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Students Are Horrible in Every Way

Students these days. Take it from me, I teach college. They barely read. Can’t write a coherent sentence. They have no attention span. Or respect for authority. Or for knowledge. All they do is eat, cheat, sleep, sleep around, sleep through class—texting and sexting the whole while. They are worse than all previous generations of students. Basically horrible in every way.

At least that’s how some tell it. The sentiment appears ancient, but thanks to the Internet, these stories now circulate on a previously unimaginable scale. In the past decade, Rate Your Students and College Misery, websites dedicated to bad-mouthing students, published thousands of stories and received millions of views. In 2008 in a widely read Atlantic essay, Professor X, an anonymous college teacher, lambasted some of his students as unable to “write a coherent sentence” and not even ready for high school. More recently, Rebecca Schuman, an occasional college teacher, insisted that, since most college students can’t write and won’t learn to, we should stop trying to teach them. So far, readers have shared her essay more than 50,000 times on social media.

Of course, many see things differently. In What the Best College Students Do, Ken Bain, former provost at University of the District of Columbia, tells story after story of students who go above and beyond, often overcoming significant obstacles to learn deeply. In My Freshman Year, Cathy A. Small, a professor of anthropology at Northern Arizona University, writing under the name Rebekah Nathan, paints a picture of a college student culture that de-emphasizes learning, but she paints without exaggeration, making sure to highlight those students who do care and strive to grow.

We need to realize that student-bashing narratives do not tell the whole story. They are rooted in—and perpetuate—misunderstanding. They are unbecoming and counterproductive. The alternative perspective that Bain and Small represent sees students simply as people with desires and challenges. Some crumble. Some triumph. Some act stupidly. Some act brilliantly. Some have mean streaks. Some show incredible compassion. Most of the time students live between such extremes. But all students bring something to the table—and all have the potential to grow.

Of course, not all negative talk about students constitutes student bashing. We should not romanticize students. Sometimes negative things about students need to be said—sometimes they don’t care, sometimes they don’t try—for positive purposes. In those cases, how accurately a statement represent the problem it describes, what tone it takes, what it seeks to accomplish, and how publicly it is broadcast matter quite a bit. Does a statement generalize about all or most students on the basis of a few? Does it leave out context? Does it project bitterness, burnout, or hurt? Does it promote reactionary, regressive “solutions”? Does it ignore current research and theory on teaching and learning? Does it reach a public audience? Does it turn people sour on students, teachers, or education? The more yeses to these questions, the more a statement counts as student bashing.

Kvetching happens when teachers, shaking their heads literally or figuratively, tell one another in private about instances when their students acted in ways the teachers wish they did not. This sort of negative talk does not usually rise to the point of student bashing. Of course, too much kvetching makes an environment toxic eventually, particularly if not diluted by more constructive discussion. But a little bit is benign enough, sometimes even mildly helpful. Kvetching can communicate solidarity among teachers: “Teaching is hard. But we’re in this together.”

Better than kvetching is problem solving. It can be wonderfully productive for teachers to ask each other for perspective and advice on how to solve problems: “This is what’s happening in my classroom. Have you experienced something like this before? How do you think I should respond?” This sort of talk is grounded in specifics. It generally takes place in private. It respects students’ privacy when it takes place in public. It comes from an understanding that students and teachers alike can grow. While momentarily negative, this sort of talk is fundamentally positive. We need more of it.

While student bashing simply blames students for not learning and performing the way we want them to, the opposite is not to let them off the hook. Instead, we should parse responsibility accurately and proportionately among students, teachers, administrators, parents, elected officials, and society. Student bashing distracts us from issues of pedagogy, policy, and culture.

The most deplorable aspect of a lot of student bashing is its public nature. David Gold, an associate professor of English at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, rightly distinguishes between “venting by the photocopy machine among our colleagues” and “taking our complaints public.” For one, going after students in public is bad press and bad politics. Souring public attitudes towards teaching and learning does nothing to improve things. It just hastens the next round of funding cuts and testing mandates.

Most importantly, publicly bad-mouthing students is bad pedagogy. Common sense and research point in the same direction on this. Low expectations fuel lower performance. High expectations encourage higher performance. In Academically Adrift, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, sociologists at New York University and University of Virginia, respectively, famously (perhaps infamously) claim that most students barely improve in writing and thinking while in college. At first blush, their findings may appear to justify low expectations. Time and again, however, they stress that some students improve quite a bit—particularly when they perceive that their teachers have high expectations.

The way we talk about students, especially in public, shapes and communicates our expectations for them. Our expectations influence how much and how well they learn.

Paul T. Corrigan is an assistant professor of English at Southeastern University. He writes at Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

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