Reaching Out to the "Abandoned Generation"

Paul Trout
Montana State University-Bozeman

The Problem

Campus and classroom conduct codes are all the rage these days, and for very good reasons. Across the country, college students are exhibiting attitudes and behaviors that should provoke colleges and universities to take action.

For one thing, many students who now enter college are devoid of anything resembling an intellectual life. Some are actually hostile to scholastic achievement and academic values and think nothing of disrupting classrooms with boorish behavior. And some now cheat and plagiarize with insouciance; when caught red-handed, they are more likely to baldly deny it or threaten to sue than to apologize. Then there's the problem du jour--binge drinking. When a number of students across the country drank themselves to death, several colleges and universities tried to restrict alcohol on campus, but these efforts provoked student riots, dubbed the "new hedonism at the barricades." And let me not forget student drug use, which now begins in grade school and by college is so widely accepted that an e-mail making the rounds of campuses last year reminded students that the appropriate way to greet peers was "Hi, how are you?" not "How high are you?"

And yearly campus crime reports confirm the perception that something is seriously wrong with this generation of students. In 1996, arrests on campus for sex offenses and murder increased, and the total number of violent campus crimes reported was almost 9,000 (and colleges are notorious for under-reporting such crimes to avoid negative publicity). Fearing violence, nearly one million college students now come to class "pack'n" weapons (Chronicle of Higher Education 3 July 1997: A6). Instructors may want to do the same now that a 22-year-old economics major at the University of Maryland shoved a gun in the face of his math professor and demanded an A (College News Service, 23 October 1998). Thefts, arsons, rapes, suicides, homicides--it's no wonder that administrators are concerned about the emotional and mental health of students.

Administrators have responded to these pathologies by strengthening dismissal criteria, by instituting stiffer honor and conduct codes, by implementing "awareness" programs and campaigns, and by restricting or eliminating alcohol on campus. These responses, by stigmatizing and discouraging disruptive and dangerous behavior, will do some good, but they will not reach students on the level they need to be reached to redeem them from the anti-educational and self-indulgent attitudes they have acquired before coming to college. And these responses do not prepare students for living and working in the adult world. Lasting remedies for what troubles students are to be found not in bureaucratically imposed behavior control but in character building; not in more conduct codes but in more contact with caring and responsible adults. Let me explain why.

The people now sitting in our classroom are members of what Willimon and Naylor have called The Abandoned Generation (1995). Too many of our students, they argue, have not received--and so desperately need--adult supervision and tough-love mentoring. These kids have grown up without adults playing as important a role in their lives as they should have if these kids are to understand and embrace the habits and attitudes of the adult world, including the adult world of higher education. Simply put, adults, for all kinds of social and cultural reasons, have been remiss in providing the young with the moral guidance and intellectual mentoring they need to succeed in college and the world beyond.

This "Culture of Neglect" begins, of course, in the home. The time that kids spend with parents shrinks every year. One cause is divorce, which permanently removes one parent from the home and forces the other--usually the woman--to work to support herself and the children. In the 1960s, about seven percent of college students came from homes where parents were divorced, but by the early 1990s that number had risen to over 30 percent. Even when there is no divorce, time that kids spend with adults is shrinking; both parents often work, and when they are at home, their teen-aged kids are putting in 20 to 30 hours a week at the McJob and then more hours at team practice. In The Time Bind, Arlie Hochschild says that working parents live in perpetual time debt, owing their children time for which there is no substitute and no compensation.

As a result, according to Laurence Steinberg, 30 percent of parents are "remarkably uninvolved in their children's lives--either as sources of social support or as providers of guidance or structure" (118). About the same percentage are "permissive" or "indulgent," adopting--perhaps out of guilt for not being around enough--a "laissez-faire attitude toward raising children, typically striving to keep their child 'happy' by avoiding setting limits and engaging in conflicts with the child over his or her behavior" (112). As Willimon and Naylor put it, "children and adolescents are being reared in a vacuum."

