Friday, November 14, 2008

The Criminality of My Students

( which Rufus morphs into an angry old man in a Saul Bellow novel.)

I'm hitting the wall with instructing these classes. My motivation is at its lowest point and I'm ready to give up on these recitations entirely. There are only so many weeks that you can come in and explain the readings to people who haven't read them; who are in turn contemptuous towards you for trying to help them before the exams. It's demoralizing and irritating. Perhaps more irritating though. I don't worry if the students are happy or not, but as Lee Ermey said in Full Metal Jacket, this is my beloved corps. Academia must survive.

Grading the latest batch of essays, I think I know what's so dispiriting about these classes. It's not the thoroughgoing contempt they have towards us; after all, they come from a culture that views strenuous intellectual activity as ''elitist'' and ''effete''. They were raised to find us, and perhaps all authority figures, as an obstacle to be overcome. Also, they have just left a high school environment that amounts to state-run babysitting.

It's not the laziness either; teenagers are lazy, and especially when they've gone from a structured environment to a four-year, unchaperoned beer blast. I expect them to do very little work on their assignments, and sadly, to drop out of college in the startlingly high percentages that they do. In fact, I'd actually be much happier with essays that showed open laziness and indifference. I would admire the honestly.

Instead, I get papers and exams that are almost entirely dishonest. Some are plagiarized, others use any number of flimsy ruses to give the illusion that they did whatever was asked of them. I've actually gotten plagiarized papers in which they put more effort into the plagiarism than they would have had to in doing the actual assignment. More common is talking out their ass about things they have no idea about- the Sarah Palin school of answering questions.

With this assignment, they had to read a book and find passages that demonstrated how women were viewed in the society portrayed. Having read the book, I can say that the professor was clearly pointing towards certain passages in which the characters actually discuss how women were viewed in the society. This sounds easy, but the problem for these students was that those passages were not on the first five pages, so they never read them. Instead, the majority of them found random paragraphs in the first five pages that mention a woman, any woman, and pretended that there was some great insight there. Then they larded on some ridiculous pseudo-feminist claptrap since they assume we're all liberals. ''When she combs her hair on page 2 it shows how women were horribly oppressed in this society. They were like slaves!'' In other words, they talked out their asses. And that's the case for the 50 percent that didn't copy off the Internet.

I know that kids do this sort of thing. And I know that they do it to all of our instructors and professors, even the really brilliant ones. I don't take it personally. But, I think what irritates me is how deeply ingrained in them is this mentality that they should always manipulate people who are in authority positions. So many of them are so completely dishonest that the course becomes this sort of game every semester- you see how well you can fake it, and I'll see if I can catch you. Students will brag openly in the student newspaper about having never read one book in their four years of college. They'll get back exams and exclaim, ''I can't believe I got away with a C!'' I remember a student's tee-shirt last year ''It's only illegal if you get caught.'' I think that sums up the mentality. It's the idea that doing something the right way and cheating or deceiving your way through are ultimately all the same thing. I think it's their criminality that bothers me.

I think that's not too strong a word either. Without any sort of authority in their lives, no one has ever inculcated any sort of personal ethics or standards into them. Many of them have an attitude in which you try to see what scam you can get away with first, and then if that doesn't work, you do what was asked of you. Again, I know this will sound harsh, but I guarantee that most of my colleagues at Mall University will recognize exactly what I'm saying. A high percentage of our students simply have very little in the way of personal morality, ethics, or character; and we have no way to instill those things in them by the time they reach us. As Allan Bloom said- in a passage that most readers miss- when we get them in the university, it's already too late. Besides, like most other cultural institutions, the university is dead as Dillinger.

Their weak and fluid sense of ethics is also perfectly understandable. They came of age in a decaying commodity culture without any permanent values or authority. They are struggling to enter a professional world with high turnover and little to no company loyalty; an environment that fosters manipulative behavior in its harried employees. Many of them are from families split by divorce, an event experienced by children as devastating evidence that not even the home is safe from lying and betrayal. Many of them belong to vestigial versions of organized religions that have lost all power to compel.

