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I Want to Speak to Your Supervisor!
December 18, 2011 - 9:13pm

In my own experience and judging by the experience of those who have many more years in academia than I do, there is one trend that is steadily and maddeningly on the rise: parents calling deans, provosts, and college and university presidents, yes presidents, to plead on their child’s behalf. From what I’ve been told this kind of intervention used to be a rare occurrence, but nowadays it is common enough that it makes academics dread advising/registration periods and the assignment of final grades. I have heard from many faculty members in various types of institutions that the number of calls and emails that administrators receive from parents is appallingly on the rise. They call about final grades (or sometimes they fly in on their personal jet to discuss the matter), they call about extensions on assignments, they call about adding a class late, and they call about their kids not being able to get into the courses they want.  

What lies behind this rising trend of parents calling faculty and administrators? There are at least three factors that I can think of. On the one hand, this trend is clearly the manifestation of a consumerist mentality: I’m paying for this, so even though I am a sophomore, I should be able to take the course which is open to juniors and seniors.  Or: I’m paying for this, so this better be good (and “good” really means a good grade here). This consumerist mentality explains the sense of entitlement that we perceive in some of our students and their parents. This is how we end up with a scenario where parents unflinchingly “go right to the top”. So what if the professor told your son or daughter the class was full and he or she wasn’t going to over-enroll? You’ll take it right to the president, darn it! Just the other day you told somebody at Amazon that you wanted to speak to the supervisor and you got what you wanted. And you will not have some professor stand in the way of your child’s success and happiness or more importantly in the way of a convenient Tuesday and Thursday schedule!

But consumerism, as infuriating as it is, gets doubly worse when coupled with another trend: helicopter parents. As most of you surely know, this is a relatively new generation of parents. These are those parents who like to “hover” over their children, watching their every move, preempting every mistake, and perhaps even taking a test or two in place of their children, or ghost-writing a term paper in order to make sure that their children never face failure or rejection. In Scandinavia, they are known as “curling parents”: the phrase conjures up parents bowing down and dutifully sweeping every obstacle from their children’s paths. Some colleges and universities are now calling this breed of parents “lawn-mower” parents as these are parents who vow to mow down any and all obstacles and challenges in their children’s paths.  It is the confluence of these two trends—consumerism and the hovering, curling and mowing school of parenting—that makes parental involvement much more common on our campuses today than it used to be. In a 2009 essay, Nancy Gibbs writes that “Helicopter parents can be found across all income levels, all races and ethnicities, says Patricia Somers of the University of Texas at Austin, who spent more than a year studying the species at the college level. "There are even helicopter grandparents," she notes, who turn up with their elementary-school grandchildren for college-information sessions aimed at juniors and seniors”(http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1940697-3,00.html).

A third trend that is connected to both consumerism and helicopter parenting is the inability to delay gratification along with the inability to deal with rejection and uncertainty. In the current consumer market, if you can’t find something at one retail store, you can find it at another, or you can buy it on-line and order one-day shipping so it gets to you faster. But this way of consumption is also encouraged by parents in helicopters or those wielding lawn mowers. These parents have made sure that their children are the stars of school plays, that they get into their top choice of colleges whether it’s a suitable match or not, that they change dorm rooms in the first week of school because they don’t like their roommate. So a simple thing like waiting to take a seminar in your junior or senior year seems “unfair”. Why should your child be made to wait for that particular course? So, what do you do when you can’t order over-night shipping on a college seminar? 

Speak to the supervisor, of course.

New London, Connecticut in the US

Afshan Jafar is a member of the editorial collective at University of Venus and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Connecticut College. She can be reached at afshan.jafar@conncoll.edu. 

 

 

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