The professors thought that they were having a private conversation. Instead, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported, their harsh assessment of their students — they were going to “bomb” the next test, the instructors agreed; “I don’t care though. Let ‘em fail,” one said — was shared with the entire class, on video.

The incident, which involved two co-teachers of a nursing course at Widener University and led to outrage and apologies there, echoed another case of professors caught on video that came to light at Georgetown University’s law school just days before. In both instances, instructors complained about their students’ poor performance. But in the Georgetown case, an adjunct professor — who has since been terminated — linked students’ performance to their race. “I hate to say this,” the professor said. “I end up having this angst every semester that a lot of my lower ones are Blacks.”

Characterizing students’ abilities based on their race crosses a bright line for many professors. “We know that implicit bias is a problem,” said Karen Head, associate chair of the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. What the Georgetown instructor said, though, was “pretty explicit,” said Head, who is also the executive director of the Naugle CommLab.

The Widener comments, Head said, sound more like the run-of-the-mill venting session professors might have in the mailroom, or over a coffee. “Complaining about students,” Head said, “is as old as teachers and students.” So long as it stays behind closed doors, she said, it’s often seen as harmless. But, she added, “I don’t think that it is.”

The instructors at Widener and Georgetown were caught on video. But you don’t have to look too far to find examples of professors complaining about their students on social media. The problem is much broader, said Jesse Stommel, executive director of Hybrid Pedagogy, the journal of critical digital pedagogy, and it can get really ugly. What do those instances reveal about the relationship between professors and their students — a relationship research identifies as an important ingredient in learning?

People vent to blow off steam. And faculty members have plenty of reasons for feeling frustrated right now. Many have been teaching under the most challenging conditions of their careers without a real break for more than a year now. They’re dealing with the personal ramifications of the pandemic just like everyone else. Then there are the professional challenges that predate this particular crisis: precarious employment, a climate of austerity, diminished public respect.

Those pressures are very real, said Lindsay Masland, the assistant director for faculty professional development at the Center for Academic Excellence at Appalachian State University. “One knee-jerk reaction professors might have is, well, none of this would have been a problem if we weren’t in the pandemic, and if things weren’t being recorded,” said Masland, who is also an associate professor of psychology. “And I just think that’s a really dangerous perspective to take, because the reality is that you still say those things and you still hold those beliefs about your students. It’s just that you weren’t caught yet. I just don’t believe it’s true that the pandemic stress is enough to create values and beliefs that didn’t already exist.”

Feelings of frustration have to go somewhere, and somewhere is often the internet. Candice Lanius sees plenty of professors commiserating in a large Facebook group called Pandemic Pedagogy. But there, said Lanius, an assistant professor of communication arts at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, complaints usually concern the circumstances professors are teaching under, technology challenges, and choices made by college leaders. Complaining about students is always more troubling, she said, because “in the faculty/student relationship, the faculty member holds all the cards.”

All instructors have moments when they feel disappointed in students, Lanius said, for example if they plagiarize or cheat after the instructor has tried to build a culture of academic honesty. But instructors, Lanius said, play a significant role in academic performance. Both at Georgetown and Widener, she said, “the faculty member is creating a high standard and then blaming students for not meeting that standard — rather than helping them to meet that standard.”

Lanius was particularly troubled that in both cases instructors disparaged students to a colleague who appears not to have objected. In communities like the Facebook group, she said, professors try to help each other focus on what they might do to support students — and remind one another of the challenges students are living through.

Another place professors’ beliefs about their students come through, Stommel said, is in their policies. He’s seen multipage directions for taking a remote exam that detail, among other things, how students may use the restroom during it. Policies like that can signal mistrust and disrespect.

Professors sometimes say that the consumer model of higher education puts the power in students’ hands. But Stommel disagrees. Individual students and professors have intersecting identities, he said, and a student can certainly disrespect a professor — for example, perhaps because of the professor’s race or gender. But in the context of a course, the professor still sets and enforces the rules. The student is the one being graded.

How professors handle that authority often sets the tone for the relationship they have with their students. Some instructors feel pressure to come off as an “unassailable authority figure,” said Cate Denial, a professor of American history at Knox College who is writing a book about the “pedagogy of kindness,” teaching in a way that demonstrates one believes people, and believes in them, too. From that vantage point, Denial said, even a sincere question from someone trying to learn comes off as disrespect.

The pressure to be taken seriously is often most acute for graduate students, who might start out teaching undergraduates barely younger than themselves early on in their own training. Grad school is where professors learn to teach, Denial said. But teaching is far from the focus of most graduate programs. And the culture at many of them, in which intellectual conflict is a hallmark of seriousness, may train grad students to view their students as antagonists.

It can be a hard lesson to unlearn. But professors get a lot further, Denial argues, if they strive to see students instead as collaborators.

Even then, Denial said, instructors sometimes need to vent. But it’s important to ensure those comments never come back to students. That means the right audience is a few trusted friends, she said — not Facebook.

Here’s another problem with venting: It doesn’t work. Research shows venting is one of those behaviors that feels like it makes us feel better, said Masland, the App State psychology professor, but actually doesn’t. Venting rewards and reinforces negative beliefs about other people that might not even be true, deepening the frustration a person already felt.

The good news, Masland said, is that professors can change this habit — and lean on their academic training to do so. Early in her own career she posted some negative comments about her students. Now, when they do something that bothers her, she makes an effort instead to hypothesis-test their behavior. “Sure,” she said, “hypothesis one could be the student is a horrible person, fine. But what are the other hypotheses?”

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