Maybe not the “dumbest generation?”

dunceMark Bauerlein, a not-that-old fogy at an elite university, wrote something cranky about the practice of higher education in the New York Times last weekend.  The column has been subjected to a ritual beating by many in the academic blogosphere.  Yesterday, a call went out from David Perry (@Lollardfish on Twitter, and the blog How Did We Get Into This Mess) that he “would like to see R1 profs engage in a loud and public conv[ersation] ab[out] teaching and research.”  Although I teach at an R1, it’s the Aggie school in my state and certainly not “elite.”  I also don’t teach Ph,D. students, as my History department offers just a Master’s Degree.

This year, as regular readers know, I’ve been far away from the grind at Baa Ram U. and on sabbatical at the Huntington Library, a.k.a. “Scholars’ Disneyland.”  I’ve been living much like a Renaissance scholar, dining at the table and enjoying the luxuries of my sponsoring Prince–that is to say, nothing like my real life, but you know what?  The conversations I’ve been having here with the Distinguished Fellows–all of whom teach at elite universities and supervise Ph.D. students as well as undergraduates–frequently revolves around teaching, and yes, teaching undergraduates!  How do we reach them?  How do we get them to become and remain History majors?  What subjects interest them most, and how can we use those interests to develop an aptitude for historical thinking?

We’re like young parents who want nothing more than a night away from the children, and then we end up talking about the children the whole time we’re out to dinner.

This is no different than the conversations that I have with my colleagues at Baa Ram U and my friends at other universities:  we think and talk about our students all the time, and although sometimes we may complain and kvetch about a problem student here or there, for the most part the conversation is focused on how we can grab and hold their attention, and how we can ignite spark of intellectual engagement.  So I don’t know who Bauerlein is working with at Emory that he sees such a monumental level of faculty carelessness about their students and their teaching responsibilities.  (I’d love to see a candid review by some of his colleagues about this claim!)

At Baa Ram U., teaching matters.  Teaching is 50% of my job description, while research counts for 35% and service the final 15%.  Although that 35% seems to count for a great deal more at tenure and promotion time, I would say that in my department, it’s a necessary but insufficient component of our portfolios.  We must demonstrate teaching effectiveness as well.

nutty professorNow let me return to Bauerlein’s lament.  As LD Burnett has explained in greater detail that I can, one of the big problems with his analysis is false nostalgia for the campus of the 1960s.  But anyone with a passing familiarity of the history of higher education knows that students have been at odds with the faculty for at least two hundred years, seeing them then, as now, as joyless buzzkills who mistakenly think that college is about scholarship rather than fun and fellowship with one’s peers.  (At least, that’s a big lesson I took away from Nicholas L. Syrett’s The Company He Keeps:  A History of White College Fraternities, and some of my other reading on the topic.)  So to claim that in the 1960s, or the 1920s, or the 1890s, or the 1860s, or the 1830s that “naturally, students looked to professors for moral and worldly understanding” is a pretty laughable claim based on the evidence left us by generations of college students, faculty, and administrators.

Some students surely did look to the faculty for wisdom and guidance, as they do nowadays, but let’s be honest:  in our bumptious democracy, college faculty have always been viewed with suspicion and disdain as oddballs, eggheads, or even decadent leftist fifth-columnists!  (We should be grateful for these moments of relative equipoise in national affairs when our intellectual interests render us merely irrelevant rather than treasonous!)

As I re-read Bauerlein’s column this morning, I was struck not by how much we disagreed, but by how much we agree:  we need to reach our students better!  We need to make the case for our own relevance in their lives, as they’re not going to come to that conclusion on their own.  (I teach a number of first-generation college students, who aren’t as well prepared to navigate the challenges of college or to take advantage of the resources available at a university.)  He’s right that forcing students into our offices and into face-to-face contact is a powerful way to help our students get the most from their time with us.

