The Broad is Back!

April 20, 2010

It’s a Crying Shame

A week or so ago, I was discussing a piece of literature with one of my classes, and I learned something totally unexpected.  No one in the class could come up with a working definition of “shame”.  We eventually managed to cobble something together by working backward from “being ashamed of yourself,” but the fact that they couldn’t even define the word shocked me. But then it made a problem I’ve been puzzling over in my job perfectly clear.

I have written many many times about changes I’ve seen in students since I returned to the States.  Most of, no, I would say all of them, are for the worse.  Students think nothing of telling me they haven’t done the homework, of plagiarizing half of their paper from internet sources, of skipping classes with impunity, of strolling in 30 minutes late, with headphones blaring, then getting tetchy with me when I call them on such rude behavior.

I would have died a thousand deaths before I admitted to a professor I hadn’t done my homework.  Well, frankly, I would have come up with a pretty good lie before I’d admit that I hadn’t looked at the syllabus.  But as lazy a student as I was, and I was, I almost always did my class preparation.  I would have been too ashamed of myself had I not upheld my part of the classroom contract.  I might not have put it into those words back then, but I knew my responsibilities and for the most part, I fulfilled them.

Nowadays? My students feel no shame.  Now I’m definitely not saying that I want students to live in shame, or worse, to wallow in shame.  But the penny finally dropped for me.  My students feel no shame because they don’t even know what the word is.

I realize that this is probably a simplistic view.  You don’t have to know what a word for an emotion is in order to experience the emotion, but I still think there’s something valid to be taken from this lesson.  So many parents don’t want their children to experience negative emotions.  We shield children from feeling guilt, shame, anxiety.  We wrap them in emotional cotton in order to protect their self-esteem. 

Nothing wrong with a healthy self-esteem, but shouldn’t it come from knowing you did a job well? Or at least correctly?  Is a self-esteem truly healthy that hasn’t been tested a bit? Am I that hopelessly old-fashioned that I think that learning needs not just rewards, but occasional punishment, especially at the college level. And shame really isn’t that bad of an emotion. I thought I knew what it was, but just in case, I looked it  up.  According to my friends at Merriam-Webster.com, it means: “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety”. 

Shouldn’t we be conscious of the fact we’ve done something wrong?   Isn’t that how we learn not to do wrong? We want to avoid the painful emotion.  It brings to mind a passage from one of my favorite books, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.  In it, Elizabeth is talking with her father, Mr. Bennet.  Lydia has eloped with Wickham, and poor Mr. Bennet has realized his faults as a father and says to Elizabeth:

“Who should suffer but myself? It has been my own doing, and I ought to feel it.”
“You must not be too severe upon yourself,” replied Elizabeth.
“You may well warn me against such an evil. Human nature is so prone to fall into it! No, Lizzy, let me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame. I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression. It will pass away soon enough.”

Even the famously indolent Mr. Bennet realizes the importance of feeling the sting for our own mistakes.  Some of us might beat ourselves up a bit too much, but for most of us the feeling passes quickly.  I have long seen, though, that for many of my students, there is never so much as a mere prick of their conscience. And I see that as a problem.

I truly want the best for my students. I want them to succeed in life and be happy and healthy.  And a little dose of shame to keep them on the path to success–being too ashamed to skip homework, to ignore the teacher’s words, to cut class, to be consistently tardy–isn’t that a good thing?

Now many of my students do apologize for not doing the work or for these kinds of negative behaviors, but almost every one of those students are either older or an immigrant, usually from Asia, where teachers are still held in esteem, or Africa, where teachers are esteemed and education is so precious. But for too many of them, academic wrongdoing isn’t even seen as a wrong doing. 

Eventually these students do get the punishment–they earn a D or an F for a class.  These grades lead to academic probation, to  getting cut from the more competitive degree programs the college offers, to repeating a course.  This adds time and money to their academic progress.  What a waste!  Wouldn’t it be better to have the tools you need to avoid these extreme scenarios? A little shame to keep you on the straight and narrow just makes more sense to me.

Just another little topic for me to worry about when teaching. Just another little lesson to add to the syllabus.  I’m supposed to be teaching college writing, and I am.  But like almost every other college professor I know, I’m also teaching life skills, which isn’t in my job description. And the fact that we are doing what parents and lower schools should have been doing, now that’s the crying shame.

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July 12, 2009

Helicopter Parents and Hothouse Flowers

For a while now, I’v e been threatening to write about the state of education in America.  Well, I’m geared up and actually have some time.  But before I start writing about the schools, I have to say something about the people the schools service: parents and children.  And from the title of this blog, you can probably tell I don’t have great things to say.

For those who haven’t heard the terms, these are the new descriptors for today’s parents and children.  Helicopter parents are parents who hover around their children, and in the process cushion every blow, ward off every potentially painful situation.  Helicopter parents are the ones who are up at 2AM “helping” their kids with school projects, helping being code for doing the kids’ projects.

Hothouse flowers are the kids who result from helicopter parents.  They are beautiful, pampered and do just fine in the rarefied, protective environment of their hothouses.  But once they are exposed to the harsh realities of life, once they meet any kind of hardship, they give up—they fall apart under pressure.  When I was a kid this kind of kid was called a brat who was spoiled rotten, but there are so many of them now they have a less “damaging” moniker.

Before I get too far into this, I do want to say that not all parents and kids fall into these categories.  In my experience, I find on many levels these roles are class markers.  My students in NYC community colleges are pretty uniformly free of helicopter parents and most are not hothouse flowers.  Their parents tend to be working far too many hours to have time to hover—these kids are more likely to be latchkey kids who’ve been working for years before they get to college, even if they are still only 18.  As a result of this, I find this group much easier to teach.  Sure, they have terrible study skills and know nothing about how to succeed in college, but that can be learned more quickly than learning to lose a sense of entitlement.

