Friday, April 1, 2011

From Students, a Misplaced Sense of Entitlement

(This is from a Chronicle article Karla posted on Twitter; I thought it might be useful to reproduce it here without comment)

It was the semester from hell. In my 20 years as an adjunct faculty member, I had taught in the Ivy League and at community colleges, in Brattleboro and Bangkok, in under­graduate and graduate schools. Never had I seen such extraordinarily bad behavior in my students.

It began the first night of the graduate class, spring semester 2010, when the students attacked the syllabus for being too demanding (although it was premised on previous syllabi for the same course at the same institution). The evening went steadily downhill. I'll spare you the gruesome details, but the next day I got a call from an administrator asking me to deal with the complaints that some students had registered about me and the course. The charges they'd made were ludicrous and easily explained, but I was stunned.

The situation seemed to improve somewhat after I invited students to write down anonymous feedback, positive or negative, about anything they wished to share with me. A student collected the notes in an envelope. We set up class norms, agreeing that we would listen respectfully and give cul­turally sensitive feedback. I also suggested that anyone who found the course too onerous should drop it. Enrollment fell significantly.

The bad behavior did not. Sometimes it was passive-aggressive, but much of it was just plain aggressive. It got so bad that a few students apologized to me on behalf of their colleagues. "I've never seen such disrespect for a teacher," they said. I could have hugged them for their kindness. Instead I thanked them, went home, and had a good cry.

As the semester continued, I slipped further into despair. How could it be that graduate students delivered such appallingly poor papers and presentations? They'd gotten undergraduate degrees; why couldn't they write in sentences? Why were they devoid of originality, analytical ability, intellectual curiosity? Why were they accosting me with hostile e-mails when I pointed out unsubstantiated generalizations, hyperbolic assumptions, ungrounded polemics, sourcing omissions, and possible plagiarism?

The sad thing is, I'm not alone. Every college teacher I know is bemoaning the same kind of thing. Whether it's rude behavior, lack of intellectual rigor, or both, we are all struggling with the same frightening decline in student performance and academic standards at institutions of higher learning. A sense of entitlement now pervades the academy, excellence be damned.

Increasingly, students seem not to realize what a college degree, especially a graduate degree, tells the world about one's abilities and competence. They have no clue what is expected of them at the higher levels of academic discourse and what will be expected of them in the workplace. Having passed through a deeply flawed education system in which no one is paying attention to critical thinking and writing skills, they just want to know what they have to do to make their teachers tick the box that says "pass." After all, that's what all their other teachers have done. (Let the next guy worry about it.)

When teachers refuse to lower standards, those students seem to resort to a new code of conduct that includes acted-out rage, lack of respect, and blame. That behavior is fueled by the absence of clear standards from the administration, and of administrators who care about learning, not just financial ledgers.

Too often the balance sheet, educator apathy, and a fear of resolving difficult situations lead to irresponsible practices such as encouraging grade inflation and ignoring violations of academic integrity. Thus, both students and faculty members are set up for failure.

I'm not sure how these problems should be tackled, but this much I do know: If they aren't dealt with at individual institutions as well as through universal reform, the familiar claim that American college students are "the best and the brightest" will become even more laughable.

I also know this: No student who speaks to me the way some did last year will be permitted to remain in my class. My syllabi are non-negotiable. Cellphones, side conversations, open computers, and other distractions, along with plagiarism, will not be tolerated. All papers will require complete sentences, clear writing, cogent arguments, and proper citation.

It's a start, and my wary contribution to desperately needed education reform.

Elayne Clift is an adjunct faculty member at several colleges in New England. She writes about women, politics, and social issues.


  1. "After all, that is what all their other teachers have done" Exactly.

    I think we basically need to scrape the whole current order of the education system. I know I will be home schooling my own children, for sure. Teachers are apathetic, rude, and dis-interested in everything as everyone else.

    For instance my younger sister's seventh grade English teacher didn't know anything about Ernest Hemingway or "Old Man and the Sea". Maybe not the biggest deal, but still not to have even the faintest clue is crazy.

    I like reading your blog in a strange, twisted way. I see it as sort of peeking into the teacher's lounge or something. I feel like teachers have a real sense of self-importance and that they are people who like to have control and order. I have witnessed teachers abusing and toying with their own "power".

