My Last Social Work Course

As indicated in other posts in this blog and elsewhere, graduate study in social work (especially but not only at Indiana University) had sensitized me to the risk of abusive faculty behavior. I was aware that, at least as much as in other areas of higher education, professors in schools of social work do not necessarily refrain from demeaning, discriminatory, and otherwise unethical behavior toward their students.

As I accrued various unfortunate experiences along those lines, I became convinced that I should pursue my education in some other field. I did return for one last social work course, however, and that course – taken in a summer semester at the University of Arkansas – is the subject of this post.

Engaging the Older Student

The course in question was an independent study. The professor, Alishia Ferguson, and I decided that it would address the topic of “age-friendly cities,” a concept promoted by the World Health Organization (WHO).

My reasons for writing this post can perhaps be introduced by using an email from Alishia. Its full text was as follows:

Ray – I am fine with a reading elective about age friendly cities. I have not meant to be disparaging in any way. I am not upset. I am busy, however, and am not sure why I can’t seem to communicate my ideas to you.

The engagement information and plan would be helpful to me but it’s your independent study; not mine.

It will be convenient, later, to recall that last statement. It was my independent study. But at present, I would highlight the part where Alishia says that she has not meant to be disparaging in any way – and then, almost immediately, states that she is not sure why she cannot seem to get through to me. She had already made similar remarks on several prior occasions. Evidently she did not think I should consider it disparaging if she implied, over and over again, that I seemed unable to understand plain English. I had told her that I had a law degree, but maybe she thought that lawyers would normally consider themselves stupid. My guess is that she wanted to retain the option of disparaging speech, but did not want such speech to be labeled as disparaging.

It was ironic that this professor, in her early 40s, would make such remarks to someone in his late 50s. For one thing, many people (even those who are not prominent members of a professional organization whose Code of Ethics claims to value respect for individuals) try to be respectful of persons considerably older than themselves. I generally got better treatment from random strangers on the street than I was getting from Alishia.

But in any event one would at least expect that a PhD claiming expertise in gerontology would know that older people are often concerned about the risk of losing mental acuity, and also about the potential for discrimination based on an assumption of such loss. The profession’s diversity-resistant academics have apparently reached that level of awareness with some kinds of discrimination, but in this and other instances, consistent with higher education generally, it seems they may still have a ways to go with respect to ageism.

While I found Alishia’s email grating, I did have some background material with which to interpret it. She had previously told me that another student, doing her own independent study, was also failing to understand what Alishia had already communicated to her, and that evidently some further hand-holding would be necessary to help that student get the message. That remark said a couple of things: (1) Alishia might not consider that she, herself, could be the source of such difficulties, even when two different graduate students not familiar with one another voiced similar concerns; and (2) Alishia felt free to disparage one student to another. The latter point could explain why the other student did not reply when I sent her a friendly email message, passing along a link to research related to her independent study: maybe Alishia had given her a comparably unflattering impression of me.

Engaging Alishia

It may seem that I have made a lot out of just a few words in Alishia’s email (above). I hope I have clarified that those few words were part of a larger pattern of behavior that was not very encouraging.

To underscore that, let me expand on one thought touched upon in that email message. My previous communication had not suggested that Alishia might be “upset.” The word I had used was “frustrated.” I did seem to be frustrating her. To illustrate why I might have that concern, her previous email included these remarks:

So. As my niece would say tbh (to be honest), [the document that you sent me] was long Ray. It’s not really what I have in mind. . . .

I’m not sure what else I can say to explain what I had in mind. . . .

I am also ok with the idea of [forgetting about what you are trying to do here in this independent study and instead] simply going back to a reading elective.

In other words, I had written something that I thought she would like, and she didn’t like it. That “long” piece was a blog post I had written, addressing some concerns that arose as I began to examine her age-friendly cities project. The post was about 1,300 words long. According to an online calculator, that would be equivalent to just over three double-spaced pages. I would not have expected a professor to complain that this would constitute an especially long submission from a doctoral student.

I think what she probably meant was that it was three pages that she didn’t want to read because it wasn’t what she had in mind. In fact, her email (above) indicates that she considered it so far off-topic that, as far as she was concerned, I might just as well scrap the work that I had done so far and start over with a different concept for the independent study. That was certainly not what I had expected. As she could see, at this point my blog contained eight posts on the WHO’s age-friendly concept. I had spent weeks reading about that concept, and writing up what I was learning. Why would I want to treat all that as wasted effort? And who was this professor, to suggest that a student’s learning effort was wasting her time?

