I need to take a walk before I get caught up in this little writing project. It is gorgeous outside and a perfect day of sun, little wind, and a moderate temperature that makes you want to lie in a hammock and do your best Rip Van Winkle impersonation. The past few days have been a veritable smorgasbord of experiences with weather from exceedingly gorgeous, a monsoon for COLA graduation, to sufferingly humid to London type fog and drizzle. I am currently sitting at a table waiting for an Amtrak to take me to Philadelphia, where I will catch a ride and get back to Bloom about 11:00 this evening. I plan to do work on the train. This is a somewhat first experience for me because I have not been on a train since 1994, and that was from LA to San Diego. I have some grading to do, but I am hopeful I can complete it today. . . Not as much done on a blog as I would have liked, mostly because I was trying to manage some other technological issues and that was not as successful as I might have hoped. Today, which is now Tuesday, feels like Monday and I am trying to manage my grading completion, a workshop at noon and other handy things that are on my plate. Seems I have more irons in the fire than fire, but it will get done.
Over the last few days, like many of my colleagues across the nation, we have been grading, commenting, and trying to finish up a semester and another academic year. I am sure I am not speaking only for myself when I say that I am continually amazed by an increasing number of students who believe that merely coming to class and sitting in their seat most of the time constitutes participating in class and that they are engaged in the class. I am pretty sure I am not speaking only for myself when I say that many students read only a minimal percentage of the reading, the course content in the course delivery tool, or even the syllabus, but they want you to respond to them as if they are an engaged, critically thinking, or thoroughly analyzing student in your class. Finally, I am pretty sure that I am not the only person who wonders why are these basically good people willing to spend someone’s hard earned money as they sit lackadaisically hour after hour both in class and in their room more interested in their phone, the latest story additions on Snap, or posting something of great importance on Instagram. That is a really profound way to invest the 100,000.00 they will send for their Bachelor’s degree. And then, of course, as grades will be released today, I will get emails or phone calls, texts or tweets asking why they did not get the grade they need. Somehow they need an A. This past week I met with a student who is an advisee. He has managed to accumulate 89 credits (which is one credit short of being a senior), but is not really close to where he needs to be to be able to enroll in the specific program he had decided to pursue. Doing some thoughtful and careful analysis of a transcript and after a few questions, I asked the student, honestly and carefully, “Why are you in college? What do you want to do?” To his credit, he responded, ” I am not really sure what I want to do or why I am here.” This is after about 3+ years of course work. He noted that his father wanted him to have opportunities and not be like him in terms of having to break his back and knuckles at what he did everyday. First, I understand the father’s desire to have his son go beyond what the father was able to do. That is what parents do. Yet, I believe the son would have been better served, after speaking and listening, by going to a technical college and doing something with his hands and mind.
More significantly, at this point, for the son to graduate with what he hoped to do, it would take a year of classes at least, and achieving all As to get his GPA where it needed to be before he could even get into the program. In addition, if he got in, it would take two-two and a half more years to finish a degree that has very little wiggle room in terms of getting things finished. That would be three to three and a half more years another 50K minimum for an undergraduate degree that would not pay him nearly enough for the loan debt he would incur. I asked him to go home for the weekend and think about options and come back on Monday. He did and we are pursuing a different track and some different options. There are more than enough articles about the value of a college diploma, but there is certainly not enough being said about what happens when students come to college undeclared and then seem to find it so much easier to merely sleep-walk their way through that degree, hoping it all falls into place somehow. He noted that his parents were asking questions, but he did not even have anything to tell them yet. That raises an entirely different issue. What makes college worth the investment of time and money? Who decides? I believe there are some people who are not ready to come to college. Simple as that. They have no focus; they have not real plan; and they have little sense of discipline as to why they will move toward some degree in something. While some undeclared students are much more savvy about what they are doing, and, therefore, can move toward something even when they are not sure what it is, most are wasting a lot of time and money. I was such a person, and, as some know, both if you have known me throughout my life or have read my blog for some time, I flunked out of college the first time I tried to be a student. I was not ready, either mentally or emotionally, and it requires both. To get this student into a path that both he, I, and my department chair thinks will both serve him as well as allow him to graduate, it took phones calls, visits, reconsideration, a moving around of a number of pieces and more phone calls and pondering, but it appears to be a possibility. And even yet, that guarantees nothing. It will take specific hard work and focus on the part of the student and something he will have to do in every class for the remainder of his time at Bloomsburg. There are no promises of As or of even graduating. It takes discipline and hard work. To do less than that means you might end up here longer; you might (will) spend more money than you care to do; and finally, you will learn hard lessons about what happens when you merely think needing the A will result in the aforementioned A.
