I spent last January teaching somewhere unexpected: at New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi, established six years ago. And this class was different from any other in which I’ve been involved.
My creative writing class had 25 students of extraordinarily diverse backgrounds. Some were traditional-age seniors, soon to graduate. Others were older security personnel, several of whom had never been able to attend a college or university. Yet their differences didn’t matter. For three exciting weeks, I taught storytelling to matriculating students and staff members. More important, they taught each other.
They came from all over with tales to tell. A woman from the Philippines planned her story in her head while on duty as a campus security guard. Another student, an Emirati, composed his off campus, in his family home. One student from Uganda wrote about a young girl who could whistle magically. A student from Pakistan enlisted classmates to perform her manifesto -- scripted as a play -- satirizing arranged marriages. Another student, from the same part of the world, read out a dialogue from a son who wanted only more time with his busy, working dad.
This all started months earlier, when I received an email from Carol Brandt, NYUAD’s associate vice chancellor for global education and outreach. Would I be interested, she asked, to have my class participate in cocurricular activities? I had no idea what that meant. She told me that I could break up the January term’s notoriously intense three weeks of daily classes by, for example, taking students on a field trip or having them interview school staff members, or whatever creative idea I felt was suitable.
In the days before term started, the opportunity expanded. Another email came -- this time from Liria Gjidija, who goes by Lily and works in the social responsibility area of the university. Would I, she asked, be interested in also teaching creative writing to members of the campus staff?
I said yes to the unexpected offer. Of course. Education, after all, is key to developing every citizen’s possible self, while creative writing is vital to finding one’s voice.
Upon arrival in Abu Dhabi, I immediately met with Lily, who explained NYUAD’s evolving social responsibility initiative. I was surprised, then thrilled, to hear about her work with campus contract employees -- maintenance personnel, hospitality staff and security guards -- as well as with those working in domestic roles with staff and faculty families. NYUAD now offers all of them access to library and health facilities, intramural sports, film screenings and an expanding range of classes on such subjects as survival Arabic, ESL, photography, business English, storytelling and even cooking.
Rather alarmingly to me, Lily described the creative writing course I’d give to contract staff: everyone had very high hopes, she told me, and you’ll be the captain of the ship.
Carte blanche can sometimes produce great anxiety, especially when teaching for the first time at a foreign school. I retreated to my apartment to brainstorm, knowing well that continuing education presents special challenges. I’d learned that painfully after completing my M.F.A. at Columbia University, when I gave creative writing courses in South Australia at the Workers’ Educational Association. There, I discovered that adult learning is particularly demanding because teachers have little baseline knowledge of what students have previously learned. Faced with the diversity of teaching 16 contract staff members at NYUAD, I became even more anxious.
The solution hit me as I read over the initial completed writing exercises of my nine matriculating NYUAD students. We’d spent our intense first week learning the basics of storytelling. They’d studied elegantly simple short stories, such as “Reunion” by John Cheever and Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” Reading the students’ work, it was evident they’d learned their stuff.
I jumped up, excited: Why not have these young students share all they’d learned with the 16 security guards whom I’d be teaching in the second and third weeks of the term? And why not have both sets pair up to learn about narrative by sharing their life stories?
On the first of what would be two Thursday afternoons, both sets of students were equally enthusiastic. For the beginning half of the class, the NYUAD kids shared their new skills with the guards who keep their campus secure. During the latter half of the class, those youngsters interviewed their elders, learning about their lives. Throughout, there was a shared excitement in the air. Nary a moan nor protest was heard when I assigned the busy contract staff members the stories by Cheever and Hemingway as their homework.
The frisson persisted during our second Thursday together, as the young students paired up with different staff members to unpack “Reunion” and “Hills Like White Elephants.” As with the week before, the latter portion of class was spent on interviews, but this time with staff members interviewing students about their lives. At the end of the class, we all parted ways for the weekend -- stories communicated and real connections made.
Too rare, often, are the moments in teaching and writing when you’re reminded exactly why you do it -- when what is learned goes beyond pages or discussions, or standardized demands of exams or reviews. Over the following two weekends, I met alone with the contract staff members to go deeper into what the NYUAD students had taught them. Those older learners then constructed their own stories and shared them with each other. They wrote of distant children growing up without them. Or parents passing far away. They wrote of departures and missed opportunities. Or the unforgotten beauty of their homelands. In writing, my students transcended themselves -- taking a bold step toward finding their voices, so that one day they could raise them beautifully and loudly. Because that’s what creative writing is about.
But rarer, still, are those moments when you see a higher education institution transcend the business that is education. Colleges and universities have classrooms, books, facilities; many have endowments and well-paid professors, or noble ideals like with my own Jesuit and Christian brothers’ alma maters. Colleges and universities engage in socially relevant research or in outreach, give to charities and encourage students to look at our troubled world and ask: Why?
Yet nowhere in my lifetime of studying and teaching have I seen this effort to help further educate the hundreds of workers who exist quietly within hallowed halls, in shadowed corridors -- keeping campuses safe, serving food to young minds, selling or shelving books or tidying up classrooms those long hours they are emptied. We should ask ourselves: Why not?