The neglect of kids continues in the schools. In Why Our Kids Don't Study, John Owen writes that in the typical high-school classroom, an unwritten "contract" exists between teacher and pupils that enables the teacher to trade fewer demands and lower standards for a "minimum of conventional respect" and cordial relations. Sure, there are many exceptions, many examples of caring teachers who take students under their wings and give them extra time and attention, but there are also many teachers who avoid the strain of confrontation by simply not asking much of students, either academically or morally.

To top it off, higher education also has withdrawn from students. Colleges, of course, try to hide this fact by describing themselves as "friendly places" and by repeating the word "community" ad nauseam. But the reality of student life is quite different from the guidebook depiction. Kids who have experienced few authentic connections with adults are warehoused in high-rise dorms, treated as a number rather than a name, and thrust into massive lecture halls where they anonymously sink or swim. Many of their instructors make it quite clear that they have little time to spend with students outside of class. As one student has written to me recently, "Since I've attended college, I've had a few teachers who seemed to be more concerned about their own work and research than teaching. I recall one professor in particular that showed up for class five minutes late everyday and rushed out of the room as soon as the lecture ended. He never told us where his office was located or when we could reach him. Teaching was clearly a hassle."

Of course there are many reasons why instructors have gradually distanced themselves from students: to get ahead, some spend a lot of their time doing research and publishing; some feel underpaid and unappreciated and want to get away from the campus as soon as they get out of class; some get their rewards by doing a lot of committee work; some are turned off by contemporary students, disliking how they talk, dress, think, and act. And some simply reflect, as many of their students do, the Seinfeld style of the age--ironic, cool, un-intense detachment.

But this ruling mode of detachment is not lost on students. A senior at the University of Virginia wrote recently in The Christian Science Monitor that "Many professors seem reluctant to interact with students. Last spring, the Inter-Fraternity Council at UVa invited more than 200 faculty members to their annual awards banquet. Only three attended the event.... Few professors seem dedicated to academic advising and mentoring." Here's how one student views the situation at Montana State:

For many students, teachers provide some direction and guidance. Those who fail to receive this assistance often turn to alternative sources to seek community and a sense of belonging. I've had many friends from high school get wrapped up in drinking and depression because they have lost their focus in college. Unfortunately, teachers, peers, and the university community have failed to lend a helping hand. Much like the busy professor I mentioned earlier, everyone is too wrapped up in their own agenda. Many of my peers have become frustrated with a society that has turned their back, when this generation is so desperately asking for guidance and positive role models.

As this student's unnervingly perceptive comments reveal, these are not people yearning to be left alone. They crave contact with caring and responsible adults. It is particularly urgent that adults respond to this call for a helping hand because this generation--having been already inadequately parented and haphazardly educated--may be the least able of any generation to fend for itself when left to its own devices.

This is where college instructors come in. It is time for more of us to extend to them that helping hand. Students are pleading with us to do so. In a recent op-ed piece entitled "Professors: We Need Your Help to Solve Student Alcohol Abuse," published in The Christian Science Monitor (29 September 1998: B7), a senior at the University of Virginia wrote, "The current move to find alternatives to student drinking has fallen short and will continue to fail if the university's faculty members remain passive critics in the rehabilitation of student life."

It is up to us to help students rehabilitate student life (what an incisive phrase) because we see our students on a regular and frequent basis and are an important and imposing aspect of their academic lives. Many respect us, and many of us still care about their long-term intellectual development. And, as the intellectual leaders of the campus, we have a special obligation to show students how to take advantage of the breadth of intellectual activity college offers. We must help students push back against powerful social forces by extending and deepening our involvement in their lives. By doing so, we will help them become what most of us have managed to become--thoughtful, educated, caring, and successful adults.

Some Remedies Within Our Reach

Let me suggest some things instructors can do on their own, without the support of administrators and without a utopian restructuring of higher education, to provide students with the leadership, supervision, guidance, and mentoring they need and are asking for.