And then remember that we teach in a rust belt county that has been in a depression for several years now, in which a large percentage of the adult population already takes part in the grey market, or even the black market. So some of these kids have relatives who are working labor off the books while collecting disability insurance; and others live in neighborhoods like the one I lived in for two years, in which three houses on the block were the branch offices of drug dealers. Crime and fraud is a major part of the local economy, criminality of the local culture. Their first lesson about employers was that their parents were abandoned and betrayed by the crown jewels of American capitalism. Of course, they're cynical.

Many of my colleagues, especially the TAs, complain about this and say, ''Wait until they get into the working world. They'll learn that you can't go through life doing as little work as possible and faking it as much as possible.'' But, of course, the punchline here is that this mentality- minimum effort and maximum presentation of self- comes directly from the corporate world. They're already ideal to work in most offices. Sure, they can't read or write; but they know how to ''play the game''. As Christopher Lasch pointed out, way back in 1979, the competitive corporate culture, ''creates the perception that success depends on psychological manipulation and that all of life, even the ostensibly achievement-oriented realm of work, centers on the struggle for interpersonal advantage, the deadly game of intimidating friends and seducing people.''

I think what's really depressing to me is this sense that I live in a culture that has no permanent values or reality principle. The economy is based in IOUs, the little black lie of economics, the number one export is debt that amounts to horseshit, the war is about projecting an image abroad, political discussions now just discuss the spectacle, and I feel like every other discourse amounts to a con. I can't be the only one who is tired of constantly being marketed to by snake oil salesmen. I'm sick of living in the society of the spectacle.

I think a lot of people are. It's no wonder so many of them are talking about ''change''. But, for things to really change, it would require a maximum effort and a minimum of posturing. In other words, ''change'' has to be something more than another advertising slogan! Notice that most of the things I'm noticing here have been the gripes of ''paleoconservatives'' for the last century, and have more recently become the gripes of the left through the matrix of ''lost community''. But, the problem is still here- the shallow transience of contemporary life still creates damaged people whose personality veers from that of the narcissist to that of the sociopath. Even more worrying than the ''coming credit collapse'' is the ongoing psychic collapse.


Holly said...

For years now, Greg and I have been discussing the niche-but-necessary market for greeting cards the offer the sentiment: Sorry You Had to Make An Effort.

Because that's about the saddest thing ever, making an effort is worse than being broke, or ignorant, or a failure. Making an effort sucks. Apparently.

The hardest part about this mentality is not only observing it and knowing that an honest person cannot compete with it in many realms, but you have also pinpointed one of two specific reasons that I don't believe I could handle being a teacher.

Holly said...

Also, I'd like to apologize for that last sentence/paragraph. That's remarkably incoherent.

rufus said...

Oh, trust me. I've seen worse.

I'm considering ordering those cards in bulk, incidentally.

gregvw said...

I have always been tempted to by a rubber stamp of the Disney character Goofy for grading purposes.

clairev said...

wait, so i'm like a *slave* when I comb my hair?

Holly said...

Well, I guess we lady types need to stop combing our hair.

rufus said...

No, it's very simple. The book was set in Asia, and everyone knows that Asian women are all 'subervient'. Just the way it is, bro. Anyway, Asian women were treated like slaves since 'the beginning of time'. This was true of all women and every group of people that was a numerical minority. Until they were rescued by benevolent anglo-saxon liberals who fought for their rights in 'the sixties'. So, comb away- but don't forget to thank Jane Fonda.

Rufus said...

Actually, someone really should compile a text entitled- 'American Public Education Students Explain History'.

Chapter 1. 'The World Before 500 BC: Nobody Really Knows What it was Like'

Chapter 2. 'Ancient Greece and Rome: Pretty Much the Same Thing'

Chapter 3. 'The Birth of Christianity: Christ gave His Life so that We Might Live in America'

Chapter 4. 'The Mid-Evil World: Knights and Shit.'

Chapter 5. 'The Age of Absolutism: Totally Gay.'

Holly said...

Chapter 6: Modern Times (Everything Cool Happened Before I Was Born)


gregvw said...

If the rest of you want to collaborate on a text "World History for Douchebags," I'm on board.