Monday, May 9, 2011

PTSD: Post-Traumatic Semester Disorder

My mother tells me a story of a time before my sister was born. I would have been around two, and we were at the playground. I was on the slide, when a boy came along and pushed me off, giving me a bruise. I think my mother tells this story because she thought my response was so unusual.

"You didn't cry. You just asked why someone would do that."

I called her before writing this blog because I wanted to make sure it wasn't a story about my sister, or a story I made up. "No, it happened to you," she said. "Your sister would have pushed back."

She would have. My little sister ruled the school bus. I tried to slip in and out of the bus without anyone noticing me at all.

I remember the name of every bully in my life. That's not healthy, I know, but it's true. The girl who lived down the street from me, whose house was full of puppies, who tormented me on the walk to the bus stop every day in elementary school. In middle school, a group of girls took me on as a personal mission to be mean to. A boy spit on me, on purpose, from the monkey bars. In the classroom, when the teacher would leave, the girls stole my journals, read out loud from them, tossed them across the room.

I never said anything. They were bigger. Stronger. And what would I say? I didn't understand why they did what they were doing. I didn't know how to fight anyone, and I just thought if I became invisible enough, they would go away.

But I stewed, and as I've grown into my own life, I find that bullying is the one thing I can't seem to tolerate -- something I still haven't found the appropriate response to. Students can say or do just about anything, but when they bully me or someone else, I go back to the 5th grade in my body. Back to those girls who scared me so much I couldn't sleep. Back to my father saying, "You've just got to wait them out." My sister who probably would have just punched back.

This semester, I had the perfect storm of students in one of my on-line classes. The personal bullying began from the very first day. Before I'd even logged in on the first day of class, there was a slew of personal attacks about the course, the textbooks, the deadlines. I did what I did in middle school. My heart beat too fast. My stomach hurt. My shoulder screwed itself up into my jaw. Why are they doing this? What did I do that caused this to happen? So I hesitated, which is what bullies wait for, and I couldn't regain footing in the class the entire semester. I lost sleep for fifteen weeks over this class, these people. I'm used to frustrated students, but this was different. I couldn't shake them out of me. I couldn't reframe their posts for them and try and ease them out of their attacks into a more receptive place in the class. I tried for almost ten weeks before I went to my dean and told her I cannot keep responding to these people. I feel like I'm being shot at every time I offer feedback, every time I try and point out a craft concept. I'm not a new teacher. I've been at this almost twenty years. I know my subject matter and I know a great deal about how to work with various types of people, but this time, I was only ten years old.  I felt like I was going to cry all the time, and I experienced the same feelings as I did in the 5th grade every time I checked my work e-mail or logged into that class. I was afraid to log in.

What could I do next time? Why isn't there a clear college policy on on-line behavior? Am I just supposed to feel poked and attacked several times a week just because it's my job? I don't think it's my job to be bullied, and I'm not in the 5th grade, and I am actually the one in the pseudo-power position in this circumstance. I started talking to other professors. What would you do with this? How would you have handled it? What can I do differently?

So I've made a course policy and a video on tone in the academic setting for next semester that probably won't change anything, but made me feel somewhat more empowered. I have some sample responses from other faculty that I can use right away if this happens again. But what I've really learned is that I still feel the shock and the disbelief that I felt in middle school when facing a bully. Did I make the right choice in the 5th grade not to hit back? I don't know. I didn't choose not to hit back out of any noble non-violence ideas. It just seemed stupid. They were bigger. I would lose. They would break my glasses and then I couldn't read.

Tomorrow is the last day of the semester. One particular student was the worst. Student X did not turn in the largest assignment of the semester. S/He had, in spite of being a bully, been earning an A because s/he was a very good writer. When s/he missed the assignment, at first I was thrilled. "Gotcha. Now you're not going to pass. Ha." But every day I waited for the e-mail. The reason it was my fault that s/he missed the deadline. That I have to take the paper. I still was stomach-aching anxious to log in to work.

Today there was a note that was not laced with the caustic tone I'd been reading all semester. The note explained what had happened, asked me if s/he could make up the packet. I don't know if the reason is true. This time in the semester we hear every reason under the sun for why things didn't happen on time. I don't want to read the paper. I want to post grades tomorrow. At first, my response was, "Should have been nicer to me, b---h." But that response, even reframed appropriately for office correspondence, didn't feel right. I actually do believe the reason given in the e-mail. I am in the position of power here. I have a no late work policy. I could have said no. It's too late. Too bad so sad, nanner nanner nanner. I win. It would have been backed up all the way to the top of administration. It's in the syllabus. I could win.

I walked around the building and came back to the computer. I responded that s/he had been earning an A up until that point. I responded that I would not include the points for that paper in the final grade calculation, so the grade will be what had been earned up until that point. I wished him/her a good summer, and I pressed send.

And then I cried a little, and I felt the shaking up in my body. I felt the hand loosen around my heart, and I felt my shoulder release a little. I don't know if that was the right decision. But as soon as I pressed send and felt the tightening shift, I knew it was the decision that was going to allow me to walk away.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Please! Stop asking for my opinion!

Warning: Rant Ahead.

When I was in college, no one asked me for feedback. On anything. On anyone. This was not in the age of dinosaurs. This was in the late 80s. No one asked me if the chairs were comfortable. If the instructor was pleasant and accommodated my unique learning style. If I felt the assignments were fair. If I felt the instructor were qualified. No one asked.

No one should have.

When I was employed in my first "real" job, no one asked me for feedback. On anything. On anyone. How did I like the new restructuring? Do I feel secure? Do I want a blankey?

