Remember the thin, blank blue sheets we used to buy in foreign post offices? The rectangle already had wing panels to fold in and was appropriately stamped “Aérogramme” on the outside. For a flat rate, the traveler could write a letter home, seal the flaps over the inner rectangle and drop it in the mail. It weighed next to nothing and marked us as more than postcard tourists if less than natives. We sometimes got home before our letters arrived.
This is not a nostalgia essay.
Today’s study abroad industry thrusts more than 300,000 American students onto planes heading to industrialized nations and occasionally to the safer enclaves of less prosperous ones. Engaging with foreign languages and cultures is the announced goal, with English-speaking countries the preferred destinations of the cautious. This may be the first trip abroad for some American college students or even their first time on an airplane. Others are seasoned travelers, if still culturally inexperienced.
They are all festooned with multiple digital devices.
Today’s study abroad explorers may leave their home country but not leave home at all. Thanks to cheap international data plans and smartphones in their pockets, millennial Americans seldom say goodbye to familiar friends, family and online comforts as they set out to experience life in a different country. Can a digital native ever go native?
The implied comfort of a digital cocoon is what entices some students to undertake the foreign travel they never would have considered half a generation ago. And the reassurance is not just implied. Some study abroad offices issue cheap flip phones purchased in country so students can be in constant contact with their academic and legal guardians. Professors preload travel instructions and course materials onto websites. If those sites go down, study abroad courses often grind to a halt.
Long forgotten are the exertions of making international calls by pay phone and calling cards -- not to mention those cheap blue Aérogramme sheets. Liability considerations control many aspects of institution-sponsored foreign travel. Insistence on continuous digital access is the safety net for a large part of the organizers’ legal concerns. In some programs, refusing to carry a charged cell phone is a scoldable offense.
Don’t blame the college, either. Today’s helicopter parents are much more likely to support their children’s desire to spend a summer or semester abroad if they are ensured constant connectivity via smartphones and tablets. They know their son or daughter will forget to make a call, but Mom and Dad will refuse to underwrite a trip if their kids cannot take a call, or at least be geolocated.
And today’s millennials are adept social engineers, having successfully retrofitted their parents to be as needy about technology as they are. Even Grandma wants to read the blog about Florence, Brisbane or Calcutta -- and is planning on getting a virtual tour from her intrepid young traveler once the program is over.
Yet we’re starting to realize that wearing a digital helmet undermines precisely the reasons we take students to foreign places in the first place. They’re still texting the same circle of American friends, still posting to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. They may superficially engage with the culture that surrounds them, glancing at surfaces, wincing at strange foods, seeing crowds of natives and talking about them online. The problem is not just one of forging genuine connection, although lingering in an English digital environment is certainly a major obstacle to linguistic and cultural immersion.
Technology closes doors for our students as much as it opens them. It’s armor you can’t take off. When we walk streets without purpose, loiter in parks and open spaces, sit and watch a new world go by in cafes and restaurants that lack the trappings of home -- these are the experiences that today’s digital adepts are missing. They arrive in geographically distant places tethered to intractable habits involving their devices. Why try to tap into the pulse of a foreign city when familiar friends and entertainment are only a finger tap away?
Our students’ addiction to the virtual undercuts the personal growth that comes from reflection and even loneliness. Studying abroad is valuable precisely because of the discomforts students confront in foreign environments that lead to lasting insights into the daily cadences of life in new places. Touch and taste, leisure and loneliness, fatigue and friendship -- each is lived in the flesh, not in pixels.
Formative moments shaped by solitude, chance, serendipity and wonder risk being lost when social media provide a plasticized sense of safety. Unwilling to drop their digital routines, or at least minimize use of their devices, students miss out on opportunities that come from living in an environment not curated by technology. The untechnologized undergrads of yesteryear used to ask a local to take their photograph. Why reach out to a fellow human when a selfie stick does its own reaching?
Foreign experiences increasingly are measured in likes rather than nondigital memories. Awareness of the very fragility of memory is a strange benefit of travel abroad. Emerging in its place is a worrisome form of drive-by tourism often marked by narcissism, voyeurism and guarded detachment.