I wish he had talked to those of us who teach at non-elite universities or community colleges, however, before claiming in his introductory paragraphs that today’s professors hand out 4.0s like paper towels and never make demands on their students.  I just ran the numbers:  in my upper-division lecture course in colonial North America last spring which drew 35 students, I gave out 8 As or A-minuses (23%), 13 B-range grades (37%), 4 Cs, 3 Ds, and 4 Fs.  (Three students withdrew from the class without taking a grade or credit.)

In my lower-division survey course, the failure rate is even more shocking.  I delivered Ds and Fs to fully one-third of my students!  And yet, as Bauerlein reports, my office hours are usually empty of students, although at the beginning of the semester I offered them ten free points for just dropping in to my office to have a conversation with me about anything at all!  (To be sure, this is one of the reasons I’ve been interested in conversations about teaching this year.  I don’t like failing students, and believe that it’s incumbent on me to find ways to convince students to do the required work and devise the means to help them.)  At the same time, I don’t believe in lowering my standards either–a college degree from Baa Ram U. must mean something, or it means nothing.  Maybe Bauerlein’s peers at elite schools need to start kicking asses and taking names, but we who teach at non-elite institutions see grade-inflation as a myth at our schools.

I think what bothered many of us who teach at non-elite universities was the implication that faculty and faculty alone are responsible for alienating our students, when student disengagement is a phenomenon driven by decisions far above our pay grade.  Back in Bauerlein’s halcyon days of the 1960s, the University of California charged zero tuition!  (We can be legitimately nostalgic about that.)  Now, many of our students are busy working nearly full-time jobs to help the pay for college, and the majority of their professors are unable to find tenure-track employment to help them pay back their student loans and make a middle-class living!  The decision to shift the costs of their educations to the young were made by politicians and university administrators, not mere faculty.

Another factor driving the notion that attending classes and talking with professors is an optional (rather than optimal) feature of college today is the move towards online education.  When my university runs commercials on local television and advertises in print and on billboards that it can offer you a college education “in your spare time” and “conveniently” online, are we surprised that students see us as interchangeable evaluative widgets?

cowgirlgunsign1In the end, though, I’m a little confused about Bauerlein’s apparent dismay about his students’ lack of interest in engaging with him in particular, rather than professors in general.  I’ve been warning people for years not to complain about your students on Facebook or write uncharitable blog posts about them!  Even if you’re absolutely in the right, it’s an abuse of your authority as a faculty member.  Even if you’re writing anonymously or pseudonymously, most of our students are foolish and young and maybe a little callous, not guileful schemers.

But if you write and publish a book called The Dumbest Generation. . . or, don’t trust anyone under 30 and happily make a name for yourself punching down, no wonder that students don’t see you as an honest broker for (in the words of his NYT column) “moral and worldly understanding,” let alone a subject for “emulation.”  Or, in the words of Erik Loomis, “What an Asshole.”

41 thoughts on “Maybe not the “dumbest generation?”

  1. IIRC, my mom taught at Emory one year back in the 1970s and said she’d never dealt with such entitled brats before or since. Perhaps Emory has gotten better student populations since then who no longer play society of manners with their white male professors and treat their female/minority professors like dirt.

    That was a fantastic column by LD Burnett– I hope everybody reads it. I hadn’t seen anybody relating survey data to the widening education/income gap before and it was a really neat connection. We’ve also written about the differences in class perceptions of the reason for college before– when the wealthy are the only people who attend college, of course it is a coming-of-age experience rather than a way to earn money. Wealthy people don’t have to worry about where the money will come from. That’s a huge luxury.

    Back when my DH was teaching the 101-level engineering class at an R1, it was not unusual for him to fail fully 50% of his class. That was demoralizing and depressing for him. And many of them were working full-time on top of going to school full-time, which ended up resulting in false economies. There are a lot of reasons that college students don’t take advantage of all there is to offer even when those things are offered, and changes in the moral fiber or intellectual curiosity of “kids these days” is not really one that has legs.


    • “False economies,” indeed.

      I’m dismayed by the credit hours that go a-waisting by my students who enroll in my classes, only to get Ds, Fs, or take Ws. (Ws still cost money for no credits, although they don’t trash your GPA on their way out like Ds and Fs do!) But it’s difficult to tell students to take fewer classes & try to learn more, or to work fewer hours and earn less, unless we know what their personal circumstances are.

