Previously in these pages, I wrote an essay about my not having a cell phone and what I try to teach students about my choice. I have written online articles before, but I was not prepared for the responses I received. Almost all of them were negative, with some people asking me how I felt about the horseless carriage or suggesting that I begin wearing underwear on my head. What I found most interesting about the debate in the comments section, though, was the overall belief that I should not be trying to change the students’ behavior in any way, that I am not a role model for anything other than my discipline (and perhaps not even there).
I have been thinking about this experience over the past year, as there have been several colleges and universities in the news for trying to adjust their students’ behavior outside the classroom, especially as it relates to health. Last year, Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania, planned to require its incoming students to have their BMI (Body Mass Index) calculated. They proposed a plan where the students would take a course to help them get in better shape. Though Lincoln ultimately rescinded its plan, the University of Texas at Arlington did put into place a course that officials there believed would help encourage students to get in better shape. This plan seems to be working well, as students were so interested that the university had to add extra sections and instructors.
In May, the University of California at Berkeley announced a health-related plan of its own. Berkeley hoped to obtain DNA samples from incoming freshmen, then notify those students about their alcohol and lactose tolerance, as well as their need for folic acid. After a state Department of Public Health ruling, though, they adjusted the program, making it voluntary for students to participate; and the university will not release information to individuals, instead only revealing aggregate results.
All of these stories raise a question that comes from the Lincoln University case, as shown in an Inside Higher Ed article from last fall. In that article, James C. Turner, then-president of the American College Health Association, argued that Lincoln’s requirement “raises questions about personal rights and which trumps, personal rights or university policy.” It is this question that intrigues me and relates to my experience about the role of professors and universities.
I would guess that most professors would be unable to recite or reference any portion of the mission statement of their institution. Most professors argue that it is their primary job to communicate their discipline to students or to engage in research, depending on the type of school. Beyond that, they might argue that they are to be involved in shared governance, advising, and possibly the community. However, I wonder if taking the time to look at our mission statements, which we at least theoretically agree with, might remind us of a larger role that we might play in students’ lives.
I teach at a primarily undergraduate, church-related, teaching-focused institution, all of which one can find in our mission statement. Thus, I decided to look at other colleges in our area that are decidedly different from mine to see what their statements might say on issues that go beyond teaching. At the local community college, they say that their institution “delivers developmental education, university transfer programming, workforce training, and community services”; as one might expect the emphasis is on practical goals that will help students move on to their next stage of life, be that a four-year school or work.
The flagship university for the state system lists its first goal as wanting to “advance the community of learning by engaging in scientific research, humanistic scholarship, and artistic creation,” moving the focus to research and scholarship, not teaching. The preeminent private institution in the state lists only three goals: “quest for new knowledge through scholarship[;] dissemination of knowledge through teaching and outreach[;] creative experimentation of ideas and concepts,” goals that are similar to those of the larger state university.
However, out of the four institutions, three of them also mention some aspect of students’ lives that goes well beyond the idea of academic training and moves into the area of changing their lives in some rather drastic ways. The community college, for example, says that it will “enhance quality of life, and encourage civic involvement,” while the state university will “prepare students to lead lives of personal integrity and civic responsibility in a global society,” “conduct research, teaching, and outreach to improve human and animal medicine and health,” and “contribute to improving the quality of life.” Here at Lee, in addition to the spiritual goals we have for students, we hope to foster “healthy physical, mental, social, cultural and spiritual development.” Only the private institution does not go beyond the basic academic goals in its mission and values.
I’m guessing that, at this point, most professors would respond that these goals are perfectly fine for the institution, but that they have no part in them. They can be handled by the student life function at the school. Let students play intramurals or serve in student government if they are worried about their physical development or want to learn how to become better citizens.
However, these same professors have no trouble attempting to change students’ lives in other, equally dramatic, ways in the classroom. Gerald Graff, former president of the Modern Language Association, wrote in his presidential address from December 2008, “All this [complaint about classroom indoctrination] might be the end of the story if it were not that since the 1960s ‘transforming’ the political consciousness of students has been widely defended in print as a legitimate goal of teaching, as is seen in such self-described trends as ‘the pedagogy of the oppressed,’ ‘critical pedagogy,’ ‘teaching for social justice,’ ‘radical pedagogy,’ and ‘anti-oppressive education.’ ”
The way we approach these subjects and others too numerous to mention does not convey a neutral statement to the students, and most of us have long since ceased claiming that our teaching does. If that is true, then, our approaches to cell phones in classrooms and students’ weight, health, and self-image, among other issues, are also not neutral.
In the same way that a literature class that ignores female authors (or even ignores the fact that it ignores female authors) would be seen as a political act, though no political statement is ever made, an institution that ignores other issues that affect our students is also political. Thus, colleges and universities take a political stance by a lack of action as much as by acting one way or the other.
Of course, such an approach can easily lead to a school becoming Big Brother, watching students’ every move, waiting for them to light a cigarette, go binge drinking, eat an extra doughnut, or spend all of their free time online playing video games or texting their friends. In the same way, though, that we try to educate students about both smoking and drinking, often creating tobacco- and alcohol-free campuses, we can also educate students about health and the importance of face-to-face community.
The real problem is not, though, that professors do not want students’ quality of life to improve; they are afraid that they will then have to be role models for those students. We, like Charles Barkley, do not want to be role models. It smacks of the image of the spinster teacher from the early 1900s who had to have chaperones on dates and bring in coal for the fire in our one-room schoolhouse. It’s old-fashioned to think that students are watching us to see what we’re doing, to see what we value.
They are, though, as those who respect us want to take from us as much as they can. Thus, we must watch not only what we say, but what we do not say, and, perhaps most importantly, what we do.
Kevin Brown is an associate professor of English at Lee University.