I teach at a college with many low-income students who weren’t fortunate enough to get a good high school education. I have spent numerous hours in faculty lounges listening to professors complain about the lack of motivation, poor preparation and insouciance of today’s college student. They regale their colleagues with stories about students who lack requisite skills, who are not committed to their education and who have little interest in the subject matter being presented. If I were to take a piece of paper, draw a line down the center and each time a professor made a positive statement about a student check the right side of the page, and each time a negative statement was made check the left side, the left side would far outweigh the right side.
How do these beliefs affect students? Is Robert K. Merton’s self-fulfilling prophecy at work? What can we do to help teachers become more aware of the struggles, and frustrations, facing today’s college student? I would like to offer a modest proposal.
When I was in high school I had a remarkable history teacher. She was from Sweden, and had that rare quality of making history come alive. She told me that when she first arrived in the United States the principal of the school in which she worked asked her to learn baseball. She said that she was confused by the game and didn't understand the arcane terminology, complex rules and why anyone would care about a team winning or losing. The principal explained to her that students in her class knew baseball, and did not have a hard time learning the game. However, they might have difficulty learning history.
So, my modest proposal to help teachers gain greater insight into the challenges confronting their students is: Have students conduct dance classes for teachers. Many students know how to dance, are interested in dancing and devote an extensive amount of time learning new dance steps. After a few faculty dance classes, students can complain that teachers lack the motor skills required to dance; that they are not motivated, refuse to see the importance of dancing and are constantly using their cell phones to text message rather than attending to what the instructor is discussing. Of course, when teachers claim that they are too busy to learn to dance, have other priorities and fail to understand the importance associated with learning to dance, students can shrug their shoulders and wonder at the difficulties faculty members have with commitment.
On a more serious note, I am not suggesting that college teachers lower their standards, but rather have sensitivity to the difficulties that many of their students have to negotiate. Minimal academic preparation in public school, financial stressors, and single parent families are only a few of the challenges facing many college students. Rather than enumerate their shortcomings, why not honor their tenacity?
Of course, we can only guess as to the impact a professor’s private thoughts about students have on student performance. Does a professor’s skewed opinion increase drop-out rates? Does her/his opinion precipitate reduced effort, lower grades, and behavioral management issues? My own anecdotal research would answer the above questions with a resounding Yes. I have had a number of students ask me why other professors think that they are “stupid”, that they are not motivated, or that they are not committed to obtaining a college education.
I would leave my colleagues with two recommendations. First, read what Hesiod had to say about the youth of 2800 years ago: "I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words... When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly disrespectful and impatient of restraint."
Second, learn to dance.
Alan Groveman is a professor of psychology at Berkeley College, in New Jersey.
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