      Even then, so many don’t listen when we tell them that they can’t carry 12, 15, or even 18 credits per term AND work 30 or 35 hours a week! (And age and experience seem to be no match for hope, which I see even among returning students who want to do this in their later 20s and 30s.)


  2. I’ve been a history TA at an elite R1 for a long time, and I don’t think those profs are very engaged in conversations about teaching, at the grad or undergrad level, among themselves or with their TAs. In part, this is because they feel they have no time, but it’s also because their research is what their dept values. The ones who prioritize teaching over research often find it rocky to get through the tenure process. So there does need to be a re-evaluation of the pace at which we expect prof at elite R1s to publish, if only so they can actually perform all the many tasks expected of them–teaching, mentoring, service, presenting publicly–well. Too often, these folks are just scrambling to do all that’s expected of them, and it’s often the grad students who suffer silently as a result. While some of these profs possess truly terrible time management skills, the fact that so few of them succeed in managing all these tasks well–I’d say 10%–is indicative of a larger problem. Based on my experience, there is something true about Bauerlein’s depiction of the grade obsessed students and the absence of connection between prof and student that accurately depicts the elite R1 school, but I’m not convinced that things were really that different in the past. What has changed is not so much about technology, but about the college testing and admissions industry, whereby students from upper income families are already focused on college before they reach high school, and from which the students assume they are special for achieving certain test scores/getting into certain schools. When they get to these schools, they often find that they are not so special, but simply average, and it’s disruptive because their identities are wrapped up in ‘academic achievement,’ defined solely by grades–and therefore their profs–or often the TAs doing the grading–must be to blame for not acknowledging their brilliance. To me, this ties in with the growing gap between rich and poor, who naturally, would have very different expectations for college. I also suspect that, wherever the school is, students who are genuinely intellectually engaged are showing up prepared for class and showing up to office hours. But, unfortunately, some of those same kids will then make the idealistic decision to become profs, and the overproduction of Ph.D.’s is an issue in itself.


    • You make good points about how we should all have time to develop as teachers & people engaged in community outreach as much as researchers.

      I’m sorry that your professors aren’t engaged in conversations about teaching. When I was at Penn as a grad student (now more than 20 years ago) I remember lots of conversations about teaching with faculty & even more among the grad students ourselves. Lynn Hunt was especially good about this when I worked for her as a T.A. Other professors, to be sure, were more about crowd management than discussing pedagogy with T.A.s, but even some of them (I’m thinking of Bruce Kuklik here) were damn fine lecturers. The students flocked to his classes.

      If you want to have these conversations about teaching, why not initiate them yourself? As busy as they are, I’m sure even your professors can’t resist it when someone asks them their opinions to or to share their expertise. Even if the faculty refuse to discuss teaching with you, you and your fellow grad students can do this amongst yourselves–start a journal club to meet twice a semester to talk about an article on a teaching issue, for example. Back at Penn, I was fortunate enough to benefit from this kind of entrepreneurialism among the grad students just one or two years ahead of me. (In fact, my fellow grad students probably taught me at least as much as the official faculty at Penn back then!)


  3. This is going to make me do what I was about to do anyway, run the numbers from the grades that I just sent in, because I have had the sense that I’ve been cheesing out and giving out more easy grades of late, partially in despair about being able to give out any grades. In our large required courses, some noticeable number of students every semester flunk themselves, by appearing on the class lists without any evidence of having ever been to class, even at the beginning, or of ever having dropped the class. This being Pennsylvania, my thoughts have occasionally run to things like the Turnpike Commission, where “phantom workers” at one point served somebody’s interests, whoever that might be. But meanwhile, I’m intrigued by the very concept of “50% of my job description,” partly because I’ve never seen any material evidence of actually having a job description. We have the standard contractual tripod rhetorical elements: teaching, research and service, but how do you operationalize these percentages? Especially if as you suggest, at tenure and promotion time (which is where it would presumably get operationalized if it actually existed) the weights seem to differ. Is this just in the boilerplate rhetoric somewhere or in something they hand you at orientation? Maybe a collective bargaining agreement is itself effectively a “job description,” although faculty actually read that thing in about the same manner and degree as students in a gen. ed. literature course might read something like _War and Peace_.


