Archive for March, 2011


I have a motto: “I will help you with your needs but not satisfy your whims”. I take it very, very seriously for both teaching and my research.

As teachers we often encounter situations where a student presents us with a dilemma that requires a decision or a punitive act on our part, sometimes individually sometimes in concert with the department or the dean’s office, which may affect the student’s career more or less gravely.

The most common problem that falls under this class of decisive acts is certainly the “late paper”-dilemma. Each semester a league of students will approach a single teacher before or after class, during office hours or shoot her/him an email that, matter of factly, states that they are running late on an assignment, and usually they present some more or less important reason why this situation has occurred.

I generally feel that there is an important set of choices and responsibilities on the students’ part that account for the difference between needs and whims that will guide the decision we will have to make on how to proceed. Some teachers, certainly, are either very rigorous, some are very lax in how they handle this kind of situation. I argue for a more pragmatic kind of decision-making process that has helped me, not just in tutoring but also as a “technology of self” in my writing, discussions, and reflecting on what I need to bring into a situation where I have to make a demand or request on somebody myself.


Let us think about needs/whims in general, before we handle the “late paper”-dilemma, even if we must engage in a very philosophical mode of thinking:

I think we all can agree that a student who is bound to a wheel-chair, because she was born without two functional legs, certainly is not acting on a whim, when she brings it to her teacher’s attention that a class she has to take in order to graduate is taking place in a room on the top-floor of a building without an elevator. She is a student with a genuine need for a solution to a problem that did not occur from the choices she made.

On the other hand, a student who hasn’t attended a single class during the semester nor handed in a paper because he chose to travel South-East Asia’s party-locations with a group of wealthy friends, coming in at the end of the semester demanding that he pass the course because he signed up for it at the beginning of the year, and simply didn’t show up because he felt a need to travel and have fun, does not qualify as a genuine need in the context of his having taken up a university education. He had to choose between two alternatives, and, on a whim, chose travel. This choice means that he has to accept the consequences and take responsibility.

I would say that 99.9%1 percent of university teachers will agree with me on this general argument that says that the student in the wheel-chair has a genuine need and we should do all in our power so the student can attend the class while the student who was travelling, instead of taking classes and assignments seriously, has no claim on successfully passing the grade.

Most of us, however, will have come across cases, in the “late paper”-dilemma in particular, where we have found ourselves confronted with a situation that was less clear to decide, or where we have been wrestling with problems of justice that are worthy of being included in any monograph on moral problems in higher philosophy.


I will not offer a perfect solution in this paper, however, I hope to give some encouraging thoughts to scholars who are, like myself, still in their junior stage and have not really gained a feeling of confidence that many senior colleagues may have attained by sheer experience of hundreds and thousands of such decisions.

Yet, several colleagues of seniority may find my thoughts equally interesting and thought-provoking, and, maybe, rethink their reasoning when faced with a student in need or at whim. Although I claim in no way that the position I present is in any way original. It is merely an effort in making explicit an experience that most senior colleagues will feel they have made aplenty, and, thus, it represents the very practice they are following. If anything, I hope to make the reasoning behind this practice explicit in order to help junior colleagues, and, perhaps, help them decide the more difficult cases they will, undoubtedly, encounter at some point during their teaching career.


All skepticism aside, whether we trust a student’s honesty, when s/he just divulged the saddest story of why s/he had no time to finish an assignment, I think it is safe to say that we all feel enough sympathy with a student who just lost a family member or was genuinely and gravely sick to consider the extension of a deadline.

Indeed, the same situation applies as in the case of the student with the physical impairment. The student/s situation and the choice s/he had to make to skip the paper was determined by external factors that constitute a need.

If the same student had come and said, that there just happened to be a series of parties and s/he postponed the paper several times in a row because of that, well, we can very much and easily say that the student made a choice between parties and working on the assignment, and, therefore, had to be aware that the choice would have consequences and should accept the responsibility.


As we all know, while many things have certainly remained the same for the past few decades – students will always have family crises, illnesses or rough break-ups to deal with-, the everyday lives of students have changed dramatically at the same time. Sure, it is much more difficult for students to keep up all the social networking that we teach students in social science classes about, where we tell them that active networking is the road to professional success. Additionally, the technological demands heightened. It is now over a decade ago that Robert Kegan published his groundbreaking study In over heads: The mental demands of everyday life, at a time when cell phones, facebook, google, etc., were very much in their infancy or not even thought of yet. And boy, was life difficult back then.

However, what has also continued to change dramatically is that more and more students have to work a job while studying. There is simply no way around it anymore, and more often than not these jobs and the related stress that comes with it will conflict with the goals of their university education.

As teachers, we have to account for that as well as we can, and it is not always easy to make the distinction between the students’ needs and whims.

A student working as a pizza-deliverer, as a barista in a coffee-shop and a babysitter at the same time, might find it difficult to hand in a paper assignment, since s/he was offered to take care of a child over the week-end after which the paper was due, and the money for that may help pay for heating the apartment in winter.

How are we to react as teachers to that kind of story, given the student is willing to reveal it when s/he admits not to have finished her assignment?

I know teachers who would simply tell her that she should have taken her laptop and written the paper while babysitting. Personally, I don’t know how easy it may be to write a paper over the crying of a two-year old (although, you might want to try sitting in a city-center Starbucks and try to read a book for an hour or two), or when you try not to get lost in writing so you can periodically check on the child. Thus, we should be scarce on cynicism, and, instead, try and understand the situation of the person. The need to pay for heating is a genuine need and the fact that the student does not have enough money for it probably not of her/his own making.

