It takes only one problematic student in an otherwise amiable class to cause a teacher to temporarily question his career choice. It’s especially troubling that the proportion of such problematic students appears to be growing.
Some studies have reported a rising “narcissism epidemic” among students, the result of which suggests that the “United States is poised to experience social problems as younger narcissists age and move into positions of power,” as Josh Clark of Seeker.com noted in February 2013. Many educators are unfamiliar with scholarly research on this mental disorder, yet they know, through personal experience, its various symptoms. What are those symptoms, and what can educators do to manage them when they flare up, particularly in the classroom?
Let’s start with the first question. Narcissistic students are distinguished by several traits that imply a greater likelihood of conflict with their instructors. They are prone to “arrogant, haughty [rude and abusive] behaviors or attitudes,” according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. They are also easily offended; one might expect that this trait is especially manifest in classes where controversial social issues are regularly discussed. Further, narcissism is associated with a sense of academic entitlement, as well as uncivil behavior when, as noted in an article in Personality and Individual Differences, “entitled behaviors fail to achieve the desired outcome.” Finally, narcissism is linked to immoral -- and shameless -- conduct, including academic dishonesty. (Cheating seems to be on the rise, although I’ve seen little evidence that students are getting better at it. Would it kill them to at least change the font color before copying and pasting someone else’s work?)
Simply put, narcissistic students are more disruptive, academically entitled, willing to cheat in order to succeed and likely to fuss when they don’t.
As a result, classroom conflicts with narcissistic students may occur with greater frequency in higher education today. Here I’m particularly interested in the more serious cases that reach the attention of college administrators, wherein professors face at least two challenges when presenting their side of the story. First, if narcissistic students do have fewer qualms about committing acts of academic dishonesty, it isn’t a huge stretch of the imagination to suspect that they’re also more likely to deliberately misrepresent classroom confrontations and level false accusations against faculty members. Such bogus allegations are a real -- and evidently growing -- problem in today’s educational institutions. In Great Britain, at least, more than one in five teachers reported having been falsely accused by school and college students in a survey conducted last year by the U.K.-based Association of Teachers and Lecturers. On the other side of the Atlantic, it was reported that one in seven male teachers has been wrongly accused of “inappropriate contact with students,” leading to a dearth of “male role models” in Canadian classrooms, according to the Canadian Education Association.
Second, colleges and universities are increasingly run like businesses, whereby students are viewed as customers. Accordingly, Nate Kreuter argues, “the old main street American, folksy business mantra that ‘the customer is always right’ can’t be too far behind.” Although recent experience has taught me that I’ve been blessed with a very fair-minded dean, I know that professors at other institutions aren’t nearly as fortunate. The rise of this business model of education may be part of the reason why some of them are quitting. Perhaps they’ve lost confidence in their institutions’ ability to adjudicate conflicts between students and faculty members impartially.
So, what’s my solution? Installing video cameras in classrooms is by no means a novel idea. It has been proposed for multiple reasons, from helping “teachers ground their self-reflection in empirical evidence” to protecting students from bullies and abusive professors.
But class cams aren’t usually predicated on the growing need to protect educators. While leaving it to each college and university to address questions of implementation (e.g., where, and for how long, will video footage be stored? Who may access it and under what conditions?), I argue that class cams will produce the incontrovertible evidence that faculty members need to overcome false allegations from students.
Of course, faculty members and school teachers are capable of misconduct, too (and I mean real, coming-to-class-drunk-and-walking-into-walls misconduct, not the distasteful-yet-harmless-dropping-the-f-bomb-in-class misconduct that, these days, can help get a professor fired). Therefore, class cams could also benefit students by proving or deterring inappropriate classroom behavior on their instructors’ part.
Class cams are an admittedly costly solution. But for colleges and universities that can afford them, they may be a necessary safeguard for faculty members until we successfully resolve the underlying causes of our narcissism epidemic.
Amir Azarvan is an assistant professor of political science at Georgia Gwinnett College.
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.