Freshmen who arrived on campus as the phrase “too big to fail" was taking hold will, over the coming year, be working out the details of their post-graduation plans. At this point, finding employment increasingly counts as an aspiration more than a goal -- while continuing with graduate study must feel like buying a lottery ticket. Condensing a million anxious conversations into a single humorous/appalling graphic, Jenna Brager’s “Post-College Flow Chart of Misery and Pain” finds its balance on the thin line between satire and cold-eyed realism. It deserves its spot on the opening page of Share or Die: Youth in Recession, an anthology of essays, memoirs, and cartoons recently e-published by the online magazine Shareable.
Released under a Creative Commons license, Share or Die is available to download for free. While Brager’s cartoon embodies a sense of foreclosed options, the spirit of the book as a whole is anything but resigned. “There’s a common anxiety in the pieces in this collection,” Malcolm Harris, its 22-year-old editor, writes in his introduction. “…The promises of the '90s and the early' 00s, that society could only be improved, that shopping was patriotic, that the earth knew no boundaries for the determined, have turned out to be worth about as much as a bunch of subprime mortgage-backed securities. There’s a sense of generational betrayal, a knowledge that those who came before weren’t planning for a future with consequences. In the face of the unknown, these writers have come to understand they’re responsible for making something new, even if they don’t know what it looks like yet.”
Shareable (where Harris works as a contributing editor) promotes an ethos of open-source cooperation and communitarian mutual aid. The volume includes advice on how to form work co-ops, pool goods and services with friends and neighbors, and otherwise strengthen social ties. The very notion of a commonwealth -- in which there are shared resources that escape the logic of possessive individualism – may need reinventing at this late date. But an ongoing economic crisis with no end in sight is the right time to begin trying to think and live in new ways. Intrigued by Share or Die, I posed a number of questions to Harris, who is also managing editor of the online cultural journal/open-door salon The New Inquiry. A transcript of our e-mail exchange follows.
Q: How did you come to do the book? Was there something in your own education, work history, or other interests that overlapped with this project?
A: I grew up in Palo Alto, California, which is sometimes mistakenly referred to as "Stanford University, California." After graduating in three years with good behavior from the University of Maryland with a degree in English and politics, I lucked into the job at Shareable (thanks Craigslist). That was about a year ago now. In a lot of ways it's a continuation of what I was doing in college, which included a lot of activism around student debt and a weekly column for the school paper on university politics. The struggles that erupted at the University of California campuses my last year of school over tuition hikes juxtaposed with the financial crisis and resulting recession had a deep effect on my thinking and what I wanted to do with my newly unemployed self. When Baby Boomers and Gen Xers write about my generation, they can almost never help themselves from projecting what I see as their own generational insecurities. We end up portrayed as lazy, disengaged, greedy whiners unable to endure a little hardship. That's not the case, and the stories in Share or Die prove it.
Q: How should people think of Share or Die -- as manifesto or survival handbook? There are elements of both. But did you have one or the other more in mind while editing it?
A: I definitely had both in mind while editing it, as well as about a half-dozen other forms -- the personal essay, ethnography, how-to's, and others. Young people face a rather total set of disorienting circumstances, and I think the variety of forms in which writers submitted to the collection indicates there's no solid consensus on how best to approach the situation. I think we could use some good manifestos right about now -- I'm a fan of the form -- but there's a real danger of abstracting too far away from concrete circumstances. The goal for the collection was to be of use in as many ways as possible, whether that's suggesting ways to think about the collective struggle for a livable environment and workers' dignity, or providing specific ways to start a housing co-op or quit your job.
Q: Some contributors express frustration at not being able to find interesting work. Three years into a collapsed job market, that complaint already sounds a bit dated. Apart from the much-discussed option of moving back in with one's parents, what's your sense of how people are getting by?
