Friday, February 20, 2009

Teaching Thursday: Student Entitlement

I cannot count the number of times that the word "entitled" has come up when discussing today's students among other academic friends. A new study by Ellen Greenberger et al., "Self Entitled College Students: Contributions of Personality, Parenting and Motivational Factors" Journal of Youth and Adolescence 37:10 (Nov. 2008), pp. 1193-1204, has recently made those sentiments official. The study focused on students at the University of California, Irvine, and was reported by Max Roosevelt, "Student Expectations Seen as Causing Grade Disputes," New York Times (Feb. 17, 2009). Quantified in the language of social science, what seems obvious to many college teachers now has documentation.

Generally speaking, most professors that I know in the Humanities care little about what people in Education have to say; many even find research on teaching to be pseudo-scientific. And I must admit; I have sat through some meetings in search of "rubrics" that were so reductive as to make no viable sense. But last year, I read a book that highlighted the divide between pedagogy in the humanities and social science on education. Derek Bok's
Our Underachieving Colleges (2006) argues that most academics feel that they know what teaching is all about and categorically refuse to consult any of the expert literature. I agree with Bok that our professorial attitude of "we are teachers and know best" is doing us a disservice as we continue to operate on completely arcane assumptions about who our students really are.

Whether derived through soft science or personal experience, the truth of the matter is that entitlement and grade inflation are rampart. "According to the UC Irvine study, a third of students surveyed said that they expected B’s just for attending lectures, and 40 percent said they deserved a B for completing the required reading." The culprits for this attitude are varied and complex. They involve not only standardized testing and aggressive parents, but also academics like us whose eyes are set on tenure (i.e. positive student evaluations) and not on thorny pedagogical questions.

I have no answers here, but I simply want to note that the study has, at least, generated some interesting discussion among fellow academics. What I've learned from this interchange is that the discourse of "entitled" students is geographically limited. My own experiences at Clemson, S.C., corroborate on the regional variation. Many non-academic issues governed student behavior at Clemson, but entitlement (as I've known it in elite East Coast colleges) was not the primary one. I've found that in the South there is still a fundamental respect for the role of the teacher and the inherent value of education. Many of the students may be the first ones in their family to attend college and they fully understand how different the classroom is from life. Clemson students would not assume that my class (and my existence) was simply a vehicle for a good grade that would guarantee something useful, entrance into the professional school of their choice. Being called "sir" was not simply southern politeness, but evidence of true respect for the knowledge that teachers bring to the table.

When I asked Bill Caraher (originator of Teaching Thursday blog), what he thought about the entitlement study, he sent me the following email. With his permission, I decided to post Bill's response below. Bill, I should add, is expanding his Teaching Thursday across the entire University of North Dakota. For a fuller discussion, see Student Expectations in an Age of Anxiety.

Email from William Caraher
Thu, Feb 19, 2009, 10:33 AM


The funny thing here is that I never get students complaining about grades! If they don't understand their grade, they'll ask for clarification (which is only fair), but I have never heard a student ever say that they "deserved" a better grade. In fact, I sometimes have to tell the better students that they EARNED their grade... I didn't just give it to them.

It's really a cultural thing, right? I mean, suburban students from the east coast have had everything given to them -- I am one of those people -- but students from more rural backgrounds , they've had to work their entire lives on farms, at the mill, whatever. And even if they haven't had to actually do farm labor, they know that this is expected of people in the community.

And they are fatalistic. They expect things to work out sometimes and not work out other times. So, if they study hard and fail... they see this as no different than working hard on the farm and having a bad harvest. It just happens. Again, it's not to romanticize these students, but society out here is so different.

Finally, they are totally respectful. In fact, the first time I taught Greek history, I almost killed the class... I had them read the Iliad, Herodotus, Thucydides, chunks of Polybius (Polybius!!!), Pausanias, various other stuff. They just kept reading it and this was a mid-level undergraduate course. They kept reading and reading. And they didn't complain until finally, I asked them what they thought about the reading and they finally admitted that it was crushing them. I felt horrible! They assured me, however, that it was not my fault.They just needed to get to be faster readers. I was stunned.

Anyway, it's part of the reason I really like working out here. And it's not just the students. It translates to the community as well. They actually respect you as faculty and intellectuals. They might think you are full of hot air, but they at least recognize that you work for the common good of the state, the community, et c. (This doesn't however translate to good pay, but then again we earn more than most North Dakotans.)

What you need to re-invigorate you is a year out in the NorthernPlains. Although it could cause your head to explode.


No comments:

Blog Archive

Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States