Saturday, November 01, 2008

The University of Lowered Expectations

Another one bites the dust.

Inside Higher Ed recently posted the Dear John letter to academia of one "John Smith", a pseudonymous professor who is fed up with the academic merry-go-round and wants to get off. It's really nothing shocking for those of us who work in this world; nevertheless, it's interesting reading.

"Smith" writes:

"No, my troubles with this treasured profession are both broad and deep, and they begin with a fervent belief that most of today’s college students, especially those that come to college straight from high school, are unnecessarily coddled. Professors and administrators seek to “nurture” and “engage” and they are doing so at the expense of teaching. The result: a discernible and precipitous decline in the quality of college students. More of them come to campus with dreadful study habits. Too few of them read for pleasure. Too many drink and smoke excessively. They are terribly ill-prepared for four years of hard work, and most dangerously, they do not think that college should be arduous. Instead they perceive college as an overnight recreation center in which they exercise, eat, and in between playing extracurricular sports, they carry books around. If a professor is lucky, the books are being skimmed hours before class."

Much of this, I suspect, falls under the heading of "age old complaints" about students. They've likely always showed up on the first day of college intellectually lazy and unnecessarily coddled. In fact, one of my favorite professors, who is now nearing retirement age, relates that he has heard professors saying that students are lazier and dumber than ever before every single year since he was in graduate school.

(For the record, I'm increasingly skeptical that universities are really admitting the dummies- I find that I really never have any students who are intellectually deficient; just a strong majority that are intellectually lazy.)

But, of course, teenagers show up in the same state for their first jobs, the first day of boot camp, and to their first date. The point is to whip them into shape, or flunk them out. I think "Smith" cares deeply about the students, and that his problem is really with American universities that, across the board, take their cues from their clientele and nurture this sort of squishy mediocrity. Indeed, when a university decides that it is not to be seen as an overnight recreation center, the students tend to follow suit. Too many administrators and instructors are averse to assuming authority.

A revealing quote from the comments section, from an instructor recently let go from a community college: "I expect students to be able to read, write, and do basic math. I’m told my expectations are too high. I expect students to read the assigned material and come prepared to discuss and THINK in class. I’m told that I’m not teaching in the right manner. I expect to be respected in the classroom. I’m told I’m arrogant." Tell me about it, sister!

Some of you might remember that I was nearly fired as a TA for "caring too much about the job". It's very hard to be an academic who cares about academic standards in an environment in which such things are seen as outmoded and unrealistic.

The worst part of living in this sort of gentle mediocracy is that you become lazy yourself. I've wandered the halls listening to bored professors watching The Daily Show on their computers. I've attended seminars in which people present piss poor rehashes of arguments they already made in three-year old books, peppered with witless jokes about the President for easy laughs from the liberal academics. I've seen professors run courses that amount to sixteen weeks of videos. (Actually, we had a professor die last year and a student related in our class: "I had him last semester. I don't remember him ever teaching anything. He just showed movies!") Meanwhile, the more feisty academics- the ones with some fight in them- are weeded out to preserve "academic congeniality"- one can imagine that this might also explain the dearth of conservatives in the humanities. You start wondering if academia isn't a massive social engineering project to keep smart people out of trouble.

Even worse (for me), I see myself becoming intellectually flabby and bored stiff in this job. I'm bored with the professors, the books, the students, and myself. I will pour my heart into preparing for recitations with the full knowledge that none of my students will be familiar with the readings that I'm going over. I wonder often if these students have any idea how boring they are, aside from how bored they are. After a month or two, I start wanting to fake it- everyone else seems to be. I find myself surfing the web when I really should be reading books, following the same mindless political trivia as everyone else. It's funny- people have this idea that academia "indoctrinates" us to be bomb-throwing radicals, when in fact the opposite is true: the ideal products of academia are toothless bureaucrats and apple-polishers.

(Of course, the only bright side of all of this is remembering that almost every job is staffed by toothless bureaucrats and apple-polishers! Academia is nothing special in this regard.)

I have to remind myself often that thinking still matters; taking part in your own life in an active and feisty way matters! I fail too often at this; sometimes, I think this blog is just a record of those failures! But I think maybe getting older and becoming an adult is a struggle just to not become so boring that you want to punch yourself in the face. Ideally, academia should challenge you and push you to keep thinking vigorously. I think I understand why "Smith" is so dismayed by the gentle and coddling academic bureaucracy.

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