The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Life is a fatal complaint, and an eminently contagious one."...  ...Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Commentary of the Day - December 8, 2008: The Department of Complaints.  Guest commentary by Carolyn Foster Segal.

The online daily Chronicle of Higher Ed contained a news story earlier this year about several public universities, including Penn State and Temple, "that have adopted special procedures allowing students to complain.  The process lets students file complaints if they think professors are one-sided in presenting course material or if they think professors have introduced subject matter that is not germane to the course."  Moreover, the vice provost for academic affairs at Penn State "said he is proud of Penn State’s complaint policy, which is 'far more than most universities have . . . We encourage students to submit complaints'" (Robin Wilson, "Using New Policy, Students Complain About Classroom Bias on 2 Pa. Campuses," 23 July 2008.)

Students need encouragement to complain?  With or without such a questionable 1984-like policy and a coach like David Horowitz, who "worked with the Penn State students in shaping their complaints," students need no invitation to complain.

They complain about grades of F and D and B+ and A-.  They argue about the unfairness of attendance policies, rules on plagiarism, and being called upon in class ("the teacher picked on me").  They find fault with their mattresses; the food in the café; the color of the walls of their classrooms; guest speakers; and their instructor's creed, nationality, suspected sexual persuasion, and tone of voice, the last because most of them don't understand irony.  They object to assignments: "novels are too long," "have confusing plots," or "use too many words."  They file grievances about grading systems and course content.

The campus atmosphere is already a culture of criticism.

With too few exceptions, the students on most campuses are underprepared for college-level work and overwhelming in their lists of griefs and grievances.  And we honor those complaints with exhaustive "listening moments," attempts at reasonable explanations, unsatisfactory compromises, dumbed-down syllabi, processes and procedures, and hearings.  A friend of mine from graduate school has summed it up: arrogant ignorance.  In some instances, students can barely read the syllabus, let alone complete the assignments; they complain about grades because, again, they can't comprehend the breakdown on the syllabus and because they can't do basic math.  The fact is that many of our students' demands are not only arrogant but are based on fear: fear of weakness, fear of being exposed, fear of new ideas, fear of being challenged.

Summer reading assignments, foreign language requirements, hard math -- have fallen away.  Believers in "intelligent design" want their tenets of faith included as fact in science textbooks.  Core and course requirements have shrunk and/or metamorphosed into kinder, simpler versions.

Accreditation and assessment documents stress critical thinking in theory, but giving in to students who resist new ideas, who see exposure to multiple or alternative points of view as a threat teaches them nothing about thinking.  If students were still assigned the novels of Henry James, they might learn that innocence can be a damaging mask for ignorance.  Socratic questioning, which should be exhilarating, is seen as "the teacher’s being mean."  An exam or oral question that should prompt discovery is considered an affront.

And students retaliate.  End-of-semester course evaluations, in which students comment anonymously on their instructors' methods and choices of content, can be, as every professor (and administrator) knows, devastating or just plain absurd.  The correlation between student grades and faculty scores is quite clear.  Successful and engaged students will give higher scores; dissatisfied and marginal students will seize the opportunity to strike back.  Two students in a service course that I taught had obviously collaborated on their line of attack: under the question, "What detracted from your learning in this course?" they both wrote, "Teacher had high expectations."  Well, yes, I did.  And if I had gone into class on the first day and said, "I have low expectations," they would have complained about that as well.  A third student in the class noted that I had “high exceptations (sic)."  I'm working on it.

Course evaluations and their online counterpart -- just the start; there's the tsunami of student and parental complaints, including threats of litigation, that college faculty members and administrators must deal with.  At my own college, an English/Education co-major wrote a letter to the then-chair of the English department explaining that she would neither read nor submit to testing on Beowulf because its Paganism was in opposition to her Christian faith; she also requested substitute readings.  My department didn't give in to her demands; several people did try to suggest that she might find it helpful and educational to consider a work outside what she already knew, but she wasn't buying it, and she ultimately left the school.  Did we teach that student anything?  Perhaps -- if she reflects on her experience -- she will discover that she learned at least one lesson from our insistence on teachers' being open to a world of ideas.

The policy in place at several public universities does not serve students well.  Is it ironic that students have to be helped in formulating their complaints?  Aren't we supposed to be encouraging -- as so many colleges' mission statements insist -- our students to be leaders -- shouldn't they take some initiative here?  Moreover, formalizing such witch hunting is damaging to the overall integrity of the academy.  Encouraging students to complain about exposure to ideas that differ from their preconceived notions is a dangerous path; teaching to students' standards is indeed a slippery slope. 

© 2008, Carolyn Foster Segal.
Carolyn Foster Segal is an Associate Professor of English at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, PA.

The Irascible Professor comments: Though David Horowitz's objective in ginning up complaints from college students is really to attack those professors he considers too "liberal," most student complaints probably are not about political ideology but about process.  We have become an "entitlement" society.  Students (and often their parents) feel that they are entitled to a college degree regardless of how well or how poorly they have performed in their classes, regardless of how much or how little they have learned, and regardless of whether they have become educated or not.  Their complaints most often seem to be aimed at faculty members who are trying to educate them, whether that means holding a student to high standards, or presenting ideas that may challenge a student's preconceived notions.  Students seldom complain about professors who are too easy.


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© 2008 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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