Another Source of Disengagement

One of the most dismaying statistics that comes up every time the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) publishes its annual results is the “professor-student interaction” figure. In 2009, NSSE reported that fully 40 percent of first-year students “Never” discussed with their teachers ideas or readings outside of class (see here for the report). Fully 38 percent of them did so “Sometimes,” while only 15 percent did so “Often,” a paltry seven percent “Very often.”

The numbers mark a fair measure of just how much students value their teachers as a resource, a guide, a mentor. For the vast majority of them, teachers run a class, that’s all, issuing a syllabus and grading assignments. They don’t care to visit office hours and talk about Crime and Punishment or the Founding Fathers or supply-side economics, much less general intellectual matters that come up in their just-begun college career.

Why?

Lots of reasons, but a story in a forthcoming book by Craig Brandon entitled The Five-Year Party (web site here) provides one of them. A few years ago, Brandon was a journalism instructor at Keene State College in New Hampshire. One day he was asked to serve as faculty advisor to the student radio station, and he gladly agreed. He met with the students who ran the station and judged them lively and thoughtful. But over the next week or two when he listened to the station in his car driving to and from work, he reacted in shock.

The songs they played had meager musical value and vulgar lyrics. In between, the disc jockeys commented freely and insultingly on fellow students and teachers by name, boasted of their sexual and alcoholic adventures from the weekend past, and mouthed the coarse anatomical language so familiar to anyone who has sat next to a large table in the student cafeteria. As Brandon put it, “It was like three dozen young Howard Sterns competing to be the most offensive.”

Brandon knew he had to act. For one thing, each hour of airtime contained numerous violations of FCC regulations regarding profanity and slander. Also, students didn’t seem to realize that they had to run the station as an organized professional entity, such as keeping “public access” files up-to-date. How did the students respond?

With rebellion. They accused Brandon of censorship and “spying,” and they proceeded to crank up the obscenity. It was their station, they argued, and they’ll do with it what they darn well please.

Brandon appealed to the student affairs administrators at Keene State for help. A meeting was called. Here is Brandon’s rendition of it in full:

I began the meeting by carefully explaining the situation and showed the group the FCC rules and the handbooks that were used by other colleges faced with the same issues. When it was their turn, the students complained that it was their radio station and that I was interfering with their right to do what they wanted.

Then I sat back and waited for the students to be read the riot act by the administrator in charge of student organizations. To my absolute astonishment, he said that the students were correct. It was their radio station, he said, financed by student fee money, and the college’s policy was that faculty and administrators were not to interfere with their decisions. The students cheered as my jaw dropped in astonishment. I could not even talk for a moment.

The episode explains a lot about why students don’t engage with faculty more often. When administrators blatantly undermine the judgment of teachers and “empower” undergraduates, why shouldn’t students do the same? Why respect the voice of the professor when it hampers their freedom and a vice-president tells them they are, in fact, free to do what they want?

Brandon’s book details the outcomes of the attitude, and draws this depressing conclusion: “The new, modern ethos was to treat higher education as a business where the students were the customers and the primary role of administrators was to keep them as happy as possible, to bend over backwards to ensure that unhappy students didn’t transfer to a more student-friendly college that would try harder to satisfy their needs.”

That’s what underlies the indulgence, Brandon claims. Student affairs people often express their dislike of the top-down approach, the typecasting of faculty as authority and students as subject to it. But it really comes down to “customer satisfaction.” Colleges compete for applicants, they want high retention rates, they need tuition dollars. If that means sacrificing the standing of the teacher, so be it.

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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