Friday, February 04, 2011

Confident Distress

Media interpretations of the recent report on The American Freshman: National Norms 2010 are, perhaps not surprisingly, incoherent. Depending on which headline you read, 1st year students are either experiencing A RECORD LEVEL OF STRESS (The New York Times, among others) or are confident and ambitious (The Chronicle of Higher Education: "Economy Changed Freshmen's Plans but Didn't Shake Their Confidence").

Of course, you don't have to choose which one to believe; I believe them both. Anyone can have confidence in their knowledge and abilities and yet be anxious about various things (the future being only one of many possibilities). You could find similar results whether polling 1st year students or nth year doctoral students.

But that's not what interested me about this report and its media interpretations. I was intrigued by this, as reported in the NYT article:

In addition, Professor Sax has explored the role of the faculty in college students’ emotional health, and found that interactions with faculty members were particularly salient for women. Negative interactions had a greater impact on their mental health.

“Women’s sense of emotional well-being was more closely tied to how they felt the faculty treated them,” she said. “It wasn’t so much the level of contact as whether they felt they were being taken seriously by the professor. If not, it was more detrimental to women than to men.”

She added: “And while men who challenged their professor’s ideas in class had a decline in stress, for women it was associated with a decline in well-being.”

The article ends there, leaving me with quite a few questions. Alas, I have only read the official press release and the report summary, and gazed at the 43-slide presentation, but I did not purchase the report to read in full. The summary materials don't enlighten me more about the topic raised by the excerpt above, so I can only blog-muse about it.

My main question is: What is meant by "challenged their professor's ideas in class"? This sounds like it involves more than just asking a critical question or even pointing out an error. Does it involve more than just disagreeing?

Is being "challenged" by a student in class about ideas more likely to be a humanities or social sciences kind of thing than a science thing? I can think of ways in which students could "challenge" a professor's ideas in a science class -- e.g., if a student's religious beliefs about (against) evolution contradicted what was taught in a biology class -- but it's harder to think of examples for many science classes (the ones I teach, anyway). Even in upper level classes where I can expect students to have a pretty good base of knowledge, students are more likely to ask questions out of confusion or curiosity than to disagree with me (and my ideas) about a Science topic.

According to the vague excerpt above, our response to students is the key to having a positive interaction with a student, male or female. It seems obvious to say that we should all try to be respectful, even when our ideas are being challenged in class, but I suspect there are some gray areas in terms of whether a student would perceive that they are being taken seriously or shot down.

As a professor, I have, of course, been challenged by students about their grades, but rarely about "ideas in class", so I'd be interested to hear about the experiences of readers (professors or students).

Writing about this has dislodged an incident from my memory about when a (non-science) professor forced me to challenge him, causing a temporary decline in my well-being. More on that another time..


Unknown said...

During my UG, I can easily be classified as one of those male students who challenged the professor and benefited from it. I can clearly recall several instances of discussions about how some "math" could actually be applied to a real world problem rather than "math for the sake of math". As an engineer, this is definitely a common thread amongst most UGs.

After the semester (and in subsequent years), I had discussions with those profs that I challenged, trying to apologize for my "less tactful" approach towards a legitimate question. The responses that I got surprised me. They said that those are the questions they wanted as a prof because it means that a student was thinking and did ultimately care about the class. (They agreed a more tactful approach would have been better).

And, now that I'm on the other side of the coin, I'll know to look out for those instances and remember what it was like to sit in their seat.

Dr. Rural said...

I teach early American history, and it happens fairly often in my classes. Students assume all kinds of stuff about the past (that Europeans all came here seeking religious freedom is a big one, or that Americans were always noble and good, and the British were foaming-at-the-mouth bad.) When they find out the real picture is bigger and more complicated, they have questions -- usually polite and reasonable, but sometimes hostile, as though I were showing that I hate America by implying that the "Thanksgiving and Fourth of July" version of history that they picked up before college may be incomplete or even (gasp!) wrong.