An enduring attribute of foreign study is the very quality that ties it to liberal education: the ability to broaden perspectives through cultivating lifelong learning. Curiosity about culture and difference requires a commitment to immersion and the deep changes that can come from a disconnection from the familiar. We need to urge our students to turn off their devices -- and to keep them off. We must show them that a digital detox while abroad will lead to richer, more lasting experiences. To truly leave home requires leaving one’s digital self behind.
How to get our students to take off their digital helmets? Denying all access would be impractical, impermissible and perhaps emotionally destabilizing. Digital junkies can’t go cold turkey, and neither can their equally addicted parents.
But how about requiring our students to carry a phone but promise not to consult it more than once a day? We might reward them for the fewest log-ins on social media or craft for them a site-specific scavenger hunt of microlocations (the sheep pasture closest to the cathedral) and cultural experiences (a dinner of only Chinese insect snacks) that could never be Googled onto a checklist. Those blue airmail sheets have morphed into blogs and online journals that can be guided writing exercises that we ask undergraduates to start in hard copy.
Restoring the “raw abroad” can provide the jolting strangeness we long for our students to have. And that means urging that the digital visor be lifted up out of sight.
George Greenia teaches Spanish and is founder of the Institute for Pilgrimage Studies at the College of William & Mary. Jacob H. Rooksby teaches law at Duquesne University and co-directs summer law programs in Germany and China.
I treasured the hours between the time I got a letter and the time I answered it. I loved ordering my thoughts and savoring the agenda. How would I arrange fact and impression to let my friend know how things were with me: describe a mood, pass on information, think out loud about a book or an event, build an atmosphere on the page larger than the facts. Writing a letter was a greater pleasure than receiving one: yet a shared excitement.
-- Vivian Gornick in The New York Times
Not too long ago, a lady in my literary circle remarked that she found the irony of Hester Prynne, protagonist in The Scarlet Letter, interesting, in that the character wore the letter “A” as a symbol of scorn -- not as a badge of honor as it would be worn today. She was more right than she realized: young people would be particularly impressed by Prynne’s ability to express herself in just one of the 160 characters she could fit into a text on her mobile phone.
The job of an English teacher, in high school or college, has become exponentially more difficult over the last 15 years as the phenomena known as texting and tweeting emerged as primary forms of written communication for most of the civilized world. New challenges abound in cultivating young writers, as professors must now override students’ instincts to ignore grammar and punctuation, use emoji in place of human descriptions, and instantly share their unfiltered thoughts without a moment’s reflection.
At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man … kids these days.
The texting generation of today, and its partner in crime, the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram crowd, have all but eviscerated the concept of contemplative thought. Perhaps if students texted and tweeted for the sake of expediency, mindful of its intended purpose, the tolerance levels of English instructors such as myself would be higher.
Sadly, this is not the case. Generation Y, or the digitally minded techies, have adopted these new-age tools as a way of life and all but lost the concept of confronting and pondering ideas as it has been taught for centuries. Students have been seduced into believing that these immediate exchanges are the CliffsNotes for the challenge of critical thinking, when, in fact, such mediums are not even up to those humble standards.
Even for preteens, it is virtually unthinkable to be untethered to their phones, not unlike Linus and his security blanket. The angst suffered by those who are not included in Facebook’s roster is akin to losing one’s sense of self, brought on, in my opinion, not by a desperate desire for human interaction, but a cathartic need for approval. For better or -- as this writer believes -- worse, we have traded down from the precious rewards of personal pride to the hollow recognition of others.
It’s apparent by the time students reach high school -- if not before -- that these shortcuts and outlets for mass communication have compromised their mechanisms of creativity and, more importantly, analytical thought. Our pedagogic predecessors never encountered this modern dilemma, and therefore, as self-appointed champions of the English language, it is our responsibility to devise new methods to enable our students to overcome this modern-day threat to literary artfulness and flair.
The goal here, then, is to wean the students off their electronic devices, convince them of the precious time lost to the use of their cell phones and then impart to them an appreciation of the transmission of ideas through the classic use of the written word. Aside from requiring students to power down during lessons -- this should be a universal requirement in all classrooms -- here are some suggestions to open their app-filled eyes:
Permit students to use their cell phones for a new assignment: texting a friend about a recent experience, one emotional in nature. Then assign them to do it again, but this time in essay form.