    • I think 50/35/15 was in my initial employment contract somewhere, but more importantly we’re reminded of it each year when we’re evaluated in each category precisely & then given an overall rating according to that metric. As for how it’s “operationalized” in T&P decisions I can’t say, but we address all of these categories of work in our reappointment & review letters.


      • At Woebegone State we have five categories in our job description including: 1) Teaching; 2) Research or Creative Work; 3) Continuing Professional Development; 4)Student Development and Advising; 5) Service to the university and community

        Each individual faculty member decides how much emphasis they will place on each category in their Professional Development Plan and then gives the results in their Professional Development Report. Most people place the greatest emphasis on Teaching and Advising, or Teaching and Service, but you have to make some contribution in all five categories. I place 60% on teaching and then split the remaining 40% between the other four categories.

        I have never seen anyone place less than 40% on Teaching, even people with course releases because they are department chairs or running specialized programs. 50% or more is typical in my department.


  4. One entertaining piece of the Bauerlein pie: his RMP page, which is full of raves about his “easy” classes: 4.5/5 for easiness! All you have to do is change your writing style to suit his tastes and you’re golden. So much for upholding standards…


    • Well, to be fair: the students might actually be learning something even as they mock their own deference to his writing suggestions. I have to admit that I was disdainful of the lessons of many of my proffies back in the day, but I LEARNED them and still remember many of them.

      Based on your reporting here Ellie, maybe Bauerlein is more popular than he thought?


  5. I’ve tried to make time to say something about all of this, but have failed completely. Ironically, because of time spent with students. Also, that Bauerlein piece just rubbed me the wrong way on so many levels, and I didn’t want to just rant in response. So, for H-Ann who is my guru, let me just say that I teach at an elite R1, at a place that requires excellence in teaching and research in equal amounts, where students are energized and the faculty are always talking about the classroom. This place isn’t perfect, but it also doesn’t resemble the fictitious empty hallways MB describes. I consider myself an adequate teacher, and I have been challenged to do better here, and have tried to respond, and not always succeeded. The work is ongoing, then, and difficult. And my students aren’t holdovers from some pristine, white, upper middle class 1950s landscape, either. So I guess, then, whatever.


  6. As for your last comment, Historiann, I seem to remember a few years ago Michael Berube hinting to Mark Bauerlein that setting yourself up as the guy brave enough to complain about most of what your discipline is doing is not a good way to gain influence. Bauerlein has been singing songs like this for a while, and to him the song never gets old.


    • HA-ha. I have disagreed strongly with Berube in the past, but he knows a thing or two about being a public intellectual. He is also a generous scholar, which is why he might be at odds with Bauerlein in general.


  7. I generally disdain any kind of generational bashing, because A) it is not productive (sooo the future is hopeless? … great) and B) it too often amounts to little more than an extended bellowing of “you damn kids!”

    And yet It seems like at least twice a year I come across a column like Bauerlein’s by some jerkwad at the Wall Street Journal or some other snooty publication that stereotypes an entire age range, laments the damage it will or is doing to our society, and then offers no real solution. When I read columns like that I wonder if it is just curmudgeonly old writers who have nothing better to write about that day or if the author seriously believes that ONE generation can bring down the entire American cultural edifice – as if it wasn’t already polluted, twisted, and abused by previous generations, the author’s included. My eyeballs and my stomach start to roll as soon as anyone starts off on another delirious “Golden Age” rant.


    • HA-ha. Well, Nick, you will eventually outlive these ungenerous swipes & will become old enough to write them about the generation that follows yours.