NYU Abu Dhabi is now doing it, to my great surprise. Their social responsibility program is becoming a model that should be replicated in every able university across the world. If you saw what I saw, what my students saw in those 16 university employees -- from the Philippines, Nepal, Uganda, Pakistan and India -- you would agree wholeheartedly that this initiative is vitally important. Because isn’t what happened in those classes what education is all about?
Miguel Syjuco, a visiting assistant professor of practice at New York University Abu Dhabi, is a Filipino writer from Manila. His debut novel, Ilustrado, was the winner of the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize and a New York Times Notable Book of 2010.
A request to write letters evaluating other faculty for tenure and promotion means that other people think you are qualified to make this important assessment. It can also be terrifying, write Joya Misra and Jennifer Lundquist.
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.
I spent a couple of weeks in January nursing a gloom-inducing inferiority complex. I was part of a team of academics reviewing applications for the most prestigious national fellowship in my field.
Only about 7 percent of applicants will get the award. Of the 35 or so candidates I reviewed, the few that I recommended for funding were simply stunning in their talent and achievement. The others, those unfortunate souls whom I voted to reject, suffered from being merely staggeringly good. They all seemed to have obtained 4.0 averages at elite institutions, written publishable senior theses and conducted summer research with world-famous scholars.
Who was I to sit in judgment of these people? I felt like a flabby Roman emperor giving a thumbs-down to the gladiator who was slightly less preternaturally strong and agile than the one who held the sword at his throat. I mean, I sure as hell couldn’t beat any of them. But besides the ache in my deflating ego was the discomfort of knowing that, while the applicants we were funding may have deserved it the most, they were also those who needed it the least. We weren’t making graduate school available to students who couldn’t afford it. We were simply pouring money into a handful of the world’s wealthiest universities.
I think of myself as a noncommissioned intellectual. Most of my job involves teaching economics at a small, academically respected liberal arts college with strong, highly motivated students. It’s a good job, and I like it.
Teaching is not all I do; Google Scholar tells me that my publications have been cited a few hundred times. But an economist my age at a research university will have thousands of citations, and the top economists will have tens of thousands.
So I am not one of the generals, so to speak, who lead the troops in our discipline, directing them to some new set of economic ideas. Nor am I a colonel supervising those early-career officers who might one day be generals. I am a sergeant.
I have been a sergeant for 33 years. I train the new recruits, the youngest enlisted personnel, only a few of whom will decide on an academic career. I think I’m a good sergeant, and good sergeants are valuable, as any general will tell you. But it feels odd for a sergeant to be identifying the next generals. I suppose I was recruited to this job because a flag officer’s time is too valuable to spend on this.
Interestingly, among the fellowship applicants -- the future generals, colonels and (at least) captains -- I spotted someone I thought would make a fine sergeant. It surprised me and made me think, “What are you doing here?” Like me, this person had been a good but not great student at an uncelebrated state institution and was not even an economics major. (My B.A. is in political science.) Unlike me, however, she had been compelled to support herself all the way through college. She had to overcome extraordinary personal challenges to arrive at graduate school, and remarkably, she did. The graduate program she enrolled in wasn’t at Stanford or Harvard, but it could produce great sergeants, and maybe once in a while a major or a colonel. And federally supporting this student might make it possible for the university to enroll another one or two.
Naturally, however, I did not propose funding for this potential sergeant. I wasn’t supposed to be looking for sergeants -- I was supposed to be looking for colonels and generals. To be sure, these fellowships take into account applicants’ special circumstances and try to be inclusive with respect to race and gender. But I couldn’t bring myself to recommend a merely good record over a batch of phenomenal ones.
In some ways, that is unfortunate. Without federal funding, the exceptional young scholars will almost certainly get financial assistance from one of the elite institutions. The federal fellowship doesn’t enable them to go to graduate school; it merely relieves Princeton or Yale of having to dip into their massive endowment returns or sizable research grants to support such top-notch students. In effect, this money makes the rich institutions richer.
I’m not saying it’s a bad idea to direct funding to the supertalented. After all, don’t we want to reward a truly superior performance over a merely excellent or good one? I don’t want to make an appeal for mediocrity.
But we should not delude ourselves that these funds are actually creating opportunities for graduate study. They are not. To actually accomplish that, a bit of the money that is going to fund the best of the best at the most elite institutions should be directed to the less wealthy ones, where Ph.D. recipients become good science teachers and competent researchers (which enhances teaching), but who are not always research stars. Even though few of the new recruits would eventually make general, if those funds supported a wider range of colleges and universities, they might increase the size of our army of scholars.
I am reminded of the title of the movie that made Andy Griffith famous: No Time for Sergeants. I hope that the elite members of the scientific and academic establishments will not take this attitude but will see the worth of supporting some noncoms, as well.
Mark Montgomery is Donald L. Wilson Professor of Enterprise and Leadership and professor of economics at Grinnell College.