No Other Moment Besides

We are now well into the heart of the semester. Midterms loom (if you give midterms, which I hear are still a thing). It's time for an annual round of "what's wrong with my students?" posts. 

First things first, it is important to recognize that the kids these days narrative is largely composed and maintained by the news media. At some point in the history of journalism, somebody realized "The kids are alright" wouldn't move copy, and so we have suffered from endless stories about why kids can't write, why kids are having sex all the time and generally doing stupid shit that puts them at risk. And, of course, most of it is true. Kids have a bad habit of doing stupid shit and not caring about what we want from them. And kids are probably worse now more than ever. Not like when we were kids, which I myself remember as a series of injustices perpetuated upon me by people older and taller than me. 

I am not interested in debating the veracity of such claims. I am interested in the attitudes cultivated by such claims and their concomitant acts. In particular, I am interested in what this narrative does to teachers, what it does to pedagogy. 

Take for example, this Psychology Today column about student "resilience": "Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges." (The evidence here is just other people making the claim that students aren't resilient. Fair enough.)

Again, I have no doubt that teachers have these experiences. I have no doubt these are truthful accounts. Again, I don't care. But three concerns do present themselves to me.

  1. The instinct to treat such incidents as symptomatic. As academics, we are trained to see the general from the particular: a particular form, subject matter, or attitude in a literary work, for instance, is symptomatic of its larger historical or cultural context, or symptomatic of the author's particular set of commitments or ideological positions. This might be a good way to deal with texts, but it's a pretty shitty way of dealing with people, in particular students still in the process of formation. I see my students for a fraction of their lives. Three days a week, for a couple of hours at time for sixteen weeks (assuming the video game playing, pot smoking fornicators bother to show up). That's it. I'll say it again, that's it. I am deeply uncomfortable reading anything they do as symptomatic of something else. As someone invested in actor-network-theory, whose's mantra is follow the actors, I let my students describe themselves. I offer no explanations as to why they do what they do. I find such explanations empirically and ethically suspect. And I find such explanations unhelpful. I am not here to diagnose my students; I am here to teach them. 
  2. We are part of the story. Such stories, such reports, assume such symptoms exist independently of the pedagogical context, of the teaching moment. This is how these students are in some vacuum sealed reality: it's essential to their character. As if student subjectivity is a walled city unchanged by what confronts it. That is, these stories, by privileging the teacher's response, generally fail to fully explore how these incidents might be driven by the instructor. How is the pedagogy and the power of the instructor creating (or not creating) empowerment on the part of students. I suspect that many times students crack under the pressure of assignments and projects over which they have little control and, paradoxically (but commonly) assignments that provide no creative constraints. For instance, "write about what you want to write about" isn't any more empowering than "please memorize chapter two; it is a trap that students see right through. Maybe students aren't resilient because they know full well that resistance is futile? (They might be lazy-ass snap-chatters, but they aren't stupid.)
  3. What are we doing here, exactly? Woven into these complaints about student resilience is a thread I can't help but pull at: namely, there isn't a whole lot of faculty resistance here either. This strikes me as a story about how hard is it to do your job: a complaint that students arrive in need of help and support and guidance in being students. Like a time when a colleague once complained that most students in his introduction to poetry class hadn't read much poetry, and if they had is was mostly stuff like Shel Silverstein (What the hell is wrong with Shel Silverstein this young assistant professor muttered to himself at the time?). Right, they are in an intro poetry class that you teach. Teach them some poems. There is also in these stories no hint of reassessing our mission, which the above story nods to. As I have written elsewhere about pedagogy, why shouldn't students resist us. Maybe their resistance, if it's symptomatic of anything, is bad pedagogy, or unthinking pedagogy. I often think of my son and myself as a father in such moments. Being honest, but also guessing, I suspect that at least half of the times I get upset with my son my reasons are not good ones. I am not upset because his behavior is a manifestation of some problematic trait or attitude. I am not mad because he could have hurt himself or someone else. I'm mad, plain and simply, cause the little shit said "no" to me. To me! He thwarted my will, and I am the adult, I'm in charge. I get mad because of my own lack of resistance in the face of his resistance, which is nothing other than his unique existence in the world. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps this realization makes me the kind of parent who will raise a child destined to disappoint his professors and concerned news anchors and bloggers around the world.

Every thing one could and has said about students today is probably true, but I don't care about that truth. I care about what these stories and their incessant telling do to us. I care about what they do to students. How do these stories position our students? As problems to be solved? As a jumble of symptoms to be treated? We learn nothing about ourselves as teachers this way. My advice, for what's it worth, is to follow the students. Take everything they say at face value. This is no mere naïveté that I am proposing: students are neither saints nor angels. They are people, and people are complex from moment to moment. We know our students briefly and in finite ways. Be there for them then, in that moment, and no other moment besides. 

[UPDATE: Nathan Kreuter rightly pointed out that I am being a little unfair to Grey. I should have been clearer that it's not so much Grey's post itself; I agree with much of what he says in the Psychology Today piece. (What strikes me about his argument is how such a lack of autonomy persists in college.) It's just the way these stories concatenate that troubles me. The comments on his column are evidence of what I am talking about.]