Ok, so I've somehow gotten back into the habit lurking on the Chronicle's forums, and in particular I've kept up with my regular blog reading, and it's that time of the semester when professors, burdened by grading, like to complain about how the college students of America have no skills, no respect, no attention spans, no brains, no commitment to becoming educated, no curiosity, whatever.
This shall not be a post in which I say any of those things.
Instead, I want to think about what I actually see in my classes, and about some of the underlying assumptions that often guide such professorial complaints. This isn't to say that I'm not a complainer in my own right, but I often find myself baffled at the complaints that others wage and the vitriol with which they wage them. (It should be noted that I don't think that the Chronicle Forums are perhaps the best index of anything about teaching, as they seem to attract a lot of disgruntlement. But whatever.)
Complaint #1 - Abuse/misuse of technology in the classroom: Texting, cell phones ringing, and laptops, oh my!
Well, is true that back in olden times when we were students that none of these were an issue. But there are two things that get me about this complaint. First, I have fond memories of my studenthood in the dark ages of totally not paying attention in class. That's right. I was not totally attentive. In a fair number of classes, sometimes even ones in my major. I would do reading for other classes, doodle, nod off, write notes, make notes for papers that I had coming due, do the crossword in the student newspaper, daydream, make lists of things to do. Now, if I had the technology, would I have been guilty of the abuse/misuse of technology in the classroom? Who are we kidding? Probably I would have. I like to think that I would have avoided some of the more egregious displays of such abuse/misuse, for those are disruptive, and really, not paying attention while still appearing to be a good student is a fine art that really does require some subtlety. But at the same time, would I have been guilty of the laptop offenses (checking email, doing research for another class, working on another paper, etc.) if I had the power to do so? Of course I would have if - and this is the crucial part - I knew that I didn't need to pay attention (a) or I was bored out of my skull by the class (b). One can put all the policies one wants on a syllabus, but the real trick of encouraging students to engage and to maintain focus isn't about saying that you'll confiscate their cell phone - it's about making it advantageous for them to turn it off and put it away. I've got to say, I don't even have a cell phone policy on my syllabus, let alone policies related to anything more specific. And yet I somehow don't have problems with students engaging in these behaviors in my classes except for in rare cases. (I think twice I've caught students texting, and I stand over them and stare until they're red in the face. That nipped it in the bud. Cell phones ringing? Same thing - class stops, we all glare at the person, and it doesn't happen again. I'll admit, though, that I typically teach small classes, so they know that I *see* them. As for laptops, I think students are only just beginning to abuse this in my courses since most don't have them and many don't have even their own computers, but as long as they're not disrupting others? Well, it's their grade, and I suppose they can torpedo it if they choose.)
Complaint #2 - Abuse/misuse of technology outside the classroom: Email.
Ok, I'm going to admit, this used to be a huge complaint of mine. Huge. The inappropriate emails, the rude emails, the emails filled with demands and entitlement, etc. ad infinitum. But I only rarely get an email that is truly awful now. Again, I don't have grand policies about email etiquette on the syllabus - I've just gotten very good at keeping perspective with email. Student emails after business hours on the night before a paper is due? Well, I don't need to respond. Student sends long and whining email of excuses? I respond only to the question that is being asked, with perhaps a brief nicety thrown in. (This was one of the best pieces of advice that I got from a colleague: only respond to emails when they need something from you.) I've also gotten really good at copying and pasting portions of the syllabus into emails. The point is, if you do all of these things enough, word gets out and students no longer come calling via email in large numbers or in inappropriate ways. It's like magic.
Complaint #3- Students don't take advantage of office hours.
I don't know who your students are, but mine sure do, and I teach at a campus that has a ton of commuters and where students typically work full-time or close to full-time. Make the assignments challenging, and encourage them to come, and they make appointments. Not all of them, obviously, but a good many. If they never come, they either think it won't be helpful (a) or they don't need your help (b). Or you've scheduled your office hours at a ridiculous time and don't make appointments outside of that time, which sends a message that you don't want them to come, which maybe you don't, but then you can't really complain about their lack of initiative.