If I had a student who came to me, expressing an interest in doing an independent study oriented toward learning about gerontology and particularly in being helpful to my own age-friendly project, I would want to assist that student in understanding what I needed; and to do that, I would pretty much have to provide helpful feedback. The feedback would depend, of course, on what s/he was doing. So, for instance, I would sign up to follow the student’s blog focused on age-friendly cities, once I learned of its existence. I might not read every post word-for-word (though I probably would). But at some point I might send an email that said, “Emily, your fourth post is interesting, but I may be able to save you some work. What you are describing has already been analyzed in Smith’s excellent Handbook of Age-Friendly Cities. Why don’t you read chapters 4 and 5 in that Handbook, do a blog post related to those chapters if you want, and then let’s compare notes on your next step?” Emily would know that I was interested in her work, and that I thought her capable of coming up with ideas and perspectives that I had not considered. If her motivation led in the direction of blogging, that would be fine; a person can be as scholarly and thoughtful in that medium as anywhere else. But the approach of letting her go for weeks, ignoring her efforts, and then taking a dump on those efforts when she pointedly reminded me of them – well, what kind of educator would do that?

Engaging Older Community Members

In my case, Alishia knew that my blog was there. In fact, she had praised the first two posts that I had entered, when I drew her attention to them. But there were no further comments. Eventually I realized that she was probably just not reading any of the others. She did not seem to have read the one linked above until I emailed her about it specifically.

That was surprising, and not only because (as just suggested) it seemed that a good independent study instructor might proceed otherwise. Our conversations had given me reason to suspect that, in fact, Alishia did not know very much about the WHO’s age-friendly cities initiative. Some of my work clarified and in some instances corrected some misimpressions she had conveyed. Nor was she alone; it appeared that many people were groping around, trying to figure out how this WHO process was supposed to work. I spent many hours on it. I made a number of inquiries. Some of the things that I was writing did not seem to appear in other literature. Among those, some seemed fundamental to Alishia’s project. Given the haughtiness surfacing in assorted remarks, it was almost as though she was more interested in maintaining a posture of superiority than with learning and proceeding intelligently in her project.

Let us be specific. Alishia’s question for me was, how should a city notify the public of its age-friendly effort? For example, to cite one possibility she mentioned, should the city rent a billboard? I don’t know if she was serious about that, but it was clear enough that she was thinking in terms of marketing: buy an ad, distribute ballpoint pens with the program’s name on them, or whatever. She wanted me to write a paper on “community engagement.” Just review the literature and write an APA-style paper on ways of getting people interested in our project. That’s all she wanted. Simple enough, right?

Well, let’s think about it. In Alishia’s approach, “we” (the academics, the mayor’s office, or other members of the elite) are going to engage “them” (the community, and especially its older people) in the process of making this an age-friendly city. I wonder how that would square with WHO’s view that an age-friendly city will “involve older people throughout the process.” Alishia was clearly thinking in terms of what we were going to do to them: we were going to get them involved, we were going to study them in random focus groups (even if such groups were not appropriate for this project); we were going to report on what we had learned about them. Not too different from classical ethnography, like when some researcher goes off to observe the tribal peoples in their native habitat. Pretty much the opposite of treating the community’s older people as valued participants who would not just be studied but would be actively engaged at all stages, including the planning stage.

Indeed, in our conversations, Alishia was looking directly at an older person, a member of AARP (which functions as WHO’s national partner in the U.S.); this older person was coaching her in what it might mean to make sure that the community’s older people were really involved; and she was finding it irrelevant. You could say there was a rather stark difference between the idea of using a billboard and my suggestion that we begin by meeting with community leaders (e.g., ministers, heads of nonprofits) to identify active older people on their lists of volunteers, and see if they wanted to do their own recruiting among the community’s older people. I honestly did not see how this sort of thought could be irrelevant. If anything (and not for the first time), it felt like I was the instructor, trying to broaden this young person’s simplistic mentality.

The Social Work Professor’s Project

Maybe an explanation for Alishia’s behavior could be identified in her repeated insistence that I had to write an APA-format paper: maybe she did not take blog posts seriously because they didn’t look right. I had already told her that I had published peer-reviewed journal articles in social work. I could have given her a copy of one of those articles, if necessary, to demonstrate that I knew how to write up a proper list of references and so forth.

