Wednesday, April 30, 2008

These Kids Today! (*Shakes Fist*)

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 :)


Feminist Avatar said...

Ooh, I overheard a conversation yesterday that went something along the lines of students- no intellectual interest, no energy, no ambition, no general knowledge, no desire to learn- and rather meanly (given that I can moan with the best of them) I kind of thought if your students are that apathetic may be you're not engaging them. I don't find that to be true of my students, especially once you find ways to get them interested.

My biggest complaint is students who don't do reading- because while I know that a lot of running a class is down to me- I can't do it for them.

ceresina said...

So I (a) usually agree with you (and so don't comment) and (b) didn't actually read the forums you did, but I do get annoyed at the grade-grubbers (#5). However: it's not because I think students shouldn't be getting a diploma *merely* to improve their employment chances. No, I get annoyed at grade grubbers because they ask for a good grade for reasons other than "I earned it by participating as required in the class." Tuition doesn't pay for a degree, it pays for the opportunity to earn a degree (consumer model); and if the student needs certain grades to get into med school/get hired as management/etc., s/he needs to earn them by doing the work, not by arguing a la Cher Horowitz (employment model).

dr zombieswan said...

I second the complaint above about students not doing the reading. I have cut back because they weren't doing the reading and found that in cutting back, they cut back too. A simple poem will not get read before class. That's very frustrating because if that's what we're supposed to talk about and no one has read it, it's very difficult to talk about it. And then, if those students who haven't done any reading get a grade by the end of the semester they don't like, they want all kinds of "extra credit" opportunities to increase their grade. I give them some ideas, but they're mostly things they ought to do anyway.

For me, it's mostly that even in the classes I didn't dig in college I tried to figure if I was there, I ought to do something. And at least not be disruptive. This is my biggest complaint, but I generally don't have a huge problem with it either. I handle most disruptive students (the ones, say, talking to a peer) with humor and usually it doesn't happen much.

Oh, that and crappy works cited pages. How hard can those be? There are even programs that will DO IT FOR YOU. Come on.

Dr. Crazy said...

On not doing the reading:
You know, I didn't do the reading for a fair number of classes in college. I was smart enough to get away with it most of the time. Tricks for getting at least some students to read:

1) Reaction papers that you collect throughout the course of the semester.
2) Requiring them to come to class with 3 or so questions/insights about the assigned reading.
3) Random quizzes.
4) Have a certain group in class responsible for discussion for each class meeting.
5) Call them out on not having read, dismiss the class and charge them with an absence. (I have it in my course policies that I will do this.) I like the line, "I can't teach people who aren't prepared to learn. Get out of my sight." And then I begin packing up, silently. Obviously you must say this in a very steely and quiet voice for it to be most effective.
6. Do group work in which they can figure out the reading together first before doing full-class discussion. This is helpful especially with poetry, I find, or with getting them to talk about specific things like characterization in a novel or play.

Assigning less reading doesn't help because the point is that if "all we're going to do is talk about the reading" that's not enough incentive for them to read. Somebody else in class will do the reading, or if nobody reads then the professor will just talk. If they know they're going to do more than "just talk about the reading" with the reading, I find they actually do more of their reading. I figure C students who always come to class do about 60-70% of the reading that I assign and A students do somewhere between 80-90%. And you know what? When they don't read it usually is just that they're busy. Since that's the case, I don't really get mad at them for it. It's not about me.

k8 said...

I would just add this: Those who complain about student writing need to remember that, in most cases, we only have students for 15 weeks. In 15 weeks I wouldn't expect a student to be a completely competent biologist/chemist/historian/etc, so there is no reason to expect a student to understand all there is to know about writing in a mere semester.

The not reading issue bothers me, but that's why I use journals/response assignments.

And I agree - those forums can take a vicious tone not unlike rate your students (a site I'm not particularly fond of). People who have this much contempt for there students should probably consider a different career.

The_Myth said...

The other side:

Much of what many of you are doing is making excuses for students who [may or] may not be qualified to be in college.

And I'm not talking social class here, but preparedness.

Yes, many of us were able to goof off in class and not do the reading et al. ad nauseum. But, we *were* grad school material in waiting. We were not Jerry Just Passed High School looking for a diploma. We were able to quickly learn despite our procrastination and distractions.

The population of students has changed a bit in the past 10-15 years. And I am quite sure that's where much of the frustration comes from. To simply dismiss others' concerns as petty and self-involved ignores some of the very real issues lurkin beneath the surface.

If Professor X is able to get evals saying "Best class ever; I learned more here than any where at school" from Student A and "borng clas, proff hatd me" from Student B, there is a real difference being evinced here.

Dr. Crazy said...

See, I'd say I'm not making excuses for students at all (and actually, I don't think the commenters are either, but rather that painting students as a bunch of louts ultimately is a way of excusing ourselves when we don't teach them successfully).

This post was about talking about how, for my own sanity, I find that it really helps to chill about a lot of this stuff. I'd also say that clearly the students are "qualified" by whatever today's standards are, in that they are sitting in my classes. The whole "these students are not qualified" ship has sailed, I'd say. They've been let in. They're not going anywhere. And right on, because I actually do believe in open access to higher education. Moaning about how underprepared our students are in comparison with some ideal rather than teaching the students that we've got seems like a waste of time to me. Also, I feel like the students I teach are a whole lot like the students with whom I went to school. Of course, I teach at a mediocre state university and I did my undergrad at a very similar institution, so that probably does make a difference in my ability to accept the slackers and the dummies and the overcommitted ones for whom school is not their first priority.

