Tuesday, August 05, 2008

An Article Maybe Not to Write: Flaming Anti-Student Bullies

I have been telling myself that I should not write this. Might upset some folks and lose some consulting work. I used to tell myself that I should not write anything this because as a college president I could have a revolt leading to trouble with trustees. When I was a dean I did not write this because I knew I would never become a president. When a faculty member I did not write this because I did not want to be ostracized and lose promotions.

What paranoia just over expressing an opinion. Get a hold of yourself. There is no reason for that level of paranoia what with academic freedom and the intellectual community always seeking new ideas and discourse. We are a polite community of scholars and colleagues all seeking truth and genuineness of thoughts, not some tribunal judging Galileo.
But I am also firmly aware of two adages quite common to academia. The first, no good deed goes unpunished. The second is in the form of a riddle. Why are battles in academia so fierce and vicious? Because there is so little to be won.

But if I do not speak now, I will have lost to a group of bullies which is what many of us appear to be when it comes to our thoughts about our students. A group of bullies who make the rest of our good and dedicated colleagues look small and mean.

If one reads the articles, letters and blogs that refer to students, it appears that many, too many of us not only feel our students are slovenly, dumb, uninterested and rude but they are below our contempt and brilliance. We seem to feel it is open season on them and we can take any shots we wish.
It is nothing new to have some condescension toward students. After all, who has not heard the oft quoted joke that this would be a great place to work if it weren’t for the students? And I believe if we look just a bit into even the classics, we will see that Plato’s Young Socrates was not always portrayed as a bright young student.

Students had always been seen as what they are. Young minds to be molded and enriched through our teaching and care. As we were at one time in our educational lives. But recently, the discourse on students seems to be saying that students are too far below us for us to even try to educate them. And the tone of the discussion is mean and malicious. Not quite the scholarly discourse we all claim to respect and desire.

When I first started to recoil from offensive comments, I had attributed them to the context or the media source. In my work as a consultant with colleges and universities on increasing retention through improving academic customer service, I was not entirely surprised when someone would complain that students are rude or disrespectful in class. Students coming to class late, answering cell phones, walking out, napping or searching the web during lectures was a common complaint as it should have been. Students should not be doing any of these things but then the question comes up, who is at fault?

It’s the students’ fault is the immediate answer. There is some logic in that response since they are the perpetrators. Yet, that’s not the complete answer I fear. It may even more the fault of faculty member for allowing any of these behaviors beyond the first occurrence. It is for the person at the head of the room to determine allowable behavior and then enforce that behavior. If a faculty member does not want people entering the class late; don’t let them. If one does not want people answering cell phones in class, have them all shut off. If someone is bothered by people sleeping in class, wake them up either by quietly going to them and explaining that this is not an appropriate place to sleep or by making the class worth staying awake for. If a student does not want to abide by your rules, he or she can choose to leave or that choice can be made for the student since these are rules for the whole class, not one person alone.

But I will get in trouble if I enforce rules of decorum. Students will go and complain about me or give me a bad evaluation. To be sure if someone enforces rules in a manner that singles someone out or embarrasses him or her, that person may complain. That’s may as in perchance but not as in will. Big difference. The other most common response is that the administration will not support faculty who enforce the rules. Again, generally wrong. Certainly there are some administrators who do not want students complaining to them but they are more in the folklore of academia than in offices. Most administrators will indeed be supportive of all faculty who care enough about teaching and learning to set rules of decorum and will support them. They will not and should not support anyone who uses the rules to bully or belittle students.

Decorum is for students but must also be for those of us who work with them.
If the rules are spelled out the first day, printed in the syllabus and applied with respectability, the odds of a student complaining are actually quite slim. In talking with thousands of students each year, what I hear is that they will complain if the faculty member is mean-spirited or cruel.But if they know the rules up front, they usually want them enforced because they are also the ones who are hurt by poor behavior. Moreover, since students know faculty control the final grades and their future, they will put up with quite a bit, even some abuse. But for the faculty who feel that Paper Chase’s Charles W. Kingfield is a role model, the story may be somewhat different.

