In Generation X Goes to College, Peter Sacks recounts his experiences teaching at a community college as something of an outsider to academia, having previously worked primarily in journalism. He is not at all impressed with his students.
I taught part time for several years at a major state university, and full time for two years at the community college level. I last taught over twenty years ago, during roughly the same period of time as Sacks. I found much, though not all, of his account of his experiences to be consistent with what I experienced.
Sacks believes that most students have the consumerist attitude that because they’re the ones paying, it is the teacher’s responsibility to teach them, not their responsibility to learn. I would put it a little differently. The overwhelming majority of my students were quite indifferent to whether they learned anything. Their consumerist attitude wasn’t so much about trading money for learning as it was trading effort for grades. They wanted to pay the least in effort for the highest grades they could get. Why do 50% of the reading if you can get the same grade by doing 10%? Why torture yourself writing a term paper if you can obtain one over the Internet? Why learn the material you’re to be tested on if you can just review old tests that your fraternity keeps on file for this instructor? To put more effort into a class than you absolutely have to would be as pointless to them as paying $2 for a loaf of bread that costs $1. Learning doesn’t enter into it.
Sacks laments the way the TV generation students need to be constantly entertained, to have their micro attention spans indulged. That was somewhat true when I was teaching, and I suspect it has gotten worse since. A friend of mine once made an interesting point about this. He noted that if you talk to students, or if you listen to the conversations they have with each other, when they have anything positive to say about a teacher, by far the most common term of praise you’ll hear is “funny.” At least 75% of the time, and probably more, you’ll hear, “Oh, that’s a great class. He’s so funny!” “You should take a class with so-and-so. He’s really funny!” Etc.
Sacks feels that students and their evaluations are far too influential in determining such things as tenure decisions, and hence that instructors know to suck up to students by giving them everything they want. In my limited experience, I did not find this to be a significant issue. In fact, at one institution, a committee had to decide whether to hire me on permanently after I had completed a one year assignment with them, and I was quite surprised when they mentioned to me that they had never thought to even look at my student evaluations.
Sacks laments the extreme grade inflation of recent years, and the way that students feel entitled to high grades for mediocre work. That fits my experience one hundred percent. The most common student attitude that I encountered was basically that adequate work deserves an A+, and that if you are going to give anything less than 100% of the available points to a student on an assignment, you had better be able to cite egregious errors in their work. If I told someone they had gotten a B or even an A- on a paper, the most common response was a surprised or angry “What was wrong with it?!”
Sacks attributes some of the negative attitudes he encounters to the versions of “postmodernism” and such that have filtered down to the student level. I tend to agree. Things were already headed in that direction when I was teaching, and what I have heard since then leads me to believe they’ve gotten worse. For many students, there is no “truth,” no one can possibly be more intelligent or more learned than anyone else, and it is ridiculous and offensive for anyone, including a teacher, to pass judgment on other people by something like giving them grades for their work. Indeed, even for many “educators” (using the term loosely), college is far more about providing therapy and boosting the self-esteem of the students and indoctrinating them with some nebulous version of cultural relativism than it is about traditional notions of learning. One of the worst things you can do to a student—sure to raise hackles now since it’s so unheard of—is to state or imply that they’re wrong about something. All opinions are equal, after all, and their opinions are just as “true for them” as yours are “true for you.” Apparently it’s better that students be socialized to be thin-skinned ignoramuses than that they have “Western logic” and “linear thinking” imposed on them.
While I mostly sympathized with Sacks’s complaints, I did wish he could have found a way to maintain high standards and teach the way he felt was best instead of giving in to the pressures he perceived. In spite of all he says that I largely agree with, I genuinely liked the vast majority of my students. You certainly don’t get the impression he does. Yes, there are a high number of students who have absolutely no business in an institution of higher learning until they grow up. But there are also a handful of motivated students with positive attitudes about learning, and considerably more “fence-straddlers” whom a skilled teacher can inspire into the “good student” category. I always felt that I had to work on improving my teaching and on getting through to more people in any way I could. Whether I was 1% or 99% responsible for their learning didn’t matter; I still wanted to do the best job I was capable of doing. Yes, it would be nice if more students would cooperate in the process, but you work with what you’ve got.
Generation X Goes to College is a valuable look at the college teaching experience in the modern age. I just wish the author could have warmed to the challenge of teaching in spite of the accurate criticisms he offers.