Up to you

“Some things are up to us and some are not up to us.”

These words, which open the Handbook of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, are among the wisest ever written. (They find an echo in the “Serenity Prayer” written by the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.) The words are tautological but hardly trivial, because if we cannot distinguish between what is up to us and what is not, then we are likely to waste much effort and opportunity. And, Epictetus thinks, by pinning our happiness to things that are not up to us, we set ourselves up for misery when misfortune strikes.

Epictetus’ gnomic wisdom is something that the anthropologist Kate Clancy is getting at in two recent blog posts on “The Sports Psychology of Academia.” Clancy, who plays roller derby, notes the psychological importance of (a) not being upset by and (b) planning for aspects of the match that are not up to her: the quality of the playing surface, the officials, injuries, etc. She then applies this insight to her career, which is determined by countless factors she has no control over. She is resolved to improve as a scholar and mentor, but to do that, she must first figure out what about herself and her environment she can and can’t change.

Clancy’s focus in these posts is mainly on research, but her insights are immediately applicable to undergraduate teaching, too. College faculty have a lot of control in the classroom: our preparation, what activities to do in class, how to grade student work, etc. But we do not have total control. In fact, we have hardly any control over the most indispensable ingredient to education: our students. Their parents raised them, previous teachers taught them, the admissions office brought them into the college, and they enrolled in our classes. Given all of this, there is little point in railing against what students are like when they get to our classes. But we do it anyway.

I was slow to realize that my students are not up to me. For years, I was frustrated by students’ failure to live up to my expectations for them. At some point, I realized that the failure was mine. My classes were set up so that some idealized, imaginary student could learn, not so that any real student could. I like to think that once I realized that I can only ever teach the students actually enrolled in the class–with all their peculiar abilities and shortcomings–I taught, and they learned, more effectively. I certainly found teaching much more satisfying.

Given that our students are (mostly) not up to us, how do we shape what is up to us, in order to foster students’ learning?

First, we need to know what our students are like: what they can do well, what they cannot, their attention span, their general cultural literacy, their assumptions about the course material, etc. Doing this on a fine-grained level would take a long time; only the truly heroic teacher can know all of this information about every single student. But we can certainly learn all of this about student cohorts. And we can learn a little about each student by asking them about their assumptions coming into the class (indeed, doing so is the first step in a constructivist pedagogy). Once we have this knowledge, we can tailor a course to help these specific students learn. Certainly, that much is up to us.

But even then, so much is up only to the students: whether they do the reading assignment, whether they do their work on time, whether they think coming to class is more important than playing video games. Now, I can certainly do much to encourage them to read, to train them to read more effectively. But to do this, I need to have already recognized–and communicated to the students–what is up to me, what is up to them, and what is up to people not in the class.

Faculty invest a lot of ourselves in our teaching. And rightly so: students deserve our best efforts, just as much as they deserve their own best efforts. But our best efforts have limits. Discovering what they are, working honestly within them, and not being bothered by what falls outside of them are major elements to professional success and satisfaction.

What else is up to us, or not up to us, in our teaching? What aspects of teaching that are not up to you nevertheless cause you stress and dismay? How do you think faculty can best deal with the things that are not up to us?

Photo by stock.xchng user pcaputo / Creative Commons licensed.

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