By Jon Cogburn
When I first got to LSU fifteen years ago a (now ex) colleague of mine in Religious Studies would begin the first day of every freshmen or sophomore course with what he called his "asshole speech," the goal of which was to get certain kinds of students to drop the class. He would do things like proudly trump the statistics from the semester with the largest percentage of students who had failed due to his draconian "participation"* policy, tell the students that to pass they would have to spend at least two to three hours of focused studying outside the classroom for every hour in the classroom, describe the reading and course requirements as if they were Marine Corps grunts about to ship off to Paris Island, etc. etc. etc.
If I remember right, at some point the LSU administrators got wind of professors using the asshole speech tactic and started sending various missives about how we would be judged not just by the number of students who initially registered but who stayed in the classes. I don't know if anything initially came of that. But in an era of budgeting disasters and the use of student credit hours and number of graduates to determine which departments might get the ax, no one would pull the asshole speech at LSU move any more. Also, if you grade too harshly, the administration will come down on you. This is, I think, in part because the manner in which colleges are judged by their graduation rate in Louisiana. Institutions have to meet certain "metrics" to be able to raise tuition to match the yearly cuts in state funding.***
So we all deal with students who don't want to be in class in different ways. I prohibit use of electronic devices and try to use humor to get the sullen students to come out of their shells. I also have a strict attendance policy, not to get people to drop, but because of a mix of paternalism and self-interest. On the latter, students who show up are much less work. I have colleagues who do just the opposite, doubling down on the anti-paternalism, combining no attendance policy with a "you dug your own grave" attitude when the skipping students show up mid semester expecting to be retaught the material or granted various creative forms of graderly dispensation. But in the last decade or so I've seen the asshole speech completely fade as a pedagogical device.
Which made it a huge surprise when I read this HuffPo article by Keith Parsons. On the surface Parsons is just explaining to his students the difference between a high school teacher and a college professor. This allows an entertaining and plausible rant contrasting No Child Left Behind teach to the testism with what colleges are supposed to be doing. But what's weird is that Parsons motivates telling them about the difference by the same thing that bothered my colleague fifteen years ago:
I had been told that my freshman students would be apathetic, incurious, inattentive, unresponsive and frequently absent, and that they would exude an insufferable sense of entitlement. I am happy to say that this characterization was not true of most students. Still, some students are often absent, and others, even when present, are distracted or disengaged. Some have had to be cautioned that class is not their social hour and others reminded not to send text messages in class. I have had to tell these students that, unlike high school, they will not be sent to detention if they are found in the hall without a pass, and that they are free to leave if they are not interested.
And there are aspects of the asshole speech embedded in his contrast between the high school teacher and the university professor.
Your teachers were held responsible if you failed, and expected to show that they had tried hard to avoid that dreaded result. I am not held responsible for your failures. On the contrary, I get paid the same whether you get an "F" or an "A." My dean will not call me in and ask how many conferences I had with your parents about your progress. Indeed, since you are now an adult, providing such information to your parents would be an illegal breach of privacy. Neither will I have to document how often I offered you tutoring or extra credit assignments. I have no obligation whatsoever to make sure that you pass or make any particular grade at all.
And things like this:
Hogwash. You need to learn to listen. The kind of listening you need to learn is not passive absorption, like watching TV; it is critical listening. Critical listening means that are not just hearing but thinking about what you are hearing. Critical listening questions and evaluates what is being said and seeks key concepts and unifying themes. Your high school curriculum would have served you better had it focused more on developing your listening skills rather than drilling you on test-taking.
It's plausible, entertaining, and quite skillfully done. The high school versus college conceit works well because it flatters the hearers at the same time it insults them. You're not kids, you can do what you want. But if you don't do what I want you're really still a kid.
When I read Parsons' piece I thought about trying this gambit next semester, but I just can't pull it off. First, given our dire financial straights and the necessity of pushing students through, the "fail for all I care" bit wouldn't fly at LSU. Second, you can only do the "skip class if you want, it's on you" thing if you aren't a wimp when the skippers show up trying to salvage their grade two thirds of the way through the semester. If you are a wimp you can spend the entire last half of a semester doing nothing but reteaching logic in your office (this happened to me a few years ago). Better to at least try make them show up I think. I don't know though. Sometimes (usually?) everything you might try is suboptimal in some way. What can you do?
*Until the last year or so, it was against the rules at LSU to grade for "attendance," except you could grade for attendance if you called it "participation." This kind of thing is normal in the gret stet of Louisiana, where "gambling" is constitutionally prohibited, but the legal status of "gaming" allows for nearly ubiquitous truckstop video poker games and casinos, almost as widespread as drive-through McDonald's litter and dead animals on the sides of our crumbling roads.
**This is exacerbated by the extent to which the administrators and upper level staff at your institution (and politicians in your state for that matter) view education and professors in the same manner.
***This is a mixed bag. I think it's led to some dumbing down and increase in the kind of student self-entitlement that necessitated my colleague's asshole speech in the first place. But on the other hand, I also think that a whole host of student services are improved as a result of it. It's really, really nice to have skilled and caring staff with enough time to help you help students with issues they face, academically, financially, socially, and psychologically. As far as I can tell, LSU currently shines in this way in part because of the mandate to graduate students and but also in part because of all the lessens well learned from the influx of students and increase in student mental health problems in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's destruction. It was horrible, but also our finest hour.]