Using a 15-minute time limit, have each student text and then write a Dear John letter to a partner, real or imaginary.
Give them a hypothetical do-over. Assign the students to share personal thoughts -- first via text, and then in a letter -- that they feel should have been said prior to the passing of close relatives or friends.
Set a timer for 10 minutes and have the students compose a 100- to 200-word Facebook status update about a recent enjoyable experience -- such as a vacation, night out or weekend plans -- with the intention of putting it on their walls. Rather than submitting the posts, they should hand in the updates.
After the first three assignments, the students should compare the text and essay forms and evaluate which messages served as better reflections of their feelings, which form of communication captured the essence of what they wanted to convey. For the fourth, return their unedited assignments the following week, have students examine their words with a critical eye and ask if they are comfortable posting the status updates with no changes whatsoever.
My hope is that these exercises will shine a light on the shortcomings of our modern forms of communication and demonstrate the potential of the deliberately crafted written word. We must reveal that the inherent depths of language convey a power stronger than a combination of abbreviations and smiley faces that culminates with send.
Ronald Neal Goldman is a professor of English at Touro College and University System.
A couple years ago, I noticed something strange: intelligent and interested students were showing up to class without having done the reading. That might not sound shocking, but even those who came to class early and stayed late to ask questions and were deeply invested in the topics under discussion were routinely failing to put even modest efforts toward preparing for class. Puzzled, I asked them why. They claimed simply not to have the time to read or prepare for class due to commitments to extracurricular activities.
My students are not dumb. Nor are they lazy. Can so many of them really be so busy singing in a cappella groups, planting trees for the environment and playing intramural ultimate Frisbee that they just can’t find the time or energy to get to readings or problem sets? It seems they are. And it is robbing them of their education.
I should clarify at the outset that I not talking about students who need to work full-time jobs for financial reasons or who have onerous and essential duties to care for children, siblings, parents or other family members. Such students face other, larger challenges than those presented by campus activities.
I am also not talking about that small subset of students actively pursuing specialized careers -- e.g., in professional sports or on Broadway -- that are deeply related to activities outside of course work (and for which these activities can often become effectively extended auditions). My students also are not just lounging about all day or partying all night.
Sports, clubs, social advocacy groups and other activities can all be good things and have positive impacts on students and the community. But a critical mass of some of the country’s most talented and diligent students systematically sell themselves short, turning away from their academic work in favor of all and sundry extracurricular activities. Many are intensely stressed and consumed by those pursuits, such that they appear to have substantially less time for rest and leisure than their counterparts did two decades ago, even as they spend much less time in the library or laboratory.
Why would they do this? What would make all those extras seem more important than the curriculum itself? It isn’t just that they are more fun -- though many may be -- and, in fact, some students said they didn’t enjoy or even really care about all those activities. Yet they compete for opportunities to squander much their college years on them. I have no authoritative answer but can suggest some hypotheses.
Holdover mentality from high school. Many American high schools push their students to excel in as many extracurricular activities as they can, often because they think this helps those students gain admission to top colleges and universities. To the extent it does, a purposely selected sample of the most driven extracurricular participators turn up on our campuses.
Barely removed from extracurricular hothouse of high school and admissions, they are suddenly thrust into a world in which their time and lives are truly their own and the possible extracurricular activities are nearly limitless. Unable to shake what has been so deeply ingrained, they sign up for as many as they can. They then feel that dropping any activities would look bad on a résumé, so they remain overextended (and probably become increasingly so) throughout their college years. Some students even said to me -- mistakenly, in my view -- that participation in a wide array of extracurriculars, even at the expense of excelling in their classes, was necessary to land a job or for success in the admissions process for law school or graduate school. It is as if they believed the whole world works like high school.
Also, we tell young people of the need to show leadership, so they seek out arenas in which to demonstrate it, even when it hurts their main occupation as students. On campuses, administrators talk frequently of training new generations of “leaders.” Some employers likely ask job candidates to talk about or demonstrate “leadership experience.” In its pathological form, such leadership fetishism drives students to believe earnestly that serving a term as deputy assistant secretary-general of the Model United Nations is more important than doing the readings on organizations and institutions for their international relations class. A corollary is that today’s youth, reared in a fishbowl of social media and extreme in-group stratification, feel intense pressure to show their peers publicly that they belong -- through turning out for water polo Quidditch, as well as on Facebook or Instagram.