      Take it from me, a Gex-Xer who (along with EngLitProf., MPG734, and other commenters & readers here) was lectured to like this back in the early 1990s, when we were all allegedly directionless, ambitionless overeducated baristas. By the late 1990s, we were all allegedly titans of a new industry and the leaders of the tech boom. (We’re unfortunately sandwiched between the much larger generations of the Millennials and the Boomers, who will both inform us of what we’re doing wrong now!)


  8. Maybe he should leave Emory and come to flyover country? My students are by and large interested and hard-working, though their hard work often involves outside jobs and taking care of family responsibilities as well as academics. They’re no more perfect than my generation was, though they face a tougher future, I fear, but they’re every bit as smart and engaged, which is to say, there’s a huge variety of smartness and engagement, as there is with every generation.

    I’m not at an R1 at all, but here at our regional comprehensive, we talk about teaching a lot, and I’ve had more than a few conversations with friends at R1s about teaching.


  9. I’m at a regional comprehensive, too, kind of like a Moo Moo U. Many of the students are the first in their families to go to college, many of them work while taking classes. They are generally polite, honest, and earnest. I would love to be able to spend even five minutes talking to each of them, but I have a 4-4 load with between 25 and 45 students per class. With the state budget cuts we are bracing for, those numbers will go up. My colleagues and I spend a lot of time talking about how to better engage with students, but there is no one-size-fits-all answer to that. Our campus recently instituted a First Year Seminar to introduce students to what college is. I don’t know how successful that has been. Like Historiann, I still find my grade distribution about the same as hers, with those few students who are still willing to slide by with Ds. Does any of this change? Will any of it change? Maybe not. And it sure doesn’t help anything to have Bauerlein pontificate like that in the NYTimes.


    • What an amazing question in those parentheses! Because, of course, we’re at a moment when so many academics are writing for larger publics, or circulating outside the academy. But we’re also all trained to “show don’t tell,” which means that when we write for the Atlantic, or Salon, or the New Yorker, maybe we don’t think to explain why this kind of work, or this kind of thinking, matters. Maybe? So you end up with basically the entire editorial community of the NYT writing about what a wasteland higher education is, and how elitist we all are, not because any of that is true, but because we haven’t told people how or why reading something *this way* comes from us, from what we teach and do. Maybe we haven’t created a context in which our methods have a public provenance.


  10. Great post, many thanks. I teach at an elite R1, and my own sense is that a lot of my colleagues work very hard at their teaching and even have lots of visitors and office hours. Bauerlein’s description of his world is unrecognizable to me. But I don’t think we talk about teaching nearly enough, with one another or with our graduate students. The term is very short and incredibly busy–12 weeks of classes into which we try to cram a very full semester’s work–and in breaks and during the summer everyone scatters to conferences and archives around the world. And it’s true, most of us are not geniuses at time management either. I wish we did better at reflecting on what we do, and certainly we do too little training with the next generation.


  11. Pingback: Bauerlein’s Professorial Authority | johannneem

  12. I teach high school and used to teach college. When I give advice to departing seniors about success in college, these are my two tips:

    1. Go to class (and be in class — not on your computer or studying for another class)
    2. Go to office hours

    I firmly believe these are the two biggest ways students can help themselves.

    That said, yes, I think we do need to talk more about the craft of teaching in all realms. I mastered out of a PhD, and my advisor regularly derided my dedication to teaching my classes (he was primarily in research and grudgingly taught classes). Even in high school, I find I have some colleagues who very much care about improving their teaching and some who blame the student for not doing better. Education truly is a two way street.


    • That is excellent advice! In former years, we used to be able to take for granted that students knew that showing up was a big part of the expectation of college. But we all need to think about the ways in which our society & technology might be communicating to them that coming to class and talking to other human beings is perhaps optional rather than mandatory.


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  14. If I recall correctly, Bauerlein spoke at my college a few years ago about how the internet was making all college students idiots. The students *really* resented his generalizations and came back with a very thoughtful reply in the college newspaper. You’d think he’d understand that if you want to win friends you don’t insult an entire generation!


