Early Vacations and Entitled Students

Glenn Ricketts

A piece in last Thursday’s Inside Higher Ed provides a miniscule blip of hope for the future of American higher education.  I suppose it’s a measure of that dismal landscape’s usual bleakness that I’m feeling almost elated:  The Faculty Senate at Pennsylvania State University, in response to the initiative of President Graham Spanier, has endorsed a resolution urging faculty colleagues not to cancel classes a day or two ahead of scheduled vacations.  

And I do mean vacations.  At Penn State and a number of other schools, the Thanksgiving holiday break is now a full week, not simply Thursday and Friday as it was back in the day.  And this is often in addition to an October Fall break of Tuesday through Friday - as I learned when my oldest daughter was in College – followed variously by a mid-winter break, Spring break or Easter break during the Spring semester, as well as a number of the regular federal Monday holidays.  The student response to all of these extra breaks seems to be, “Give us a break!”  Despite the longer and more frequent vacations, there’s apparently a regular cacophony of griping and caterwauling in student newspapers and governance associations about meanie professors who refuse to cancel classes on the day or so prior to the actual vacation.  Look, they say, we’ve already made plans: travel reservations, parties, hotels, family get-togethers, etc., etc., and it’s not fair (That is, as you can possibly imagine, it’s not fai-ai-ai-ai-air).  Anyway, no one’s going to show up, so what’s the point?  C’mon, can’t we just face reality?  Needless to say, lots of professors are happy to oblige, and everyone gets a couple of extra days tacked on to an already-lengthened vacation.  Adjunct or untenured faculty, hoping for positive student evaluations, may well be unwilling accomplices, as part of the same process that moves them to award disproportionately large numbers of A grades.  Of course, some recalcitrant professors, rare martinets and men of steel, don’t cancel classes and – mirabile dictu – some students attend.  When Spanier learned of this informal extension of the Thanksgiving holiday, he brought the matter to the Faculty Senate, who went on record as condemning it.  There are no enforcement mechanisms – I’m not sure what they could be – and some professors will no doubt ignore or resent the resolution.  But as far as symbolic gestures go, this one is certainly on the money.  I’m positively exuberant, and heartily commend President Spanier and the Faculty Senate for going on record against faculty truancy and student self-indulgence, in vivid contrast to the usual weekly enactments about increasing diversity or building a “sustainable” campus.  Good show there, Penn State. 

But as suggested by one of the commenters at IHE – Old Fashioned Prof. - there’s a larger context to which this is but the proverbial tip: 

I applaud this resolution, although I despair about the university culture on the parts of both faculty and students that even makes it necessary. I write this as an old-fashioned professor who has held class even at 3:30 pm on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving—now there's an exercise in futility! Whenever students ask me if I will be holding a class before a vacation, I fix them with a steely look and ask "Is the university officially in session?" Looking abashed, they mumble and admit that it is. "Well, then, I will be here to teach you."

Sometimes I think that faculty and students are lurching toward a pact of apathy where the students fork over a wad of tuition money and the university forks over a degree in exchange, and both parties merely pretend to care about what goes on in between. Maybe it's time to retire.

What “university culture” would that be?  Let’s make that “academic culture” since, as Professor John Chalberg’s recent piece on this page illustrated, something of the kind is also quite familiar to those of us teaching at community colleges.  That “culture” has many familiar facets, of course.  There are the exponentially increasing numbers of students who come to college lacking sufficient academic preparation or direction in their lives; there is the rampant grade inflation; there are large numbers of “student centered” institutions whose senior administrators are more than willing to do back flips in response to grievances that likely reflect simple negligence or petulant immaturity.  

But if there is a single over-arching theme that encompasses and reinforces all of these factors, it’s the one that sees students as customers who are entitled to satisfaction, flexibility, comfort and convenience.  Look, for example, at the expensive new dormitories going up at four-year schools everywhere these days, which resemble five-star hotels.  And not only at four year schools: a significant number of community colleges are also constructing dorms, in hopes of emulating their senior cousins more closely. Given the prevalent realities of dorm life these days, you might have expected serious students to flee to a community college where they wouldn’t have to reside, but that hasn’t seemed to dissuade many eager community college presidents from going for the big leagues.  And while the promotional literature used by many schools to court prospective students does actually mention education, this stuff also appeals powerfully to the lure of how much fun it will be to go to Xburg state college. [Disclaimer:  I have nothing against fun.  In fact, I’m in favor of it.  But, as a former 18-year old, I recall that I managed to have more than a bit of fun without any extra encouragement from the college I attended.  There were no early class cancellations or extended Thanksgiving holidays in those less leisured academic groves, needless to say.]     