Complaint #4 - These kids today can't write!
Oh lord. Where do I even begin with this one. I suppose the first thing that I'd say is that if you teach them how to write, they will write passably well. Now, it may be true that students used to come into college more prepared for the writing that was expected of them. But is this the fault of students? Of technology (on which this is often blamed)? Of the fact that these good-for-nothing Millennials have been cosseted and babied to the point that they can't do anything properly for themselves on the first go around? Gah! No. It's none of these things. First: We've got to look to K-12 and what kinds of writing have been emphasized in all but college prep (AP) courses, which is typically not "academic" writing. This has to do with NCLB and the culture of testing that grows out of it. Now, does this mean students "can't write"? I'd argue no. I'd argue they're actually better at a lot of writing skills that previous generations of students needed to work on, like understanding audience, like finding their own writing voice, like writing descriptively and creatively. Between blogs, Facebook and Myspace pages, email, texting, and IM, I'd wager that students today do a lot more daily writing than most students of yesteryear did. The problem is, the writing skills that they develop out of those writing activities aren't the ones that academic writing typically values most highly. And thus, there is a disconnect between what professors expect (an extended argument, logical organization, a formal tone, adequate and proper citations, analysis) and what students have learned how to do. And then you say, oh, but first year writing is supposed to take care of this! Well, to some extent it can. (I've got lots of reasons why I think it doesn't, but I'll leave that be.) But remember: most people teaching first year writing are either literature specialists or comp/rhet specialists. We don't actually know the intricacies of writing within other disciplines. So guess what? Most of us focus on what we know best. Which means people within the disciplines lament that students don't know how to write a philosophy/chemistry/political science/whatever paper. The deal is, with the way it's currently set up, it's really on you to teach them how to do that. All first year writing is doing is making up for the fact that they didn't learn how to write with research at all in high school. But it's not the students' fault that any of this is the case, and it's not that they "can't" write or that they don't have the capability of learning to write effectively in an academic context.
Complaint #5 - Lack of intellectual curiosity/unwillingness to engage
This is one of those situations in which we've got to remember that the vast majority of our students are not future academics and that we can't really measure them by our own experiences. I have a hard time believing that a whole generation of people is less innately curious or more recalcitrant than the generations that came before it. I think that they often have many more distractions than I had when I was a student, and I think that they are much more likely to think of themselves as "consumers" of education than they are to think of themselves as students. But they do have curiosity, if they can find the room for it in their overbooked schedules. Part of my job, I think, is to find ways to instigate (notice I don't say inspire) curiosity in my students and to trick them into engaging. And while it's true that I don't think it's possible to do that for all students, I do think it's a valuable goal. And part of learning to do that has been in realizing that they're not just going to be into stuff because I'm into it, or because it challenges them, or whatever. They are not the student that I was. And you know what? That's not a failing in them. It's just a fact.
Complaint #6 - Grade-grubbing/students as consumers, aka "I just want the piece of paper so I'll get a better job."
You know, I don't really think that going to college for increased economic opportunities is wrong. That's why I went. I did not go to college thinking that I'd pursue Knowledge and Truth and Enlightenment there. I went thinking that I'd get a journalism degree and that I'd make more money than my high-school-educated parents. Any sort of "education" that happened would be a bonus, really, and was not ultimately the point. I suppose given the fact that this is my own background, I really think it's wrong to malign students for wanting the same things that I wanted. I'd rather focus on giving them the bonus of the education than on lamenting the fact that it's not their raison d'etre.
So I need to do loads of things, as I'm going to NYC tomorrow with Mommy for her birthday. But what other complaints can you think of that we should really just chill about? There've got to be more, and I feel like the list of things that we can let go might help us all to destress a bit at this end-of-semester time :)
4 years ago