By Peter Sacks
When Minding the Campus asked me if I would write something about two Canadian engineering professors walking out of class to protest rude and disruptive students in their classrooms, I happily obliged. What harm, I told myself, could there be, after so many years of avoidance, to re-visit this issue?
After all, it has been some 13 years after I wrote Generation X Goes to College: An Eye-Opening Account of Teaching in Postmodern America, about my experiences leaving daily journalism to teach college in the early 1990's. Disruptive students? Let's put it this way. I once had a student who sat in the middle of a lecture with a ski mask pulled over his face as I tried to engage the class in the art of essay writing. This being a relatively small class of about 15 students, the ski-mask guy was like a throbbing boil that nobody in the room could ignore, politely pretending that this assault on civility wasn't really happening. Unlike the Canadian professors, I did not walk out in protest. But looking back, doing so might have been a good idea: let the student's peers hold him accountable for his disruption and call me when the class is ready to learn.
Ultimately, however, I left the classroom for good. I left teaching -- no, I bolted from teaching -- as fast as I could run, after enduring culture shock and a mild form of post-traumatic stress disorder, brought on by a system of higher education that treated students as eminently entitled customers and professors as their hand-holding, entertain-at-all-costs servants, whose official job performance rating depended excessively on the opinions of these customers in their anonymous teacher evaluations. Success in the system boiled down to this: I entertain, therefore I am a good teacher.
Since then, I can claim to be only a casual observer of recent developments of the sort illustrated by the Canadian professors' act of defiance. When I left teaching, the technological intrusions of pagers, cell phones, laptops, etc., etc., were in their infancy. Coupled with entitled, consumeristic students, such devices were already wreaking havoc on classroom civility. I shudder to think how the technological revolution in the past 13 years has intensified the pressures on professors to maintain a modicum of authority in the classroom.
As a casual observer, my sense is that the culture clash between the professor and student customers has only gotten worse in the past 13 years. I had students with ski masks over their faces and backward baseball caps, slumped in their chairs and consumed with a bored hostility that said, 'Do something to amuse me.' Imagine the same self-entitled students with smart phones and laptops, and you have a sense of what the modern professor is up against.
Oh, there are policies, hundreds and hundreds of institutional policies that universities have devised in recent years to confront disruptive behavior in the classroom. Pick a college or university, and it most likely has created an official policy. The University of Maryland's College of Social and Behavior Sciences, for instance, has an entire website devoted to this and related subjects. Magna Publications, which creates online courses for professional development in higher education, has just recently developed a new course on the topic, Proven Strategies for Managing Disruptive Student Behavior, an online seminar "aimed at instructors who are looking for more control of the classroom. The seminar will cover all the typical disruptive behaviors, from the habitually late student, to the eater, gum chewer, sleeper, and even the interrupter---plus, strategies to deal with new and unexpected situations that arise in classrooms every year."
On You Tube, one can find videos counseling professors, including one called "Classroom Management: Engage Disruptive Students." According to this particular video, instead of kicking the ski mask guy out of my class, I should have "engaged" him by asking him questions. I suppose questions like, "That's an interesting response to the lesson, Johnny. What is the connection you are trying to draw between your ski mask and the art of composition?"
When I was researching my book back in the early 1990s, I encountered relatively few of these institutionalized responses to college students behaving badly in the classroom. It is upsetting to find so many such policies now in circulation, suggesting that my small effort to expose the problems I encountered 13 years ago was just a prologue to what was to come. I take no pride in having been right, but I rather I am deeply depressed by the fact that the problem seems to have gotten much worse.
Many observers and critics confused my book as a generational diatribe of Boomer versus Generation X. While there may well be generational elements to the problems between professors and students, I preferred a broader analytical frame. My book interpreted the contemporary university as a struggle between the modern and the postmodern. This clash pitted the professoriate -- stalwarts of the Enlightenment and keepers of the centralized stores of knowledge and authority -- against a postmodern tide whereby knowledge and authority were being fractured into a million little pieces.
Students, beginning perhaps most forcefully with Generation X, were part and parcel of the postmodern turn in postindustrial societies, and they have clashed with modern institutions, particularly the university, in a number of ways: Consumerism; a defiant sense of entitlement; a belief that notions of truth, facts, and knowledge were strictly relative concepts, a matter of one's idiosyncratic interpretation; and the notion than any source of information was as valid a source as any other source. These trends were not simply the result of passing generational disagreements. These trends were products of a monumental cultural shift, affecting not just higher education but virtually all aspects of public life.
How has higher education responded to the massive disengagement of students, to students who do not study, who do not read, who do not participate in their own learning?
At times, higher education's response has not been pretty. Only from a place of pathetic powerlessness could universities come up with the solution that Jacques Steinberg of the New York Times reported on recently. For undergraduates at one Northwestern University business class, the "solution" to disengaged students entailed providing them with small electronic clickers as they entered the lecture hall so students could respond to questions and quizzes posed by professors. When I was teaching, I complained bitterly that students expected to be spoon fed information in bite-sized chunks, in neat correspondence to items on a forthcoming multiple-choice test. Students seemed allergic to any demand that they should think critically and passionately in order to apply their textbook knowledge on a broader, real-to-life scale.
Higher education's answer to this deathly passivity? Legitimize it. Give students annoying little clickers, a technological lolly pop. The devices do not simply enable passivity; they in fact institutionalize it, ensuring that passive and lazy learning habits are reproduced from one generation to the next.
There's little doubt that postmodern students, confusing engaged learning with entertainment and performance, have come to depend on universities and professors treating them as passive subjects. Some students, apparently from the University of Texas, even have a Facebook page they call Students Against Professors Who Don't Utilize Technology. The students complain: "Don't you hate it when you sign up for a class that SHOULD be really interesting, and it becomes your worst nightmare because your professor lectures the entire hour and a half of class? Some professors need to realize that we live in the 21st Century." The Facebook description goes on, in all earnestness: "We grew up with computers, video games, and cable television. We have short attention spans."
To be sure, technology has a place in the modern -- nay, postmodern -- classroom. Some topics lend themselves to a multimedia presentation or a real-time computerized assessment of student learning. But over-reliance on technology can turn higher education into nothing more than mediocre entertainment, dumbing down ideas and oversimplifying real-world complexities.
Such is the trade -off that the professor now faces: Sing, dance, and entertain at any cost, or else be prepared to deal with "disruptive" students, who chose disruption over hard work because, after all, they have short attention spans.
That's the choice that the Canadian engineering professors have refused to make in their largely symbolic gesture to simply walk out in protest. The system, as it stands, seems unable to handle such a frank and honest response. The system has bought into the paradigm that students are consumers who have paid their tuition and fees, and are therefore entitled to professors who will abide their marginal efforts without complaint. Judging by what has transpired in the 13 years since I wrote Generation X Goes to College, I am depressed - but glad I left when I did.
Peter Sacks is the author of Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education and Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture. He is also a contributor to the 2010 book, Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions.