What are we saying when we thank students for sharing? April 13, 2022

From Inside Higher ed

Fifteen years ago, at the beginning of my teaching career, I wrote a piece about being shocked when students handed in their homework with an imperative: “Enjoy!”

At first, I thought they were kidding.

They weren’t.

Millennials—raised by helicoptering, snowplowing parents to believe everything they produced would be pleasurable for the rest of us to experience—really did think that the papers they spat out at the last minute and never bothered to proofread would be a treat for their professors to savor.

That generation, with their penchant for ordering avocado toast they could easily make at home and imbibing caffeine in complicated and expensive ways, has gotten a bad rap. To be fair, they used their outdoor voices to speak up for social justice and effect political change, though they did inflict on us skinny jeans and “can’t even.”

Recently, I’ve been thinking about something else they often say. They have handed this expression down to younger folks and passed it along to their elders, including faculty members: “Thank you for sharing.”

It’s not surprising that members of a generation raised with participation trophies often repeats this handy phrase of praise. It works well for kindergartners who wax shy, for elementary school kids just learning to express complicated feelings and for middle schoolers who want to fit in.

For adults, “Thank you for sharing” is an appropriate response in group therapy and meetings where people don’t give their last names. It’s meant to signal that the environment is welcoming and supportive. It acknowledges that some things—especially deeply personal, even shameful feelings—require bravery and vulnerability to voice. It’s risky to put yourself out there, especially to a bunch of strangers. I get all that.

However, when students thank each other for sharing their work in class—or when I hear instructors utter those words—I want to scream.

While reading Amanda Montell’s delicious new book, Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, I was thrilled to learn a term popularized by Robert J. Lifton in 1961, the “thought-terminating cliché.” I love acquiring a name for a phenomenon I’ve already identified.

The people who quip “it’s all good” after they’ve been diagnosed with a horrible illness set my teeth on edge. Well-meaning friends who said “everything happens for a reason” when my boyfriend was killed in a car accident nearly sent me into a rage. I understand the impulse of wanting to make the best of things, especially during rough times. I know, too, how that can veer into toxic positivity. Whatever helps people get through the day. Good for you; not for me.

In college-level or graduate courses, however, our work is not about personal development. Of course, that kind of growth can and should be a by-product of education. But just as I don’t need to broadcast to students my political point of view or embarrassing television preferences, neither do I feel it’s my job to play therapist. I don’t feel I should praise students for bravery in speaking up in class or for making their written work available for feedback. Those are things I expect in an academic setting.

We teach students from their first composition course that they must have a thesis. They need to come up with an idea worth defending and learn how to construct an argument. It’s not about what they feel—it’s about how they think. In academe, we stake out intellectual territory and then defend it.

Creative writing courses are often islands of misfit toys. Students tend to think of the discipline as being somehow less academically rigorous than other classes, and we who teach them try to be more gingerly with their feelings because often that’s exactly what they’re writing about: feelings. But we have to teach them to treat their experiences, especially difficult ones, as the equivalent of research material. If they’re not comfortable writing about something, they should pick another topic.

All writing worth reading takes risks. Every time we put anything into the world, we make ourselves susceptible to the judgments of others. Especially in scholarship, but hopefully in the rest of life as well, we must learn to incorporate criticism and parry unjust thrusts.

When we thank students for sharing their work, we emphasize the emotional aspects of discussion and in doing so give short shrift to analytical rigor.

Of course, students must feel classes are a safe and supportive environment for them to take creative risks. It’s important they recognize that any criticism they receive is directed at the piece or the ideas, not at their personality or life choices. In first-person work, it’s easy to conflate the two, so we work hard in discussions to make sure all comments are grounded in what’s on the page.

“Thank you for sharing” in the classroom is a thought-terminating cliché. It’s a way of validating the experience over the product. I’m sure that physicists and mathematicians do not mutter this phrase, though I remember when a friend told me about a kindergarten teacher who, when a student claimed that 2 + 2 = 5 responded, “Well, not exactly.” When a generation of kids are told they can’t get things wrong, we are setting them up to fail.

Some people will argue that “thank you for sharing” is a good and innocuous place to start. I recently sat in on a workshop in which the leader not only thanked students for sharing their work but had everyone in the class applaud the writer. This created an atmosphere that felt loving and supportive. I suspect the students, especially the youngest, appreciated it.

My approach, which may not be right in these scary times, is to create less a family atmosphere than to help students become more, well, grown-up. I suspect that many who utter the phrase do it reflexively without considering the tone it sets. Instead, I prefer to say something about how I am eager to dig into a discussion of the piece—the parts I admire and the places where I’m confused. We are, after all, in the business of producing the best possible work.

What we are not doing is sitting around in a sharing circle and telling each other our secrets. There are places for that. Just not in a classroom (or department meeting). It is up to each of us to create an environment that shows students what it looks like to engage intellectually.

And, dare I say it, professionally. When we thank students for sharing their ideas, we are not doing them any favors. We’re certainly not helping prepare them for what comes next. Employers are already annoyed with attitudes of entitlement found in young, inexperienced workers in entry-level jobs who expect to be praised and thanked for doing the basic tasks in their work descriptions.

Students are not wrong, in an educational setting, to think it’s all about them: their personal growth, their intellectual development. But that changes the moment they enter the “real world.” Employers don’t want to hear about what applicants will gain from a job; they want to know how hiring someone will make their organization better and their own work life easier.

The liberal arts curriculum is designed to teach students to think critically. But if we treat ideas and academic work like therapy, we send a message that says just putting something out there is enough. Even if it’s not good, not insightful, not grounded in solid research, you will still get a participation trophy.

For many years parents have been telling their children they are beautiful and unique. And they are. But one of the joys of teaching at the university level is seeing how students grow when they get away from their families and confront new ideas and new challenges. Let’s not forget that part of our job is to teach them to talk and act like adults.