  15. Well, at least Bauerlein’s piece has spawned a wide range of replies far better thought out, and supported, than the original (which, among other things, seems to be loosely-knit enough that it serves as a sort of rorshach test, or perhaps the proverbial elephant, with different people picking up on and running with different bits/assumptions, often with illuminating results.)

    I especially like your point about the structural issues faced by students, historiann (which, of course, others have brought up as well). To the extent that the quality of interactions between students and professors is, in fact, declining (and I’d argue it probably is, though not quite as badly, or in quite the way, Bauerlein describes), one probably has to look for answers to a negative-feedback loop that involves both often-overwhelmed professors and often-overwhelmed students.

    I also agree with your point about grade inflation, or the lack thereof, at non-elite institutions. I do feel that I assign too many Bs and B-s that should probably be C+ and Cs, but I also assign a lot of Fs (or, in our institution’s parlance, SAs, for “stopped attending”), mostly to people who didn’t even attempt the work. Whether or not the mean and/or median grade has risen, I suspect the curve looks different than it did several decades ago, with a dip in the middle and bumps at either end, including one at the low end representing students who just don’t — come to class, do the work, or even formally withdraw. There are probably a lot of explanations for that pattern, but one, I’m pretty sure, is the catch-22 combination of increased pressure (societal, economic, etc.) to go to college, increased cost of doing so, and increased warnings about the inadvisability of taking out loans to cover those costs. If college-aged Americans are “stupefied,” paralyzed, shut down, etc., etc., it may well be by the impossibility of responding in any rational way to the competing imperatives their elders are throwing at them.

    And it that’s the case, throwing in another imperative — that they stop thinking of their educations in instrumental terms, and concentrate instead on developing a philosophy of life — isn’t going to help.


  16. When I speak to entering undergrads, I have four pieces of advice:
    1. Read the syllabus
    2. Come to class
    3. Do the work
    4. Come talk to us – we don’t eat you.
    Then I tell them about the original Carnegie Commission guidance for assigning credit hours. When I explain that if you are taking 16 credits, you are supposed to be working 48 hours a week on your classes, so it’s a full time job.

    Ironically, I sometimes wish our students cared more about grades; many think college is the end point, not realizing that more sorting takes place if they want to do something that requires graduate training. Our students are mostly first generation, and working. But I still regret the student from a few years ago whose dream was to teach at her cc; to avoid any debt, she worked full time at *bucks, and thus graduated with a 2.47 GPA, undermining her ambition.


    • I sometimes wish our students cared more about grades.

      Me, too, especially after that dismal semester last spring. On the one hand, I like the fact that there’s no grade grubbing, but I regret that my students don’t see themselves as part of a culture of achievement. (There are some who do, of course, but they’re the exception.)

      I think your point, Susan, about seeing college as the end of the line is key. Even if students will never go on to postgraduate degrees, their grades will matter to employers & others for at least a few years after graduation, and poor grades may mean they miss out on some key opportunities in building their careers early on.


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  18. A splendid post Historiann,

    Its great to know that I am not alone in thinking that teaching is the main part of our jobs as professors. Its heartening to see that most of the commentators here take that job seriously. I am glad to take away two things from this thread:

    We need to do a better job of selling what we do to our students and the general public. I think that is something I am going to incorporate into my class and syllabus in more explicit and obvious ways this fall.

    Second, to remember to respect my students in the way I would like them to respect me and each other. I think I do this, but its easy to complain and forget that everyone complained about Gen-X, or the boomers, or probably even the “Greats” when they flooded into college on the GI Bill.


    • I think the new expectation that proffies show evidence of “public engagement” is a good one, so long as it’s something we get time to do and rewarded for it. (However, like most service, I fear that it’s just more Excellence Without Money volunteer work.) Even so, we should try to do one or two public lectures a year, or sit on a local preservation or planning board, or say “yes” when a fraternity or sorority asks us to talk to them about an issue.

      There are all kinds of ways we might help people see us as doing relevant work that contributes to the public good. (The public historians are way ahead of us on this issue.)


  19. Pingback: Public engagement round-up: gimme your two cents, willya? | Historiann

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