Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Welcome to 13th grade

So here they come, strolling through campus, barely looking old enough to cross the street without a white-gloved, yellow-vested guard holding up traffic so their parents can escort them to elementary school. Some look like they are on their way to a job interview, parole hearing or debutante party; others appear to have last bathed sometime during the previous month, and then only because they were caught in Hurricane Irene. Some are chatting away on their cell phones even as their undergraduate guide describes where they are walking and what goes on in the buildings they briefly enter, survey and leave; others are paying rapt attention, writing everything down, placing post-it notes in their "welcoming materials," as if there will be a quiz at the end of the tour that will count towards the final grade in a fall class for which they have not yet registered; still others are looking at their watches or at their feet, wondering when their tour will end so that they can go back to their rooms and do nothing, or convince their parents to buy them more "dorm room essentials," as Bed, Bath & Beyond calls the approximately 427 items that burst from their display racks in the weeks before school begins.

And they are all texting. Constantly. Sometimes I'll just stand in the middle of a sidewalk or hall way and wait for someone to run into me. Which they do, and then shake me off like Alex Ovechkin shakes off a check and just keeps going. And like Ovechkin, they don't say excuse me.

Welcome to American University, Class of 2015.

And welcome, too, the Parental Advisory Board Class to the American University Class of 2015. Not even summer orientation, which used to just be, at most, an arranged and carefully choreographed visit for incoming freshman, has escaped the sleek corporate setting of modern university life. Our program, which mirrors most orientation sessions staged by most colleges and universities, sets aside nearly as much time for parents as students to talk to their children's prospective professors, academic counselors, representatives from residence life, student organizations, career center specialists, fitness center staff and other university offices that would take up too many gigabytes to list here. College is no longer the good luck-and-see-ya-later ritual it was when I began my freshman year in 1979. Universities offer their students amenities that are more consistent with the pleasures one might expect from Club Med, Sandals or some other popular vacation resort that I have heard about but never seen for myself. For many, maybe even most, students, their parents will be very involved in mapping out their "formula" for college success, just like they hovered over every extra-curricular activity or every school-related issue that faced their kids from elementary school forward.

College is now the 13th grade.

* * * * * * * * * *

Summer orientation brings back great memories for me. I remember checking into my dorm room and finding out that my orientation roommate had already bailed. I saw the door to the adjoining suite open, and I walked through to say hello. Sitting on the bed, smoking a cigarette was another 17 year-old, one Joey Pierce of Memphis, Tennessee. Joey was reading a collection of Woody Allen short stories. He didn't get up -- Joey resembled a Buddha statute in those days -- but he put down his book and said hello. I noticed a "YES" belt buckle, an accessory that pretty much sealed our since life-long friendship. I was the only person in my high school that was really into Woody Allen, and Yes was my favorite band. We sat down and talked, left briefly to eat, sneaked some beer into the dorm, and talked into the early morning. I went to sleep thinking college would be the greatest, most life-changing experience of my life. And it was.

My Dad, of course, had driven me up to the University of Tennessee for orientation. Between the time I checked into my dorm until the moment we met back up at the appointed check-out time two days later, I didn't see my Dad for five minutes. Parents were housed somewhere else on campus. All I remember my Dad telling me when we met up again was that his roommate left in the middle of the night. Maybe he was my roommate's father . . . I don't know.

Parents did not accompany their children on the campus tour. UT had a big campus, about a dozen times the size of American, so we took the shuttles than ran through campus to a certain part of campus, and then got out and walked. During one round, I remember our student guide pointing to Hess Hall, the notorious freshman dorm that housed 1,100 students, and issued a warning to us. "That's the Zoo, the wildest place on campus," he said. "You don't want to get assigned there if you want to survive your first semester.

I lived in the Zoo my freshman year. It lived up to its summer billing and more. Joey lived in the Zoo, too; but thankfully on a different floor. Not only did I survive, I made the Dean's List, the first time since 6th grade, when my reenactment of the Kennedy assassination with a second shooter won second place in the county social science fair, I merited academic recognition of any kind.

I did not go home my first semester until Thanksgiving. I called my house once a week, always on Sunday night after dinner. I knew my family would be home, watching "60 Minutes." Our phone conversations never lasted more than 2 or 3 minutes because, living in a dorm with a shared phone, I had to call collect. I grew up in one of those families where a long-distance call was viewed as an extravagance. When my sister and I were forced to make a phone call to a relative thanking them for a gift or card, my Dad stood in the background, whirling his arms and hands in a cranking motion, the universal hand-signal for, "Hurry up and get the hell off the phone!" Since my sister and I didn't like any of our relatives, getting off the phone was never a problem.