In conversations with my colleagues, I believe we have some similar ideas about how students fit into being a collegiate trying to finish a degree. Some are simply not ready to be in college. The age of 18 does not guarantee success; neither does the legal age of 21 guarantee that someone can drink responsibly. They should stay home and work for a year or two and realize how much better off having a degree might be. There is a second set of students who are just smart enough to be here, but they come from an underprivileged situation and an underprepared background, but they understand the opportunity, and while they will have to work hard to maintain, they are willing to put in the necessary effort to continue to improve. I love these students because they are passionate. They are academically often underprepared, but that is not their fault. This is a difficult group because they walk such a fine line between hanging in there and being overwhelmed. Yet, they are aware of the tremendous opportunity that is there for them should they succeed. These are the students who are the most gratifying in some way. Depending on the mission of the system and the support of the university, these students can make a significant difference in both their own life and the life of others. There were a number of these students who walked in graduation this past Saturday with a sash that said “First Generation.” These are some of those students. Most students I meet are capable students, but they still need discipline and they need to be willing to work hard. This is the majority of students, but the difficulty is they have never had to be that disciplined or work that hard. There are a lot of reasons for that, but that is for another time. The problem with many of these students is they are just lazy. My colleagues and I find them the most frustrating. They want something (everything) for nothing. These are the students to come to class unprepared. These are the students who wait until the last minute to attempt to write an assignment or a paper. These are the students who are unwilling to look beyond the obvious to understand or think about something. They are, to use my one of my closest colleague’s terms, phoning it in. They made an appearance, showed up, stared at me in class, and left without as much as a single um during the entire class. If that only happened in one class, I could chalk it up to a bad day. However, it seems they have a bad week or a bad semester, or a bad college career. Two years ago a student missed class for 6 weeks. No note, no email, no contact, but he managed to show up the last week. He noted that he had been sick for those six weeks, but he did not go to the doctor. When I told him he could not pass class and did not need to come back, he looked shocked. When I told him he could retake the course, I doubted he would, and he hasn’t
The point of this paragraph is to question the rationality of going to college. I know that might sound a bit stunning being as I teach college, but I do not believe everyone needs to go to college. I do not believe we can serve everyone well simply because they come into our classroom. There is another group of students I did not mention that I have. They are the smarter than average students who have a clear sense of why they are here and what it means to work toward a degree. These students have taken the values and the discipline they have from home and are willing to put it to work. I have met some of these students in class and I have met some of these students on the travels to Poland and the other Central and Eastern European countries I have been fortunate to travel to over the last four years. This past week, a student, who had worked very hard and was set to graduate, was involved in a tragic auto accident. It left her with a TBI and she has been rehabbing ever since. She was at graduation to receive her diploma. While there is not guarantee how things will go for her, it was a testament to her, her family, and her caregivers, that she was there. If only we could all realize how fragile we all are and how every opportunity we have – yes, even college – is a gift that should not be taken for granted. It is something to take on and work toward with every fiber of our being. For us on the other side of that blank stare, we realize more than you might know how important what we do is. Too often you think we are picking on you, being unfair to you, asking too much of you when we are not content with you turning in work that demonstrates less than you are capable of doing. We are not trying to be anything, but honest and fair. Too often, and even more so at private colleges, at State Universities, students and their parents are treated as customers. I apologize, but I do not see you as such. You come to college to be educated. That means you are learning how to think more critically than you have before. It means you are learning to analyze a situation more thoroughly than you have before, and it means you must be able to synthesize education and experience to be the best possible citizen and employee you can hope to be. Your money buys you the opportunity to of that, and that is all. What you do with that opportunity is entirely up to you. I will provide the best I can. I am human and so some days I will not be perfect, but I will admit when I need to improve and I will be honest when I have failed. I ask the same of you.
One thought on “But I need an “A””
As a returning student after nearly a decade spent away from academia, I couldn’t help but feel the same frustration I sense in your writing when you mention the lack of engagement from some of your students. I used to be one of the sleepwalkers you speak of, and as I’ve mentioned in previous writings, I am ashamed of it. I felt forced into college by my parents, who sorely misunderstood me and suggested I acquire a business degree. Of course, that was never my trajectory and I detested their suggestion, but to my mother and father, it seemed that a college education was quite exclusively about getting a piece of paper and finding a well-paying job. I wanted to move away so badly and live somewhere far from my family, so I agreed to attend university, despite my lingering resentments.
I imagine the somnambulists of the 2020’s are even more apathetic than I was as a 17 year old freshman, especially because the technologies have boomed. The diversions of screen time and the unending access to the internet supplies us with endless ideas and answers, never beckoning us to think for ourselves. Before many of us even attempt to formulate our own ideas about anything, we summon Almighty Google. We have access to more information now than ever before in history, and yet people seem to use their heads less and less. I imagine this informs the laziness and apathy seen in many students – how could they possibly care to think for themselves when they see a world where billionaires exist and Trump could become president and fake news is prevalent and half of the population doesn’t even believe in science anymore? Maybe hopelessness is a contributor to the laziness. The phones, the apps, the bullshit, if I’m being real – all seem to be of more value to society than education, and it concerns me deeply. I can understand the need for distraction in such a chaotic world, I cave to them at times myself, but the thoughtlessness which seems to be the norm is alarming.
