Making people uncomfortable is education’s job

Rick MacLean comments@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on November 28, 2015
Holland College logo

“Oh no,” he asked. “Did I get fired?”

I smiled.

“You did,” I said as I reached for the Sharpie fine point marker with the red ink I reserve for such special occasions.

“FIRED,” I wrote on the story the student had, no doubt, worked on so industriously.

His crime? He’d spelled a name wrong. In my business, a reporter who gets a name wrong doesn’t have much of a future punching computer keys. If you get the name wrong, what else is wrong in your story?

The student took the piece of paper, turned and left my office. Just outside my door he held it aloft.

“I got fired!” he proclaimed to a room full of his colleagues. They cheered and began clapping. Nearly all of them have been there before.

More than 15 years ago, I traded in my chair as the editor of the newspaper in New Brunswick for one here as a journalism instructor. One of the first things I did was order a box of red pens at the bookstore. The Pilot G-2 with a 07 point and a soft plastic sleeve to cushion the fingers.

Nothing else will do. I go through at least 12 a year.

“A red pen? Red ink?” another teacher asked me with a look of dismay when I mentioned my marking tool of choice. “Oh, that’s rather aggressive.”

My point exactly.

I believe teaching, at the college level at least, is professional training. My job is to prepare the people who pay me, the students, for life in the workplace. The Real World.

The RW can be a heartless place. People want what they want, when they want it. They don’t much care about your personal problems. Either you can do the job, or you can’t. They’re not interested in the in-between.

 That means the education I help to provide must prepare them for that. Students who don’t do the work are sought out and an explanation is demanded. Poor work is called exactly that. Not showing up for class – work, I call it – why?

“I slept in.”

That one draws a look over the top of my reading glasses that says one thing – “You’ve disappointed me.”

There’s a box of Kleenex right next to my red Sharpie and box of red pens. The box is usually empty by the end of each school year.

Education is supposed to challenge people’s assumptions, about themselves and their world. And that can be uncomfortable.

So when I see something like the recent action by the University of Ottawa student union - cancelling a yoga class set up to help students cope with stress because it’s linked to “oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism” - I shake my head.

Yes, the world is unjust. And students should fight to make it better. But trying to create a little bubble where no one’s feelings ever get hurt? That’s not education.

I’ll stick with my red pen. And when a student, whatever their skill level, is doing their best, the praise will come early and often.

And I’ll continue to treasure the notes sent via Facebook from graduates now succeeding in their lives. The stories they’ve done. Jobs they’ve accepted. Children they’ve had. The struggles they’ve faced – in the Real World.

 

Rick MacLean is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown