Learned helplessness?

I’ve been discussing with various colleagues the merits and demerits of different approaches to the panicky questions we always get at this time of year.

I must admit that I’ve been getting quite irritated this time around (partly because the panicky emails started when I happened to be under quite a lot of stress for reasons not related to work). Some of the finest examples of taking the mickey include the student who asked me in an email whether a particular book was available in the library; the one who declared that she’d “never heard anything about” one of the assignments that was detailed in the course document (distributed to everyone, available online, discussed in lectures, etc etc); and the one who complained because she’d had no response by Monday morning to the questions she’d submitted on Friday. Those extreme cases get the responses that I pause and reread before sending, in case the sarcasm or anger has tipped them over into “unprofessional”.

The less extreme cases raise more interesting issues.  We make a big point of saying “if you are unsure, ask; use our office hours; get in touch if you are having problems”, etc. This has to be good; the students who fail are almost always the ones we haven’t seen and haven’t heard from (and, before you ask, I do not think the cause-and-effect all goes one way; it’s certainly true that students who are failing anyway are less likely to contact us, but it’s also true that students who do not contact us when problems arise get caught in a vicious circle of failure). However, at least some students seem to end up thinking that, or acting as if, the department is a 24-hour answering-all-queries service.  This is annoying for academics – but if it were only annoying for academics, it might not be a major problem. The bigger problem is, surely, that it is bad for students to develop a pattern of dependence, to learn helplessness. Why did the student who “didn’t know” about the assignment take no steps to find out before contacting me? I do not think it’s as simple as “laziness”; it’s about not being in the habit of believing that one can, or should, find things out for oneself. And I sometimes think if we were, on principle, a bit scarier and less approachable, students might become more self-reliant. (Unfortunately, I’ve never been all that good at scary, and I don’t like it when people don’t like me, and I suspect too many of my colleagues are the same way for us to be able to bring that one off).

So we do all set boundaries to our availability, for pedagogical as well as self-defensive reasons. I am certainly guilty (if that’s what it is) of ignoring my own boundaries when it suits me; but I try to be fairly rigorous about enforcing the boundaries dictated by common courtesy and common sense.

And I make sure that all students I teach learn the acronym RTFM.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Imogen on 17 July, 2010 at 10:58 am

    Obviously those examples of queries are ridiculous and they should be more dependent. However, having been a student of both Theology and another department, I have always believed that a successful module is one which inspires you to go out and learn independently but very importantly, has a lecturer who is open to communication, friendly and available for email/office time.

    I have often felt that some of my initial questions are answered if I just read through the module handbook. However, there have been a number of other times where I have needed advice on something specific and having had ‘scary’ module coordinators before, I have often felt resentment towards the module as a whole and put more effort into modules that have welcoming and inspiring academics behind them.

    I also feel that with TRS being a subject which has a very small amount of contact time (I had 6 hours a week, one semester I only had 5) compared to most other subjects, this has to be compensated by the department stressing that academic support is available outside of those 6 contact hours each week.

    Having had you as a module coordinator, I have always found you an extremely welcoming and inspirational academic, hence the reason why i looked on this blog, and hence the reason why I felt compelled to comment on this as I would not like you to turn into a scary lecturer!


  2. Thanks… and don’t worry, I have rarely, to my knowledge, succeeded in scaring anyone 🙂 I’m thinking perhaps the way forward, as so often with these things, is to be clear about the boundaries and to offer some practical suggestions. Like putting a standard slide into the first lecture of every module: If you have a question (1) read the module information [here’s where to find it] and the general departmental information [here’s where] (2) ask a fellow student (and if s/he gives you an answer, check where s/he got it from) (3) then PLEASE ask me – because if you’ve been through stages 1 and 2 and are still confused or uncertain, your question is definitely not a silly question!


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