Yesterday, August 1st, I bit the bullet and logged into my university email account after a six-week self-imposed summer moratorium. Courses begin in four weeks on August 30th, so it seemed like the right thing to do as I crank the rusty gears back into motion following a few months of relative peace and quiet.
Among the 190+ emails sent to everyone about traffic diversions, construction on campus, very general messages to the university community from the president, the provost, etc., etc. were four or five emails that actually required my attention. Most were from former students -- solid students -- requesting letters of support for one thing or another. Not a problem.
Then there was an email from my chair, asking me to reply to another student from last spring, who contacted my chair in mid-July inquiring about his final grade for the course he (the student) had with me. The student in question could have finished with a 91%. In the end, he received a final grade of 3.0, a full point lower than the expected 4.0. And the reason? Excessive absences, which chipped away at this guy's eventual course grade during the final few weeks of the course. Several students each semester run into the same problem.
Now, before people barrage me with snippy messages about how unfair all of this is to the poor student(s), keep in mind that my courses are discussion-based. This method of teaching has ancient roots by the way going back to the Greek philosopher Socrates at least. The Socratic Method. Look it up. In any case, 20% of the overall course grade is for attendance, preparation, and meaningful participation through discussion. These are not online courses, or open-ended non-credit courses in which students can tune in or out at will.
Neither are my classes in dark 500-seat auditoriums where I cannot see the back of the room, cannot ascertain how many semi-warm bodies are actually present beyond the first few rows, or, of those present, tell how many seem to be engaged. My courses are much smaller, by comparison, consisting of between 25-50 seats. We are in classrooms. I can see everyone. They can see me. And while I use modern technology to some extent in my teaching, students still must be mentally awake as well as physically present to participate in and contribute to our discussions about gender, sexuality, race, class, and all of those other good things we cover in my courses during the 15 weeks we are together.
All of this information is presented clearly in the 14-page syllabus (14 PAGES!!!), which students have from the get-go on Day#1 of any given semester, and considerable time is spent covering all of this verbally during the first week of classes each term with reminders during the next several weeks. Students can access the syllabus to review course policies and expectation at their convenience 24/7 since it is online. Paper syllabi are a thing of the past, by the way, so losing the syllabus is not an excuse.
Please note that students may, of course, miss a few days without any effect whatsoever on their course grade. No explanations are necessary. Exceeding that limit, though, alters the picture over time. An example of possible consequences for one's grade is even provided in the syllabus to illustrate what can potentially happen to a student, who might otherwise finish the course with a solid grade. This practice is neither unusual, nor cruel. Many of my own professors when I was a student, as well as later colleagues, have had similar policies. In sum, becoming MIA will eventually bite a student in the rear-end when absences exceed certain parameters stipulated by me, the big bad professor, one more permutation of "the man" who keeps everyone down, out, and disenfranchised. Or so would some have you believe.
Most students each semester manage pretty well with these course policies. They come ready to learn and eager to engage. Or at least they attempt it and show some dilignece in the process. The young man in question, not a freshman by the way, shot off his own two feet by missing more than the permitted number of days with no communication at the time of the absences during the semester. What is astounding to me is that classes ended in late April. Final exam week concluded in early May. This particular student waited until the middle of July to "inquire" about his final grade (to my chair no less). Situations like this one are not unusual in the second decade of 21st century. Another student dug a similar deep hole for herself, oddly in the same course, late last winter, missing almost half of the scheduled course meetings by Midterm in March and then denying everything when she came to ask about her attendance before Spring Break Week. Sigh.
I don't know what it is like now in other countries, but my impression of fellow students when I studied at a large university in Norway 20+ years ago was very different. Those young people, on the whole, were much more serious, a few years older in some instances, so more mature, more focused, more responsible generally speaking, and certainly much more independent. Mom, Dad, and student support services of one kind or another did not interfere on their children's behalf as is the case here at home. But maybe things have changed since I studied abroad?
In any case, we have certainly done our utmost here in the United States, through a variety of ways, and thanks to a number of societal shifts over the last half century or so, to raise at least two generations of whiny, bed-wetting snowflakes (to borrow language from our more vehement talk radio personalities), who simply dissolve into puddles when faced with any form of opposition or unanticipated surprises. They lack, among many other soft skills sought by employers who interview and evaluate entry-level job candidates from the so called millennial generation, emotional resilience. I've actually read quite a bit about this issue recently if you are wondering, and it strikes me that far too many parents are crippling their children in a litany of ways by playing far too large a role in the lives of late adolescents and young adults.
Now, before anyone out there fires back with some passive-aggressive version of "It sounds like you must really hate your job!", nothing could be further from the truth. I enjoy what I do by and large. Most of my colleagues are pleasant individuals and do interesting work over and above their teaching commitments. Moreover, I have many students each semester who are a joy to work with during and outside of class. Interesting, focused, and driven young adults, who bring a great deal with them to each course. About a third to possibly half of students at a stretch. These personalities make the late nights, lengthy preparation for classes, and considerable time spent reading through papers and projects worth it.