On the other, we should get suspicious when a student, say at Harvard, tells us s/he had to work all week and couldn’t make the deadline, when we know that this student’s father is a well-known investment banker who not only pays her tuition, but also has donated to the university, bought the student a nearby condo for her/himself and a car.

Imagine you press the student on the matter and s/he reveals that while the parents had provided the money for a tv-set, s/he worked a week at a local store, because s/he wanted to buy a huge flat-screen to impress friends and the parents had thought that the money they had provided for a regular tv was well enough already. It seems pretty clear to me that the student has no real need for a bigger tv-screen, but that instead this present case constitutes a whim that should not affect her decisions regarding her/his education. Or if so, s/he has to accept the responsibility for the choices made and accept the consequences that s/he may have failed.


Of course, above examples are ideal-typical cases for illustrating the extreme poles, and realities we encounter lie in between. Therefore, what is needed is what is found in the German metaphor of Fingerspitzengefuehl – the feeling or, rather, sensitivity we have in our fingertips. In German, this analogy is used when one wants to indicate that a certain decision or task needs us to try and find the thin red line that we will have to walk in order to make the right choice. For example, a political debate on immigration has to be handled with Fingerspitzengefuehl, just the same as telling a somebody that their fiancée has left them.

Whenever the action that is about to be taken has to occur in a situation that is potentially volatile or fragile – and a student’s future depending on how you act upon a late assignment may well be fragile, since failing a student may ruin his/her career or letting them get out too easily may precipitate further violations that will eventually hurt the student even more – then this situation requires Fingerspitzengefuehl.

The analogy is close to perfect because it serves to make explicit a few important aspects of the situation we face as teachers between our students needs and whims and how to deal with them.


First of all, while it is true that in basically every human being the finger tips are among the most sensitive parts of the human skin, not everybody is equally well-equipped with nerve-ends – the physical aspect of sensitivity aka sensors. And not everybody has learned equally well how to process the inputs. Much like the alphabet for blind people. Not only do you have to learn this alphabet, you have to learn to actually sense it with your finger-tips. Europeans can try all the time, since European money features the numbers in this kind of writing. It takes some training to distinguish the different bills using the symbols.


At the same time, if you use your hands a lot, additional skin will grow over your hands and fingers to offer more protection for overused areas. However, this leads to a reduction in sensitivity. The same goes for teaching. If you heard students’ problems to meet deadlines for a few years, you have probably heard every reason a hundred times and “lost sensitivity” to them. This is a fact of life and it can also be helpful. Early in a teaching career you may have suffered with each and every student through their personal problems, their break-ups, sicknesses, stress-related melt-downs, despite the fact that every guide book to teaching and everybody in the learning center told you not to become too involved. But then, these were your first students, and even if the first few semesters of teaching were probably more stressful to you than they were for your students. You may have felt this responsibility on your shoulders that these young people’s futures in some way depend on you and your decisions. However, as much as you worked and invested during your first few semesters as much “thick skin” has grown over your “sensitive spots” since. Even worse, sometimes you end up feeling nothing in your “professional” fingertips anymore because you got burned. If you burn off the nerve-ends in your fingertips, you won’t feel much anymore. The same is true if you got burned as a teacher.

You may have taken part so much in your students lives and that you may have become an ineffective teacher or been so lenient extending deadline after deadline that you have fallen behind on your own schedule that all your students are complaining and your department chair may feel the need to step in or worse you loose the chance to get tenured. Or you literally got burned by individual students who abused your generosity with lies on lies, why they couldn’t meet a deadline, and when you found out that you been played for a fool, you may turn your back on sensitivity to your students entirely.

It is, I think, necessary to use your powers in decision-making wisely and take good care of your sensitivity , your Fingerspitzengefuehl.


The use of the distinction between needs and whims, and the continued practice and maintenance of – or allow me to say: care for – your Fingerspitzengefuehl, is not only called for when dealing with your students. It is also vitally useful in dealing with colleagues, whether in your department, at conferences, or in reviews of your written work.

Interlocutors of all kinds, students, professors, administrators make requests, demands, and criticism we have to respond to in an academic environment. And as obvious as it may seem that some of them are more whims than they are needs (and vice versa), if we do not care for our sensitivity, our Fingerspitzengefuehl, we will often invest a lot of energy in satisfying the whims of others, which in turn will lead to an increased insensitivity towards actual needs of others, simply because we run out of time to handle all those needs and whims simultaneously.

Finally, we should also use this distinction and the Fingerspitzengefuehl in self-reflection. In all our actions as teachers and researchers, it should be our first question, whether we fulfill a need or a whim. In research, Max Weber has defended an idea of what it means to be “value-free” (wertfrei) that is often understood as if he had meant to say that scientists have to have no values at all. On this assumption, many researchers who have reached high positions in the academic food chain have found their legitimacy and nurtured their whims, since they were well-established how could any of their doing be anything but important. But that is not so much what Weber meant. Scientists may have values and these values may determine the needs that the scientist may follow in his or her research, as long as s/he makes these values explicit and let him/herself not be blinded by them when creating the results of the research. Since the results are also the basis of some form of intervention – politically, medically, socially or otherwise – they can never and even should never be devoid of value.

In regard to ourselves as teacher, the same aspect applies. And if experience is any good guide, then we all know that students often have their a very good “intuition” or Fingerspitzengefuehl when it comes to finding out if we as their teachers are doing something merely on whim.


1 Of course there will always be one or the other person making some ideologically motivated claim of some kind or the other, why the paying student has a right to get graded whatever he or she does, and there will always be those who may say a student who can’t attend class is not their problem whatever the reason.


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