Friday, January 27, 2006

Who's To Blame For the Fix We're In?

I'm now in my forty-third year of college teaching, thirty-three of them full-time before I became Professor Emeritus at a university in the South. Since then I've served as Visiting Professor elsewhere in the South and another region. There's no question in my own mind that a great decline has taken place in the quality of students over these years, especially in areas having to do with civility and maturity of attitude--subjects well documented on your blog.

Surely much of this reflects cultural degeneration and parental permissiveness as well as the creeping acceptance of lying, cheating and other forms of dishonesty as tolerable by society at large. I want to focus, though, on the extent to which members of my own profession, the ones doing the complaining here, have contributed mightily to the fix we're in today. For years now, a high proportion of faculty have apparently made it a matter of personal pride to dress like barn rats, toss verbal obscenties around in class, spend endless class time retailing their political views and personal opinions, cancel classes and alter syllabi as private agendas develop, and generally treat professional responsibility as a matter of constant reinterpretation in light of travel plans and out-of-town visitors. Why shouldn't a student show up in pyjamas if his/her instructor comes to class in bermudas, a filthy work shirt, a four-day stubble and a matted grey ponytail? Why should that student get very serious about attendance when every week or so a class is called off, via a department secretary or a note on the classroom door? Why buy a textbook when the whole term will be devoted to political ranting, sexual and domestic revelations and discussions of whatever Hollywood drivel happens to by on at the local movie house? For years and years I heard these complaints from students (I was an advisor as well as professor) about courses in a wide variety of subject areas. One associate professor made a point of collecting his mail just before class and spending the first twenty minutes or so opening and reading it aloud. Another wore the same pee-stained seersucker trousers for weeks at a steretch. Another discouraged the males in her class from asking questions or making comments, lest they prove intimidating or draw attention to their presence. Time and time again students complained about coming considerable distances to class only to be greeted by a terse "class cancelled" notice.

I'm not optimistic about the prospect of students ever returning to past standards of dignity and seriousness, but I think they might at least deserve the examples of teachers who adhere to professional expectations beyond simply picking up the paycheck.