A look at some of her published work suggested, consistent with her behavior during our interactions, that Alishia was not, by nature, a scholar. She, herself, had obtained her PhD in a distinctly noncompetitive program. She certainly did have at least ordinary intelligence, but would not stand out as an intellectual or professorial type. She was a practitioner, a person who wanted to go out and be active and do things. She did not normally work with doctoral students. She did not seem to have stopped to consider how a student like me might be different from what she was used to. She was obviously not excited about my tendency to sit around and think about stuff. For her, it seemed, the main thing was just to write a document in APA style, because that’s what the funny academic world requires. The substantive contents of blogs are presumed irrelevant because they are irrelevant to the process of acting like an academic. She seemed to think – even in the age-friendly area, which is not remotely dominated by social workers – that academic success means putting what you have learned into expensive journals to which the vast majority of readers (including most social workers) will not have access, and that most social work academics themselves will not read. This is what she was taught; this is what she knew.

Yet an unwillingness to read relevant material, damning for a would-be scholar, is not exactly a strength among practitioners either. Even the desire to just get out there and do things is best fulfilled with reference to books and articles discussing what has been considered and tried previously. Alishia, apparently not wanting to treat a student’s writing as though it could have professional-level merit, thought that I was failing to grasp her ideas. Because she did not read, she failed to see that I had already considered and rejected her approach to her city’s age-friendly project.

Ordinarily, I think, a person would grasp this intuitively. Alishia’s resistance to the concept may have stemmed from her social work education. In schools of social work, one hears of words like “empowerment,” but what one sees is academic business as usual: Alishia models the traditional expert approach, where one person with power stands up front and says what’s what, and students are expected to function as passive receptacles. Even in classes that supposedly engage students in an active learning process, the very structure of higher education generally insures that the professor retains ultimate and usually pervasive control. The idea of training people to be superior to oneself, to be capable of writing and speaking and acting with competence superseding that of the professor – the idea, in other words, that Alishia’s mission is to encourage and steer talent, and to try not to block its growth – did not appear to be what she, or I, had seen in social work education, and it certainly was not what she was fostering in my independent study. It was developing that this study, like social work education generally, was about letting the professor feel smart and tell people what to do.

Revisiting the Course Concept

In our initial conversations, Alishia and I had considered a couple of possibilities for this independent study. There was, first, the option of writing a purely academic paper on some intellectual issue in the field of gerontology. I told her that I was interested in certain matters but that I would like to be helpful to her on a practical level, partly to gain some post-MSW practice experience and partly to add her to the short list of social work academics with whom I enjoyed a mutually rewarding acquaintance.

I was not a 23-year-old who saw the professor and her project as one small and forgettable stepping stone on a path to eventual career glory. I was a 57-year-old who wanted to make each college course a worthy lived experience in present terms. I wasn’t there to get knowledge that I was entirely able to acquire on my own, without a professor’s involvement or interference. As I say, I wanted to come out of this independent study with a valid working relationship with a social work professor.

As just observed, unfortunately, it was not turning out that way. In the first email excerpt quoted above, Alishia was replying to these words from me:

I am concerned that what I intended as a good-faith indication of learning, and of a sincere effort to help out, has instead provoked negativity and disparagement. I have been indulging a minor fantasy of participating in a team effort in terms that you would appreciate and, once I got up to speed, would find helpful. I regret that we are not progressing in any such direction.

Our initial contacts had suggested that she, the other independent study student, her assistant, and I were all going to be working together to advance the age-friendly project. It had then developed, however, that the other student was not responding to my contacts and was also not initiating contact with me, despite clear overlap of interests and learning; that the assistant and I were not going to be involved in anything together after all; and that Alishia herself was expressing frustration with my presumed inability to understand her thoughts.

Not to deny that Alishia might be interested in forming a team that would look good on her vitae – with the mayor, for example, as a member. But the reality for my purposes was that Alishia was a product of the a highly individualistic social work PhD culture, and as such took the same limiting, deskilling approach to my participation that she was taking toward the community’s older people. I had arrived at an understanding of the WHO’s age-friendly concept that was not compatible with her precommitment to a project that would enhance her credentials and make her feel good. For her purposes, my involvement had thus become a burden rather than a benefit.