My craving to satisfy my intellectual curiosities has been the butt of many jokes from friends and family members alike. I recall being in high school and spending time in my room reading about philosophy, psychology, and theology, but never having anyone to really discuss those things with, despite both my mother and father being college educated. I felt isolated for being curious and for caring, but I also disliked school. It was a frustrating but not unusual paradox. I had a distain for school, but loved learning. My parents advocated for my education, but only as long as it functioned as a means to an end. Only so long as I didn’t begin to question everything around me. I dreaded school, and college was no exception. It’s not that I was lazy in college because I didn’t care, I was lazy because I projected the voice of my father onto my professors. I saw school as an obligation and as something I was forced into, rather than a chance to absorb information about topics that truly interested me. I saw my professors as an extension of my father, who in many ways failed to show up for me when I most needed him. He mocked my concerns about the environment, he diminished my creative skills, and scolded me when I pointed out things that struck me as “politically incorrect”. At times, I would question how I could possibly be the spawn of this man who seemed so different from me. I often felt teased and taunted rather than encouraged and supported, judged, rather than heard and understood. College professors and teachers appeared to me as another version of my impossible-to-impress father. I wonder if some of the laziness of students is actually fear or anxiety passed on by the lack of support in their lives. Maybe it stems from feeling that their suggestions and ideas have been dismissed and they’ve decided to keep their reflections to themselves.
I’m sure it’s a combination of it all – technology, upbringing, society, and then there are the folks who really do just loaf around and expect the world to be handed to them.
The Digital microcosm demands so much of people, and as a result it seems many can’t find the balance between their real lives and the curated ones on the internet. They watch other people do the things they want to do, but instead of learning how or applying themselves, they take the role of the victim, claiming that other people are simply “smarter, more talented, better” than they are, when the truth is, we all have the ability to apply ourselves. We enroll in school but say it’s too difficult, forgetting that we are there to expand our minds and to challenge ourselves. Often I fear I come across as hopeless or overly distraught by the world around me and in some ways, I probably am those things. But I feel that my way of thinking is rarely mirrored around me, especially in people around my age. I think the folks of the generation below me have so much to offer. They are in many ways more open hearted and minded, and queued into the issues of society than generations prior. But I also see the laziness and the entitled attitudes. It feels like pulling teeth getting people to contribute, to follow deadlines, to respect simple requests as they relate to group work. It seems for some reason, they complain when they don’t get the grade they wanted when they only applied 20% of their efforts. Hell, they don’t even respect their classmates enough to recognize that their laziness impacts the quality of education everyone will receive in a given course.
When I decided I wanted to come back to Bloomsburg (this Winter is my first semester back, a huge transition after living in Santa Cruz, and then Philadelphia, and embracing city life for the last several years) I made a conscious promise to myself to show up fully, and be present for my education. In my first semester back, I’ve already witnessed the seemingly vacant “participants”, the sleepwalkers, who assume an “A” is something they are inherently deserving of. It frustrates me to no end. Working with others has already revealed to me the lack of care that some students seem to possess, especially now as technology takes precedence over everything else. Our phones offer us instant gratification, social media gives us instant (and constant) affirmation, and our anti-intellectual political landscape diminishes the value of independent thought. I worry often, especially because one day I would like to be a professor. I wonder how I could encourage people to engage and to take charge of their intellectual lives. Internet clout takes the place of the enriched mind. In fact, I notice even when I share with my friends and family ideas I have to improve my life, such a living a lower waste lifestyle, continuing to lean into minimalism as a way to reduce consumption, not supporting mega corporations, returning to college and so forth, I’m often mocked for having such a steady moral compass. I’ve been called “homework”, “the moral police” etc, just because I care. That is a whole other topic in and of itself, but I think it falls a bit in line with the diminished care and thoughtfulness of our society.
Ultimately, I understand your perspective, and as a drop out the first go around, I can understand the students’ viewpoint, too. But at a certain point, responsibility must be taken. Our education will pave the future and if generations now are uneducated or refuse to apply themselves, especially as technology takes the place of humans in various ways, our society just might become some sort of techno-centric, watered down environment, lacking in creative spirit or applied thought unique to human beings. To believe one deserves an “A” for simply sitting in a seat somewhere is ridiculous. If I sat at my job and stared at my boss, I’d be fired. The same should apply for students. Education is the job of a student and it should be considered our duty to show up and engage even when the ego or fear or laziness tells us otherwise. The narrative of our culture in many ways, lies in our hands, as the generations which will shape the future, and I am hopeful that laziness and thoughtlessness will be replaced with critical thinking and deeper reflection on behalf of all of us.