It’s grading time, and like most college faculty members, my mind turns to attempting to understand how students engaged the course material, assignments, and class structure. There is the inevitable frustration at shortcomings and misunderstanding, and the slight feeling of accomplishment that comes from seeing a class performing to specification on an assignment. I’d be lying if I said that the latter offsets the former. Mostly, I spend time pondering how and why students did what they did.
Of course, this is not unique to me or to higher education at this moment in time. American higher education, prone to self-doubt and external and internal critique even as it became the model for much of the world, is enduring a particularly virulent bout of critical scrutiny right now. Assaulted by MOOCs, moves toward alternative forms of credentialing, and substantial funding cuts, higher education has pushed hard to be more accountable, transparent, and rationalized. To do this, universities have employed a growing number of assessocrats, administrators, and quality experts to promote the virtues of efficiency and to bring the diverse traditions of American higher education into line with both one another and the expectations of a range of stakeholders ranging from idealistic and detached critics on the left to short-sighted commentators on the right.
Students understand this and have endured the growing move to an industrial model of higher education with a certain amount of grace. Beset by a growing number of requirements, assessment tools, and regimentation, students have become adept at navigating a system which despite being under constant critique, nevertheless demands of their allegiance and confidence. When students struggle to wrap their head around what it happening in the classroom or on their transcript, we as faculty alternate between near-resignation (typified by the long “sigh”)and moralizing. The former is relatively harmless as long as it produces understanding and a willingness to compromise.
The latter – moral judgment – is frustrating to watch. There is nothing quite like the end of the semester to bring forth faculty complaints that students are “lazy”, “unmotivated”, or “clueless”. At the same time, faculty desperately attempt to concoct new strategies to prevent what they see as students’ willful misunderstandings of assignment or subversion of course “learning objectives.” The holidays become a time to rearm to enter the classroom in January with a new set of strategies, tactics, and approaches to bringing students into line. Pedagogy is transformed into a battle.
Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to convince colleagues to take seriously the idea that students are agents (and in some cases allies) in the struggles against the long term industrialization of higher education. While they might not articulate their resistance in this way, they nevertheless behave in ways that undermine the regimentation of university life.
1. Due Dates. I’ve long given up on this battle. Even with the more dire warning or appeals to shared humanity, students refuse to turn in papers on time. Over the past few years, the excuses have become more half-hearted and my willingness to penalize students has diminished. While the semester’s end would seem to present a firm deadline on student work, even that has appeared increasingly negotiable in student eyes.
2. Attendance. Students vote with their feet. My upper level classes tend toward the boring. I know that. At the same time, I make ever effort to present material in each class that helps students to succeed in the course. They still don’t come to class. This behavior does not come just from “poor” performers, but from “decent” (C to B) students as well.
3. Basic grammatical rules. When I first encountered the unwillingness to avoid contractions, follow the rules of capitalization, and to use punctuation like the semicolon correctly (I even banned the semicolon in my classes as an effort to curtail its abuse!), I was quick to bemoan the declining standards of literacy. I then moved on to seeing it as the changing nature of our language. Now, I recognize it for what it is. Students refuse to follow basic rules like “do not use contractions” and “do not use the semicolon” not out of ignorance or laziness, but as an effort to resist faculty control over their modes of expression.
4. Paper length and formatting. Students’ tendency to read paper lengths literally and produce papers that are not one line or one word longer than required demonstrates a playful engagement with the kind of arbitrary rules that structure their assignments.
These four behaviors are simply the most obvious forms of student resistance to the industrial requirements of higher education. They all demonstrate efforts to subvert the regimented character of higher education and the aspects of learning that conform most narrowly to expectations of capitalism. Performing to specification, arriving and doing work on time, and ceding their time and workflow to external control are all standards closely associated with industrial modes of production. Moreover, these easily evaluated criteria for “student success” share some basic similarities with the most formal methods that the assessocracy uses to track student and faculty performance through time. Contact hours, quantity of work, and the ability to perform consistently to specification is not merely standard for students, but also key structuring elements for faculty work as well.
Chances are that we’ll continue to make efforts to enforce the rules of academy no matter how arbitrary some of them are. At the same time, I wonder whether we need to shift the nature of the dialog a bit from critiques of student performance that tend toward the moralizing (and, frankly, condescending) toward those that recognize student behaviors as legitimate forms of resistance against a system that is flawed and dehumanizing. Perhaps we can find a better way to meet our students half way because I think we’ll discover that they’re fighting the same battle as we are.