A: It is a dated frustration, and one that goes back further than the last three years. American capitalism has always offered workers a trade: your obedience in exchange for your freedom. As the writer John Berger put it: "selling your life piece by piece so as not to die." Job dissatisfaction isn't a new development, but this generation was promised otherwise. The historical narrative of steady progress and social mobility meant that each next generation's life could be more fulfilling -- your grandfather was a laborer so your father could be a professional so you could be an artist, etc. But it hasn't turned out that way at all -- the 21st-century college graduates who were supposed to be the teleological end of this chain are the most indebted and least employed in history. This has meant a vast majority moving back in with parents -- there's a touching essay about that in the collection -- and the much-discussed "extended adolescence." Besides that, it involves trolling Craigslist for short-term contract jobs, living in small spaces with lots of roommates, and learning to make instead of buy the things they need. We have a couple beautiful flow-chart cartoons by my dear friend Jenna Brager charting possible (and painfully realistic) post-graduation paths, and they're far more complex than any career ladder.
Q: Well before the recession kicked in, social critics were talking about the deep changes in ethos that have accompanied shifts in worklife in recent years. The notion of "having a career" makes sense if and only if someone has a reasonable prospect for stable, long-term employment in some field (professional or otherwise) covering the better part of adulthood. Now "careerism" seems to have given way to "flexibilism," for want of a better term -- the expectation that we will have constantly to be acquiring new sets of skills, moving frequently between occupations as well as between cities. Isn't it possible that the recession is just intensifying this? What's the difference between "share or die" and "be flexible or be discarded"?
A: But that's the false choice right there -- being flexible means being discarded all the time! The title doesn't just refer to material deprivation -- there are forms of social death, and the choice "be flexible or be discarded" is one of them. Share or Die is about a different choice, the choice to -- if you will -- discard the discarders. At the same time, flexibilism primes this pump. An Italian friend of mine, Gigi Roggero, has his first book in English coming out next month in which he makes a strong argument that with the decline of employer loyalty, employee loyalty has tanked as well. Job-searching takes up an incredible amount of Gen Y's time and energy -- for the employed, unemployed, and in-between alike. The challenge now is to take this time and energy and use it as a generation to build the infrastructure outside and beyond the market. Common resources -- both materially (spaces and goods) and immaterially (peer-to-peer networks and emotional support structures) -- have much more to offer us than a narrowing corporate career ladder and expensive therapists. That is, we have more to offer each other.
Q: The term "precariat" has emerged in Europe to name the sector of the labor force engaged in this sort of "flexible" work. The notion has not exactly caught fire here, even though we have precarity aplenty. I take it from your writing elsewhere that you have an ongoing concern with currents of social and political thought that helped spawn this term. How much of that interest informs the book, directly or indirectly?
A: Well, it certainly influenced my introduction and foreword, and the way I approached the collection as a whole. But it's not like I as an editor told writers they had to be experts on theories of the precariat to contribute to the collection. I think young people today have an intuitive understanding of a lot of the structures and practices of precarity, even if they don't necessarily have the vocabulary to describe it. Building that collective vocabulary is important to a sense of solidarity or shared experience.
I like to think of the relationship between something like Share or Die and so-called post-fordist theory (a strand of heterodox Marxism focused on terms like "multitude," "the common," and precarity) as neither causal nor coincidental. The understanding of precarity in the collection doesn't come (mostly) from reading about it; it comes from the writers' experience being the precariat. Theory coming out of the academy has played an important role in Europe in articulating both problems and solutions, but considering the degree to which the American university system adheres to market logic, I'm skeptical of the role it has to play. The best analyses don't come from cloistered dissertation research; in Italy, where a lot of this thought is coming from, the foundations were developed through workers' struggle in the late '70s. Speaking personally, I'd rather see an understanding develop outside the Ivory Tower -- practice-oriented groups do a much better job coming up with useful formulations and distributing them than any group of tenured professors.
Q: Okay, but what about the non-tenured sort? After all, there is a huge academic precariat -- not all of it youthful, by any means. Somebody entering graduate school now has a far greater chance of becoming an adjunct than ever reaching the starting gate for a tenure track.