I'll begin with what I call authoritative teaching. Authoritative--notice, not "authoritarian"--teachers are more concerned with students' long-term development than with students' short-term desires or "happiness." They do not coddle students, or release them from their obligations, or give them easy praise or undeserved high grades out of humanitarian "compassion" or a misguided desire to raise self-esteem. Instead, authoritative instructors announce clear and high (but reasonable) expectations and standards and commit themselves to helping students achieve them. The authoritative instructor tries to engage students, but does not dumb down material so that everybody gets it without much effort or winds up just having a "good time." One might say that the authoritative instructor is "a warm and fuzzy brick wall." Authoritative teaching may not make up for eighteen years of bad parenting, but it may help those who want to be saved, as one student put it, "from their worst selves."

High standards and rigorous workloads not only improve student learning, they show students that the instructor respects them as learners. A poll by the New-York based Public Agenda Foundation in 1997 found that half the high-school students interviewed said they had lost respect for their teachers and the educational system because they were not challenged to do their best and were rewarded for mediocre work (Richard Morin, "A Matter of Respect--Or Lack of It" The Washington Post [National Weekly Edition] 17 February 1997: 34). Indeed, most felt that they were essentially "living down" to low expectations placed on them by their schools. Ninety-six percent said they wanted to excel. The only way to win back their respect, the students said, was for schools to set tough standards and enforce them. What America's teens want from their teachers and their schools, according to those who did the survey, is "more challenge and structure--for someone to take them seriously enough to demand that they do their best."

Sure, there are a lot of college students who do not like instructors with challenging workloads, high standards, strict classroom policies, and a serious-minded commitment to course material and traditional educational goals. These students may grumble and mark down authoritative instructors on course evaluation forms. But other students will appreciate and respond to authoritative teaching, as these comments from students make clear:

Almost every study I've seen of disciplinary teachers has pointed out that kids who are encouraged to focus on academics and are forced to do their best always feel better about themselves. It comes down to working hard and feeling proud of your work. Like I had mentioned in a earlier journal entry, I always felt better about my work when I knew that I had worked hard and done well. (from 1997)

Educators need to get tough and stay tough. I understand the problem of job security, or lack of it. But if a professor is not willing to stand up for what is right, then who will? ...We, "the fans of Beavis and Butt-head," can not be blamed for not living up to society's expectations because it was our educators who molded and guided us into the unstimulated, intellectual wasteland.... Students have more respect for the professor who lays down the law and does not take any blubbering from the students. My favorite teachers from my past are the ones who made me "earn" my grade.... Students will always whine about the work required in classes. I'm sure they whined about it even back in the 1960s. It is just that back in the 1960s the professors did not give in to the students' complaints. Professors need to stand their ground and their students will live up to their expectations. (from 1996)

Here's a very powerful story about one professor who stood his ground when disadvantaged minority students grumbled and whined about the demands of his humanities course. One day, they protested the rigor of the course by collectively coming in twenty minutes late. Wanting to nip in the bud this sign of disengagement, Daniel Kaufman prepared a short speech for the next session:

Now ghetto kids understand the concept of respect-not "dissing" people, indeed, is of key importance in the inner city, where it can get you shot-and I made our course an issue of respect,particularly of the instructor's respect for the student. This was something my class did not expect; they were anticipating a scolding. I explained that the reason my course is so difficult is that I respect my students as human beings and think that they are just as worthy of a quality education as rich white kids at Harvard. To give them kid-glove treatment would be to "dis" them, insofar as it would imply that they were inferior and incapable of handling the kind of work that white people can do. But respect entails responsibility, and I laid out precisely what my responsibilities to them were.... Then I went over their responsibilities to me and to themselves to work to the best of their ability and to come to class and conduct themselves with civility and dignity. ("Minority Kids and the Classics" Academic Questions 11.2 [Spring 1998]: 57)
The students successfully knuckled down to studying Plato. Kaufman had the courage to stand his ground because he knew what they did not, that watered-down demands would doom these kids to a life of second-class citizenship in the dominant culture.