But faculty are not that unkind or cruel. They would not have such negative thoughts or make rude comments to students. Just like this commenter from the blog University Diaries in response to a posting entitled Scathing Online Schoolmarm in which someone who simply lists him or herself as SOS takes to task the Letter to the Editor originally printed in the Bolder, CO Daily Camera. In it, Lena Antman, a student who provides her full name and is willing to be known for her comments unlike the cowardly SOS who hides behind a nom de cowardice, complains that she did not learn anything at the University of Colorado. But does SOS or the following commenters say hooray, a student who wants to learn more. No. SOS tries to take her apart as a good pedant would and MD (another towering example of the anonymous bravery we with academic freedom and tenure have) makes the following statement.
If students who didn’t want to be in class dropped out we would have much smaller class sizes, amenable to better discussion. Professors would have more time to help students who actually care if they can make a sentence. I encorage (sic) students who feel this way to leave the university. After all, they already know everything. They should do just fine. The classroom and campus would be a much better place for everyone else. MD, at 8:00 am EDT on May 2, 2008
All she did was say she wanted to work harder and learn more! Yes she had complaints and perhaps some were overstated and some justified. But isn’t this the sort of student we should all want and encourage? Should you believe that SOS and MD were alone, fear not. They had company. Here is what brave soul The Myth had to add.
But Veruka wants her OOmpa-Loompa NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOW! ...Why should she WAIT to get EDUCATED, which o (sic)her generation is the simple amassing of factoids and self-esteem, and not gaining expertise and training in thinking, writing, reading, and analyzing. This same student attitude is rampant across the country. Our country is doomed. The_Myth, at 8:30 pm EDT on April 17, 2008
I fear The Myth is right. If we can read a student letter that says I wanted to learn more and then attack her for that desire, we may well be doomed. If we have such negative attitudes about our students that MD, SOS, The Myth and others commenting on Ms. Antman’s letter show when we attack them for wanting to do what we say we want them to do, we are in trouble.

Open Season on Students?
More and more it seems that it is open season on students for some in higher education. We even sue them for thoughts and comments we do not like such as is being done by Richard J. Peltz a law professor at the University of Arkansas. At Dartmouth University, Priya Venkatesan a lecturer in writing filed suit against seven students who applauded another student who disagreed with her in what may have been a forceful manner. Peltz is suing a group of African American students charging them with defamation. Prof. Peltz maintains that some of his comments in a class about affirmative action were used inaccurately to accuse him of racism. And that would tarnish his reputation. The details of the suit should be left to the litigation but what was even more disheartening were the comments academics sent in response to the article. Once again, under the safety of anonymity and pseudonyms, students came under attack.
…empty rhetoric of the immanent defensibility of always-innocent students who may or may not even care about what is said in the classroom, or who may not even care if they leave college better educated than before arrival …

…near-rampant boorish behavior by students, …

….today’s student. They lack maturity and critical thinking skills to understand what is being conveyed in the classroom.

…“Perhaps this suit will teach students the limits of free speech, something many of them do not seem to understand

A student who had been to class a grand total of 4 times that semester responded with, “This guy has no idea what he’s talking about …

Students do not have the maturity or perspective to evaluate a professor…

…students can “behave” as they wish, “say” what they wish and never suffer any consequences.
Yes there were a few comments out of the 38 that could be seen as defending the students. But, it is interesting to note that even some of those respondents were then attacked for not realizing how stupid students and they really are.

The Dumbest Generation
Now there is a whole book that seeks to prove that the current student population is the dumbest yet. Mark Bauerlein’s book The Dumbest Generation works hard to show that this current student population is wasting all the advantages it has and is “camped in the desert, passing stories, pictures, tunes, and texts back and forth, living off the thrill of peer attention. Meanwhile, their intellects refuse the cultural and civic inheritance that has made us what we are up to now” (p.10). Considering what we are now, there are many whom might argue that they may be right to reject it. Moreover, the argument begins with a belief that there is a cultural and civic inheritance that is the basis for determining intelligence and intellect.

It is clear from the canon wars in academia as well as the culture wars of our society that this is a false assumption. There is no agreement at all over what is “good” culture; what is the right (or left) social and civic knowledge. There simply is not any agreement, nor has there been any concurrence of what makes a learned person. Yet, the critics of today’s students know students are neither learned nor even capable of becoming so because prior to entering college they do not know some of what we learned in college and graduate school.

