My Beautiful Wickedness


Explaining it all
May 6, 2008, 10:29 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Gerald and I have both noticed that our classrooms have a higher percentage of slackassical despondent students these days. There’s a subpopulation that cheat obviously and don’t seem too upset (or will get aggressive) if you catch them doing so. This is not me being a crankypants. I’ve been teaching a long time and the level at which I can pitch my intro material declines every year. I fail more students just for stupid stuff — not doing the required developmental work, not showing up for the classes — than ever before. Not only are my students more unprepared than ever to do college work, they are more unaware than ever that it’s their responsibility to work if they aspire to achieve anything. I have been finding this confusing.

I was talking to a group of students a while back and they, as a whole, are pessimistic about their future prospects. They don’t expect financial stability as a consequence of getting their degree. They don’t even really know if they want the career path that often comes with the degree they are pursuing. They are going to college because…and they trail off, because they don’t know. They can’t risk following their passion (too expensive and risky, mom and dad have mortgaged the house so that I can do this), so they plod along trying to do what they think is expected of them. Their big concern is failing out of their courses and having to go back to live with mom and dad — the fear is one of social loss of freedoms rather than an intellectual loss of the opportunity to think big thoughts with other smart people. They try not to be too obvious about their smartness, not to run too far out in front because it’s socially awkward. They don’t see their education as somehow connected to the life that they will lead after college. It seems like it’s just another punch on their life card: High School (punch), College (punch), Marriage (punch), House (punch).

Now, though, many of my freshman wrapped up their exams knowing that this was the end of the road for them on my campus. They didn’t fail out or anything; it was just that their parents are out of money and they can’t take out more loans and so, they just have to drop out and maybe go to the local community college or maybe to a public u. Our campus is in that category of ok middling private colleges that this economic downturn is going to nail hard. Under that kind of circumstance — knowing that it doesn’t pay to dream big because it’s probably not going to work out for you — can’t you see where there’d be some disaffection? If I were 18, I’d probably be out on the campus green playing hacky rather than hitting the books to learn calculus, especially if I thought (as all my students do) that the fun stops the minute you get out of college.

I’m getting deja vu on writing this. Now that I’ve been blogging for a while, I’m convincing myself that I’ve said everything at least once.

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3 Comments so far
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Here in Oswego, the local SUNY campus has something like 8,000 students and I’m sure that many of them are brilliant, but I’m not running into most of them. A lot seem afraid to graduate.

Comment by democommie

A colleague and I were having the same conversation yesterday. We’re so frustrated with final exam and term paper grades. It seems like the students just don’t care. I’ve never had as many Fs as this semester.

I don’t think college should necessarily be a right as much as it should be a privilege — one based on ambition and intellect, rather than economic privilege. And I think you hit the nail on the head about college being just another check off their to-do list.

Comment by Angela Gordon

Gerald and I have both noticed that our classrooms have a higher percentage of slackassical despondent students these days. There’s a subpopulation that cheat obviously and don’t seem too upset (or will get aggressive) if you catch them doing so. This is not me being a crankypants. I’ve been teaching a long time and the level at which I can pitch my intro material declines every year. I fail more students just for stupid stuff — not doing the required developmental work, not showing up for the classes — than ever before. Not only are my students more unprepared than ever to do college work, they are more unaware than ever that it’s their responsibility to work if they aspire to achieve anything. I have been finding this confusing.

I’m working at a middle/high school now, and a lot of our teachers are saying the same thing. There’s this core of students who aren’t even trying. They’re here because they have to be here, but they don’t care, they don’t connect the work to anything… they’re just bodies in the chairs.

Personally, with some of the teachers I’m inclined to attribute it to lack of preparation/passion on their part, but I’ve been hearing this from so many people who have tried in so many ways that it seems there’s a real phenomenon mixed up in all that.

And just looking at my friend group, it shows. When I started high school, I was put with the ‘honors kids’… they’d been tested into GATE, tracked into honors classes, done okay in the stuff they were asked to do, and every year we got hit with weird attrition. Kids who had come into high school doing geometry (at our school, a nominally 10th grade subject) got to Algebra II (11th grade) and stopped, repeating it three times in a row. A few barely graduated. Many didn’t go to college at all, or went to CCs to become terminal dabblers. The rest largely went to lower-tier state schools. Most of them haven’t graduated yet (and I was class of 2002 in high school). Of the ones who have graduated, I can count…um, me… as going to grad school. (Ah, the wonders of Facebook. Keeping track of your peers without having to actually talk to them.) That’s out of a group of ~40 of the ‘best and brightest’ in our little area.

Through it all, there was a very real sense of just going through the motions. School had a lot to do with it… GATE testing happens at about 3rd grade, and then *poof* nothing. You get pulled out of class for a reading group or something once a week, and maybe get some special treatment. Our school wasn’t really set up to deal with, um… well, a lot of things. Which, okay, makes my examples rather biased.

But generally, there wasn’t any focus on learning as a part of life. If anything, it was to get something… you wanted good grades to get into college, or to get skills so you could get a good job, or a scholarship or something. Teachers tell you that when you question why you have to learn something. The TV tells you that all the time. Parents tell you that to get you to do your homework. (Okay, not my parents. But other people’s parents. Sometimes in my presence.) Hell, schools emphasize testing so the school can be funded, rather than because the tests are useful for anything.

(I can’t count the number of times I was told that we had to do well on the standardized tests because the school needed money. And, of course, because those measures were so important, all other instruction needed to be halted in order to privilege it. Not a great argument for learning being important on its own.)

I think that pervasive societal thing, plus the economic issues* you bring up (which are huuuuge), and the creeping trend toward popular anti-intellectualism (related to, but distinct from general complacency/entitlement with respect to our country’s relative place in the world) and the structural stuff Dean Dad talks about (colleges encouraging consumerist mindsets in reaction to budget cuts and changes in student attitude; countercyclical enrollment changing demographics; financial woes leading to increases in adjunct load and structural changes in course formats, etc.) mix up to form a really nasty pile.

After all, if being smart for its own sake isn’t seen as important, education is a commodity to check off your list, and even if you do check it off, it’s not likely to get you what you need anyway… what’s the point? Even if you do get your butt in a chair, it’s likely to be in a chair shared with hundreds of other students, taught by an underpaid and overworked adjunct or TA (or earlier: an underpaid and overworked, often underqualified teacher), and evaluated in a format that underscores its modularity and generality. And rather than advertising this (for obvious reasons), the school is stressing its fancy new spa and concierge service and the really cool letters your degree will have. In a climate like that, what’s one professor who insists on making you retain stuff and try to apply it going to look like?

* It seems to be a pretty common thing, though, not just economic. One of my smartest friends in high school never tried on anything, because he was the son of Mexican immigrants. His dad washed dishes in a country club and his mom… I don’t know what she did. But he was very much of the opinion that even if he did manage, somehow, to do well, it wouldn’t matter, because who would hire him? Who would listen to him?

I’ve seen that in girls who are interested in science, too. What’s the point? You’re never going to get where you want, and even if by some miracle you’re in a position to do so, you’re going to catch so much shit that it’s not worth it.

Comment by Magniloquence




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