  2. I go through this nonsense day after miserable day in my undergraduate courses and would provide the exact same explanation as above. Students laugh at you if you tell them to turn off their cell-phones or not to walk in and out of the classroom to field calls: 'I paid for this class and can do what I please in here', is what I hear over and over. Their lack of intellectual curiosity is simply disgusting. And then you have the administrators who want you to mill them through while maintaining the facade of high standards. All in all a thoroughly disheartening experience and certainly not what I expected in academia. I thought I was going to get away from the philistines and money grubbers, but they simply followed me into higher-ed, so that I might as well be back doing short-order cooking.

  3. @ Philosopher's Mess:

    "Teachers are apathetic, rude, and dis-interested in everything as everyone else."

    "I feel like teachers have a real sense of self-importance and that they are people who like to have control and order. I have witnessed teachers abusing and toying with their own "power"."

    What led you to...those beliefs? Something in the article? Personal experience? Others' testimonials? Something else?

    Speaking for myself here: I put my heart and soul into my classes. I care a lot about the quality of my courses, and the students who are enrolled in them. I care about their learning, and achievement, most of all. Which makes sense, given that facilitating learning opportunities, and achievement of learning objectives, is a core purpose of my profession.

    While some students also put their hearts and souls into the tasks at hand, it's okay with me if some don't. Students have different reasons for entering higher education, and different goals.

    What I do expect though, and I don't think it's unreasonable, is for them to be civil in the classroom. Some are not. Some ruin it for everyone. Some...retaliate, in light of being pressed for reasons that support their conclusions, their beliefs.

    A month ago in one of my classes a student was very, very rude. To me. For the second time. In front of everyone.

    Sometimes I wonder if it's something I'm doing. In this case, I did not wonder that. It clearly was not something I was doing wrong. In fact, one of the other students made an appointment with my dean, because s/he was so upset by the incident. I didn't know about this meeting until after my dean told me.

    Here's what the dean told me, afterwards: Your student made an appointment with me, to tell me about a classmate being extremely rude to you. The student was disturbed by the classmate, and scared that there would be bad consequences for you, in terms of being evaluated.

    S/he wanted me to know that ultimately you handled it well, and professionally, and that it looked like it wouldn't happen again with that classmate. S/he wanted me to know that there are lots of students in that class that really like the class, and that are getting a lot out of it, and they resent when individuals are rude, for no reason, and ruin the good environment for everyone else.

    And of paraphrased Dean explanation.

    Does this kind of thing happen all the time? No. Does it happen enough to make me wonder if I've chosen the right profession? Sometimes. Does it happen more than it used to? Yes, according to some people I know, who've been teaching for decades.

    What's the solution? I don't know. I wish I did. Are teachers sometimes at fault in particular classrooms? I'm not sure. Responsible for what, I ask. Rude people are responsible for their own behavior, I think. Perhaps someone could argue that something a teacher did caused them to be, or justified them being, rude. But that opens up a whole host of other questions.

    These are some of my thoughts on this matter, in no particular order.

    In the final analysis, I don't think a couple rude or apathetic teachers should be called upon to speak for those of us who care deeply about our profession, who care very much about doing a good job. By "good job" I mean "create and facilitate effective learning environments and opportunities".

    Your thoughts? I look forward to your response to my initial questions to you, up top.

  4. @ Robert Allen:

    "I might as well be back doing short-order cooking."

    I'm planning on returning to hospitality in about 15, 20 years. (Or sooner, if the volatile behavior in undergrad courses continues to worsen. Or sooner, if I throw in the towel and decide to become a trophy wife after

    No kidding. I'd like to run a little corner pub. Hold philosophy talks.

    Wanna join me?

  5. @Robert Allen:'I paid for this class and can do what I please in here', is what I hear over and over.

    Presumably these people don't even manage to notice that other people also paid for the same class...

    With a couple of exceptions, I seem to have had it nice (apart from not having an actual job); people who don't want to be there tend quietly to stop turning up.

  6. Our students are as we find them with all their strengths and weaknesses. (DAH:-)) We do our best to be good teachers. Some students appreciate our efforts, others do not. (DAH again:-))

    It is too late to change what we get once we have them. We can try our best to change behaviors and skills that need changing, etc. but we will not make up for 12 years of neglect and/or intellectually misguided and/or misdirected efforts. If we get 2-3 students a semester that really grow into the experience we want them all to have we are likely. (But that outcome is probably a result of where we teach.) But actually we are like Sisyphus and his damn rock.