Competitive differentiation in an era of extreme grade inflation. Extracurricular overextension may be a result of decades of extreme grade inflation. If everyone gets at least a B, and most students are getting A’s, how does one stand out from the crowd? It may just be, at least in their minds, that extracurricular activities are one of the few ways for our students to distinguish themselves when all GPAs are high and rising. As students put less and less effort into their classes, we also feed the grade inflation machine by continuing to award high grades nonetheless. The academic bar sinks lower and extracurricular activities become ever more important markers of achievement.
Unintended consequence of helicopter parenting and overscheduled childhoods. It could be that students whose days were planned in 15-minute blocks since the age of three are uncomfortable with unstructured time. Many grew up with doting parents who handled the scheduling for them, always ready to step in to ensure there was time for homework, bassoon lessons, volunteering at the homeless shelter and the cross-country track team, as well as for adequate sleep and healthy meals. With no one to set limits or manage their time for them, these students may be unable to choose or say no when confronted with the smorgasbord of college activities. If their grades do not suffer much -- which they aren’t likely to in this era of grade inflation -- such students may never get the wake-up call that tells them to drop some of the teams and clubs for the sake of their education or their sanity.
Whatever the cause, extracurricular activities now crowd out academic work and cause critical harm to students’ intellectual and personal development. Several years ago, researchers led by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa published a study called Academically Adrift, arguing that today’s students were learning very little (perhaps nothing) and spending too little time or energy on their studies. Indeed, some of our country’s best and brightest (and hardest-working) students are falling haplessly into this pattern -- all because they feel a misguided compulsion to climb rocks, perform improv comedy or host ice cream socials to talk about HIV, when really they should be reading or studying.
Perhaps most usefully, our students ought to try just thinking about what they are learning (or seeking to learn) or meditating on how their lives are changing and (hopefully) coming into focus. In short, the extracurricular arms race needs to stop before it destroys undergraduate education. But how are we to stop it?
We should not try to place undue restrictions or limits on our students’ participation in activities. College students are adults and should be treated as such. Indeed, some parents’ infantilizing micromanagement of their children’s lives may be at the root of the problems we now see. But I do believe we ought urgently to consider at least four concrete steps.
First, admissions officers should reduce the emphasis placed on extracurricular activities in evaluating applications, and they should make it clear publicly to high school students and teachers that they are doing so.
Second, faculty colleagues and college administrators should do all they can to rein in grade inflation that has spun completely out of control at most colleges and universities. This may be easier said than done, but it behooves us to try.
Third, administrators and student life staffers should curtail excessive praise of leadership and leaders to focus instead on helping students develop contemplative, thoughtful and mature scholarly, emotional and social lives and personae.
Fourth and finally, colleges need to stop competing with each other so intensively in terms of the climbing walls and squash courts and return to their roots of rising or falling based on the academic rigor and intellectual vigor to be found on their campuses.
Only when we restore sanity and sober perspective to our own approaches to undergraduate admissions and education can we expect our students to do the same.
William Hurst is an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University.
New book argues that students involved in campus protests over controversial speakers or ideas should instead support a marketplace of ideas in which all notions are heard and the best rise to the top.
Nearly every college and university in America has refocused its attention on “student success.” Like many institutions, Cleveland State University, where I work, has erected an entire enterprise devoted to this endeavor. We have reorganized ourselves administratively, invested in new staff, updated technology and taken a deep dive into institutional data to ensure we are best positioned to make sure all our students have a high potential to graduate. We have improved as a result.
People outside academe who witness our urgent efforts might justifiably ask, “Why all the fuss? Isn’t student success what you were supposed to be focused on all along?” In truth, the student success agenda is a recognition that higher education has not delivered on its promise to all students. The six-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time college students at four-year institutions is less than 60 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education. For students who are minority, low income and first generation, it is markedly lower.