It can’t be surprising, therefore, that students expect—no, demand—accommodation.  I need this, this, this and this: give it to me.  If they’re going to miss a week or two of classes due to – yes, really – a vacation in the middle of a semester, they take for granted that their instructors will see to it that they don’t fall behind.  “I’m graduating and I really need this course.”  If they miss half or more of the class sessions in a course that happens to meet on a Friday or Monday – “I like my weekends” – they’re often genuinely bewildered that their grade takes a big hit as a result.  “Can’t we work something out? I really need this course.” If your requirements are beyond their ken, interest or available study time, they see nothing amiss with requesting a custom-made version more to their liking.  “This is what works for me, and I really need this course.”  If they disappear without a trace for several weeks and then suddenly show up again, they might well ask, “What did I miss? Oh, an exam? And the term paper, too? But I didn’t even know when it was due. It’s in the syllabus? But I never read the syllabus! Well, how about just grading me on whatever I got done, then.  Hey, I really need this course.”   And email has made many students’ consumerism positively peremptory.  Just Friday, for instance, I received this message from one who’d been absent:  

I missed class today.  I will need today’s lecture notes and any assignments that are do [sic!] for next week. 

Now  if you happen to have my old-fashioned hang-up about classroom decorum, make sure that you have tenure and don’t need to apply for any more promotions.  I was angrily denounced to the dean by one student who was apoplectic that I had told her repeatedly to stop sending text messages during lectures.  I was “persecuting” her, she informed him.  Fortunately, he and I are old friends and share a similar outlook in such matters.  As John Chalberg acknowledges, this certainly isn’t characteristic of all students, especially – in my own experience – of those who’ve been homeschooled or who hail from somewhere outside of the United States.  He and I agree, however, that such encounters are vastly more common than they would have been at one time, and bear out the impressions recorded in this piece which appeared several years ago in the New York Times (I stumbled onto it at the web page of a delightfully crusty, retired political science professor at Rutgers, New Brunswick. Apparently, he’d also had a belly full).   

And for once, I think we’ve got a problem here that you can’t blame exclusively or even mainly on higher education.  I think it’s certainly true that the “college experience” these days often intensifies and prolongs adolescence.  The fact is, however, that not all, but many students come to college already spoiled far beyond rotten, and are used to getting whatever they want.  They’ve cut their teeth in a popular TV and music culture that’s drenched in narcissistic individualism and nihilism, and which extols in-your-face rudeness (See for example Diana West’s book, The Death of the Grownup for a depressing but compelling analysis of what’s wrong with schools and much else as well). 

Multiculturalism, diversity and “tolerance” begin at the beginning of course, and kids are much more likely to color pictures of “inclusive” rainbows than study phonics as I had to do. To this, you can often add frequent large doses of “self-esteem” education, starting in kindergarten and reinforced by “progressive” educational pedagogy which allows them to get satisfactory grades simply for doing homework assignments or occupying a seat in the classroom.  Many students also get a big assist from their legendary “helicopter” parents, who alternate between threatening litigation against the school district or announcing that they and their kids will be away on vacation for two weeks in October and they expect that things will be kept up to speed for them by the teachers.  I don’t exaggerate.  One of my daughters is a middle school teacher, and provides me with a fresh round of jaw-dropping stories almost every time we speak.  One of her colleagues, as a new teacher several years ago, got in big trouble simply for doing the right thing and flunking a couple of kids she caught red-handed, cheating on an exam.  Unfortunately, the banana-spined administration caved immediately when their parents threatened to sue the school district, and they promptly reversed the failing grades.  Untenured, she was thus hung out to dry, and had to endure the gloating presence of these conceited little miscreants in her classroom for the rest of the school year.  Bad as things are at the college level, the real damage is inflicted much earlier, and not only by the schools. 

So what shall we do about all of this when these expectant students arrive in our classrooms?  We’ve been discussing it at my own community college, and some of my colleagues have stated with bland confidence that this is simply a “new reality” that requires our adjustment: if students aren’t ready for college-work as it was once understood, then we need to give them whatever they can handle.  If they skip classes, then it’s our responsibility to see that they get caught up, etc., etc. 

For myself, I’m not ready to throw in the towel, not by a long shot.  Maybe I’ve been fortified by the Faculty Senate’s action at Penn State, and maybe I’m simply unable to change in any case.  At the moment though, I’m feeling like Horatius at the Tiber, and I’m not going to budge. What do you think?

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