Then, there are the others, who seem to think that the world owes them something for nothing. That because it is college, attending classes, for which they have paid and are enrolled, routinely and consistently is somehow optional and/or a grave inconvenience. Why are students like this even clogging the system with their (sporadic) presence? It is here that my own academic elitism and related indignation begins to seep out around the edges. If young people are not even going to bother doing their best to learn and succeed, they ought to take their figurative ball and go home now. Sooner rather than later. Don't bother. Drop out. Live in Mom and Dad's basement until your mid-thirties. Give your place at college or university to someone else. There might be plenty of other young people out there who might be ready to jump at the chance for a college or university education and who might, just might hit the ground running and take every advantage that comes their way academically speaking to perform to a conscientiously high(-er) standard.
The problem comes, I think, from the overwhelming sense of entitlement that so many people exhibit here in the U.S. now. At some point, we became a throw-away society. About everything. People no longer value anything because they have never had to do without, work for, or struggle to achieve it. The Great Depression generation, and its influence, is largely gone at this point. Most things are accessible to most people in 2017, to the point that many take things, like a university education, completely for granted. It has become almost as disposable as a cheaply made Abercrombie and Fitch t-shirt. Intellectual fast fashion. After very limited use, or especially if we don't like something, we throw it away. Or limp along half-heartedly and complain. Vociferously. In the mistaken belief that saying something often enough makes it true.
We have done this to ourselves I suppose. My own feeling is that college and university admissions ought to be more rigorous and competitive, with fewer attending in the first place. That will never happen in the U.S. at this point for a variety of what I strongly suspect are financial "big business" reasons, among others, but I digress.
Returning to the point at hand, it is also worth mentioning that I teach on a fairly large university campus. If students find my specific courses less than interesting, there are plenty of other courses from which they might choose, and there is something called the Add-Drop period at the start of each new semester. Different strokes for different folks as they say, and students are certainly free to drop my courses during the first 7-10 days or so of the term and re-register for others more in keeping with their interests and academic goals. No problems. No questions asked. Not a biggie. Few take the opportunity to do so however.
Keep in mind, where attendance and assignment deadlines are concerned, that if I am contacted by certain offices on campus about any medical or mental health issues that might arise for a student, or a sudden death in that person's family, then of course I will make reasonable accommodations. Things like this happen, but rarely. Most students who accrue excessive absences do so simply because they either cannot get their asses out of bed in time (although none of my classes are scheduled before 10am), or they lose track of how many course meetings they skip. That is not, and should not be, the problem of professors, lecturers, or graduate teaching assistants on college and university campuses.
On a related note, there has been much talk, and then some, in recent years about so called "student success," making everyone college-ready, student retention, graduation rates, and time to degree completion. The figures are pretty depressing. Lots of young people in the United States spend some time on a college or university campus somewhere, but only about a third to one half, depending on the study, actually graduate with a degree in hand. The people screaming about this seem, though, in their righteous indignation, their mad dash to reform educational policy every few years, and their attempts to circumvent academic freedom and interfere with what teachers and professors do in their classrooms seem to forget something. Ready? Here it comes.
The vast bulk of time and effort still must come from the students' side of the desk. They need to pick up the ball, figuratively speaking, run with it, and simply do the work to an acceptable standard. They must make full use of the amazing opportunity they have been given in many instances instead of throwing it away and treating a college or university education like a four- or five-year, all expenses paid (for the time being) party.
Improving pedagogy and creating additional student support networks on two- and four-year campuses is a fine ideal, but that removes any responsibility from the students, who are, let's not forget, young adults. They have credit cards, expendable income, cars, sex (for many), the right to vote, and the right to enlist in the armed services to kill others (legally) if necessary, as well as the right to make their own decisions and take responsibility for their actions. If young adults enrolled in college or university make only very weak, occasional attempts, at best, to engage, how can they expect to perform any better than fair to middling in their studies or, indeed, their later lives?
Here is the inconvenient truth that so many seem to ignore in 2017 although it stares them in the face. Not everyone is going to earn a trophy. Special recognition, as well as high grades, come from exceptional work that goes over and above the basic requirements. Although being physically and mentally present in the room can help somewhat, not everyone is willing to make the necessary changes and prioritize things in their lives, nor is everyone, frankly, always able to achieve a high rate of academic success. The theory of multiple intelligences is fine, and while many if not most of us can be taught to do many different things, assuming we buy into that thinking, you've got to come to the figurative table. As television and newspaper advertisements for the Pennsylvania State Lottery used to intone when yours truly was a young sprat, "You've got to play to win!" That slogan is apt when if comes to college and university students earning above average to high grades.
In any case, half-assed, careless attempts at something, causing one's own problems through inactivity, refusal to accept consequences when they occur, whining about it, and then blaming those problems on someone else ain't the way forward, ladies and gentlemen. That kind of thing might be the current fashion, but it's certainly not classic style by any means.