Telling It as It Is

June 6, 2011

One of the things I like best about teaching at a smaller college is getting to know my students well. Quite often I will meet a student for the first time during freshman orientation and see that person progress from a doe-eyed cherub to a semi-jaded wolverine during the next four years. Hopefully there has been some growth and maturity during that time as well. One of my favorite tasks during freshman orientation is to participate in a university-required meeting with a small group of incoming students. In this informal meeting, students are meeting a "real" professor for the first time and learning a little bit about academic expectations. Something I added to my session a couple of years ago was (for lack of a better term) a brief "fear of God" speech on personal responsibility. I figured that since many of these kids would be on their own for the first time, perhaps a brief cage-rattling would be beneficial. After briefing students on the machinations of class schedules and the like, I usually break into the personal responsibility speech, which includes some of the following bits of wisdom:

  • "Use at least two alarm clocks because mom isn’t here to wake you up."
  • "Someone in here will fail at least one class. All of you will earn either a D or an F on an exam or paper while you’re here."
  • "If your significant other is attending another college, chances are you’ll be broken up by Thanksgiving."
  • "No one will make breakfast for you."

For some reason, the last two seem to always get their attention. I do this because I want incoming students to realize that while the next four years of their lives will be some of their best, they will also be some of the most difficult. I’m not trying to scare them off or think twice about coming to college; I just want them to be aware of some issues and stresses that can come from the "dark side" of academic life.

Sometimes I feel a bit guilty at the end of each session because I have heard terms such as "harsh," "brutal" and "let-down" muttered while the students walked out to their next assigned event, but at the same time I also feel I am doing them some kind of justice. At least they can't say they were never warned about some of the "uncool" elements of college life. I started feeling a lot better about this part of the session the second year I did it. That year, one of the student helpers who was an incoming freshman in the previous year’s session mentioned that when he saw my name on the list of presenters, he wanted to help with my group. When I asked him why, his response was direct and empowering: "You were right. I would have been lost my freshman year without hearing you last summer. You were the only person who told it as it is." Apparently he broke up with his high school girlfriend (at Halloween) and started waking up early in order to have enough time for breakfast before morning classes. I know I’m probably not the most popular guy at the end of my sessions, but I know I’m doing the right thing.

Just a few weeks ago, I got the bright idea of trying this sort of speech again, but modifying it for my graduating seniors in an upper-level course. I got the idea after reading way too many stories about how pathetic the job situation is for 2011 graduates. I learned about recent college graduates who can’t find a job (the unemployed), can only find part-time work (the underemployed), or can only find jobs that don’t require a college degree (the malemployed). One of the stories on a recent episode of The MacNeil/Lehrer Report featured a 2010 graduate with a degree in anthropology who could only find a job washing garbage cans for the municipality he lived in. Stories like these disturb me. Part of the reason I entered academe was to pay back in some way the professors and students who helped me along my path. This includes telling current students as much as I can about the cold, hard world that they will inherit. This outlook, coupled with the information about the current job market, made me realize that it’s just as important for seniors to be aware of the perils of "real life" when leaving college as it is for freshmen to have their eyes opened at orientation.

So I had it all planned out; I would remind them of personal responsibility. I would regale them with tales of my own experiences with the job market fresh out of college. I would dazzle them with the recent job outlooks and reports in order to drive home the importance of setting one’s self apart from the crowd in order to get that job that seems harder and harder to get. Most importantly however, I would tell them to never give up, no matter how bleak the job market may seem.

The presentation would even apply to juniors and sophomores in the class because they would take the direness of the current situation to heart and spend the rest of their time in college improving themselves to become a leaner, meaner graduate who gets the job the moment they walk in the door. Once the presentation and any subsequent discussion ended, I would briefly review for the final exam and have them complete their student evaluation forms since this would be the last time we would meet for the semester. Armed with my notes and other goodies, I charged upstairs from my office, ready to "tell it as it is."

And I choked.