I do not know how many instructors have Kaufman's courage to resist student pressure to dumb-down courses, but I do know from talking to instructors across the country that it would be easier for many of them, especially those who are untenured and those on one-year renewable contracts, to better resist such pressure if they did not have to worry about getting high scores on numerical evaluation forms to keep their jobs or earn raises. While numerical forms may once have helped improve instruction by making college teachers more aware of what worked and didn't work for a majority of students, these forms are now probably doing more to harm college instruction than to improve it. They encourage instructors to appease students who demand education lite, and they discourage instructors from experimenting with ways to improve instruction (for fear of bad scores). Even Willimon and Naylor--two of the most pro-student educators I've encountered--recognize that these forms now undermine both instruction and the integrity of higher education:

On the surface, teacher-course evaluations appear to be progressive, giving students the opportunity to provide professors with feedback on their teaching abilities without fear of reprisals. In reality, the course evaluations provide another incentive for professors to give high grades and make their courses easy.... Even very bad teachers know that they can improve their ratings with their students by making their courses easy and giving good grades--particularly at the beginning of the course.

As professors, knowing that our salary may be influenced by our teacher-course valuations may make us unwilling deliberately to risk poor student evaluations. We learn that it is best to avoid giving low grades on quizzes and papers before the teacher evaluation forms have been distributed at the end of the semester.... One should never overtly confront students about their class attendance, indolence, apathy, or impertinent behavior. The entire class may turn against the professor, leading to a precipitous drop in one's ratings as a teacher. (Abandoned Generation 21-22)

If large numbers of instructors are to raise standards and really challenge students, these forms are going to have to be consigned to the scrap heap of worn-out educational reforms. There are better ways to help teachers improve instruction and less pernicious ways to evaluate their classroom behavior for administrative purposes. Instructors should resist using these forms and campaign to eliminate them for the sake of their students and the integrity of higher education.

Here are some other ways for instructors to respect and nurture students. Instructors should develop classroom strategies for regularly monitoring the attentiveness and progress of students. This tells students that the instructor cares about their intellectual development and their doing well in class. This constant demonstration of concern helps students identify with the instructor and take themselves seriously as partners in a common enterprise designed to help them become thinking and informed adults.

Two devices for monitoring student progress that I have found valuable are the "microtheme" and the "learning/course journal." The microtheme is an index card (I stipulate 4 X 6 cards) on which students have written an answer to an assigned question. I assign a question during class and the students come to the next meeting with their answers written on the index card. I then pick up the cards from certain students and write comments on them, returning them the next meeting. (If they do not have a card, I subtract one-half point from their end-of-semester total.) Meanwhile, I have assigned another question and so on throughout the term; students write up to 30 cards, with many cards so densely filled out that they equal a one-page paper, single spaced. At an announced time during the semester, I choose, by chance, one card to grade from those written; this procedure means that most cards have been extensively revised, as any one of them could be chosen as the graded microtheme. This selection procedure is repeated three more times. Thanks to this process, I am able to identify and regularly monitor students who are struggling.

Another device is the learning/course journal, which operates like the microtheme but students now write one- or two-page entries in a spiral journal. Two other devices, more suitable for large lecture courses, are the end-of-class question sheet, on which students can jot down what still seems unclear to them, and the end-of-class review sheet on which students write down the most important thing they learned that day. By using these devices, an instructor demonstrates every day that he or she is concerned about student performance and progress. The use of such devices need not seriously increase the workload of the instructor.

To help each student feel that he or she is a unique and important part of an educational mission, instructors should learn each student's name. This sounds like small-potatoes, but no single thing a faculty member can do is more effective in engaging students and making them feel that somebody cares about them personally. Here's how one student describes his experience of sitting anonymously in a large lecture course: "This class is held in a large lecture hall with about 300 students. I attend every lecture, every lab, and read the key concepts of the chapters; yet, I am still doing poorly in the class. There are help sessions available for those who are struggling, but they are only once a week and conflict with my schedule. One of the worst parts about it is that you can't get any help at the lecture because there are no TA's to help out the professor while he is talking. He doesn't even know the names of anyone in his class. I sort of feel like a robot trained to just sit and take notes and not interact with anyone." It's a chore, of course, to learn the names of 300 students, but those who teach such courses could use seating charts, complete with the picture of each student, to personalize classroom exchanges and make students feel more respected. To help make these courses work better, instructors who teach them should ask students themselves how the course could be made more personal and engaging.