A: Definitely. I believe the number is three out of four classes taught by TAs and adjuncts according to Marc Bousquet's great book on the topic, How The University Works. There are certainly plenty of aged adjuncts, but this was a very recent historical shift, mostly occurring within my lifetime, and it overwhelmingly targets young people. The academy is about as gerontocratic as it gets outside the U.S. Senate.
I'm glad to get the chance to set the record straight on this. After I wrote about student loans, I was accused of shilling for the professoriat, which I'm sure gave some former professors of mine a good laugh. You're completely right, by the numbers, grad school (especially, but not just in the humanities) is a con in which young people are suckered into doing labor and taking on debt to further a system that will ultimately have very little to offer most of them. From conversations with peers -- and Jenna has a very personal cartoon about this in the collection -- young people enroll in grad school for the same reason they join Teach for America: it's a predictable and explainable (if not comfortable) path where you might even feel a bit wanted or special once in a while. No one is more complicit in this arrangement than the faculty, who outsource their most laborious work to TAs, but aren't much interested in making sure they're acknowledged or treated as workers. Instead, junior professors are too busy trying to get tenure, and the tenured professors are too busy working on journal articles on the history of labor organizing that no one outside their small academic sub-clique (or, more likely, within it either) will read anyway. Of course they'd love to help, but.... The sheer mass of bad faith required to keep the gears turning astounds me.
Q: Suppose a baby boomer or Generation X-er reads the book and says, "Yeah, this reminds me of when we all tuned in, turned on, and dropped out to form that rural commune (vegetarian hiphop dumpster-diving collective, etc.) Too bad it didn't work out! But then I became a stockbroker (got a job with the Gates Foundation, etc.) and found that I preferred having my own pie, rather than sharing it. Just wait, the economy will pick up.... You'll see!" What reply comes to mind?
A: So you're the bastard who ate all the pie! The truth is, this is the worst prolonged employment crisis since the Great Depression, something no American Gen X-er or Boomer has experienced. And if, by the grace of global warming, we get one more generation of plenty (unlikely in not just my estimation), then we will find ourselves in the same position as our parents: leaving our children with even more debt and even fewer jobs. No society can endlessly finance prosperity with debt, no matter how many times you sell it back and forth. The student power slogan "We are the crisis" -- which has cropped up from Berkeley to Rome to Athens -- isn't a threat, it's a reality. A generational debt is due; we can pay it with our very lives, stretched across decades of precarious work, or find another way to be. The choice remains share or die.
For over a decade, each of us has been actively engaged in a national effort to help colleges and high schools combat an ever-increasing rise in the incidence of academic dishonesty among students -- cheating on tests and exams, on written assignments, and on class projects. Both of us are concerned that higher rates of academic dishonesty -- and student attitudes toward it -- have the potential to do lasting damage both to America's colleges and to the larger society.
Some educators are responding to the challenge by collaborating in what we call a "new honor code" movement. We applaud this effort and believe it must be accelerated. A unique opportunity to do so is now at hand as a new generation of college students more receptive to ethical leadership is arriving on campus.
Research confirms recent media reports concerning the high levels of cheating that exist in many American high schools, with roughly two-thirds of students acknowledging one or more incidents of explicit cheating in the last year. Unfortunately, it appears many students view high school as simply an annoying obstacle on the way to college, a place where they learn little of value, where teachers are unreasonable or unfair, and where, since "everyone else" is cheating, they have no choice but to do the same to remain competitive. And there is growing evidence many students take these habits with them to college.
At the college level, more than half of all students surveyed acknowledge at least one incident of serious cheating in the past academic year and more than two-thirds admit to one or more "questionable" behaviors -- e.g., collaborating on assignments when specifically asked for individual work. We believe it is significant that the highest levels of cheating are usually found at colleges that have not engaged their students in active dialogue on the issue of academic dishonesty -- colleges where the academic integrity policy is basically dictated to students and where students play little or no role in promoting academic integrity or adjudicating suspected incidents of cheating.
The Impact of Honor Codes
A number of colleges have found effective ways to reduce cheating and plagiarism. The key to their success seems to be encouraging student involvement in developing community standards on academic dishonesty and ensuring their subsequent acceptance by the larger student community. Many of these colleges employ academic honor codes to accomplish these objectives.
