Y’know, sometimes I look at what my students do, often out of simple self-defense in a world fraught with absurd bureaucratic demands, and wonder if I would have done the same thing as a freshman.
Would I refuse to buy the textbook for a college course I was paying to take? If I did buy it, would I refuse to read it? Would I turn in a paper that was copied whole cloth from the Internet (or, in my day, from a magazine or book)? Would I beg for an exception from the no-late-papers rule because I had a full-time job and was taking 18 credits? Would I need to be taught how to acknowledge a source in-text?
Well, off-hand the answers would be No, Probably not, No, Not a chance, and No.
The truth is, there’s really no comparison between today’s student’s experience and my college experience a half-century ago.
In the first place, I did not take English 101 and 102, the two-semester iteration of the high-school English that apparently does not “take” for most Arizona kids. I didn’t go to school in Arizona, thank all the Gods and Goddesses that be: California schools, even the lesser schools of southern California where my parents moved after three years in San Francisco, went so far as to teach basic literacy and basic expository writing. My SAT scores got me into a one-semester substitute for the advanced dumbbell English most students had to take, and that was a course in modern literature — it wasn’t a composition course at all. So it should be noted that there really was no comparison. With that in mind, let us consider:
Would I refuse to buy the textbook for a college course I was paying to take?
No, certainly not. In the first place textbook publishers did not gouge students upwards of $80 for what really are nothing more than $20 trade paperbacks. So buying a semester’s textbooks did not mean I’d have to skip paying the rent that month.
And in the second place, it never even occurred to me not to buy a required textbook — or even one of the optional texts. Of course you bought the text. What would be the point of taking the course at all if you didn’t buy the books?
I remember being absolutely shocked when a third-year student bragged, in the moments before a particularly boring history class convened, that he hadn’t bought the course textbook and that in fact he had never purchased a textbook for any class in his major, and he had a B+/A– average.
Tellingly, he was an education major.
Speaking of that history course…
Would I refuse to read a textbook that I’d bought?
That history course was taught by a dry, monotone professor who required a heavy, thick, equally dry and monotone textbook. It’s hard to make history boring, but this guy did it. That book was the most tedious piece of published anything I’ve ever read this side of a journal article in higher mathematics. It was almost unreadable.
I didn’t refuse to read it — I tried to read it. But if he’d sat me down and asked me what I’d read, he’d probably have concluded the answer was “nothing.”
These comp textbooks are similarly boring and tendentious. They’re excruciating to read, and I know the subject matter. No. I live the subject matter. And I find them perfectly awful.
I would not have read it because, at the age of 17, when I entered college, I knew all this stuff. I had been writing sourced (i.e., cited and documented) expository papers since the seventh grade. By the time I left high school, a textbook like the ones we require for today’s freshman comp courses would have nothing to offer me. I certainly could have passed a 2015 freshman comp course without ever looking at the text.
Being the little doobie that I was, I probably would have looked at assigned readings. But I wouldn’t have studied them carefully, because I would have considered it a waste of time.
However…it must be remembered that for today’s students, the material is not a waste of time. Many, many high-school graduates entering your comp courses will tell you that they have never written any researched paper in all the 13 years they spent in Arizona’s K-12 schools! Some will tell you they’ve never written a piece of exposition at all. Any piece of exposition, like “what I did on my summer vacation.” They do not know how to find research sources. They do not know how to distinguish, in terms of credibility, between something they read on Faux News and something on the same subject that emanated from the New England Journal of Medicine. They cannot recognize when they’re indulging in a fallacy. Some of them don’t know what the word “fallacy” means. As many as a quarter of them do not write in coherent paragraphs — they can’t organize their thinking in rational blocks of copy. About a third to a half habitually write in fragments and fused sentences.
Although the average American high-school kid did not score in the 99th percentile on the SAT’s verbal section, nevertheless a good 80 percent of them were capable of writing a coherent paper without a lot of basic grammar and logical thinking errors.
So: not a fair comparison. Quite.