I always try to answer questions or challenges with respect and explain in detail. It is important that I show them that what I'm saying is not just my random unsupported opinion, but supported by historical evidence. I think most students are fine with this, but it seems entirely possible that some may feel that they are being shot down. To have someone in authority contradict you (however gently) in front of others can be quite difficult for the sensitive or inexperienced.

I think it helps that if someone challenges me and offers a legitimate alternative explanation, or adds some relevant historical fact, that I praise them to the skies. There's nothing worse than the professor who wants discussion and input, but then criticizes everything that students say.

Anonymous said...

I suspect many of these instances of "challenging" the professor are actually responses to thought-provoking questions or statements made by the professor specifically put forth to elicit student participation.

I have taught some controversial subjects in science, including evolution, climate change, and conservation, and I have *never* had a student challenge me. Unless you count "Why do we have to know this?!" from whiny premeds as a challenge....

Sharon said...

A relevant point -- I don't believe that they actually assess professors' perspectives. So, it's not necessarily students who challenged their professors, it is students who PERCEIVED/REPORTED that they challenged their professors. That's a big difference when you're talking about how it relates to self-reported well being.

Anonymous said...

"What is meant by "challenged their professor's ideas in class"? This sounds like it involves more than just asking a critical question or even pointing out an error."

To me, who fairly recently completed undergrad, I woud definitely say that "challenging a professor's ideas" would include (any likely primarily refer to) asking a critical question or correcting an error. This may not seem like a "challenge" to you, a full professor, but it certainly can be a big deal, and a source of anxiety, to undergraduates, especially those who are young, timid, or uncomfortable with dealing with people in positions of authority.

Anonymous said...

In my SAT prep class back in the day, I challenged my teacher's key teaching principle. She said "words are just conventions. After all, a ball point pen in German is just a Kugelschreiber". Being fluent in German, I raised my hand to enlighten her to the fact that "Kugel" means "Ball" and "Schreiber" means "Writing utensil" so her theory was flawed in that words across languages can be related. I was promptly kicked out of class for the rest of the day.

Anonymous said...

As a professor in engineering, I agree with you: the challenging of professor's ideas in class is a very, very rare occurrence. The only time it occurs for me is when I give one interpretation of a result and a student "challenges" me with an alternate view.

Rachel said...

Hmmm. I agree that it's hard for me to picture a way I could have really "challenged" any of my professors in science classes... even though I sometimes get a little bit irritated when I'm really not understanding something and the way it's being explained really doesn't make sense to me, I'd still characterize it more as, like you said, "asking questions out of curiosity and confusion."

But in humanities classes I can definitely see it happening... I have particularly strong memories of challenging one very conservative Catholic philosophy professor I had as a sophomore. He drove me totally nuts. I'm not sure whether challenging him reduced my well-being... in a way it made me feel good about myself, that I was saying something instead of just sitting there being annoyed, but on the other hand I usually still felt really irritated to the point that I had to go for a run afterward to blow off some steam.

Definitely agree that interactions with professors and/or their taking me seriously was a significant component of my stress/well-being equation, both in college and now in grad school (although less so now, and it's also highly dependent on who the professor is and my opinion of them).

mathgirl said...

In math, while some of the questions come simply out of confusion or curiosity, others may come out of suspicion that what the professor is teaching is useless or uninteresting (or, in advances classes, false). Sometimes even the way the question is asked can make it cross the line to a challenging question (I think this may be what Gears is talking about in the first comment).

In my anecdotal observation (I don't want to generalize here, this is just my own experience), those who ask those kinds of "agresive" questions tend to be male students. When female students come up with these questions, they tend to waint until the class is over and ask the professor in a one-to-one setting. Maybe this is what the study is talking about?

Rosie Redfield said...

My genetics students regularly point out that I've made a mistake in answering a problem - they're usually right.

Anonymous said...