Unlike the majority of colleges where proctoring of tests and exams is the responsibility of the faculty and/or administration, many schools with academic honor codes allow students to take their exams without proctors present, relying on peer monitoring to control cheating. Yet research indicates that the significantly lower levels of cheating reported at honor code schools do not reflect a greater fear of being reported or caught. Rather, a more important factor seems to be the peer culture that develops on honor code campuses -- a culture that makes most forms of serious cheating socially unacceptable among the majority of students. Many students would simply be embarrassed to have other students find out they were cheating.
In essence, the efforts expended at these schools to help students understand the value of academic integrity, and the responsibilities they have assumed as members of the campus community, convince many students, most of whom have cheated in high school, to change their behavior. Except for cheating behaviors that most students consider trivial (e.g., unpermitted collaboration on graded assignments), we see significantly less self-reported cheating on campuses with honor codes compared to those without such codes. The critical difference seems to be an ongoing dialogue that takes place among students on campuses with strong honor code traditions, and occasionally between students and relevant faculty and administrators, which seeks to define where, from a student perspective, "trivial" cheating becomes serious. While similar conversations occasionally take place on campuses that do not have honor codes, they occur much less frequently and often do not involve students in any systematic or meaningful way.
The 'New Honor Code' Movement
A survey conducted under the auspices of the Center for Academic Integrity in the 1999/2000 academic year helps explain the benefits of honor codes -- even at larger campuses where academic dishonesty is often more common. Included in this sample were three colleges (including the University of Maryland at College Park) that have adopted what are known as "modified" honor codes. These modified codes -- adopted in recent years at a rapidly growing number of institutions -- differ from traditional codes in at least two ways: unproctored exams are used only at the instructor's option and students are generally not expected to report cheating they might observe. However, modified codes do call for significant student involvement in promoting academic integrity and in adjudicating allegations of academic dishonesty.
They also impose strict sanctions for academic dishonesty (like suspensions or transcript notations), but do so in a context where education and prevention take priority over the threat of punishment alone.
Neither traditional nor modified honor codes eliminate all cheating, even serious cheating. However, the Center for Academic Integrity survey showed that only 23 percent of students at colleges with traditional honor codes reported one or more incidents of serious test or exam cheating in the past year, contrasted with 45 percent of students at colleges with no honor code. At the three modified honor code institutions in the study, 33 percent of the respondents self-reported an incident of serious test or exam cheating -- intermediate between the levels found on traditional honor code and no honor code campuses.
The Maryland Model
The modified honor code at the University of Maryland is now in its 14th year -- the longest history among modified honor codeinstitutions. Before adopting an honor code, Maryland relied almost exclusively on faculty members and administrators to report and resolve allegations of academic dishonesty.
For years, under this administrative system, the university resolved about 60 cases a year -- a tiny fraction of the actual incidents believed to be occurring. Immediately after implementing a modified honor code in 1990, case referrals jumped to over 100 annually, climbing steadily to a record 300 referrals in 2002-3 (while enrollment held steady or declined as higher admissions standards were imposed).
Although 300 cases does not capture the full extent of academic dishonesty at most large public universities, Maryland's new approach (especially the creation of an all-student Honor Council with significant authority to resolve allegations and educate their peers) sent the critical message that students cared about academic integrity and were willing to set and enforce high academic integrity standards. Empowered by this student support, an increasing number of faculty addressed and reported incidents of cheating that had often gone unreported previously.
An important element of Maryland's success is the fact that faculty members and administrators were already accustomed to seeing students as participants in campus governance. A student sits on the statewide Board of Regents and students make up 20 percent of Maryland's University Senate (a body that reviews and makes recommendations about core institutional policies). The impetus for this level of student participation was the campus revolutions of the 60's and 70's, which institutionalized student power and all but ended the concept of "in loco parentis" in American higher education. Ironically, those campus revolutions also laid the groundwork for the revitalization of an old academic tradition: student-administered honor codes.
