Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Make Me Crazy

I was talking with a colleague from a different department today, chatting along about classes and such, and she started in on what poor writers our students are in her classes. And then about what poor students our students are in a more generalized sense; they don't study enough, read enough, aren't smart enough.

I hate this. I'm not perfect, and I'm sure you can find more than one occasion here where I've taken a student or more to task. Some things students do drive me absolutely bonkers.

But I still hate hearing someone put down our students, or students in general, and I especially hate it from faculty folks and graduate student teachers.

First, if you made it into/through a MFA/PhD or other terminal program, you probably aren't a typical student. You're an outlier on the curve of what it takes to get into/through an academic program. (That doesn't mean you're smarter than someone who left the program, though. And it probably guarantees you'll make less income.) That other students make choices you didn't doesn't mean they're wrong or making bad choices, though sometimes people DO make bad choices.

Second, if you read academic histories or read back in notes of department meetings or whatever, you'll quickly learn that from the first classes, instructors have complained about their students not being as good, dedicated, studious, whatever as the instructors were back in the day.

If we take these complaints seriously, then we're on a long slow curve downward, and the end of civilization is nigh. Of course, it was nigh when colleges and universities let literature be taught in English departments, instead of sticking to philology, way back when. And it was nigh when Yale went through its crisis in the early 19th century. (Not So Secret: In private, Ivy profs complain about their students, too.)

If there's any rule in education it's that people in education are always talking about the crisis in education.

Third, have you looked at the papers you turned in as a first year college student? If they're like mine, they'll horrify you. People talk about grade inflation, but it's incredibly hard to tell if the upward trend in GPAs means that we're grading easier OR if students are actually doing better work. Or perhaps we're doing a better job teaching?

Most of the people I've heard complain bitterly about students come from fairly privileged backgrounds. They went to Grand Old Ivy, and now they're teaching at Public School X, or SLAC Y, and they're certain that their students are horrible compared to themselves as students. And they're certain that their students are at PS X or SLAC Y because they don't merit admission to GOI.

There's an assumption here that drives me crazy: some students get into GOI because they're so absolutely outstanding and full of merit that they earned a full scholarship to Grand Old Ivy out of Underprivileged High. But most didn't. Most got in because they had some relatively rare opportunities and did well with them. Acceptance into GOI isn't solely based on academic merit, not when our unbeloved Shrub went, and not now. (Heck, at one time "merit" to get into Grand Old Ivy basically meant you were a white male from a prosperous family. Women weren't admitted, nor people of color, no matter how smart or hard-working.)

Our best students here at NorthWoods can compete anywhere. I know this because they earn some pretty amazing national honors. And they earn them without the benefits of GOI's name on their applications.


There's also the killer problem, the one I don't bring up in conversation with my colleague, Debbie from Grand Old Ivy, because despite tenure, I still retain minimal social skills. Debbie went to GOI, and then GOI2 for her PhD. And yet, despite what she considers her obvious superiority, here she is teaching at NorthWoods U. If she's really all that, shouldn't she be back at GOI with a named chair and all?

The thing is, there are few jobs at GOI, and most GOI phuds, even with all the benefits of the GOI background, aren't going to teach there. And of all the well-qualified, meritorious potential students, a lot won't imagine GOI even as a possibility for application.

I'm not saying that all students are wonderfully studious, or nearly as studious as I might wish them to be. But I am saying that I recognize my own nerdiness/geekiness in surviving in academics, that I recognize that I was disappointing to numerous instructors, that I chose to watch TV sometimes instead of study (or to pretend that I could do both at the same time).

And I recognize that I didn't get to college all or perhaps even mostly on my own merit, but had social advantages and opportunities that a lot of students in my generation didn't have.

So I try to remind myself not to put down my students as a group, but to see that they're individuals, and that their worth and value has nothing to do with their abilities to study, their love of Shakespeare, or their willingness to jump academic hoops for the sake of jumping academic hoops. (Sometimes, I need a kick in the keester to remember, though.)


  1. Grrrrrr!!! Those people drive me absolutely batty! I completely agree with what you posted. In fact, my high school class's valedictorian attended our regional campus of big state school because he received a full scholarship - and he later went on to attend a very good law school.

    And I've seen my early undergrad papers - they are frightening. Especially my occasional attempts at humor in these papers.

    I slacked off a lot, but I accepted the consequences for it (some bad grades). And that is one of the few things that annoys me about some of my students - that when they do slack off or prioritize some other course, they don't want to accept the consequences. But most students are great. And, I always think (but don't say if the power-differential isn't in my favor) if a student isn't writing as well as a professor in discipline x wants, why isn't this professor teaching his/her students the conventions of writing/communicating in the discipline? That, and much as we wouldn't expect a student to know everything about biology after one semester, students aren't going to know everything about writing after that one semester of required coursework.

    Sorry for hijacking the comment for my mini-rant. You hit on one of the things that truly annoy me.

  2. Thank you for this, Bardiac. I find it *intensely* problematic when faculty members get nasty about students - and nasty they do get, to a great degree. This differs from the occasional venting - there's something systemic and *mean* about it. At the uni where I was teaching on FT contract last year, I ran into some people (ahem - head of the faculty association, for one) who spent all. of. their. time. acting persecuted, victimized by students. You know, I think if you're going to bring that much bitterness and hatred to the teaching part of this profession, you shouldn't be in it at all. Period.

    The other thing - and here I'm hijacking, too! - is that there *are*, at least in my Home Province, some measurable ways in which students have been (to appropriate a term) deskilled in certain areas. They come to university unprepared, as a result of changes in the provincial secondary school curriculum since the mid- to late 1990s, by a government that took power in 1995. That's a very bad thing, I think. But: is it the fault of students?? No, it most certainly isn't. So we shouldn't be blaming students for it.

  3. Anonymous9:50 AM

    i love this post! and if the shrub isn't an argument against the alleged high caliber of students in the ivy league, i don't know what is.

  4. Exactly right, all of it, Bardiac.

    And this made me laugh: "because despite tenure, I still retain minimal social skills."

  5. This is a GREAT post. I wish I'd figured this out during my first semester of adjuncting, fresh out of grad school, when I was horrified that my freshman nonmajors didn't take my class as seriously as I did! :)

    (I figured it out, and FAST, but I wish I'd known this to start...)