Saturday, January 28, 2012

Six Years Ago on RYS. Is The Arizona Newbie Still Around?

This was one of my favorite RYS posts, one that appeared early on, one before my time as moderator. I can't tell you how often it got mentioned to me in emails to the blog. People wanted to know what happened to the writer. I know I do. If by any chance that same proffie is on College Misery, I'd love to hear from her with an update.

It's a great post, and one that I thought captured a lot of what was great about RYS. Are you still out there? Still teaching? Let me know, and I'll report to the rest.


January 28, 2006
A Newbie From Arizona.
A college professor at a large public institution in Arizona writes to us from the second semester of her first year on the job:

I did my Ph.D. work in the Pacific Northwest and earned most of my fellowships through editing and publishing, so my work in the classroom was very light before I started my first year on the tenure-track.

I wore a nice charcoal pantsuit to my first class last September and sweated through the jacket before I even got to class. I took it off in the hallway in front of my classroom before going in - I was wearing a perfectly normal camisole top that is quite modest - and two young men walked past me, one of them saying, "Pass me the JUGS, man."

I was caught up by that, but also just the nerves of this first day of all first days. When I walked into the classroom and went to the front, the two young guys I saw outside were in the front row. One was sheepish - thanks to something I imagine his parents might have given him while growing up - but the other just fixed me with a big grin.

I felt like I was in some sort of bad TV movie called "Teacher's First Day," and all I wanted to do was crawl back into the comfort of grad school, of my safe apartment in Seattle, my coffee, my friends, my sweatpants, my bookbag, and a dream that I was entering into the life of the mind.

I made it through the semester. I'm still on the job. But that first semester wiped clean any idea I ever had that teaching in a college is anything but babysitting. My students complained if I asked them to write 500 words. They would lie to my face about any and everything. One girl told me that the college's computer lab (there are 4, 3 of them open 24 hours a day), closed unexpectedly at 6 pm and she couldn't print her paper in time. I asked her about the other labs on campus and she whined, "They're ALL the way on other side."

I fielded an endless array of stories about dead family members. I heard about car crashes on every highway in and around the city. Nobody could make it to class when it rained. The heat index was 120 and when they were in high school they didn't have to go to class. They knew I'd understand.

I sat in my new and clean office and felt like a failure most days.

I went for help from my mentor, a woman about 25 years my senior, and told her everything. She nodded her head, took it all in, and said, "They're kids, honey. They don't know any better."

She hoisted me up, boosted my confidence a bit and told me to get tough. I wear dress shirts to class. I don't take any shit. I have policies on my syllabus about being in class - regardless of temperature. I have deadlines and there are consequences if they're not met. The students started this semester in the same way, complaining, whining, but I'm a new woman.

I wear my iPod - see, I have one, too! - and don't let their innocence and ignorance bother me. I teach what I know. I help when they want it - and more and more do. And when they act like they need sitters, I refuse to be one.

But this is not the life I thought was coming.


  1. Now you know why I never take off a sweater or bend over in front of a class: and I'm not an attractive woman (or even a woman).

  2. Six years later... things have just gotten worse. More lying, more dishonesty, more whining. Why am I still teaching?

    1. I'll tell you why I'm still teaching: it's because it lets me be a professional astronomer, something I've been dreaming about when I was five years old. A cynic (begging your pardon, I don't mean you in particular) might think this too close to being a drug addict, not a healthy way to be. I like to think it gives me meaning and purpose.

      I really can't conceive of any other way to be. If I weren't this way, I'd be a different person, and I can't guarantee that person would be better off than I am. (Retired officer in the U.S. Navy, since I served there in my youth? K-12 teacher, since that's what my dear old Dad did?)

      Yes, undergraduates today (and especially graduate students) can be disturbing, particularly in all the things they don't know that I knew in 6th grade (or sometimes even 2nd grade). Still, my 35th high-school reunion was great: I could truthfully say I was now a genuine mad scientist, and a genuine nutty professor. It may not be much, but I'm grateful for a place at the table.

      Sometimes also, I do have successes with students, both upper level and lower level. Admittedly it's not nearly as often as I'd like. I keep saying that the problems in American education stem from the problems in American society. I wouldn't know where to begin to solve all of them, but I can do my best with my part.

