In the Steps of Dinosaurs

Having taught college courses for more than two decades, I have seen a lot of unusual student behavior. Part of this is doubtless due to the process of college kids figuring out who they are, testing broader social boundaries and just plain old youthful zeal. 

That said, one of my dearest friends, a professor at a large public university in Tennessee, relayed comments made by that school’s head of Counseling and Testing Services. This official attributed the spike in disruptive student behavior to the “increased admission of students with mental illnesses.” This same psychological prognosticator also used the term “crazy” in the elaboration of her theory. 

Even on face, this is one of those contentions that smacks of bigotry and ignorance. First, her statement is impossible to vet. While disability assistance programs have flourished, who knows whether the true number of mentally ill students has increased. Being able to more readily identify students with particular disabilities or special needs in no way equates to an increase in students who have those qualities. Moreover, using single, broad, judgmental characterizations to label thousands of different medical conditions under one grand umbrella of behavioral issues is just plain prejudice.

The increase in disruptions is, however, a bit easier to confirm. Extensive informal feedback from educators certainly does so. Likewise with higher rates of campus violence as tracked by university police departments.

My friend posed an interesting theory about the mounting issues of incivility and violence. He suggested the popularity of energy drinks, many of which often contain mega doses of sugar, caffeine and Tuarine (an amino acid that in large doses can act as a depressant), have fostered something akin to steroid induced psychosis. Perhaps this combined with sleep deprivation (as well as possible drug or alcohol use) and the aforementioned youthful zeal offers a better explanation. A quick survey of the scholarly literature provides some support for this idea. Multiple studies note correlations between energy drink use and violent or aggressive behaviors. What’s more established, however, is the strong link between excess consumption of energy drinks and profound negative health consequences.  

That said, this thesis has a bit of a hole in it as it wanders toward the so-called “Twinkie Defense.” For those not up on their legal history, Dan White, who was charged with the murder of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk successfully avoided a conviction on that charge using a defense of diminished capacity. White claimed in some small part that the sugar high resulting from his consumption of junk food made it impossible for him to form the criminal intent necessary to sustain a murder conviction. White was instead, convicted of manslaughter. In a more nuanced telling, a bad diet was only a part of a much broader cascade of awful debilitating things happening in his life. The press tends to eschew nuance. As such, “the Twinkies made me do it” became lodged in the public mindset.

Dr. Blinder provides an excellent albeit slowly presented discussion of the “Twinkie Defense.”

Predictably, I’m not quite ready to embrace the “Red Bull Hypothesis” of student aggression. I argue a more plausible explanation is likely something embedded in both popular culture and the changing administrative culture of higher education. As a criminologist, my mind immediately went to self-control theories of deviance such as those articulated by David Matza, Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi. Frankly though, I have always been a little skeptical of this body of theory as a complete causal account. 

Rather, I argue that it is not self-control that has lessened. Instead, the lines demarcating acceptable behavior have moved. I contend the technological revolution undergirded by the ubiquity of electronic communications has loosened many of the old fetters. Today’s youth use the Internet, social media, text messaging and the like to communicate with a paradoxical mélange of greater immediacy, intimacy and anonymity. In other words, guarded by the distance of the technology, they say things to one another that they might not say in person. With some notable executive exceptions, Twitter is proof incarnate of this idea.

Technology has also transformed all other information delivery. I no longer go to a store to buy music. I download it. The same goes for books, magazines, streaming movies and many other “on demand” cultural products. There is no delay in the gratification. If it is available, it is instantaneously manifest. 

The net result is a growing impatience in other areas of life. Youth culture has reasoned that all things are amenable to the Star Trek replicator model of production. Wish it – Get it. 

Just ask a college sophomore to read a 500-page book with no pictures in it. You’ll get a look like you asked them to disembowel their grandmother.

Just ask a college sophomore to read a 500-page book with no pictures in it. You’ll get a look like you asked them to disembowel their grandmother. Apropos of the looming semester’s end, asking them to write a term paper of any substance and length is a similar fool’s errand. 

It’s not unreasonable to believe an educated person should be capable of performing basic research and reporting the results in a cogent and succinct fashion. They should be able to properly follow formatting guidelines. They should know how to compose paragraphs that flow one into the next, forming a story that is compelling and complete. 

Those are the things they should do. That is not what they often do. Even with the benefit of extensively critiqued rough drafts, I regularly receive a large steaming pile of inelegant and turgid prose that wanders through an argument like a drunken hobo in a busy railyard. 

It is dispiriting. It makes me wonder whether I have wasted approximately four months of my precious time. I often think I should just stop assigning a task that I’m pretty certain will be completed in a clumsy, inattentive and slipshod manner.

I am not alone. Writing for the website, “Timothy McSweeney Sublets His Intellectual Property” Robin Lee Mozer presents a marvelous essay, “I Would Rather Do Anything Than Grade Your Final Papers.” In it she wryly quips, “I would rather base jump off of the parking garage next to the student activity center or eat that entire sketchy tray of taco meat leftover from last week’s student achievement luncheon… or walk all the way from my house to the airport on my hands than grade your Final Papers.” Preach, sister, preach.

Corollary to this, there is a growing consumerist undercurrent among many students. The rationale goes something like, “I paid for this course. Therefore, I am OWED a particular grade.” Another colleague of mine amplified this position with the story of a student who had (by their own direct admission) studied less than an hour for a final exam and became very hostile upon receipt of their failing grade. 

College administrations who champion “brand awareness” and create “marketing offices” are wholly to blame for this. As much as they want to “run government like a business,” that shoe just doesn’t fit a university. The reason is simple: the goal of a university is to educate, not to sell products at a profit. Students are not customers. The more we treat them as though they were, the more higher education — and those seeking college degrees — will suffer.

In short, we have a perfect storm of interacting negative influences that combine to produce students who rebuke delayed gratification and who do not acknowledge the social governors once deemed critical to the pedagogical process. 

Unfortunately, this new culture of demand takes its toll on the faculty. They become affronted at students who dispute their authority. They withdraw and become punitive. 

I have often observed that the skill set I acquired as a cop is directly applicable to managing students. I’m embarrassed to admit that. When it becomes less about opening minds and more about managing the chaos, both learning and teaching stop.

All this said, I would be remiss to paint every student this way. No matter what course I’m teaching, there is always at least one student who rises above the fray. This student is engaged, motivated, articulate, studious and polite. They treat the process of becoming an educated person as the serious and difficult task that it is. They ask questions without a tone of demand. They do their work. They don’t have twenty dead grandmothers. They don’t cause problems. These rare individuals give me just enough reason to continue teaching. These are the students everybody wants.  

At the risk of sounding a thousand years old, I remember Prof. George Thompson’s history classes back at Hendrix College. If you were a young man, you knew not to wear a baseball cap in his classroom. You really shouldn’t even wear shorts. God help you if you disrupted class. If you did poorly on an exam, you made an appointment and sheepishly discussed how you might better prepare for the next time. You sure as heck didn’t demand he change your grade because you “need this class to graduate.” 

I used to think Prof. Thompson was a brilliant but, grumpy old academic dinosaur. Now, I find myself easing toward the Jurassic. 


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