Honor Codes and 'Millennials'
The new honor code movement at American colleges will founder or flourish, depending on whether educators draw upon the best traits of the new generation of students now populating our campuses. This group, born on or after 1982, has been described by writers William Strauss and Neil Howe as the "Millennial" generation. No cohort of children has received such intense parental attention (shuttled relentlessly from day care to music lessons to soccer games) -- with results that appear to justify the effort.
Among teenagers, national data show significant declines in rates of pregnancy, smoking, drug use, violence, and suicide. On campus, the most observant college teachers and administrators report seeing a "different" generation of students, closer to their parents; more optimistic about the future, more engaged in community service, more academically oriented, more politically engaged, and less depressed.
No one suggests the Millennial generation will be an unequivocal blessing. One Millennial characteristic -- a strong peer orientation -- has potential for harm, and may help account for the higher rates of cheating observed in secondary schools. In their book, Millennials Rising, Howe and Strauss write that Millennials are "drawn to circles and cliques. Only three in ten report that they usually socialize with only one or two friends, while two in three do so with groups of friends."
A critical task for college teachers and administrators in the current decade is to help the Millennials reach their highest potential. Will the Millennial interest in rituals and traditions be used solely to revitalize homecoming parades and athletic boosterism -- or to enhance the campus ethical climate? Will the Millennials' peer orientation be allowed to undermine the core value of academic integrity, or protect it?
Committed and collaborative leadership will be required, emphasizing virtues likely to appeal to Millennial sensibilities, like trust, honesty, and community responsibility. If such leadership is provided, innovations like modified honor codes will prosper. If not, widespread cheating may become institutionalized in American higher education.
Donald L. McCabe and Gary Pavela
Donald L. McCabe is professor of management and global business at Rutgers University and founding president of the Center for Academic Integrity. Gary Pavela is director of judicial programs at the University of Maryland at College Park and past president of the Center for Academic Integrity.
I like to think of myself as an easygoing, at times even cavalier, teacher. I loathed the disciplinarians in my life when I was a student, so I eschew their tactics now. Missed a test? Come to my office hours and I'll give you a makeup. You're playing in the tennis semifinals and have to miss all of next week's lectures? I'll excuse your absence as one for the team. Your dog died? Go bury him and mourn over Fido -- you can give your paper to me next week (if he didn't choke to death on your essay, that is).
I'm a pushover and a softie. But there's one form of student behavior I can't stand: lateness. It's more than a pet peeve -- it's more like a pathological peeve. "Better late than never" appears in my mental phrasebook with the corollary "...but never late is better." Class must start on time because my classes are organized around maximizing every minute of that precious hour I get to expand their horizons. If students arrive late, I will go out of my way to try to scare the propensity for tardiness right out of them.
It troubles me that being a stickler about student promptness is perhaps the reigning cliché of the overbearing schoolmaster (diploma in one hand dangling over their heads, razor-edged ruler in the other), but I wield a mean tardy policy and I hold students to it. I don't know where I got this hang-up -- perhaps baby food was withheld from my lips too long as a child or something -- but whenever students are chronically late to my classes, I turn into Doctor Discipline. And I'm pretty good at it. In fact, I think of belatedness rehabilitation as an art form.
My methods of dealing with belatedness range from mundane "shaming" strategies to sublime and arcane forms of behavior modification therapy. If a student is late to class just once, it might be forgivable, of course, but it only takes one ignored latecomer to set a precedent for the whole class to follow for the remainder of the term. Students are harried with work and family pressure these days -- I see more and more of them wearing their work clothes and sports uniforms in the classroom -- but even on a snow day I give no quarter.
I care about my work as much as they care about their employment, and I refuse to accept the assumption that my classes are less valuable than their day jobs or their sports practices. Being late betrays not only a lack of courtesy and disrespect, it reflects the students' devaluation of the role of learning in their lives, and I refuse to silently endorse it.