While I'm against end-of-semester numerical evaluation forms, I do recommend that instructors, especially in large-enrollment courses, ask students during the course of the semester to write down how they assess the instructor's presentation of material, the course design, class discussions, classroom atmosphere, the readings, etc. This can be done once or twice during the semester (more often is overkill). Students are pretty cynical about end-of-semester forms, which are made out too late to improve the course they're in, but they really like the mid-term formative survey because it allows them to shape the course while they're enrolled in it. The instructor is free to accept or reject suggestions, of course, but when I've rejected this or that complaint, I've explained why to the class.

Another way to show respect for students and to encourage them to take themselves seriously as learners is to involve them in research and to help them get published, even as freshmen. This is slightly easier to do, perhaps, in the sciences and social sciences than in the humanities, where it takes time-consuming years of reading to be an informed critic, but there are ways that students can do research that leads to publication in some venue or other, whatever the discipline. To encourage such outcomes, many institutions have Undergraduate Scholars Programs, Honors Programs, and internships that place students with on-campus and off-campus publications. As a result, more undergraduates than ever before are now working in labs, being listed on scholarly publications, delivering their own papers at local, regional, and national scholarly conferences, and publishing in all kinds of venues, from campus newspapers to national periodicals. But these things happen only when an instructor takes the time to work with a student outside the classroom.

Another way to encourage students to take themselves and the whole educational enterprise more seriously is to engage them in thoughtful reflection about their academic goals and values. This could be done quite effectively by designing courses in which students examine educational issues and academic culture. An English literature course, for example, could focus on literary works about education (such as "Oleanna," "The Browning Version," "Another Antigone," A New Life, Changing Places, etc.), a Composition course could have students read and write about contentious educational debates, a Philosophy course could ask students to speculate about the ethics of education or explore the grand questions about the goals of education, a Sociology course would examine education as a social institution, and so on, through the disciplines. Education is too important a topic, and too contentious an issue, to be left to Schools of Education. Such courses could amount to something of a common experience or informal core for students. Indeed, courses now in existence that are designed to give freshmen a common intellectual experience in a seminar setting would benefit students more if they were devoted to this topic than to more fashionable cultural topics.

Not only would this large-scale curricular commitment effectively initiate more students into adult academic values and concerns, but it would enhance the likelihood of their doing research and thinking that could be published. After all, when students come to college they already know quite a lot about education; all some may need to join the scholarly conversation is deeper and wider reading. And, as this essay, I hope, shows, the views of some students on educational issues deserve to be heard.

Some of the activities I've described so far might be labeled "mentoring." But to me, mentoring means nurturing a student outside the classroom over time, in many ways and for no tangible reward; it entails a personal commitment to helping that student develop both intellectually and ethically even when the course has ended. What I do as a mentor is to look for students who seem to respond to my methods and values and who need or would benefit from special personal attention. Then I give them that attention in any way that is appropriate and helpful. Mentoring can have its disappointments, but it is sometimes just the thing some students need to take themselves seriously as people with something to contribute to the adult world.

Here are a few more ways in which instructors can lend students a helping hand. Each department could have a monthly meeting specifically designed for students at which instructors discuss issues relevant to students, such as grading theory and practice, appropriate course loads, textbook selection procedures, educational philosophies, professional debates and tensions, etc. Each department should also have a club for majors that meets regularly off-campus; stewardship of the club should rotate through the department staff. More instructors should also be involved with campus student groups as sponsors, advisers, and even members. Instructors should also encourage the campus student government to create programs that enable instructors to visit fraternities, sororities, and campus dorms to give informal presentations or lead discussions on topics interesting to students. Instructors should also ask SUB managers to set aside space in the building and the cafeteria where instructors can occasionally hold classes in a more relaxed setting.