For example, Bauerlein attempts to prove through studies and surveys that students watch too much television and do not read enough. Or if they do read, they read the wrong things. This is not a revolutionary statement and simply replicates every study that has been done since Uncle Milty hit the airwaves. And as for reading, outside of the future English majors, this has been a constant complaint of all adults. But this generation does not deserve that complaint really. They read quite a bit but on-line. Even Bauerlein’s studies establish that. Moreover, a Nielsen On-Line study in June 2008 found that college age students are reading more than they may ever have read in the past; twenty-five hours a week, but on-line. And much of that time is spent reading blogs, on-line news and other informational sites.

So the issue is not that they don’t read, but they don’t read what we believe is good such as reading Twelfth Night by Shakespeare according to Bauerlein. Quoting Scott Carlson in a October 7, 2005 Chronicle of Higher Education story, he asks ‘whether or not they are absorbing the fine points of the play (Twelfth Night) is a matter of debate.” Is knowing the fine points of one of Shakespeare’s comedies an indicator of knowledge? If so, most everyone but English majors who read Twelfth Night and critical essays on it may fall into the dumb category. They may not know the fine points after all. And many of the parents and grandparents of the current professoriate couldn’t even read English so I suppose they would have had real trouble with
Twelfth Night. Boy, what dumb people incapable of learning those immigrants must have been.

Buauerline also makes some grand assumptions that would be supported by many of the student critics on college campuses today based on our own internal biases of what is knowledge, cultural and civic inheritance. He finds for instance that students fail the Jay Leno test of not knowing the answers to simple questions like “where does the Pope live?” and “How many stars are on the American flag?” And when the young people do not know the answer that is proof they are dumb.

Just as when we, in the 1960’s went around and asked adults to read the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence. The people who read it thought it was some Communist propaganda. I guess they were dumb and funny too.
And those who retain their belief that Barak Obama is a stealth Muslim against all the evidence, they are just hilarious I guess. What’s even funnier is that some of those may teach and believe that students are too dumb to learn.

Yes, these are simple anecdotes but so are many of the proofs used to claim students are incapable of collegiate study.

The tests that the students are dumb proponents use are based on their own presumptions of their own ability, learning, as well as self-centered assumptions about what is good and appropriate knowledge. If students are not as smart as they are, they are dumb. Their assumptions are obviously invalid. Moreover, the language and emotion poured into proving students are un-intellectual, lazy and unworthy of we who teach them is so excessive and so heavy handed as to disprove the anger and negativism of the assertions.

Perhaps some of it is just the times we live in and the result of the everyday flaming, the ad hominem attacking that takes place on the internet and blogs. The anonymity granted in the on-line media allows for a few people to attack and let out their baser thoughts and feelings without fear of reprisal. That could be but if that is true, the comments on students that appear then do display a deeper more fundamental attitude held by people. And like racism or anti-feminist attitudes, the ones who will say something might be merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg of the cold thoughts of others who simply have not said anything publicly.

Now after all this I must admit I am a cynical optimist. I often approach issues with an apprehensive attitude especially when my intellectual gut gets twisted by what I hear, see, read and observe. And my gut is getting somewhat misshapen by the increasing vitriol. But I am also an optimist. I believe that those who dislike the students who come to us to be educated, made more intellectually, socially and culturally matured are currently still outnumbered by those who care enough about learning and the mission to embrace our students. But they can not stay quiet and do what is a tradition in higher education. Ignore the flaws in our colleagues that hurt us all and our students. Keep quiet rather than engage a colleague in what could be an important if perhaps uncomfortable discussion for the betterment of the academic community.

If you find common ground or even disagree violently with this piece, please send it to colleagues and others. This is an issue that needs to be discussed. Let it start now please!

We are quickly filling up our dates for school opening convocations and workshops in August and September as well as customer service week (Oct 6-10). We would like to be able to help you too so please contact us ASAP for a date

AcademicMAPS has been providing customer service, retention and research training and solutions to colleges, universities and career colleges in the US, Canada, and Europe as well as to businesses that seek to work with them since 1999. Clients range from small rural schools to major urban universities and corporations. Its services range from campus customer service audits, workshops, training, presentations, institutional studies and surveys to research on customer service and retention. AcademicMAPS prides itself on its record of success for its clients and students who are aided through the firm’s services.www.GreatServiceMatters.com info@GreatServiceMatters.com 413.219.6939

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