I realize that most university faculty don't take attendance, let alone trouble themselves over tardiness. Because I frame my courses as grounded in active participation (from writing workshops to class discussions), for me, "being there" matters. Even when a lecture is on the agenda, my beginnings are as important as my endings, and to miss the start is to miss the whole lot. So to show students that I mean business, my boilerplate late policy appears in the same section as a mandatory attendance policy in my syllabi, and it reads like this:
Excessive lateness, early departures, or behavioral issues will generate absences at the instructor's discretion. You must contact the teacher in advance if you expect to miss assignments; in all cases, it is preferable to turn homework in early rather than late.
There's nothing overtly sadistic about this policy, and while I have yet to flunk a student for being chronically late, I have certainly knocked down the final grades of students who had accumlated enough "tardies" to make even the most apathetic slacker drop his jaw. If these chronic latecomers were punching a clock on the job, they'd be docked pay (if not fired!), and that's precisely the justification I use when I give them a grade reduction. For the pathologically late, I'd say they deserve worse -- like earning only two college credits instead of three, since credit is measured by in-class time -- but that's not a weapon in my arsenal, unfortunately. (But imagine the possibilities!)
Of course, I should rise above such petty bean counting. My job is to teach adult learners in a collegial academic environment, not to count the heads of junior high children coming back from recess. My mission isn't really to train students to become well-disciplined members of the work force, and though I am mindful of their intent to seek careers and learn life skills, I don't see teaching as a career akin to being floor supervisor.
I've read that some instructors who face this problem in K-12 actually have their students punch time cards, but I'm not so anal-retentive that I would even want to keep a complete accounting of class time that way. I'd rather just live with being irked, and feed off that irk-etude to design clever ways of curtailing the behavior so it doesn't become routine in the first place.
Naturally, I employ the typical methods of dealing with late students. I ask to speak with them after class, or, if the habit becomes persistent, I invite them for a serious chat in my office and suggest counseling. I try to help them with their character flaw by giving them advice about everything from finding a good parking spot on campus to developing work habits that put an end to procrastination.
But it's the immediate response that's most important -- the reaction to the latecomer who ambles into the classroom after roll, let alone a lecture, has begun. I give them my patented "steely glare" -- a cold look that could freeze lava. If I'm in the middle of lecturing, I sometimes stop mid-sentence and wait until they stroll to their chairs and unpack their books, not beginning again until they are sitting and risk eye contact. I like to tell myself that they recognize in that instance that they've interrupted me and won't want to do so again. Once that point is made -- in silence -- I continue speaking as though nothing ever happened. But what really happens is that the other students already in the room recognize the rupture in educational time-space that happens whenever a student arrives late.
I fancy myself a pretty good sadist when it comes to generating shame and self-loathing in the tardy. If I spot a repeat offender in the hallway before class, and find that they're not in attendance even after I've given them a comfortable buffer of time, I might push trashcans and desks in front of the door, constructing something of an obstacle course between the doorway and the desk so that they realize they can't sneak into the room unnoticed. In fact, all eyes turn upon them, turning what would otherwise be my lone steely glare into a collective gaze that beams upon them like so many hot spotlights. I don't even pay attention to them, and just continue my teaching unabated.
Other tricks I've tried include: calling on the latecomer to answer a question the second they walk in the door, having students put their book bags on every remaining open seat, and even leaving a note on the board that says "we're outside" while promptly canceling class altogether. Well, okay, I haven't really done all these things. But I've thought about it, and they're all in my bag of tricks if I ever get desperate. I have, however, threatened to extend class for as many minutes as it took for the last arrival to enter the room.
When such cruel "ambush" tactics don't work, and a number of students somehow manage to get in the habit of showing up more than five minutes late every meeting (sometimes they commit the crime in clusters), I start giving quizzes -- easy ones -- right at the top of the hour, taking roll silently while students fill them out. This makes the impact of lateness on a grade concrete. An alternative strategy is to give an "extra credit code word" to the students who arrive early, and then include a bonus point question on the quiz that asks them, "What's the secret word?"