As I entered the classroom, I noticed that the students were particularly alive for a mid-afternoon class. Everyone was talking, laughing, and chatting in the standard pre-lecture environment we’re all familiar with, but this time they seemed especially energetic. The sun was peeking through the open back window and I half expected to see a bluebird sitting on the window sill. It was late April, two and a half weeks before graduation, and one of the first nice spring days in quite a while. When I stood in front of the room, everyone actually settled down and looked at me, seeming to know that I had something heavy to share.

Looking back at them, I just couldn’t go through with it. Here I was, about to tell them to have confidence in themselves and that hard work pays off and then inform them of how lousy their job prospects were! What kind of message is that? "Hey kids, in about three weeks you’ll start to have your teeth kicked in by a hostile job environment, but you’ll be fine if you try really, really hard! Eye of the Tiger!"

Mix in other issues such as student debt load, avoiding job downsizing, and competing against applicants with more experience just to name few, and I could just see how what I wanted to say would really make them feel better. It just didn’t compute. So I stuck with the brief review on the final exam and student evaluations. I told them to enjoy the nice afternoon and I left, and I have felt crummy ever since.

I've been going over the event in my mind, trying to figure why I caved. Standing in front of the class that day, in the span of about five seconds, three thoughts briefly came to me that I think caused my change in plans. First, I think somehow pride got in the way. As The Professor™, I’m supposed to be the calm, logical voice and here I would be, trying to pump the students up while letting them know in no uncertain terms that the future would be extremely difficult. Not an easy task and one that could upset them right before evaluations. I was also afraid of possibly depressing some of them.

One thing I've noticed about the class of 2011 as opposed to others is that they do a pretty good job of putting on a brave face, but it's painfully obvious that’s all there is. Underneath, the students seems to be an unspoken dread and awareness of what they are facing and I think they’re scared, to say the least. Talk about a "brutal" and "harsh let-down" on such a nice day! Finally, I thought of the possibility that some students (underclassmen as well as seniors) might actually question the veracity of spending four years of their lives (and who knows how much money) on something that may lead to stellar careers such as washing garbage cans or dog-walking.

I think the third thought was the clincher for me. It seems to boil down to integrity. Honestly, as I stood in front of the class that day I had the sense of feeling like a stereotypical used car salesman. "All you have to do is try your best and good things will happen (but don’t read the small print that says all of the hard work you’ve been doing for the past four years may not lead to good things after all)." How could I do this? It just seemed dishonest.

Over the years, I have been accused of being a Humanist. I have often been affected by the human cost of struggle and misery, yet I’ve always been told that it isn’t my fault or problem when people struggle because somehow "they made their own beds." After this experience however, I'm starting to wonder what my role is in this particular struggle. If I go out of my way to try to tell incoming students a bit about the dark side, why am I having trouble telling outgoing students the same thing? How am I helping graduating seniors by giving them information like this? How am I helping them by not telling them?

The ideal graduate, in my opinion, is someone who is at least semi-jaded and willing to accept that life isn’t easy, all the while questioning the status quo. Yet the last thing I want to do is turn off a student by making him or her question the value of the education they just spent four years of their life slaving for. While I want semi-jaded graduates, I don’t want curmudgeons. Where does the line between the two exist and what can I do to make sure no one crosses it?

This experience has obviously left me with several questions, both personal and professional. Upon further reflection, it seems I dropped the ball, and that has me questioning myself in a variety of ways. Contrary to how it may seem, however, I’m not having a Seinfeld-ian "Why am I here?" moment. I have invested way too much personal time and energy into higher education and I have way too much I want to do before I hang it all up. I still believe that what I do serves a strong purpose and leads ultimately to a higher social good. I just have to question and re-evaluate my approach to preparing students at the end of their four years. I seem to be able to tell students the score when they enter college, but it appears I have a long way to go doing the same when they leave.


Craig Stark is an assistant professor of communications at Susquehanna University.

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