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Faculty Could Use a Safe Space Too

by on April 10, 2017 4:00 AM

One of the more recent college controversies has been the demand by some students for safe spaces on campus. The term used to refer to areas where marginalized groups could go to openly discuss their experiences. Now these designated spaces are being requested by students so that if they feel in danger of viewpoints that make them uncomfortable they can go somewhere that they feel safe.

After a particularly bad week in a really tough semester, I’m requesting safe spaces for faculty members too. I think we need a space where faculty members can go to voice our concerns, express our frustrations and feel safe from the treatment that we sometimes receive from students – and by the parents of those students.

Qualifier: Most students are wonderful young people who are eager to learn and who embrace both education and individual accountability on the way to earning their degrees in college. Usually the parents of those students are the ones who thank us at commencement.

The majority of students don’t make me want to crawl into my office and close the door, with a “safe space” sign on the door. To the others I say, please don’t come in if you are going to be rude or disrespectful.

It starts with the course syllabus.  At the beginning of each course, we have to spell out each and every detail of each and every assignment, course policy, opportunity for resources outside of the classroom and general university rules (e.g., please don’t eat during class). Some call it the syllabus minutiae. My syllabus for a 100 level introduction to the major course is about seven pages long and spells out everything from how I will calculate grades to my attendance policy.

When students raise issues about the class, we are to direct them back to the syllabus. Hopefully, that syllabus is “loophole proof” or we are goners. “Wait if I was sick and didn’t call you in advance but asked but my mother gives me a note, will that be excused and can I make up that in-class assignment?” “Did you read the attendance policy?”  The answer is usually no.

I say “It’s all outlined in the syllabus.” Depending on my response, there will be line of students at the door with that and similar excuses. Other times, we look for the “I’m going over your head” threat which means I have to explain myself and my decisions up the food chain until someone either supports me or I become too weak to carry on and I crumple in exhaustion.

After the syllabus, there are the actual course assignments. Every detail, every question, every process, every expectation must be outlined (sometimes in two or three places) so that when the grades are turned back to a student, you have covered your proverbial back side. “This doesn’t actually say it was due on this day” and “I didn’t think you actually meant to use sub-headings and specific margins on the paper,” even though both were spelled out in writing and on the course website and I covered it in class.

“I deserve a better grade than this” and “My father wants to talk to you about this paper” are becoming increasingly more common.

At this point in the semester, I’m looking for my blankie and my thumb and starting to crawl under my desk.

I recently heard from two separate families who thought my information and decision related to their child was incorrect. One told me “This is emphatically not a communication issue with father and daughter,” when he learned his daughter was not graduating as he expected. Even though we had it documented from two years ago that she would need another semester, it was clearly a “dropped ball” on our end. (She later admitted to me in private that she was afraid to tell him).  

Another parent angrily told me that “I’m paying for your services” when I explained that his son missed an important opportunity with a recruiter because he slept through the scheduled conference call.  He’s paying for my services? If I have to take many calls like that, I’m going to ask him for a raise.

In both situations, I happily passed on my department head’s email address and assured them he would love to hear from them.

Last Friday, ironically only a week after I received a faculty appreciation award from the College of Health and Human Development Society, an incident with a student escalated to the point that I had to flag my boss down (who just happen to be walking by). The student was angry --  threatening posture, not leaving when I asked him to. All because he didn’t think he earned the grade I that had assigned and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Thankfully, my boss was able to cool him down.

I could not have ever imagined speaking to a teacher or instructor the way that student spoke to me last week.

Sadly, the parental calls, the angry and entitled student and the kid who waits until the last minute (or doesn’t do the work at all) and realizes the consequences are becoming more common. The student who becomes angry with a faculty member (or who shares their anger with mom and dad who then call the faculty member) is becoming more common than it was even 10 years ago. Even better? We have the pleasure of having those same students complete a student rating of teaching evaluation (SRTEs) at the end of the semester and those scores are directly linked to our annual evaluations.

College is supposed to be hard. It is not a guarantee. Faculty members work hard to set up fair and objective assignments that prepare students for jobs or grad school after college. Sometimes the process of following directions or due dates or including sub-headings are part of the learning objectives.

Safe spaces for students? Faculty are soon going to need a space on campus to feel safe, too.



Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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