  3. I've been a community college teacher since 1973, and I can tell you that students behaved the same way back then. I can't tell you if their (mis)behavior is any more frequent today.

    It's too bad that there wasn't a CM back then because that would give us some kind of reference point.

    But people did write and publish, so this might be a good research topic for someone out there: Were teachers' complaints about students' snowflakiness and lack of preparation as widespread in 19XX as they are in 2011? Part of the research needs to take into account class and ethnic differences between students then and now.

    I also can't resist pointing out that one of the earliest pieces of writing we know about is a clay shard with cunneiform writing from Sumeria circa 3000 BCE. It says something like "Kids today can't write."

  4. Philip, kudos to you for hanging in there for close to 40 years. I have noticed markedly worse behavior from my students now than from the 1990s when I first started to teach, particularly with regards to respect, entitlement, and writing ability. But this is all based on personal experience with no research to back it up as of right now.

    I can't help but joke about the fact that the Sumerian kids couldn't write: of course they couldn't; it hadn't been invented yet. ;o)

  5. All my evidence is anecdotal as well, but since I started teaching 27 years ago, I've seen a tremendous decrease in students' attention span, attention to detail, and willingness to work, and a similarly astounding increase in their expectation of being coddled through the process.

    Not all students, of course. Every year I get students who are among the best I've seen. But that ratio has taken quite a shit kicking.

  6. The argument that kids today aren't so bad because some extinct culture (usually the ancient Greeks are cited) also complained about their kids doesn't strike me as a strong argument. That culture became -extinct-, didn't they?

    If you want reasonably well researched, objective evidence that we're now in trouble, one place to look is "Students Who Don't Study," by Henry Bauer, available here:

    There are also Jean Twenge's books "Generation Me" and "The Narcissism Epidemic."

    1. How about also the long-term decline in SAT scores, before they dumbed down the test, and continuing ever since they did?

    2. the SAT measure is a bit problematic because the test was initially designed to identify the top students at poor schools, not as a hurdle that everyone should be able to clear. The last few decades has seen a massive increase in the number of people who want to go to college, so people at equivalent achievement levels who would not have taken the test then, take the test and do poorly now driving down the average.

  7. "Some extinct culture . . . also complained about their kids": The point I was trying to make is that older people have always complained about the younger generation. "These kids today . . ." is a sure-fire symptom of Geezerhood. Pick a time--any time--in US history, and you'll see the same kinds of comments coming from teachers. I'd be happy to provide examples, if anyone wants them.

    I think another point that's missing from many of these discussions is that comparing college students today with college students 20 or 30 or however many years ago is comparing apples and oranges. Over the years, we've been trying to offer public education, at any level, to more and more of our population. As late as the 1940s, the average American completed 9.5 years of school. The phrase "high school dropout" didn't become common until the mid-50s. Imagine a college classroom 100 years ago: It would have been almost exclusively white upper-middle-class and male. That's not who's sitting in my classroom today.

    While it's entirely possible that high school and college educations have been dumbed down, it's also true that the educational requirements for a decent job have been moving up. When my parents grew up during the Great Depression, a high school diploma might get you a good job; today almost any professional-level job requires a Masters degree.

    I graduated from a working-class high school in 1965. When I look back through my yearbook, I see that there were only a few dozen students (out of a graduating class of about 350) who immediately went on to college--and most of them went to the newly-opened (2000 students) local community college. There were only a few dozen Latino students at my high school, and I was the only one of us who went on to college right after my senior year.

    Today, the same high school (with more working-poor than working-class students) is about 95 percent Latino, and over 60 percent of every graduating class (of about 1000 students) goes directly to college, mostly to the same local community college (22,000 students) where I work.

    Apples and oranges.

    1. "'These kids today . . .' is a sure-fire symptom of Geezerhood":

      And sometimes, we geezers have been right!

      "Apples and oranges":

      What they're getting is still called a college education, at the successful completion of which they get what's still called a college degree. The trouble is that these are now clearly worth less than what a high-school diploma was worth in 1976.

  8. Possibly related: I have noticed that every class I have a few students that don't follow the instructions to "CIRCLE" the correct answer on multiple choice. Instead they color the right letter in using a pencil. I pointed that out to my wife and she suggested that they are so used to taking scantron standardized tests that they automatically fill in the answer with their pencil.


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