I never called home to tell my family good news or bad. I never called my Dad to talk sports or politics or to get his advice on navigating the rocky terrain of college women ("Keep asking until one says yes!" was his perennial advice. "There's someone out there as hard up as you!"). I never called my Mom to ask for money or to get her advice on getting a date ("Remember, it's their loss," she'd always say. If that was the case, the women attending college at the same time as I did incurred more losses than the New York Stock Exchange did during the Great Depression or that wealthy bankers temporarily endured during the Great Recession of 2008). I missed my parents and my sister, who was three years younger than me and with whom I had finally stopped fighting. When my Dad took me to college that fall, he made it very clear that I was not to call home unless there was a "life-threatening" emergency. He helped me move into my dorm room, gave me a hug and a kiss good-bye, and, looking at my roommate's side of the room, which featured a Bible, a crucifix, a clock radio, a picture of his girlfriend and a bed made so tightly that you could bounce a quarter off it, wished me good luck.

* * * * * * * * * *

Had I ever called home to complain about a grade from a professor, or that my roommate was trying to convert me to Christianity (he didn't; he was a great guy and we remained friends for years after I graduated until life pulled us in separate directions) or that my R.A. was out to get me or the food wasn't meeting my expectations or that I didn't know what to do about this or that, my Dad would have hung up the phone. "Life-threatening emergency" meant someone had a gun to my head or that I had been taken hostage by a terrorist organization. During my sophomore year, I started receiving not-very-pleasant mail under my door from a self-styled "Christian" student organization, which was unhappy with me for some columns I had written in the student newspaper critical of the Moral Majority. I finally broke down and called my Dad, telling him I was worried that something was going to happen to me.

"What the hell are a bunch of yokels going to do to you?" as if I were some super-imposing javelin thrower and not a 145 lb. Jewish know-it-all who could barely lift a 16 ounce beer without getting sore . "Here's what you do: invite them to your room, offer them a glass of Dewar's, tell them you like your drink strong and your women stronger. Ask one of the girls to tie you up and flog you while reading the Bible. Call your friend, the one from Memphis who is always high . . . what's his name? . . . Joey! Give them a joint. You'll scare the shit out of them and you'll never hear from them again!"

So I followed his advice, for the most part. At the end of my pitch, they all got up and left, including, unfortunately, the one girl who, underneath her two heavily starched shirts, pink crew-necked cable sweater, green pants and add-a-bead necklace, was cute. I am pleased to report that I never heard from my "Christian" friends again.

* * * * * * * * * *

Dumbfounded over the constant cell phone conversations that take place in the halls of our academic buildings, in classrooms, the student center, the dining facilities, the gym . . . everywhere and anywhere open to students, I asked a student sometime ago who the hell all these kids were talking to. Didn't they see each other enough in class, walking around, in the dorms or at their apartments?

"They're talking to their parents," she told me. "That one (pointing to girl we dubbed "Phone Girl" because I never, ever saw her when she wasn't on the phone) talks to her mother five or six times a day." My student then told me that almost everyone she knew talked to their parents at least once a day. They talk to their parents about their grades, how unfair their professors are, how the university is screwing them over on this or that, that their roommates fart too much and don't apologize, or steal cheese sticks or won't pay them the $5 they owe them and a million and one other things that do not qualify as "life-threatening emergencies."

I am aware that students talk to their parents about their grades because I have had their parents call me to ask why I "failed" their son or daughter on an exam or assignment. I only had once such conversation with a parent over a grade before I decided never to make that mistake again. I had just returned midterms, and stayed about five minutes after class to schedule appointments with students who were convinced that their grade from me had ruined their life and diminished all hope of getting accepted to Stanford law school, their "safety." This despite a 2.9 GPA from a not terribly demanding university. A message awaited me on my phone from an irate parent when I returned to my office. This parent had worked as a legal secretary for 20 years and knew full well that her son had not written a F minus-quality midterm(Yes, I have given F minuses; just ask) . . . blah, blah, blah. I returned the call, more out of curiosity than anything else.

"I know my law, and I can tell you my son is not an F student," she insisted.

"He might not be an F student. But he wrote an F exam, I can assure you of that. Actually, an F minus."

"No, he didn't. He read his exam to me over the phone, and that was not an F exam!" she bellowed.

Far be it from me to argue with a legal secretary with 20 years experience.

"Do you know your son doesn't have the book? Do you know that your son just sits there with a blank piece of paper waiting for me to give him the answers? Do you know that the exam was open book, that students could refer back to cases when they wrote their opinions?"

I thought that might do the trick . . . but no.

"Judicial opinions are public record. How do you know he isn't reading the entire opinion from somewhere else?"

"Our conversation is over," I responded. "If your son has a complaint, he can take it through the appropriate channels."

I said that because I believed that no one would take this seriously. My department chair at the time didn't. She had an even less pleasant conversation with the mother. But I received a call about a week later from someone in the Dean's office asking me to allow the student to take the exam over. Perhaps there had been a misunderstanding about the class or exam requirements, I was told. No, I assured my superiors, there was no misunderstanding. This student simply had not done the work. Let's make this a "teachable moment," came the response, and give the student a "second chance."

The student ended up making a D on the re-take. He made a D in the class, only because I wanted to have leverage to say, should he complain about that, that I could have given him an F but decided against it. That turned out to be his best grade for the semester. He made F's in his others and did not return for the next semester.

