And their music? It’s just noise!

At Inside Higher Ed today, William Bradley offers a humorous and self-deprecating essay on his memories of college versus the conduct he observes in his students.  With every essay he finds cut-and-pasted from Wikipedia, with every mobile ringtone he hears during his classes, and with every complacent D student he meets, he wonders about the erosion of higher education in the United States:

“I had so much respect for my own professors,” I tell myself. “Yet these students seem to be mocking my efforts.”

It’s easy to understand why those who have been doing this for their entire lives might get frustrated, isn’t it? It’s depressing, to think that the college experience now is so degraded, compared to how we remember our own college years, a time of discovery and the excitement that comes with acquiring knowledge.

But then he remembers how it really was, and even comes to suspect that the “respect” he had for his professors meant that he didn’t get the most out of his education.  Fear of admitting his own ignorance kept him from asking the big questions:

The student who had “so much respect” for his own professors, in fact, consistently fell asleep in his first English class — a survey of British literature that met at the ungodly hour (for an 18-year-old) of 8 in the morning. He once handed in a research paper without a works cited page because, you know, he had better things to do than edit his own paper before handing it in. He even showed up for a late-afternoon psychology lab after spending the early afternoon working on a six pack of Milwaukee’s Best and proceeded to giggle like an imbecile every time the untenured, undoubtedly overworked instructor said the phrase “sexual arousal.” The topic for the day was — you guessed it — sex, which meant that the juvenile snickering went on longer than even Beavis and Butthead would have found tolerable.

.       .        .       .      .       .      

So, though I respected their obvious intelligence and valued the insights [my professors] shared with me, my own admiration for them prevented me from asking them the questions I knew they could answer. My fear of looking foolish caused me to choose ignorance.

As a professor and as a human being, I’m very aware of how ignorant I remain to this day. And I know, now, that those professors I idolized — and idealized — must have been aware of how limited their own knowledge was, and were probably plagued by the same doubts that plague me. Part of being an educated person, of course, involves acknowledging how much we don’t know.

I admire Bradley’s honesty.  And, by the way:  that was me, too in college, only maybe worse:  the Friday afternoon Western Civ lectures I attended only once in two semesters Freshman year; the evening seminars I blew off to go visit a boyfriend in the city; the 9 a.m. Art History course senior year (SENIOR year!) in which I regularly dropped off shortly after the lights were dimmed for the slide lecture.  What a callous, self-centered jerk I was–and I was a scholarship kid, too! 

Cue Bill Cosby’s bit about children, only substitute “college students” for “children:”

(The bit begins around 1:30 in this clip.)

14 thoughts on “And their music? It’s just noise!

  1. What the guy was really not paying attention to in college was the vast majority of the rest of his classmates, who were not imagining being on the other side of the lectern one day, and who I’d guess were not “performing” much differently than the students whose classroom I just now left. When I actually read some of the things I handed in back then, I often cringe.

    But I’m not sure if I’m totally buying that second-to-last paragraph, the one right above “Cue Bill Cosby…” 🙂


  2. I front-loaded my problematic behaviors with the result that by the time I arrived in my upper division classes, I was paying pretty close attention. I think my transition to seriousness* was beginning when a shocking demonstration of own vulnerability caused me to think carefully and push quickly the rest of the way. It also helped that I was at a small school in a department with a good social environment. By the time I made it to the upper division classes, I felt connected and valued, both of which kept me motoring along and striving to do good work in the eyes of my professors and my peers.

    * I lived an austere, single-minded life in grad school, ask anybody. But that allowed me to afford the opera, the symphony, and shoestring travels overseas so it was worth it.


  3. I spent a great deal of my mechanical engineering class sharing a copy of the Anarchists’ Cookbook with the other students in my row. This behavior grew out of our complete inability to correctly perform the homework or follow along with the professor’s semi-helpful attempts to walk us through problems.

    I’ve been the crappy student. I’ve also been the good student. I’m not stupid enough to think that there’s some type-shift between olden days students and modern students on that front. It’s simply the technology and focus of cheating and/or goofing off that’s evolved.

    Now, get off my lawn, you young whippersnappers!


  4. Some undergraduates waste their time, have the wrong impression or get drunk. Many undergraduate, however, work hard and do a decent job. Yet, we live in a society where we learn to feel superior to others. William Bradley starts from the true and proven: the kids suck, we are great. He later changes his tune. Just because he realizes what he should have known from the age of 18; we all know a little and what little we know is imperfect.

    As teachers, we should get used to respect our students, know our limitations and be way more critical way it comes to deviation from that.


  5. koshembos–I think you’re being a little hard on the 18- or 20-year old Bradley. There are a lot of reasonably ambitious and curious students in college who fear exposure of their ignorance more than their own ignorance. I identified with that–I came from a family in which my parents were professionals, but we didn’t hang out with doctors, lawyers, or college professors. College was Terra Incognita for me, and I was often unsure as to how to proceed.


  6. I recently had a flashback to the day I was kicked out of class because I had an uncontrollable laughing fit.

    I am also currently wondering why most of my students seem reluctant to give up on the Pilgrims as the founders of colonial America.

    I was both the jerk in the classroom (and remind myself of this often) and the intellectually curious student. In the first two years it was entirely dependent on the day.


  7. I was a crappy student in high school, lazy and sometimes badly behaved. Got it together as a senior and acted more or less human and serious–bar stupid young male tendency to answer too many questions, behavior I remember with great embarrassment–in college. I also worked hard and did consistently well. And then fell apart in the first year of grad school and had to relearn all that discipline . . .


  8. I was a middling student in High School. I almost flunked Chemistry, Geometry and Trig. (God, I was awful in Geometry, writing those proofs was hell, I still don’t get it). I earned ‘A’s in History and Religion classes sometimes in English.

    I was a better student in College, but I sure as heck had a hard time making it to my eight o’clock classes. I had an epiphany after I talked to the TA about why I had done poorly on a midterm. She said something in a kind, but straightforward manner – To earn a better grade I had to use the readings in the exams. Boy, that was eye opening, because nobody had ever told me that! That one brief discussion made me a better student. I actually did more of the readings and did better in the class. Obvious in retrospect, but not self-evident at the time.

    I had a great time in my upper division and even the lower division history classes, but sometimes struggled in the general education courses. I remember particularly hating one sociology class. In retrospect, most of this, 90% of it, was rank immaturity on my part. There were somethings the instructors could have done better, like rubrics and better assignment sheets. But that was the 1980s.

    I try to remember my own immaturity when teaching students at Woebegone State University.


  9. I hated math class — 8:00 on the other side of campus — and completely ignored the instructor when I bothered to show up at all. I could have gotten extra credit for handing in the homework, but I never even bothered. My grade reflected it. At the time I blamed the instructor, but now I know how obnoxious I was.

    I don’t blame the students I have now, especially in my core requirement courses. I just try to keep them reasonably entertained as they sit there with no pens or notebooks (attendance is required at my school). And as a history prof, telling funny and sometimes pathetic stories tends to keep them happy.


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