. Inevitably the result is confused, sullen, or exhausted students who resent the instructor and lose interest in the subject. You can and should find a balance of workload that achieves instructional goals without breaking them or you.

In all, the "good deeds" that are most punished in the realm of teaching are avoidable. They require self-awareness and skill at reading contextual cues. Assistant professors who help everyone in every way end up hurting their own productivity and produce lackluster work for others. Just as you need to learn to say no to colleagues who approach you with a "great idea" that will swamp your own projects, you need to practice levelheaded triage about what and how much you can achieve in the noble calling of teaching.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor and Starch Faculty Fellow at the University of Iowa. He writes the "P&T Confidential" advice column for The Chronicle. His book on promotion and tenure was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.