Of course, being cold, cruel and ceremoniously clever can backfire and if you ever want to emulate Doctor Discipline's techniques, remember that it means you can never be late yourself. I fondly recall being detained in a faculty meeting, and when I arrived late to a class found myself confronted with a giant green recycle bin when I opened the door. Everyone laughed, including me. Like I said, I'm an easygoing professor and all my students appreciate my humor and know that I mean no harm. But it took everything I had that day to not put their papers in the recycle bin at the end of the hour and let them go dumpster diving for their grades instead of handing them their essays when I returned them.
The pathology of tardiness has many origins -- from youthful rebellion to chronic time management dysfunction -- but there's one cause that troubles me above all: the professors who regularly arrive late to their own classes, and thereby establish a paradigm that timely starts don't matter in the classroom. You can spot these teachers in the faculty hallways, routinely locking their doors at three minutes after the hour or racing to the copy machine in a panic. Or perhaps they're the mellower ones, who always show up 10 minutes after the committee meeting has begun, fresh tea bag floating in a steamy Styrofoam cup.
In her self-help book, Never Be Late Again, Diana DeLonzor describes the "absent-minded professor" as an icon of the chronically late -- the person who is routinely tardy because they are "easily distracted, forgetful and caught up in their own introspection." It's easy to fool oneself into identifying with this icon of the charmingly-forgetful-yet-productively-musing scholar, but these same people are often quite timely when it comes to getting to the lunch line or happy hour.
Others among us might be what DeLonzor calls the "deadliner" who feeds off the thrill of racing against the clock or the "rebel" who resists the social contract as a way of feeling in control of the situation. Academic pressures and procrastination habits often result in such approaches to scholarship, true, but how thrilling is greeting the classroom at the finish line, really? And how can we expect students to meet deadlines and tamper their rebellion when we don't practice what we preach? In the end, teachers lead by example, and no matter what their motives, the chronically late instructor enables the chronically late student.
I recall a small faculty debate on my campus e-mail server awhile back about the "official campus policy" regarding faculty arriving late to class. There is no official policy, and there really shouldn't be. Faculty should just show up on time. If there is a policy that allows for late arrival, faculty will take advantage of that free time and always be late. But students always want to know: how long must one wait for a professor to arrive before leaving? In the e-mail exchange, one faculty member raised the notion that it depends on how long the class is -- 5 minutes for a one hour class, 10 for an hour-and-a-half-long course, and so forth, exponentially. That would give me plenty of time for dessert before my three-hour night class!
Another mentioned a campus myth that espoused the policy that teachers should be allotted courtesy time by rank -- so that students would have to wait 15 minutes for a full professor to arrive, but only 5 for an assistant prof. Half my students don't know how to spell my name correctly, let alone my academic rank. Another group suggested that a single policy should be adopted and posted in every classroom so students would know what to do. We might as well drape a huge banner beneath the campus's road sign that reads, "Where the Faculty Aren't Punctual!"
Even the college president eventually joined the fray, with what I felt was probably the most pedagogically sound option: to tell students ahead of time that if the teacher is ever late or absent, they need to hold class themselves, and write a report about what they did in class that day for homework. I like this because it retains the student-centered integrity of the class and puts the responsibility for learning where it existed all along: on the students' shoulders.
But I can guess how those reports might read: "We waited for you."
Have you ever had a student in your class who, out of the blue, stopped showing up to class for a week or two, and then magically returned as if nothing happened? I like to pretend that they're not in absentia, but just enormously late. For in the end, there's no difference between lateness and absence: It's all missed time, and I'm keeping track of it.
Michael ArnzenÂ is an associate professor of English at Seton Hill University. He produces Pedablogue, a "personal inquiry into the scholarship of teaching."
Over the last generation, most colleges and universities have experienced considerable grade inflation. Much lamented by traditionalists and explained away or minimized by more permissive faculty, the phenomenon presents itself both as an increase in students’ grade point averages at graduation as well as an increase in high grades and a decrease in low grades recorded for individual courses. More prevalent in humanities and social science than in science and math courses and in elite private institutions than in public institutions, discussion about grade inflation generates a great deal of heat, if not always as much light.