In addition, the faculty senate or council should pressure administrators at all levels to teach one lower-division course once a year. Not only would this save money, but it would help administrators stay in-touch with the realities of classroom instruction and show students that administrators are accessible and truly concerned about the quality of undergraduate instruction. Faculty should also urge the administration to create a center for teaching and learning and establish professional development programs designed to improve classroom instruction. Most faculty have had no real training in classroom instruction and are blithely unaware of research that examines the pros and cons of different instructional methods. Small stipends could be awarded to those who attend summer workshops or seminars on ways to improve classroom instruction. Conclusion

The suggestions I've made certainly do not exhaust the things that instructors alone could do to reach out to students with a helping hand. And I understand that some instructors do some of these things now. I see conscientious instructors--both tenured and adjuncts--all over campus. What I am saying is that many of us--I include myself in this category--will simply have to do more than merely grade their essays and deliver engaging lectures to help college students proceed confidently into adulthood. We must constantly respect them, encourage them, challenge them, mentor them, supervise them, and guide them, both inside and outside the classroom.

One more thing, if it isn't already clear. We must also be moral role-models for students. If we want our students to acquire critical thinking skills and such academic values as intellectual honesty and the proper etiquette of debate, we should exhibit such traits both inside and outside the classroom. Indeed, everything we do--the way we deal with students in the classroom, the way we allot grades, what we say on corrected papers, how we treat students in the hallways and in our offices--directly and significantly affects the intellectual and moral development of students. These words, however, are not intended to sanction a therapeutic or nannyistic approach to either our students or our professional responsibilities. Many students come from homes and schools where rules were ambiguous or nonexistent, and enforcement was inconsistent or arbitrary. The last thing they need is for college instructors to coddle them. Instructors should act and talk a lot more like such cultural icons as Mills Lane, Judge Judy, and Dr. Laura Schlessinger than Mister Rogers. Yes, this may dismay and even offend some students, but others will respond to it because they are fed up with squishy boundaries and excessively "understanding" adults; many want and need adults to talk straight to them and not "tolerate" poor performance and bad attitudes. As one of my students explains it:

My generation has been bombarded with the idea that it is wrong to judge others. I vividly remember a routine internal joke among the members of my senior class last year that demonstrates how popular it was to be tolerant, even apathetic in lieu of appearing judgmental. Someone would carelessly say something that was somewhat judgmental and soon after you'd hear someone else say, "Oh, lemme check the rule book on that one.... Nope, I'm pretty sure you can't say that!" The standard reply was, "Well, I just did!" and we thought it was just hilarious every time.

Looking back, I think the reason that line was so fun to repeat was because it was kind of rebellious. It went totally against the popular social rule that one must be very careful not to say anything that might be deemed offensive to anyone, lest they become angry. This unwritten rule has had especially detrimental effects on students because parents have stopped talking about moral issues for fear of judging or being judged. This has largely contributed to the feeling of meaninglessness among the abandoned generation because they are not guided toward a clear vision of morality. They are left to fend for themselves, taking up counsel with peers and other's more dangerous sources of guidance in the area of morality.... The abandoned generation has not received guidance, and they are incapable of guiding themselves, thanks to the plethora of options made available to them by the avoidance of judgement.

Our duty to students, then, is not only to announce rules, standards, and requirements, but to hold students responsible when they do not adhere to them, a foundational assumption of civilization. We should always empathize with students who have problems and treat all students humanely, but if we don't hold students responsible for their behavior, we confuse and weaken them even more. Instructors should not feel guilty for providing negative consequences--usually lower grades--for unacceptable behavior. Establish your boundaries and rules, be sure the students are aware of them, consistently enforce them, and impose the consequences. If you show them that you care about what you do, they will too.

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