Back in the College Classroom: What I’m Seeing in My Students
After two years in the pandemic wilderness, it seemed that the administration, faculty, and students were ready to return to campus this semester, and reclaim a bit of normalcy. I say “a bit” because a mask mandate was in place until March 1st, and even after it was dropped, three-quarters of us were still wearing them. And then there was the random testing . . .
In March 2020, our world was turned topsy-turvy when we had a week to figure out how to teach our classes remotely. I teach public speaking and voice and diction, so there were some things we could do reasonably well on Zoom, but many things we could not. And try hard as I might, I knew that the connections with each other were just not the same and that the students were missing out on socialization at a critical time in their lives.
The first couple of weeks of the semester were rather fun. There was a sense of camaraderie and cooperation to make this return work. The students seemed to like being around other students.
My syllabus had not changed. My rules had not changed. How I enforce the rules had not changed. My temperament, to my knowledge, had not changed. And yet, a few weeks in, something had changed.
I noticed a more than the usual amount of students were out absent, and it wasn’t due to Covid. The administration gave us strict attendance rules that we were to post on our syllabus. Their rules stated that only if a student had a positive Covid test result or a doctor’s note on the day of the class could they get an excused absence. If that were the case, they would be allowed to “attend” remotely and I’d have to set up my laptop and give them a Zoom link so they could attend. (Once again, the school was getting away with giving us two tasks now — to teach in person and remotely at the same time, for no additional pay. But I digress . . . )
On the first day, as we went through the syllabus, I pointed out the paragraph about excused absences and read it aloud. Still, within a couple of weeks, I had students emailing me things like, “I missed my bus. Can you send me a Zoom link?” Or “I’m traveling that day, but can you send me a Zoom link so I can watch from the airport?” And then the usual, “I have a cold but don’t want anyone to catch it so I’m staying home. Can I get a Zoom link?”
We recently had a subway shooting in New York, and that brought on another wave of absenteeism. I understand if they lived in that part of Brooklyn or decided on their own that it wasn’t safe to go to school. But I got a bunch of excuses from students saying, “My parents don’t want me to go.”
A shooting is a big deal, yes, but couldn’t they decide on their own? Did they think I would be more sympathetic because their parents told them not to go? One of the joys of turning eighteen and going off to college is getting away from your parents, rebelling, making and living with your own bad decisions.
I bent the rules and allowed them ONE remote class for something other than Covid or a doctor’s note. I was afraid if I didn’t, half my classes would fail on attendance alone. As it stands, with three weeks left to go, about one-quarter of my students have already reached the maximum number of absences allowed (and even if they don’t go over, the poor grade on attendance will bring down their overall grade). Pre-pandemic, maybe ten percent would reach the maximum allowed absences.
No amount of cajoling or warning can seem to stop the flow of students receding from the classroom.
I suspect that the freshmen and sophomores, who have not known any college outside of a Zoom classroom, thought they were missing out on all the fun of meeting new friends and hanging out on campus. But after a few weeks of 90-minute commutes on dirty, crowded subways, they have come to realize they are missing rolling over in bed and turning on their computers.
Because they managed to get their work done during online classes, many of them may be asking themselves, much like office workers are, “Why do I need to go to campus (or work)? I can get it done at home.”
What these kids don’t realize is that many of the office workers already had their socialization in college. Many have moved into their own apartments and found spouses and are raising families. The college students, on the other hand, are living in dorms or still living at home.
I always incorporate a group project into my classes, and they groan about it, but if they don’t learn how to work with others to accomplish something, when will they?
It goes without saying that many of the students are also not doing their assignments or doing lackluster work. They certainly aren’t reading much, and my classes are not reading-heavy classes. I can’t tell you how many times I get questions like, “When is it due?” I have to reply for the thousandth time, “It’s in the syllabus.”
For my voice and diction class, I assign Shaw’s “Pygmalion” play to read (and provide them a free PDF), and then they are to write a 3–5 page paper about it. There are so many issues to grapple with around how we speak and use language and how that influences our prejudices about people. Those who actually read it seem to get a lot out of it.
Well, one student came up to me a day before the paper was due and said, “This play is over 200 pages. Do we have to read all of it?”
“It’s a play,” I said. “Because of the format, it reads a lot faster than a book.”
“But I don’t know if I can read it by tomorrow.”
“Well, you’ve had the play for weeks,” I said. Then I smiled and said, “Welcome to college.”
I could tell from the papers that many chose to find a movie version and watch that, because no movie version has faithfully adapted the ending of Shaw’s play, and instead turned it into a Hollywood love story.
I still remember my first semester of college. I got 2 Bs and 2 Cs (they were on a trimester system, so four classes were considered a full load). I was devastated because I had always been an A student in high school. But that jolt told me how hard I had to study to get back up into A territory.
To what do I attribute my students’ behavior this semester?
I think it comes down to bad habits developed during online classes, where there is less accountability. There is accountability from the professor, but peer pressure plays a part. If you can turn on the sound but shut off the camera and then vaguely listen while you do other things around your home, you are not fully engaging. And you couldn’t get away with that in a classroom surrounded by your peers.
Social media and cellphone addiction had already done their damage in the handful of years before the pandemic; the pandemic exacerbated the problem. Too many young people are mistaking texting emojis back and forth for meaningful connection.
I also believe these students have been traumatized in the last two years. Some have lost family members; many are from communities that were hardest hit. Some have been traumatized like the rest of us (lack of purpose or motivation, feeling boxed in, rage building up inside), but an eighteen-year-old does not have the maturity or coping skills that most adults have — or should have.
Before their persuasive speech, I do an audience analysis where I ask them a series of questions so that students can see the diversity of thinking amongst their peers. Some of what I learned during this exercise is shocking to me. Only about three (out of 25) read any kind of newspaper daily, not even online. Very few use Facebook or Twitter or any of the blog sites, but nearly all of them use Instagram. It’s all about pictures.
At the end of the audience analysis exercise, I ask them, “How many think the world will be a better place in twenty years?” This number has not changed over the fifteen years I’ve been doing this exercise: I’m lucky if one or two answers affirmatively to that statement.
This allows me to then open a discussion where I ask them why they think the world won’t be better. And it gives me the opportunity to point out to them how many things have gotten better in the world, even in the span of their lifetimes. And it gives me the chance to say, “I wouldn’t be standing here today if I didn’t think the world would get better in twenty years, and that you would be a part of bringing that about. I believe if a teacher can’t offer hope then they have no business standing in front of a classroom.”
I should say that there is a handful of students who are doing great work and asking good questions and turning assignments in on time. They are the ones that continue to give me hope. But those motivated students are fewer now. What is to become of the others?
As I finish seventeen years of teaching on a lowly, unappreciated adjunct salary, it is taking more effort for me to bring my excitement to the classroom, and I was so eager in late January.
Today, I am worn out, worn down. As I come to the end of my spring break, I am counting down the four weeks until the semester is over.
And then I am done with full-time teaching. Done. Forever.