While the debate on the moral virtues of any particular form of grade distribution fascinates as cultural artifact, the variability of grading standards has a more practical consequence. As grades increasingly reflect an idiosyncratic and locally defined performance levels, their value for outside consumers of university products declines. Who knows what an "A" in American History means? Is the A student one of the top 10 percent in the class or one of the top 50 percent?
Fuzziness in grading reflects a general fuzziness in defining clearly what we teach our students and what we expect of them. When asked to defend our grading practices by external observers -- parents, employers, graduate schools, or professional schools -- our answers tend toward a vague if earnest exposition on the complexity of learning, the motivational differences in evaluation techniques, and the pedagogical value of learning over grading. All of this may well be true in some abstract sense, but our consumers find our explanations unpersuasive and on occasion misleading.
They turn, then, to various forms of standardized testing. When the grades of an undergraduate have an unpredictable relevance to a standard measure performance, and when high quality institutions that should set the performance standard routinely give large proportions of their students “A” grades, others must look elsewhere for some reliable reference. A 3.95 GPA should reflect the same level of preparation for students from different institutions.
Because they do not, we turn to the GMAT, LSAT, GRE, or MCAT, to take four famous examples. These tests normalize the results from the standards-free zone of American higher education. The students who aspire to law or medical school all have good grades, especially in history or organic chemistry. In some cases, a student’s college grades may prove little more than his or her ability to fulfill requirements and mean considerably less than the results of a standardized test that attempts to identify precisely what the student knows that is relevant to the next level of academic activity.
Although many of us worry that these tests may be biased against various subpopulations, emphasize the wrong kind of knowledge, and encourage students to waste time and money on test prep courses, they have one virtue our grading system does not provide: The tests offer a standardized measure of a specific and clearly defined subset of knowledge deemed useful by those who require them for admission to graduate or professional study.
Measuring State Investment
If the confusion over the value of grades and test scores were not enough, we discover that at least for public institutions, our state accountability systems focus heavily on an attempt to determine whether student performance reflects a reasonable value for taxpayer investment in colleges and universities. This accountability process engages a wide range of measures -- time to degree, graduation rate, student satisfaction, employment, graduate and professional admission, and other indicators of undergraduate performance -- but even with the serious defects in most of these systems, they respond to the same problems as do standardized tests.
Our friends and supporters have little confidence in the self-generated mechanisms we use to specify the achievement of our students. If the legislature believed that students graduating with a 3.0 GPA were all good performers measured against a rigorous national standard applied to reasonably comparable curricula, they would not worry much about accountability. They would just observe whether our students learned enough to earn a nationally normed 3.0 GPA.
Of course, we have no such mechanism to validate the performance of our students. We do not know whether our graduates leave better or worse prepared than the students from other institutions. We too, in recognition of the abdication of our own academic authority as undergraduate institutions, rely on the GRE, MCAT, LSAT, and GMAT to tell us whether the students who apply (including our own graduates) can meet the challenges of advanced study at our own universities.
Partly this follows from another peculiarity of the competitive nature of the American higher education industry. Those institutions we deem most selective enroll students with high SATs on average (recognizing that a high school record is valuable only when validated in some fashion by a standardized test). Moreover, because selective institutions admit smart students who have the ability to perform well, and because these institutions have gone to such trouble to recruit them, elite colleges often feel compelled to fulfill the prophecy of the students’ potential by ensuring that most graduate with GPA’s in the A range. After all, they may say, average does not apply to our students because they are all, by definition, above average.
When reliable standards of performance weaken in any significant and highly competitive industry, consumers seek alternative external means of validating the quality of the services provided. The reluctance of colleges and universities, especially the best among us, to define what they expect from their students in any rigorous and comparable way, brings accreditation agencies, athletic organizations, standardized test providers, and state accountability commissions into the conversation, measuring the value of the institution’s results against various nationally consistent expectations of performance.
We academics dislike these intrusions into our academic space because they coerce us to teach to the tests or the accountability systems, but the real enemy is our own unwillingness to adopt rigorous national standards of our own.