Despite my frustration, I did try to work with Alishia on her terms. When I saw that she was averse to reading the material that I had worked through in my blog posts, I tried spoon-feeding their key points to her in emails of just one or two sentences. This worked, in a sense: she seemed to respond somewhat positively to the ideas I was advancing. It appeared that I might be able to bring her along to at least a vague understanding of what the blog posts said. But it would take quite a while to boil all that research down into appealing little tweets, and it soon became clear that she would just never count that sort of effort toward my grade because it was not in APA format.

If I had understood at the outset that Alishia did not want to interact with me, I would not have chosen to work on her age-friendly project. As I say, there were other topics in gerontology of greater relevance and interest to me. Indeed, if I had known that my stated objectives were going in one ear and out the other, I would have pursued an independent study with someone else instead. I didn’t need to write another academic paper. In my hundreds of semester hours of graduate study, I have written enough academic papers to sink a ship. I wanted to make a practical difference. This should not be hard for a social work professor to understand and support. But it was.

The Independent Study Contract

As a former corporate attorney with particular experience in drafting agreements, I thought I might know a bit about contracts. Consistent with her approach to the age-friendly city, however, Alishia did not allow me to suggest a structure for this independent study. She just assumed that a contract would be necessary. So we proceeded to relive the common experience in which the person with power uses a binding written document to compound an already distorted and oppressive situation.

There were a couple of facets to this development. First, she made me write the agreement. It was extra work that I did not need. She made me write it with terms that did not reflect what I thought the course should be about. I have already discussed that to some extent; further elaboration follows shortly. And as often happens with contracts, she treated it as a surrogate for a working relationship. I have mentioned that this was a summer course. The interactions described above occurred largely in June. By early July, we had our contract, and that was the end of our communication. I did not hear from her again until early August, at which point she notified me that I had not submitted the paper within her deadline. She didn’t want me, or anything to do with me. She wanted a contract; and once she had that, we were essentially finished. Such are the profoundly dehumanizing messages conveyed in higher education at its worst.

But as it turned out, these objections were not the most telling aspects of our contract discussion. What I found most telling was what happened when I produced a draft contract as requested. The process started with a blank form that she had gotten from somewhere. The words appearing on her blank form are reproduced, here, in boldface. I added some words to fill in the blanks. My words appear here in normal text. Then Alishia added some comments. Her comments are shown here in italics. So a portion of the contract, with its original blank-form words, my text, and her comments, appear as follows:

The purpose of this independent study is to provide an introduction to selected aspects of macro-level gerontological practice in social work.

Objectives of this independent study include development of an understanding of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) concept of the age-friendly community, production of written materials demonstrating such understanding, and application of concepts from such understanding to needs emerging within the Age-Friendly Fayetteville (AFF) project.

How about this as the purpose.

Following completion of this independent study, Ray will be able to discuss options relevant to the current (early) stages of the AFF project and defend a proposed course of action selected from or constructed on the basis of such options.

These are good learning objectives.

In other words, she wanted me to move the objectives up to become the purpose, and she wanted to move the “following completion” items up to become the objectives. But why? Maybe there was a good reason. Or maybe she was another of those social work professors whose concept of grading written work was just to push things around on the paper at random, to invent unnecessary changes that might actually detract from the written product, apparently for the purpose of demonstrating superior knowledge and/or power vis-à-vis the student.

One might begin with the realization that the independent study form was very likely to go into a file and never be seen again. It would probably be wasteful to spend a lot of time agonizing over the contents of this document. The form was probably best seen as a memorialization of an understanding, not as a substitute therefor. As shown above, despite the passage of a month, we had not achieved an understanding, and probably would not succeed in doing so – not if Alishia remained willfully ignorant of the questions and findings that I was articulating in my blog posts. (The reader will recall that Alishia had said that, after all, this was my independent study, not hers.)

That is not to deny that the independent study agreement should be revised, if there were important changes to be made. But what was important about these suggestions? The blank form called for a “purpose,” singular – not “purposes.” It was not clear how the three items I had listed as objectives were more appropriately recast as purposes. Alishia did not bother to explain her reasoning on that point.

And how about her suggestion to move up the “following completion” items, so that they would become objectives? BusinessDictionary.com defines an objective as “a specific result that a person or system aims to achieve within a time frame and with available resources.” What I wrote for the “following completion” items actually seemed less specific than what I had written as objectives, in the sense that the ability to “discuss options” and “defend a proposed course of action” would depend upon the listed objectives. So there, again, Alishia’s unexplained suggestions mystified me.

