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Too Cool for School? Don’t Be Fooled

by on August 26, 2015 6:00 AM

I just read exactly the wrong book for starting off the new semester on the right foot.

It’s called “My Freshman Year,” by an anthropologist who pseudonymously calls herself Rebekah Nathan.

During her sabbatical, Nathan enrolls in her own university, “AnyU.” Since she’s in her 50s, she’s doesn’t go undercover, exactly, but passes herself off as a returning student so she can observe undergraduate life as a participant rather than from behind the lectern.

From her new listening posts in the residence hall and in the cheap seats of the lecture hall, Nathan rarely hears students talk about the content of their courses. Despite the university’s efforts to promote diversity, they rarely befriend anyone who doesn’t share their ethnic background.

And when she asks her classmates and dorm mates whether they would skip college if they could buy their diplomas outright, most say they wouldn’t, but not because they think they wouldn’t learn things they need to know. They just wouldn’t want to miss out on the four years of fun.

Yes, parents -- and with a son still in college I include myself in this category -- you and your child are paying and/or borrowing $20,000 to $40,000 per year for summer camp!

If there’s any comfort for us professors in these sorry tidings it’s the confirmation that, as Paul Simon sang, “it’s not just me and it’s not just you/ This is all around the world.”

Or as Nathan puts it, don’t take it personally when students don’t do the reading or don’t participate in class. Between their coursework, their jobs, their extracurricular commitments and their personal dramas, they’re swamped.

Doing as little as they can get away with isn’t necessarily a sign of indifference. It’s an essential time management strategy.

Still, the feeling that we profs are performing for an audience that doesn’t want to be there and doesn’t appreciate our talents is hard to shake. How do we not feel, in my dad’s words, like we’re banging our heads against the wall?

A common sop is that there are three or four kids in each class who “get it” – who participate not to earn brownie points but out of genuine interest. Draw your sustenance from them, one hears. Ignore the slackers.

Then there’s the theory of delayed impact: the idea that even the most glassy-eyed seat fillers are deriving some benefit from their classes, even if they are unaware of it at the time.

This line of thinking takes two forms. The faith-based version asks us to believe that our future alumni were in some way enlightened by their exposure to our august selves, even if they can’t recall our names or a single idea associated with the content of our courses.

The evidence-based version has students belatedly appreciating all that we did for them and telling us so, in a you-may-not-remember-me e-mail.

There’s some merit to all three of these little tales we tell ourselves. In a society that pushes high schoolers, whatever their academic attainments, to get bachelor’s degrees so they can get a good job, it should not surprise us to find a passion for learning to be in short supply among our students.

As for delayed impact: As a parent I’m quite sure that my children learned more from my everyday comportment in the face of life’s challenges and absurdities than they did from any overt lessons I tried to articulate. The same may be true of my students.

And I am, occasionally, surprised and grateful to hear from former students who are writing just to thank me for something I said or did that they found meaningful or useful.

Further cold comfort may be derived from historical accounts of college life that strongly suggest that it has ever been thus.

College professors tend to believe otherwise, but on this subject we are notoriously unreliable sources: When we claim that students were more studious back in our day we remember our own late-night discussions of existentialism but we forget that we were the dweebs who actually liked school.

While we gravitated toward like-minded dweebs, everyone else was partying as much as possible and working as little as possible to meet the unreasonable demands of the boring old folks who stood at the front of the room.

Just like now.

OK, so assurance that higher education is no more of a charade today than it was in the days of dinks isn’t the cheeriest way to end a first-week-of-the-semester column. How about this, then:

When students complain about professors and courses, Nathan discovered, they don’t always have their hearts in it. Cynicism is their default stance. It makes them sound wised up.

But when none of their peers are listening, they may tell you that they kind of like school.

Juts like their dweeby instructors.

A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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