Kids these days: Observations on Students

With another semester in the books and a new one about to start, I’ve managed to scribble some thoughts on teaching, students, and the profession. I decided to combine end-of-semester observations with some comments on the debate over college students these days.

Unlike some, I don’t see stories of college students trying to organize protests against the diner for not serving authentic ethnic cuisine, or pushing a petition against the First Amendment as either punching down, not important, or not legitimate as stories. Such college students aren’t imaginary, as Hua Hsu would have it. They’re real enough. I’ve just never met one, outside possibly my first year in graduate school, because there aren’t that many like that. If all you read about are cases like these, you could be forgiven for thinking that today’s college students are whiny, overly-sensitive, self-indulgent youngsters.

But that’s not my experience. I suppose eventually I’ll meet a student who is offended by reading the Life of St. Benedict, First Crusade chronicles, the poems of Sappho or Rudyard Kipling, or whatever part of Restall’s Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest I may assign (have never yet assigned it). So far, I haven’t. In fact, my students don’t seem to flinch from the nastier parts of human history, even though, in one exercise from last semester, they mostly did record a level of discomfort (it had to do with World War 2). Partly this has to do, I think, with the fact that a) I usually tell them if a reading or video is going to be gruesome, because I’m a professor, not a shock jock, and b) because, especially for surveys, I emphasize that the course is just a framework–the readings on the syllabus aren’t meant to signify the ONLY important stuff; they’re important for what I’m asking them to think about, but if you want to bring in other sources, by all means do so.

So, based on what I’ve seen, and excluding my West Point students, I don’t buy the argument that college students are “fragile.” It just doesn’t square with what I’ve seen across a decade of teaching. I certainly would think thrice before appropriating the language of disability studies to describe students (though I do appreciate “resiliency” as a concept, based on my time working for the Army). Lukianoff and Haidt’s article in The Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which has the even more click-bait tag “How Trigger Warnings Are Hurting Mental Health On Campus,” does use such language, and I don’t think the outcome of the article is very satisfactory.

That’s not to say that this very long article doesn’t document a trend toward accommodating student likes and dislikes, to the point of undermining the humanistic goals of a liberal arts education. It sort-of does. Maybe. But I think David Perry was very astute when he pointed out yesterday that in most instances the administration wins, (which is what I knew would happen when the students protests swept the country this past fall. Well, consulting companies won…).

On the other hand, contrary to Perry, decrying “political correctness” isn’t “always regressive, reinforcing hierarchy.” Sometimes it’s about simply placing controls on other people’s thoughts–how else would both liberals and conservatives accuse each other of it? Nor is it a moral failing to cover stories like Oberlin’s dining hall controversy. But stories such as the firing of an immensely popular adjunct at St. Mary’s University are, I would submit, much more news-worthy than some of the wackier college student stunts that have (justly) been covered in ridicule and haven’t gained traction among student populations.

Which brings me back to my students. Regular college students were my biggest re-discovery last fall, since for the last three years I’ve been privileged to teach very driven students with military discipline. This fall was a very mixed bag, and presented challenges that I had not actually had to face before, or face for some time.

  • As I heard someone (I think it was Lincoln Mullen) say over break, scaffold, Scaffold, SCAFFOLD. Seriously. You canNOT assume that students will shape their research in a way that avoids the broad, general approach: a collection of facts, not an argument. You have to build assignments gradually. Except with my upperclassmen, but even there some could have used scaffolded assignments as well. Back to basics on this one…
  • Today’s students aren’t lacking in intelligence. They’re about as smart as they were when I went to college. A couple of mine produced some of the best work I’ve ever seen in an undergraduate class.
  • They also aren’t lazy, by and large. On the whole. Even those who might not write well in formal composition could compensate by sparkling verbal discussion skills or the ability to engage with ideas, even if they were a bit lacking on “facts.” Many had never even attempted the kind of project I gave them, but darned if they didn’t put their heads down and win through. On the other hand, they usually want to be taught to the assignment, and have every part of the assignment materials handed to them. But, that’s been a general complaint among teachers since the Middle Ages, I think. Students are judged by their grades, so society’s expectations impact, ultimately, how I’m pressured to teach.
  • Freshman students today, however, DO seem to be less prepared with basic critical thinking skills than I remember from 10 years ago. The vast majority of my freshmen apparently never had to think in the way that I was trying to train them to think. Historical critical thinking takes them by surprise, mostly because it’s the opposite of how history (or social studies) is still taught in many high schools). The exceptions often stand out like Sirius in a winter sky.
  • At the same time. I’ve noticed that many students for some reason don’t realize that it is very difficult to excel in history, as difficult as chemistry, physics, or biology. Not sure how to address this, but I’m thinking about it. I think it comes down to focusing on the “big questions” about life and the past and the present and the future. If I’m right, this spring semester should be a lot of fun.
  • YET, students are ready and willing to be curious about the past, if you give them a chance. The “Lecture from the Lectured” essay hit many points that I believe in (including an acknowledgement that “lecture” doesn’t have to be the classroom monster many of my peers claim it must be). Students want to be engaged, and to feel like people, not numbers. The key is to structure the class so that they have the opportunity to BE engaged. Even when carried out imperfectly, the results are usually encouraging. Many of my students apparently felt their engagement with history had increased by December (or maybe they were just being nice), in spite of their own inclinations in September.

At the end of the day, I’ve found that my college students are still ready and willing to be inspired, as long as I have the heart and the dedication to lay the groundwork for the most dynamic, creative, and rigorous classroom experience possible. On to the next semester.