The affective issues cliff

Some issues that exist in students’ lives affect their academic performance in ways that are unfair and impossible to ignore – kids and jobs are two massive time-sucks that interfere with schoolwork, but everything from mental illness to changing bus routes in the city mediate how well students do academically. Particularly at community colleges, which exist specifically to serve non-traditional students, teachers have a duty to incorporate some treatment of what we call “affective issues” such as anxiety, work or family obligations, or negative self-image into our courses. The duties can be written into law, as with mandated reporting of suspected abuse (a legal obligation) or simply commonly accepted but not required “best practices” such as accepting late work or generally making yourself available to meet with students outside of class. Then there are the students who don’t have anything that has been recognized as an “affective issue” but are clearly affected away from classwork and towards League of Legends, and not much in our training says we owe these students’ issues any particular redress at all.

In American healthcare, there exists a phenomenon known as the “Medicaid cliff”, which is an income threshold below which you are provided with cheap and reliable healthcare, and above which you are required to buy expensive, complicated private insurance. A lot of people decry the existence of this drop-off in public coverage even if they support Medicaid in principle (that principle being that people who cannot afford health insurance still deserve to live). The cliff comes about because our definition of “poverty” has to end somewhere, and once you’re out of poverty, the government no longer takes an active interest in how you afford to stay alive. Thus, you could have an income of 130% of the federal poverty line and qualify for single-payer health care in the form of Medicaid, or get a raise to 140% of the federal poverty line and suddenly have to buy a private health insurance plan with a $7500 deductible. Pass the magic line and you transform magically from a victim of forces beyond your control to an upstanding and responsible citizen.

Read on if my point isn’t obvious enough yet.

beach blue sky cliff clouds

Photo by Danne on

People justify the existence of such coverage cliffs with cost and deservingness. Naturally, it’s more expensive to the government to cover everyone under a single-payer system, although it’s cheaper for most individuals. When the only point of view you take into consideration is that of income and expenditures from the government, letting most people fend for themselves seems only logical. As a result, in the US, we have a system where people spend more overall, but in a way that satisfies our anti-government ideology by having the spending individualized. We also avoid giving “entitlements” to people who we feel aren’t entitled to them, which is a frightening thought when the service is “treatment for cancer”, but is nonetheless a convincing political argument in the US. Of course, there are political factions that believe that society should never take special measures to mitigate the effects of poverty on health, and that if you can’t afford health care, ipso facto, you don’t deserve health care. The idea of deservingness, which in the US vitiates all public support programs, sometimes also takes the form of means-testing (adding bureaucracy to ensure that nobody receives benefits that they aren’t entitled to) even when the cost of the means-testing outweighs the reduction in spending from giving benefits to fewer people. It might save us money if we just forgot about who “deserves” health insurance, but certain schools of thought in the US claim that this savings would come at the cost of our souls. Therefore, we avoid helping everyone mostly for ideological reasons.

Likewise, the idea of deservingness, as mediated by current understandings of what and what is not included in “circumstances beyond our students’ control”, lead to a cliff-like pattern in the allocation of teacher attention. The types of problems that are classified “affective issues” mostly include obvious pathologies and clear external barriers, but exclude students who have no particular disability or clear obstacle and seem not to deserve countermeasures to their seemingly self-caused lack of success. It would be prohibitively expensive, some might say, in terms of the teacher’s time and energy to take special measures for all the C students who seemingly can do all the work but simply won’t. What I mean to ask here, to put my socialist/determinist cards on the table, is whether can’t and won’t are really different enough to warrant such a steep cliff in how we treat them. If you believe that all human action is caused by factors outside people’s conscious decisionmaking processes, a student who can’t complete coursework due to having 5 kids and a student who won’t complete coursework due to constantly distracting himself seem not all that different.

I’m not going to replay the arguments for determinism here, but I will simply say that if they are correct, students who refuse to listen to classmates’ advice or watch Fortnite streams during class are no more “responsible” for their behavior than any others. What should change when we drop off the affective issues cliff, and students’ problems shift in classification from “not their fault” to “their own fault”, is not the necessity or not of countermeasures, but the appropriate countermeasures. Both students who would fail without accommodations because college triggers long-held anxieties about their own intelligence and students who would get Cs without accommodations because they don’t see the value of meeting abstract goals set by strangers can benefit from intentional, specific or general programs by teachers and schools to serve their needs.

I’m aware that “treating people like adults” or “giving autonomy” itself can be an effective countermeasure for laziness – but I do wish that when we let students sink or swim as a motivating tactic (or a time-saving tactic for busy teachers), we would do so with the awareness that we’re trying to foster good, productive work habits, not simply letting the chips fall where they may in achievement, letting “good” students succeed and bad ones fail.

Speaking of time-saving for teachers, the ability and resources of the teacher/department/school is an unavoidable limiting factor to thinking deterministically about student success. Teachers mostly aren’t trained psychologists or motivational speakers (though many are highly experienced amateurs), able to recognize what shape of key will fit into the mental lock of a recalcitrant C student, nor do we have the time to fashion such a key for every student getting less than an A. The recognition of certain common types of issues such as depression, anxiety, childcare, or poverty has the effect of giving every trained teacher a kind of skeleton key for the heaviest locks, and this is a good thing. What should prevent us from thinking C-students’ achievement levels could all be improved through similar means is just the limitation on our time and expertise, not a magical leap in levels of personal responsibility.

6 thoughts on “The affective issues cliff

  1. It’s a weird balance, this humanism. You want to treat students like people but then if you make allowances for one person and not for another it looks like you’re showing favoritism. And other than treating things on a case-by-case basis, I don’t know how we get around this.

    I’ve never gone ‘zero tolerance’ in the classroom because it is just plain unworkable.

    What I do might not work for others but I normally say ‘This is what you need to do. If you have problems doing this, see me and I will try to help.’ Absolutely not perfect by any means but it stops people taking advantage of other students’ misfortune and inconveniences.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Where I work now, there is a large variety in students’ default educational cultures. Sometimes when I adopt the “available to help” posture, I feel like I’m privileging those whose personality or past education inclines them to do so. On the other hand, if I tell everyone that they HAVE to seek help, I risk overwhelming myself and other people in the system who offer services. It’s hard to find the responsible balance between those positions.


  2. Of course it’s important to develop humane course policies, but it’s also important for instructors to be aware of what resources are available to students on and off campus – i.e., to network with the Dean of Students (or whatever that office is called), the counseling center, disability office, etc. as well as becoming familiar with community resources that might benefit students. For instance, when I was at UConn-Stamford, being able to work with the Dean of Students office was immensely helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • At community college, we advertise all those services a lot, but the majority of students (at least in my experience) never use them, and many who do are already overachievers. Willingness to seek help is, to me, an affective variable certainly worth talking about.


      • What I had in mind was a little more pro-active than simply “advertising” what services were available. For instance, if I were concerned about a student, I might email/talk to the Dean of Students about the issue, and her office would then reach out to the student. So – do you know the people on campus who are involved in these various services? Can you hook students up with them? That’s the sort of thing I was talking about.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I suppose the issues as relate to my post are 1) can the instructor be expected to notice and take these steps for every student who might benefit, and 2) where is the line (the aforementioned cliff) between students who should be referred to such services and those who should be left to take responsibility for themselves.


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