Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

Avoiding Grinchy Disgruntlement at the Semester’s End

Recognizing and remembering—celebrating?—the good things about campus life

The end of the semester is rapidly approaching. For a little while now, I have heard campus colleagues wistfully longing for final exams and the winter break. I have also heard the predictable complaints (great and small) that routinely accompany the close of the semester:

“Students aren’t working as hard as they should be.”

“No one appreciates how much work I put into my courses.”

“Why is respect and appreciation in such short supply?”

“I never expected such coddling when I was a student.”

“Students arrive less prepared than ever ...”

“Another split infinitive?!”

And so it goes.

I have even seen these and other comments echoing about among my academic colleagues on Facebook. And I have made such observations myself—sometimes only to myself (muttering a bit like Gollum) but often to fellow faculty who nod in agreement or have their own war stories to share. This sort of venting is normal and probably healthy, as are the “days of college yore were so much better” and higher education’s “golden age is long past” kinds of comments. Still, I am not convinced that "Après we current professors, le deluge!"

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So I am trying to think better of it—all of it—at least for a little while. Here’s why: Life on a college campus, most any college campus, is wonderful. The campus—mine, yours—really is a place apart.

 A nice little experience made me remember this easily forgotten fact. Two or so weeks ago I was in my college’s Student Union getting my Starbucks fix. I stood in line at the checkout behind a male student I didn’t know. He handed the cashier his card, which was then swiped, prompting the cashier to say, “You still have money left for this meal” or something like that. The young man pointed at my Americano and me and said “I’ll pay for his coffee.” Before I could really thank him, he and his lunch were gone and I was touched by his random act of kindness.

I’ve taught positive psychology enough to appreciate the impact of such good deeds, which make us feel good and encourage us to try to hold on to the good feelings. Helping others, giving small gifts, and the like promote happiness in the giver and receiver alike. But that’s not really my point here (although it is a happy, empirical fact). As I clutched my gifted coffee, I remembered that there are lots of little events like that in my daily academic life—not always the proverbial free lunch, of course, but good things, nonetheless. So, here are few of my favorite things about college and university life:

I teach many students who are interested in what I have to say about what is currently happening in my discipline.

I share ideas, books, and arguments with colleagues and students alike.

I never know where class discussions are going to go—many are magical and memorable, and even the less than stellar ones are still OK.

I see students discover interesting and serious ideas about the mind and human experience themselves, for the first time, virtually all the time.

My students teach me things—I learn from them—all the time.

When a class falters, I get to try again to do a better job in the next class (or the next semester— and likewise, when students falter, they usually get a “do-over,” as well).

This is just a short list but you get the idea. Oh, well one more: On my campus, anyway, people you know and those you don’t typically smile, say “hello,” open doors for one another, and say “thank you” and “your'e welcome.” And two days a week I take the campus shuttle bus from a class on our historic south campus back to our main campus. Invariably, most every student passenger thanks the driver—and I am always, always touched and pleased by it.

Is this a small gesture on a small campus? Sure, but there are certainly worse things, like campuses where there is little show of any “community” in the life of the college community. I am sure my teaching colleagues who are reading this can recognize (search for?) such small but good things in their own back yards. The challenge, of course, is to remember these things when we are in a complaining mood and, admittedly, most psychology professors like me were trained to be highly critical of virtually everything, to readily do “search and destroy” missions on ideas or experiences deemed less than ideal (i.e., virtually everything). There is still a place for that (I am not trying to make a Pollyanna-esque plea here), but I think at the end of the term we need to control our complaints a bit and keep the good things about our chosen career in mind.

So, I am going to try to display less Grinch-y disgruntlement as the semester’s wheels come off. We’ll see how long that lasts—I hope, anyway, until I've graded those final papers and exams.

 

Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College, a liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA.

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