Would I turn in a paper that was copied whole cloth from the Internet (or, in my day, from a magazine or book)?
No. I was too scared to pull a stunt like that. Nor did I need to: I knew how to find information and how to synthesize it from several sources into a single coherent argument. I left high school knowing how to do that — it was as natural as breathing.
Over the decades, a sea change in attitudes toward honesty has taken place. People in general — including young people — have discovered that it’s very easy to get away with things. Keep a straight face and no one is likely to question you, first because most people are too busy to be bothered and second because few instructors want to go through the hassle of flunking you out of their course for plagiarizing.
That’s a function, I think, of the number of bureaucratic rules that now afflict us all. We have restraints and demands coming at us from all directions. And one of the things people have figured out is that nothing much happens if you quietly neglect to obey. Or that the chances that you’ll be caught out and hassled are relatively low.
I knew a young woman who indulged in a fair amount of insurance fraud. She’d become expert in navigating insurance claims and would even offer to help her friends maximize collections. A couple of times, her scams were pretty damned transparent. But you know what happened? Nothing. She collected. She got not one but two houses completely rebuilt (questionable whether the fire that burned down the second house was actually a fraud or a genuine attempt on the part of her psychotic husband to murder her — probably the latter, IMHO, but that was never proven). Neither of these people — the crooked wife or the equally unethical demented husband — have ever had to account for their scams in any meaningful way.
Young people aren’t fools. Students can see this stuff going on. And when they attempt their own small frauds, they learn the same thing: getting caught is a very, very long shot.
If I’d been functioning in this environment, who knows what I would have done? It’s a different social ethic altogether.
Would I beg for an exception from the no-late-papers rule because I had a full-time job and was taking 18 credits?
Never would’ve entered my mind. You did not challenge your teachers. Or your parents. Or a cop. Or a principal. Or the IRS dude. Or anyone else.
The kid who asked to turn in a major paper three days late did so not once but twice — she actually came back after I said “no” and tried to change my mind.
But once again one has to ask: is there really a comparison here?
Except for reading texts to a blind student once or twice a week, I didn’t hold a job during the entire four years of my undergraduate training. People didn’t. No one expected kids to go to school full-time and also go to work. For a student, your job was to study. That’s what you did. You didn’t go out and sell furniture or wait tables. The very idea would have been frowned upon.
And sign up for 18 credits? Are you kidding? Sixteen units was considered a heavy load. I doubt if the university would have allowed me to take 18 credit hours in a single semester. I would have had to get some kind of special permission to pull it off, and you can bet that if an adviser had a clue that I was working on the side, no such permission would have been forthcoming.
Tuition at public universities was almost free. Families did not have to damn near bankrupt themselves to send a kid to college, and students were not saddled with a lifetime of debt to get a degree that is now considered indispensable for white-collar employment.
Blue-collar jobs that would support a family existed in those days, so a college degree wasn’t regarded as non-negotiable for entrée to the middle class. For that matter, the middle class still existed, too…
So again, there’s really no comparison. College kids were not subjected to unreasonable demands or exploited mercilessly. They didn’t have to work as wage slaves while they were trying to take classes, and so they didn’t have to beg dispensation to turn in assignments late. And instructors were full-time faculty on the tenure track, not wretched part-timers juggling two, three, or four mini-gigs to put food on the table. So they could afford to fit an occasional late paper into their workload.
Would I need to be taught how to acknowledge a source in-text?
Sure. We used footnotes back in the Dark Ages.
But the principle driving the practice was the same. And I’d been using footnotes since the seventh grade. No one needed to take my little hand and sit me down and explain to me what sources to cite, when, where, or why. Today’s poor little things haven’t a clue.
How’z about you? Would you refuse to buy the textbook for a college course you were paying to take? If you did buy it, would you refuse to read it? Would you turn in a paper that was copied whole cloth from the Internet (or from a magazine or book)? Would you beg for an exception from the no-late-papers rule because you had a full-time job and were taking 18 credits? Would you need to be taught how to acknowledge a source in-text?