I think you're way overinterpreting one sentence from this report. "Challenging ideas" could quite likely simply mean questions like, "Why isn't it like this?" or "What about X?" i.e., very normal questions that are asked by students who actually pay attention and actually want to make the most of their live professor. Basically the sense I get from the very minimal stuff you quoted is that some students are highly sensitive to the way the professor responds to questions in general. That I believe, and the apparent fact that women are more sensitive is not news, yawn. Someplace in their K-12 education, women (and men) need to learn to focus on the material at hand, instead of their interactions with the teacher.

Anonymous said...

As an UG, I often pointed out to science professors that the explanation they were offering didn't actually add. Generally, there was some missing information. Often in intro science classes things will be explained in a way that leaves certain information out. I.e., you will be given a metaphor or model that is a little different from a more complete explanation.

One example, I recall being really, really perplexed for years about electromagnetism, until one day I figured out that the things that didn't make sense to me were in fact not well understood by anyone.

The best way to handle these situations is for the professor to explain that these confusing areas are either unknown or at least outside the scope of the course. But, a lot of teachers get stuck in this mindset that they have to have all the answers, and just end up making things more confusing.

Anonymous said...

If that is the case, the article is poorly written (and it may well be). There is a big difference between asking about a different explanation and "challenging" someone's ideas.

queenrandom said...

The only time I was challenged by a student in class, as an instructor, was when I told the class that Wikipedia is not peer-reviewed literature and is therefore unacceptable as a cited source, as per the syllabus.

So, maybe I am not the best person to answer your question.

Anonymous said...

When I was first teaching in a law school, I got plenty of challenges in class from older, mainly male students--along the lines of "You're wrong about this doctrinal point," or "I don't see why we are spending so much time on this case," or "In my dad's firm, they always did thus and so."
Not only could I tell the difference between those kinds of challenges for challenges sake and bona fide questions, but the other students could, too. I could see from their body language how uncomfortable they were when a fellow student was being aggressively challenging of my expertise or authority in the classroom.

I have to say that, more than twenty years on, I don't get that kind of thing much anymore. Something about being a chaired professor, I think.

Anonymous said...

As a grad student in a biomedical science field, I was educated in a lab where spirited discussions of the data and its interpretation were daily events, and especially prevalent in lab meetings. Moving on to a postdoc and then my own faculty job in places that were more gentle, I had to tone down my rhetoric a LOT, and still, 20 years later, it can be an issue. I often have students on whose committees I served jokingly "thank" me at their thesis defense in ways that remind me that challenging a students data or thinking is still often seen as a personal attack rather than a central part of science. I think most of those students do actually appreciate it, and more do so after they leave and find out in the big wide world reviewers of grants and papers do not usually temper their critiques.

With undergrads its even more tricky, as they are often acutely sensitive to an off-hand comment in class. I am currently teaching a small upper level class with much back and forth as well as paper discussions, and its a challenge to deal well with wrong or incomplete answers. However, if we can, over the course of the class, communicate the message that science is a marketplace of ideas where strong arguments based on data are the currency, we'll have taught them a lot about science.

Mark P

KateClancy said...

The comment that you focused on - regarding women's experiences in their interactions with faculty - struck home for me. I was definitely one of those female students whose sense of self was, to some extent, defined by what my faculty thought of me. Women are taught from a young age that that is an important part of their identity. Even now I have to fight the worry about whether senior faculty like and respect me, whether they think I'm cool, or smart, or productive -- and I don't mean in the normal sense, which of course in some sense all t-t faculty should feel. I mean in an all-encompassing, "what if he doesn't LIKE me?" sort of devastating way.

As a faculty member now, I go to great lengths to listen to students and show that I respect their thinking. I hope it shows through, but I am sure there are times where I have inadvertently wounded someone.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me very strongly of the points that Anna Fels makes in her book "Necessary Dreams" (which I'd highly recommend!): she basically argues that women don't get/claim the recognition/affirmation from mentors/teachers that men get for their accomplishments.