Parents call academic counselors, department chairs, professors and even higher-ranking academic officers detailing the injustices to which their children have been subjected more often than you would think. For students having health or personal problems, families should work with universities to serve the best interests of the student. Universities are much better equipped today than when I was an undergraduate to deal with the genuine health-related problems of students, particularly students with physical and learning disabilities and other mental health issues. But in 99% of the cases, parents are calling their children's colleges for the same reason they leaned on the high school chemistry teacher, the lacrosse coach, the middle-school band teacher or the elementary school reading instructor: they have decided that their child deserves a permanent advocate. Their child, because he or she is their child, is entitled to whatever it is that the parent wants for them. Not in all cases do I blame the student for this unfortunate development. We do not get complaints from the parents of students who are the first in their family to attend college, who are from modest backgrounds, who are working their way through college or who do not have parents in "professional" fields. No surprise, but the biggest complainers are the affluent parents, who really, really believe that their social station and tax bracket entitle them to whatever it is they want for their children. I see this all the time where I live -- parents continually pushing teachers, coaches, tutors, camp counselors, bake sale coordinators, parent volunteers . . . whoever has responsibility for their children -- to give their children what they want even if they don't deserve it. And it now continues into college.

From there it continues into the workplace. Yes, these achievement-driven parents are now accompanying their children to campus job fairs and, in some cases, their job interviews. The sad part is that these parents have no idea what a tremendous disservice they are doing their children.

* * * * * * * * * *

I was taught that college was a "supply-centered" enterprise. That is, you went to college to get an education. Classes were supposed to be hard; professors were supposed to be feared then loved; you were supposed to experience the "hellish" professor who made the spring semester of your junior year a living hell, only to discover five years later that she was the best professor you ever had; you were supposed to figure out a way to live off of $5 for a week; you were supposed to take courses that sounded off-the-wall, since high school was (for me) an intellectual straight-jacket; you were supposed to stay up until 4 a.m. arguing about the "big" issues facing the world; you were supposed to fail an exam and then figure out how to climb your way out of a hole; if your roommate left his stuff on the floor or insisted on bringing strange people into room night after night, you were supposed to figure out how to resolve the problem without calling your parents or an attorney.

No more. Universities are now "demand-centered" endeavors. My university constantly surveys students and their parents for their opinions on everything from the food to parking to classes to professors to the appropriate number of Stairmasters in the fitness center. Every course taught at the university is available on-line so that students can decide if the professor meets their requirements. I include three pages worth of rules and notes for students so that when they complain that I don't let them sleep or have sex in class or call their broker on their cell phone that I made it clear on the syllabus that such behavior was prohibited. As an undergraduate, I viewed the course syllabus as a rough guide to the semester, not as formal contract. It never occurred to me that I could pee in my pants or light up a joint in class simply because the professor didn't have a "rule" against it on the syllabus.

For the most part, my university, like most universities now, will attempt to give the student and their parents what they want. We should draw a line that says, "No, sir. This is what we offer here. Take it or leave it." We don't. Universities now have "customer-initiative teams" that are trained to "improve the student experience." I am waiting for the day when we are told (not asked) that all professors will begin wearing red or blue polo-collared short-sleeve shirts with an American University logo on one side and a name tag with my name, rank and length of service on the other. For staff professionals, that day has already come. And they hate it. It makes them feel like they work at a car dealership.

When AU hosts programs for prospective or admitted students, it emphasizes three main reasons to make our university the student's choice:

1. We are in Washington, D.C., the most important and exciting city in the world.
2. We offer extensive internship-for-credit courses that will improve your position in the job market when you graduate.
3. We are Metro accessible with first-rate on-campus residence and dining facilities.

Nowhere do we emphasize the Great Books, the courses available for students that will expand their intellectual universe, student centers for intellectual exchange, the importance of music, the arts and philosophy or the other, more traditional reasons that people went to college. Universities are now trade schools that provide job training for private companies, government agencies, small businesses, public and private schools and so on. A college degree is a credential, not a certificate that tells the world you are an educated person. Getting a degree and getting an education are not the same thing. But we are responding to the marketplace. And this is what our customers want. In fact, our university now hands out awards to our advisers for "excellence in customer focus" or some other achievement in corporate double-speak.

Several years ago, I encouraged readers of this blog to read Rick Perlstein's essay in the New York Times Magazine, "What's the Matter With College?" This fall, I asked students in my freshman American government class to read Louis Menand's more recent New Yorker article on the point and purpose of going to college. This essay is not a response to either article. Rather, I wanted to offer my own take on the question. I will, though, attempt to answer Perlstein's question. I will comment on Menand's later this week . . . .

Two weeks ago, I stepped over several incoming freshman who were sitting on the floor in the lobby of our departmental office. They were waiting to see their academic advisers to plan and make adjustments to their fall schedules. I walked down the hall to the room where we keep our office supplies, and, on the way, peaked into one of our adviser's offices to see a freshman planning his schedule. I smiled to myself, as it brought back memories of all those years ago at my freshman summer orientation. Then I looked again to make sure I saw what I thought I saw. And there she was, a mother sitting next to her son, asking questions and making sure that everything would work out for the fall. I stood outside the door and listened. I heard her voice but never his.

That, right there, is what's the matter with college.

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