It's not that I think that people's concerns about students are petty and self-involved, though, and I do want to be clear about that. At the same time, I think dissing students as being morons or aliens or something that are so different from those mythical excellent students of years gone by is wack and ultimately not terribly useful.

k8 said...

Myth - Well, I think there is a difference between discussing how to work with these students and the way(s) some instructors talk/write about these students.

Yes, the population has changes during the past few decades. Learning how to work with students who might not be as prepared as we were (if we really were - I know I wasn't it) can be frustrating. For me, the problem is with the tone of some of these discussions. The bitterness and bile is not productive. It doesn't help anyone move towards ways to work with these students.

Additionally, based on my academic and personal knowledge of the ways tracking in public schools works and doesn't work, I don't want to dismiss or blame students for their lack of preparation.

By the way, I was lucky to pass certain subjects in high school. Combine smart (and bored of my ass) with undiagnosed learning disabilities and the result can be a student under-prepared in how to do school who is also intellectually capable of learning in college.

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh,and I should probably note that when it came to my math/science requirements in college I goofed off, didn't do the reading, didn't go, didn't do homework, and I got the C's and D's I deserved. I'm sure that those professors would have been *shocked* if they talked to profs in my major, and I'm sure that they thought I was Crazy Just Passed High School looking for a diploma. The point is, maybe they just aren't into that particular class. And maybe the fact that evals aren't uniform has nothing to do with lower quality students being admitted but rather with the fact that Student B just totally wasn't into that class and texts a lot? That's not excusing the student - only noting that perhaps it's not evidence that some great sea change has happened.

negativecapability said...

The people on the chronicle fora scare me sometimes. Especially the hu-sayers.

Belle said...

I have conversations regularly with classes about how to get them to read the assignments. They usually come back with 'reading quizzes that count.' They hate them, but they do admit that's about the only way to get 'em coming in ready to go.

Another issue is to whom we teach. One prof I had in grad school said he only aimed at the top 25%; the rest were ignored. Another expanded that to the top third. Those were at R1s, big state universities. I know (and remind myself constantly) that I'm a geek, and that what motivated me is not what motivates most students. I tell them that too; but I want at least 60% of the class actively engaged. This is the second time I've actually achieved that, and the students are over the moon at their own learning.

There are times when it just rocks to teach.

Brigindo said...

Amen...great post and great comments. I totally agree with the idea that you need to teach to who is in front of you not a mythical student from yesteryear or the student you were.

Doctor Pion said...

You rock, as always.

Your suggestions in the comments on how to get them to do the reading work just as well if turned into "get them to come to class prepared". Very valuable, since you use a few that would not occur to me in my field ... but could work.

On complaint #4#4 (you have two number 4s) about curiosity, I could not agree more. It is part of our job, and I have found one way to make it Job One by presenting something on Day One that helps convey my passion for one part of the subject that is directly relevant to most of their careers.

On complain #1, I object to activities (like listening to a friend on a bluetooth Borg phone and laughing at a joke) that are unrelated to school. I don't mind when they are doing their calculus homework while in my class, since I know they are doing my homework on the computers in their calculus class. ;-)

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for noticing the 2 #4s :) I'd never have caught it myself :)

I'm glad that the reading suggestions seem workable for you, too, since we're in such different fields. I'll tell you: I only figured out most of those in my current gig, and I'm not even sure that other profs in my field would engage some or all of them depending on institution type. That said, I think that my students (although I'm at a 4-year) are not unlike yours at a 2-year, and so you may have some luck if you try some out :)

Also, I hear you on what you say about a student listening to a friend on the phone and laughing, mainly because it's disruptive. If a student in my class did that, they'd get the Stare-Down-of-Texting. And probably a quite stern talking-to. Not because they weren't in love with the course content, though, but because it was distracting others and disrespectful. But yeah, if they're doing work for another course (in my case it's usually trying to study for an exam from notes or flashcards while I lecture) I tend to ignore them, again, as long as they're not disruptive, because I'm sure they're working on my stuff in that other prof's class as well. And hey, if they miss something important? That's their problem, and not mine to freak out over.

Dr. Crazy said...

Actually, I think that what you describe with the student on the phone is not unlike how I'd respond to a couple of students chatting it up in the back of the room and laughing. That is my HUGEST pet peeve. In my first semester on this job I "ignored" it and it was a disaster. Now, I'm stern, stern, stern, and they don't do it. Ignore me if you want, but don't distract me or the other students, I say.

Jennifer said...

I'm just a long ago student (found this via Geeky mom) but your description of disruptive students vividly reminded me of a statistics lecture many years ago.

Started out with a bit of murmuring from the back. Ended up with a torrent of paper aeroplanes from all sides of the lecture theatre and the lecturer getting so made he started running towards the culprit before being nearly strangled by his microphone cord.

He was a bad lecturer, in an introductory course that was mostly for non statistics students. But it was a very reputable university (in Australia). I'm sure disruptive students have been around since the days of Isaac Newton.