As a college professor, I get to avoid parents for the most part.  Once a kid is over 18 it doesn’t matter who’s footing the bill.  The kid is an adult in the eyes of the law, and I’m not allowed to discuss certain topics with parents.  And it’s usually only in cases of extreme emergency that I ever really deal with parents on classroom issues—when a student is in the hospital, parents will call to tell me, but that’s it.  I love talking to parents at school events like plays and sports games, but that’s strictly social chit chat.

But friends who teach at higher ranked private schools than I do have horror stories to share.  At one school, the rule about plagiarism (stealing the intellectual property of someone else and claiming it as one’s own) are clear.  If your teacher catches it, there’s a mandatory meeting between the student, the teacher and the dean.  A friend called one student on the carpet and before the meeting got a call from the dean.  The student’s parents and their lawyer were demanding to attend the meeting.  Now I don’t know about you, but if my son told me he was in trouble for plagiarizing in school, my response would not to be to bring in the lawyer.  It would be to metaphorically (if not physically) hit said kid upside the head.  How dare he cheat!  But not these parents (who sadly are not the only ones).  No, these parents are teaching their kid if you break a rule and get caught, make sure you bring in help to bail you out.

The subtext of that lesson is: it’s okay to cheat as long as you don’t get caught.

Now really, the first time a kid gets caught plagiarizing, the penalty is a slap on the wrist—a scary meeting with the school authority to throw a little reality into the seriousness of what they are doing and that’s it!  Helicopter parents don’t want their kids to face consequences that might hurt them down the road, but that means the kids aren’t learning the lessons they need to learn.  But the lessons these parents are teaching are much worse.

The bottom line is if you don’t let your kids fail when the stakes are low, how will they handle failure when the stakes are much higher?

And schools are feeling the pressure from these parents.  All of my syllabi are very clear on plagiarism.  If you do it in my class, you will fail.  Depending on the level of offense, you will fail either the assignment or the class.  Well, two students were caught cheating on their midterm.  My first response was the throw them out of the class permanently, but I rethought that and decided that both would get a Zero grade on the exam.  I thought that was more than fair considering I had repeated my warnings against cheating right up to the moment of the test being given.

I mean, really? Do I have to tell someone that it is wrong to cheat on a test?

Well, the head of my program, the one who has to take the flak from parents and higher ups, “recommended” that I just deduct 20-30 points from their exam grade because a zero would be rather harsh.  So I did.  Both failed the exam by a few points, but a grade in the 50s doesn’t quite damage a final grade as nicely as a big fat zero will.  In another school, I was talking to my dean about failing a student who was totally unprepared for the level of work we were doing in class.  I was told that I could not fail that student.  End of story.  That student was to pass.

And people wonder why I am disgusted with my life’s work.

Hothouse flowers are funny to have in class though.  They provide cynics like me with endless hours of entertainment.  Students who miss deadlines expect me to accept their work no questions asked.  When they receive grades they deem unacceptable, they demand the right to do it over.  When they fail quizzes because they did not do the required reading, they want “extra credit” work so that they get a good grade in the class.  Ah, the laughs I get from these demands.  My favorite is when they are failing through sheer laziness, so they drop the course.  That way they don’t hurt their GPAs.

Grades are also a bone of contention with hothouse flowers.  They are above average in every way, so they deserve above average grades.  In fact, I have yet to find a student who considers him or herself average in any way.  In fact, while I’ve been away, Americans have become a country of extremes—above average students (according to my students, a B- is a bad grade) or failures.  A C grade means average work.  There are no averages, no C students, any more.  Well, I actually give students C grades.  As a result, I am known as a “really hard grader” (that’s the kindest way to put it).  Often it’s not put that nicely.

Oh, on a whole, we teachers do give C grades.  But while C used to be the biggest grade group in a class, it’s now a much smaller percentage. (Remember the old bell curve grading standard?)  I would say the B grade has become the “new average” with more and more teachers trying to give a B- instead of a C+.

Grade inflation is something that academics have discussed since I’ve been a teacher, 21 years now.  Even top schools recognize that an A today is not what an A was 30 years ago when I started college.  An A grade is still hard to earn from me, but they are easier than they were years ago.  The most movement comes in the B-C-D range.  I know that papers that would have earned a C- from me when I was a newbie (still using the standards of grading that had been used on me) are now earning a B-.  I’m not proud of that, but departments try very hard to use grading norms so that the departments’, and in fact the college’s, grades are on a par.

Recently I gave a senior in my class a C on a paper.  I thought the C was a little high because there were not seven sentences in the entire three page paper that did not have some kind of major grammatical or spelling error.  I really thought that was unacceptable for a college level paper, and part of me wanted to make the student do it over, but I decided to let it go.  See? Standards really are dropping.

The student was enraged.  Couldn’t understand the C.  Had never gotten a C in college level work before!  When I pointed out the reason for the C and mentioned that I had originally wanted to fail the paper, the student really blew.  Who did I think I was? (Somewhere along the line many students have started treating professors like staff.  That doesn’t sit well with me.  At all.)  I was hated for the rest of the semester, and I’m probably still hated to this day.  Such is life.  All the other professors had also let it go, but even worse, had given much higher marks.

scariest part of this story, though?  This student was an education major and has just completed a first year of teaching at a public school.  And the student teaches English.

Next time: what’s up with America’s teachers?


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