    We all know that the problems occur very early on in the educational process. We need to address the issue by addressing the goals and accomplishment of K-12 education. We need to have a comprehensive, but pragmatically useful philosophy of education that develops, instills, and reinforces the idea that education is intrinsically important and life-long in students at the earliest stages of the educational process as possible. We, as citizens, need to realize that education is not simply a means to acquire the skills and information needed to enter into the economic arena and strive for success and achievement assessed in the material accumulation of goods associated with Weber's 3-P's. Some things should be taught, as well as the tools needed to achieve this, to all who would learn regardless of its economic value, but because they are intrinsically important and valuable because they teach us about who we are and what we are capable of, the good and the bad. There are only two reasons why people fail; they either can't do it, or they won't do it.

    Sermon over:-)

  7. @KP

    My comments stem largely from personal experiences. This article did elicit and re-affirm my presumptions also. I have known many educators through my own schooling. I have many teachers in my own family. I also come into contact with a lot of teachers through my own intellectual interests.

    I have a lot to say about this subject but it all boils down to the question, what is the goal of education? What I see many teachers expressing and exhibiting is a need to have power and control, not exhibiting a focus on educating their students.

    If the real goal was educating ourselves I think more teachers would stand up and take the radical step and tell the world to reject the current education system as a whole. Instead because it is their job and because they found their way through the muck, they find a myriad of other things to focus and complain about, like students' attitudes.

    I don't think this sort of issue is exclusive to education. I think there are many systems in our world, which actually pervert and are in reality antagonistic towards the goals which they explicitly say they are for. For instance I think police and teachers are in the same position. Police will state explicitly that their goal is justice and protecting the community, but in reality what we find are abuses of power, ego negotiation, and a desire to exact unjustified revenge.

  8. @KP

    Let me say also for the record, being rude and mean to a teacher is wrong and I have experienced what you described in a classroom and it is awful.

    I am also not saying all teachers are bad, but there is a big enough population of bad teachers that they provoke my criticisms. Further, all who are complicit in this dysfunctional system assume some responsibility in its perpetuation.

  9. I believe the entitlement stems from the high fees being paid in the US and increasingly also in the UK (where I study now).

    I studied law in Germany where we didn't have tuition fees. After the first year, 25 % of students had quit or had not passed the necessary classes to advance to year 2. At the end, 50 % of the starting class remained. In the bar exam, on average another third fail. They have one more attempt. If they fail this, that's it.

    If universities receive upwards of 10.000 $ per student per year, they have no motivation to be so rigorous.

  10. @Philosopher's Mess
    "I have a lot to say about this subject but it all boils down to the question, what is the goal of education? What I see many teachers expressing and exhibiting is a need to have power and control, not exhibiting a focus on educating their students."

    If you are a critic of how many teachers teach then you must have some answer to the question you raise - what is it?

    Also, it seems to me that all systems involving human beings are dysfunctional. What do you mean by being complicit? Are students complicit because they take courses?

    As far as complaining about student attitude's, our profession is not unlike others that deal with relationships. I was in business for 35 years and complained about the quality of many of the people applying to work in my organizations. We do get a mixed bag of people coming into our classes, for a myriad of reasons, and with varying expectations. But, I think that when we complain about attitudes it is not about the person, but what they bring to the overall classroom/educational experience; their general ability to comprehend and learn, interact with others in a dialogical and meaningful manner, their willingness to explore alternative viewpoints, their general ability to demonstrate respect for themselves and others.

    As I said in my 'sermon' there are only two reasons why people fail, they either will not or cannot do it. If it is the latter, then it is an educational issue, if the former it is a disciplinary one. I firmly believe that most students want to learn - they simply do not know how. I believe that most people want to do a good job - no one sets out to fail. My issue is not that I, and other teachers, do not know how to react to this fact, but rather that the system has produced so many people (in so many different systems) that do not know how to critical think and learn. At the college level it is really a bit too late to redirect and correct this problem.

    We might make inroads, but we have to face the fact that most students are not there to learn the humanities and how to be critical thinkers, but to get the credits needed to graduate with a degree that will get them a job. Watch TV and see how the goal of education is cast in commercials and the public discourse "we are educators training people...." Who, in their right mind, thought that it was necessary for someone to draw blood, or file medical records to have an AA or BS degree. Look at the number of colleges and universities who are reducing and/or eliminating programs like philosophy. By utilizing the 'business modal' we have cheapened and 'dumbed down' the baccalaureate degree (and are now doing so with MA and PhD's). We systemically judge success by the number of diplomas we hand out (move people along the economic line - think Pink Floyd here), not the quality of what the people receiving them have learned. I suspect that if we, as citizens, really where concerned about quality of education that there would be less people going to colleges and universities, there would be more community colleges, trade schools and apprenticeships, and critical thinking and learning skills would be taught from Kindergarten on.

    KP and RA: Like the idea of the pub with some good bar food and stimulating conversation.


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