This newfound attention to student success has created a measure of perplexity within the academy as well from faculty and staff members who, for decades before it was fashionable for their institutions to do so, have considered themselves devoted to assisting students on the margins. These quiet champions generally operated from the premise that their colleges and universities were, at best, apathetic -- and in some cases, hostile -- to the students who were struggling most.
In response, these faculty and staff members served as advisers outside the formal advising structure. They created informal mentoring programs and sometimes intervened with systems on their campuses and off to advocate on behalf of students. One only need to listen to the stories of minority alumni from past decades to understand how these underground interventions operated and to appreciate their significance in helping students succeed.
Today, many of these underground advocates are still at their institutions, and some are still skeptical of their college or university’s commitment to students who traditionally have been left behind. Their skepticism is exacerbated by the fact that many generally believe they have not been acknowledged, affirmed or consulted in this overt student success push. In some cases, the opposite has happened: We have discredited their tactics in our rush to embrace new policies and practices as part of our institutions’ “legitimate” student success strategies.
As institutions seek to advance and accelerate their student success agendas, it is imperative that they reconcile the efforts of longtime student success pioneers with the emerging practices and data that are informing higher education strategies today.
I have witnessed this tension between old-school guidance and cutting-edge assistance around the issue of credit hours. At Cleveland State University, as at many institutions, we have adopted a strict policy to drive students to take 15 credit hours a semester. The effort comes from compelling evidence that when students fall short of a 15-credit hour, eight-semester schedule, and it takes them longer than four years to graduate, their likelihood of graduating diminishes. In combing through institutional data a couple years ago, we discovered that African-American students were more likely than other students to take fewer than the 15-credit expectation.
One explanation has become apparent: for years, black students were counseled to do just that by a network of underground advisers. Their rationale was simple: time and time again, they had intervened with black students who were struggling because their course schedules were weighted down unnecessarily with math and science courses during their first semesters. Inevitably, students would perform poorly under the pressure, become discouraged and drop out. Convinced that many in the institution’s student advising corps were not sensitive to that reality, these informal advisers would quietly encourage students to drop one of their classes, keeping them at full-time status while relieving the pressure to give them a better chance of remaining in good academic standing.
We now know the best solution for students is a course load that keeps them on track to graduate in four years, along with attentive advising, more creative pedagogy and better support systems to increase students’ chances of succeeding in introductory math and science courses. However, some old-school advisers have not felt as though we have respectfully responded to their apprehension over whether those improvements are adequately in place. Instead, they too often only receive messages that they are out of compliance with the institution’s directive and that, in fact, they’re doing students more harm than good. The translation for them is that the administration, in its newfound wisdom, now thinks it knows more than they do from their years of experience about how to help these students succeed.
Similarly, as new insights come our way, we are quick to overlook those who have been articulating them for years. For instance, research in the past few years by David Yeager, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, and others shows how racial and ethnic minorities are hindered more than others from academic success by negative mind-sets that institutional conditions impose on them. It is old news to these underground champions who, without compelling data, were sometimes dismissed as apologists for raising such concerns.
As a consequence of these slights, many underground advisers are not enthusiastic about aligning with institutional directives around student success. Continued progress, however, will require deeper levels of participation and synergy among everyone who touches students’ lives across our colleges and universities. If we are not all on the same page -- especially those who are motivated to be engaged -- we will not maximize the opportunity.
Institutions can generate this comprehensive level of collaboration by inventorying such quiet efforts -- past and present -- and acknowledging that they contributed to the success of students in need even before we had offices assigned to do so. Indeed, if they hadn’t been doing what they were doing, higher education might have done an even poorer job with underserved students.
In addition, institutions should consider holding information forums on student success that specifically enlist these quiet champions. That would allow the veterans to share insights from which others can learn. It would also provide an opportunity to share with them new data and best practices that are informing institutional strategies, as well as to identify practical ways to enlist these champions more effectively in the overall student success agenda.
There are no quick fixes or easy answers for the tremendous challenge of eliminating racial and economic disparities in academic performance and persistence. It will take every ounce of innovative thinking and creativity our people can muster -- that which has prevailed quietly in the past and that which we are boldly implementing today. Integration of the two will not occur by happenstance. It will require deliberate acts of leadership.
Byron P. White is vice president for university engagement and chief diversity officer at Cleveland State University.