I am hearing it again and it really bothers me. It is the end of the semester. I am tired, and so are my students. Yet I listen too often to laments from faculty members talking about how the quality of our students has declined. They are not doing the reading. They have no work ethic. They are just not prepared for college work. And they could not write their way out of a paper bag.
But maybe, just maybe, it has something to do with the global pandemic we are struggling through. I have been hearing the same laments from the same instructors for a long time, so it has to be more than that. Maybe, just maybe, as students worry about the dicked-up world our generation has bequeathed to them, we have failed to inspire them to do the work. Maybe they do not do the work because they really cannot get to it right now. Maybe they can’t get to that work because you and I have failed to convince them that this work is important and that it matters more than all the other stuff they are dealing with. Maybe, just maybe, they do not care about the work because, frankly, we have not given them reason to care about what we do and why we think it is important.
Maybe, just maybe, some of us college professors ought to look at what high school and elementary school teachers go through. Their students, they say, are often not prepared for classwork. They have lots of things going on in their young lives that cause them to view school as less important than other things on their list of concerns. And you know what? Those teachers still have to teach. Their jobs depend on it. They do not get to blame the students. They have to meet certain standards, whatever we might think about those standards, or they can face penalties. The good teachers find ways to inspire their students to work and to learn.
When I look at my Zoom screen, I see a small number of black boxes. Because the students are at home, I do not feel comfortable asking them to turn on their cameras if they do not want to–I have no idea what might be going on in their homes, and if they feel a need for privacy, I feel bound to respect it. I wish their cameras were on, but I am not willing to make an issue out of this. Some of my students, I know, are not doing all the reading. I tell them to do their best. I firmly believe that if they are interested, at some point they will come back to this subject if they miss it now. I suspect that one of the reasons why their journals (300 words a week) are coming in late is because some of them, rather than writing each week, waited until the last possible second to do the work. I know that two of my students have buried a parent, and that a half dozen or so have either been sick themselves or in quarantine for Covid exposure. I do not blame the students for any of this. If the students in your classes are not reading, if they are not participating in your class discussions as much as you would like, if they seem uninterested, it might be more productive to look in the mirror before you start beating down students.
Maybe, just maybe, you will have to adjust your standards, or make fundamental changes to the way you teach. I think here of people like Kevin Gannon, Cate Denial, and Thomas LeCaque, who have helped to inspire me to rethink how I approach my classes. If the students truly “are not as strong as they used to be,” then you may need to change your approach. You may have to reconsider how you teach. I firmly believe this, and it is a hill I will die on: if our students are failing to learn what we are trying to teach them, then you and I are failing as teachers. And if this is something you would rather whine about than fix, perhaps you can find something else to do with your life. Maybe, just maybe.
As this semester approaches its end, I can admit to my students that I am exhausted. We are approaching Christmas, with all the busy-ness that entails. I had Covid in early November and, three weeks after being cleared by the County Health Department, I still do not feel like I have fully recovered. My tank is nearly empty. But I have no papers to write, no final exams to study for, no all-nighters that I need to pull. All that is left for me this semester as a (virtual) classroom teacher is to read what my beleaguered, stressed-out, sometimes careless and sloppy, but always interesting students have to say. And I feel fortunate to be here for that. Maybe, just maybe, we can make a resolution for the New Year: No more bitching and moaning about students.
Stay safe out there.