Given prior experience with professors who mark up papers arbitrarily, I was not inclined to argue. So, functioning essentially as a secretary, I sent back a revision reflecting her suggestions, without further initiative or comment. This produced an interesting result: this time, she sent back a substantial rewrite, accompanied by six paragraphs of explanatory remarks. It seemed that, when I had taken an active interest in getting the document right, she was noncommunicative; but now that I had signaled ineptitude or surrender, she was prepared to jump in with both feet. She had brought me around to an artificially induced passivity – to a “need” for her assistance – and with that in place, she suddenly felt engaged. Here, again, I wondered whether I had encountered, in microcosm, a foretaste of how things would turn out between her and the old people in her age-friendly project.

The Final Outcome

The contract-drafting episode sent discouraging signs about how Alishia would approach my paper. I had already seen that she did not seem to view me as an intelligent, hardworking student who might produce useful insights; that she was decidedly not interested in reading my written work; and that she did not seem very receptive to findings that did not support her preconceived approach to the WHO’s age-friendly cities process. It appeared, in essence, that I was supposed to write a paper that would say things she already knew, in terms that she would consider inferior to the terms she would have used, so that she could correct me.

These thoughts resolved one question that she had posed to me. She had made clear that she preferred a grading arrangement in which I would submit my paper a week early, so that she could correct it and hand it back, and I would then have an opportunity to revise and resubmit before the deadline for summer semester grades. At first, I thought that was a great approach. But now it seemed she might prefer this approach just because it would give her a chance to display intellectual superiority – as though being a professor were a continuation of the quest for praise and approval that keeps many students going through their years of toil. I was not remotely interested in spending numerous additional hours to respond to various make-work criticisms that she might interject.

I had no doubt that a good reviewer could identify a number of medium-sized and possibly several large problems with a paper I might submit. The problem here was that she did not seem well-versed in the age-friendly subject matter, did not seem to approach intellectual issues thoughtfully, and was thus quite likely to be distracted by trivial and even counterproductive “corrections” while overlooking genuine flaws in what I had written.

Hence, I concluded that I could not go for her two-stage grading option. So we agreed that I would submit the paper by August 2, and that would be the end of it.

There remained the question of whether I should submit a paper at all. I did not have any further specific directions in which to take my study: I had already addressed the topic in which Alishia had expressed an interest. That could have been good – it could have meant that my work was more or less done, and all that remained was to reframe the contents of my blog posts in an APA-format paper. But I had really had enough of ill-willed social work professors giving me mediocre grades for work that they, themselves, would not have been able to produce. I had hoped for something better from this professor, and I don’t really know why. Critical thinking was apparently going to alienate virtually anyone who could stomach life in social work academia.

The situation was fairly clear. Even without the obligation of doing a rewrite, my paper was still going to be subjected to the same grading mentality. It would not contribute to any team effort, which had been part of my original concept. It would not be helpful to Alishia, because the indications were that she would reject it – might actually entertain quite a dislike for its supposed irrelevance – unless it said what she already knew or believed or wanted to do.

I hoped that I was missing something. Often, I will come to an opinion and then, upon reflection, will change my mind or at least modify my view. So I gave it a couple of weeks, there in July. This was when I began to realize that she was deciding the question for me. As noted above, there were no more contacts. Once she had her written contract, she was not interested in having anything more to do with me. It continued to appear that I would do a lot of hard work – even if only in the sense of converting my blog posts on various aspects of the age-friendly concept into a single, coherent APA-format paper – for no practical purpose other than to get a grade, and that the grade would be assigned by a professor whose capability was not as evident as her negativity.

On this basis, I decided not to submit a paper. Numerically, of course, it is much worse for one’s GPA to have an F than a B. But in terms of self-respect, one might prefer not to give one’s adversary the satisfaction of rendering a bogus judgment. It appeared at this point in life that the grade would have little significance anyway. Indeed, it seemed rather appropriate to stick this, my last social work professor, with the distinction of being the only one to give me an F in all my years of graduate education. There tends to be a story behind such a grade, and now I have told it.

Alishia did give me an F. She seems to have been quite comfortable doing so. And why not? She was a social worker, and she had her contract. That, I guess, is what social work practice is about, for a lot of people: manage the bureaucracy, get the paperwork in order, and assume that somehow the right thing is being done in the end. So no, she did not express any grief, concern, hesitation, or puzzlement, as I believe the large majority of good educators would do. She sent a bloodless email noting that I had missed the deadline, and giving me one extra day. But by then I was in my tent in Kansas.

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