In the past week, I have been asked for my feedback from the following sources:

Travelocity: Would I please rate my booking experience?
My Dentist: Would I please rate my teeth cleaning experience?
The IT department at my college: Would I please rate my Help Desk Experience?
Every single commerce situation I've had in the past week: Survey on the receipts from: Bookmans, Fry's, CVS, Texaco. would love to know how I'm enjoying my Kindle. (Ha, ha, I'm not going to tell them!)
YouTube wants to know how I like my channel.
Google Apps wants to know if I'm satisfied with the upgrades.
Yahoo!Mail wants feedback on its Beta Mail program.
My tax accountant: Would I please comment on my experience with my taxes?
My VISA card: How do I like the new allocation of points?
My employer: Would I please provide feedback on my immediate supervisor?
My recent Netflix InstantView: How did I like the movie?
My MFA alma mater: How has my MFA served me?
My MA alma mater: What would I like to see college X doing moving forward?

I'm convinced SurveyMonkey is a sign of the apocalypse. Except I don't think there is an apocalypse (wait: Why has no one asked me my opinion on how likely I think the world is going to end in my lifetime? hmmm... conspiracy theories abound.)

I don't fill out these surveys, no matter how much I love monkeys. And I do love monkeys.

My fabulous Keezel at the Omega Institute in July, 2010

If I have an opinion on something that I think might be somewhat educated and somewhat helpful, I may share that opinion privately with the institution or individual involved. But I rarely do even this because ... um ... my opinion doesn't really matter.

Am I satisfied with my teeth cleaning experience? Well, what were my expectations of that teeth cleaning experience? Were they reasonable or were they what I wanted rather than what I might have needed? Why can't it be enough just to have my teeth cleaned? If the dentist stabs me in the gum with a sharp tool, I promise I'll say something. Otherwise, just please clean my teeth. Were the heavens supposed to crack open? Should I have expected a Hallelujah chorus when she put the bite wings in for the X-rays? Did they serve me wine and cheese? Please. It's the dentist.

How did I like my recent car's tune-up experience? Well, actually, I would have preferred if you'd have used Bay 3 for the work as my car really is sensitive to north-facing windows. I also think the tool boxes should have been in red instead of that sad metal color, and I would have really liked it if my mechanic looked like Johnny Depp. What can I tell you about tuning up a car? Nothing. Because I. Don't. Know. How. To. Tune. Up. A. Car. If the mechanic slashed my tires, poured oil in the gas tank, and drained and forgot to refill the radiator, I promise I'll say something.

It's no wonder our students think their opinion matters above all else. That we are there to serve them slavishly and attend to their every need in the way in which they (at the ripe old age of 17-1/2) believe the class and the material should be delivered. In the past week, I've had to give out surveys to my students for assessment purposes. I hate doing this, but I have to (and then I get to give the school feedback on my assessment plan participation). The school also sends out a general student satisfaction survey this week. This is not training people well for a world that, although it may ask increasingly frequently for their opinion, doesn't really want it. But worse than that, it's training them that their opinion on things about which they are not qualified to have an opinion, matters.

It doesn't help that our college's advertising campaign (which thankfully was terminated this year in a positive spin on the budget cuts) had billboards that said: Yavapai College. We're there for you. Like your dog.

I wish I was kidding on that ad campaign. I'm not using even the slightest bit of hyperbole.

If my professor never comes to class, leers at all the girls, and spends more time on his iPad than talking to us, I promise I'll say something. Other than that -- it's his class. If it doesn't work for me, I can leave. 

Too much idle chatter. Too much idle speech. Too much data collection.

And here's the other thing: I am not entitled to the exact experience I may hope for. If I am in a classroom of thirty people, I am part of a group. There is a group need that outweighs my personal needs. (Gosh, I hate that instructor because she uses the red dry-erase marker. Gosh, I wish he didn't spend so much time explaining polynomials to the 90% of the class who doesn't understand them and instead focused his energies entirely on me. Me-me-me. I-I-I. This is my experience, therefore it must be as I have predetermined it must be -- otherwise it was (fill in the generalization word: stupid, useless, a waste of time, dumb, boring) Stop. Please.

I am qualified to have an opinion on two things: writing and teaching. There is nothing else in my life that I have the education or experience in to offer an intelligent, helpful, opinion. Oh sure, I'm human, so I have opinions on all kinds of things. But they're based on nothing but personal preference, personal fears, personal everything -- so they don't need to be made public.

What does it mean that I "like" a certain item? Not one useful thing. It means I buy chocolate instead of vanilla, but that doesn't mean vanilla is bad or wrong or stupid or misguided. What right have I to keep vanilla from those who love it?

When you feel like you need to share your opinion something, ask yourself the following:

- Is it truthful?
- Is it necessary?
- Is it something that will unify rather than divide?
- Is it kind?

Aim for 4 out of 4 before you press "send".

I am not entitled to enjoy or 'like' or have fun in every experience that makes up my life. Who said that education was supposed to be entertainment? Why am I supposed to enjoy my trip to the OBGYN? I'm just supposed to do it.

Sometimes in life, we're just supposed to do things. Some of them will be hard. Some unpleasant.

Dear Ms. Herring,

We are sorry for your recent loss of (Contact: First Name, Last Name).

Thank you for using Funeral Service X. We strive to provide you everything you need at this very difficult time. To help us serve you and others better, please take a few minutes to fill out this survey about our service.

What could we have done to make your experience with us better?

Bring back Contact: First Name, Last Name.

And stop distilling every experience in my life down to a scale of 1- 5.

My life is bigger than that.