Friday, March 31, 2006


Work, Slack, and Dorm Room Debates

In passing, someone mentioned today that most of her students work 40 or more hours per week for pay, in addition to carrying substantial courseloads. Something about the way she said it struck me. I’ve heard that before, but the tone has changed. Ten years ago, it was usually said in a “can you believe it” tone. Now, it’s just matter-of-fact.

If you’re taking, let’s say, four or five classes, and working forty hours a week on top of that, when do you do homework? When do you study, or read, or just do the daily stuff of life? When do you decompress?

It’s a sticky subject. It’s easy to use it to justify whatever ideology you bring to the table. Some students are single moms, burning the candle at both ends to give their kids better lives, and some are spoiled little brats who care more about maintaining their membership at the tanning salon than actually cracking a book. Honesty compels me to admit that I’ve seen both. Most are somewhere in between, making what they believe is a reasonable effort at doing well in their classes while also saving up for beer and clothes, paying for car insurance and textbooks, and daydreaming about boyfriends/girlfriends. Honesty compels me to admit that at 18, I spent a non-trivial amount of time thinking about girls, sometimes even in class. I don’t think this generation is much different as far as that goes.

Assuming that human nature hasn’t radically changed, I would guess that was has changed is the purchasing power of their jobs, relative to their lives. Tuition and textbooks have gone up much faster than inflation for thirty years now; entry-level wages haven’t. Financial aid is more geared to loans than to grants, compared to a generation or two ago. Cars are necessary, given the sorry state of public transportation in most of America. And yes, there are the stupid money mistakes 18 year olds have always made, and will always make. (The letter home asking for money is a hoary epistolary genre for a reason.) But now those mistakes are easier to make, and harder to rectify.

So granting upfront that reasons for working so many hours vary from noble and inarguable to vain and stupid, I still can’t help but wonder at the long-term educational impact of a generation of college graduates who spent their entire college careers working 40 or more hours a week. Historically, that’s a relatively new thing. (Yes, there have been strivers, but they used to be the exception.)

For all the wonders of technology and the supposed fluency in multitasking that we’re told characterize the ‘millenial’ generation, I wonder when they get the chance (or the obligation) to shut the world out and do battle with a long, difficult, challenging book. When do they get the chance for those self-indulgent, ridiculous, yet useful late-night dorm room arguments about the nature of the universe, the corruption of the government, and how organized religion is a vast conspiracy to keep you from getting laid? (Not that I ever had any conversations like that...) Yes, the substance of those gabfests is usually naught, but they’re the cognitive equivalent of puppies play/fighting. They build skills.

When do they have the confined leisure that generates the kind of productive boredom that leads to breakthroughs? They’re often tired, but when do they get restless?

In talking with some folks who’ve been around longer than I have, one of the defining characteristics of the millenials is that they’re the least rebellious cohort of young people in living memory. That’s not always a bad thing – heaven knows, plenty of campus radicals need nothing more than to get over themselves – but again, at least radicalism reflects taking the time to think. This group doesn’t rebel, I suspect, because it doesn’t have the time to think about such questions long enough for rebellion to occur to them.

It’s not for lack of opportunity. The Bush administration gives plenty of reason for rebellion. On the other side, if David Horowitz were anything close to right, conservatives on campus would be in open rebellion against their radical commie professors. Yet, not.

I’ve written before about productive slack in the context of organizations. This generation of students gets less slack than any before. Aristotle noted that contemplation requires leisure. Do these kids get the leisure to contemplate? If they don’t, will whatever we do during those 15 hours a week of class really mean all that much? If they’re just rushing from class to job to party to sleep to class again, they’re missing something crucial. And they’re much too busy to notice.

We need to cut them some slack. And to have the wisdom to not mind when they use it for what looks like loafing.

I enjoyed your piece DD, I am a working/student/mom, married with a One-year old. I am currently taking 16 credit hours and I work 40 hours a week at my University's Financial Aid Office as counselor. My job alone is extremely draining and exhaustive, most of my classes are very early in the morning so I can work into the night; or they are mid-day so I can take my lunch break to go to a class. You asked, when do students like me study, the answer is- some don't, but others go to extreme lengths to do their best. I had a 4.0 before I had my son, and was determined to maintain that performance while financially providing for him. Of course I can make assumptions about others in my situation, but I'll forgo that direction and simply speak for myself, still mindful of the fact that many of my peers are in the same situation more than perhaps most would think.

I have been at my current position for almost a year, and I have noticed a trade-off between my studies and my work performance. There are some weeks, midterms for instance, that I put more energy into classes and pull back some of my brain energy from work, this applies vice versa as well. I don't pull back enough to be a mindless warm body in either place, but I do not engross myself as much in a certain area. After having my son, I endured the natural sleep deprivation that comes with parenting; as a result, I can go with little sleep. Therefore, how do I study and get things done for classes? I don't sleep. I have pulled more all- nighters than I can remember. Certainly, my body is going to crash eventually, I am just hoping it waits until I graduate next year. For now, it seemingly tugs along like a machine...understanding the mission at hand and being fooled by my inner-reassurance that there is an end in sight.
But I also wanted to touch on another one of your points DD, you discussed the lack of time not only to study, but to just veg, be with friends, or relax. Because of my non-traditional status, with a child, partying is out of my relm. Have I missed out on something? Perhaps, but I don't feel an absence from not having weekly hangovers and cloudy walks home after a night out. Partying would de-rail my already fragile train. However, I do need time to relax; I do need time to veg. I have found that driving or the shower is the only places I have to be alone and still. It's awful I know, but given my situation that's as good as it's gonna get for now. Of course time with my son is crucial and enjoyable. You mentioned those crucial sources of inspiration are missing for some students. Luckily, every weekend I am able to spend time with my son and those priceless moments of his newfound discovery of the world, his naivety, his idealism, his joy-- are all the inspiration I need.

Now I could rationalize my situation to you from here to the moon, but one point you hit on is true. Academia, specifically higher education academia in universities and the like, is not geared toward non-traditional working students whom are parents or caring for loved ones. The professors I have had are cold, judgmental and unforgiving. Everyday I endure the same message "You made your bed, now lay in it." It's as if they think I deserve the hardships, as punishment or consequence of my choice to continue academia with such a negative prognosis: Full time worker, with child.
Therefore I am the outsider, the "one with the baby", the one so many misunderstand.
It has been devastating to me, and as a result my college education has been awful and sorely eye opening, and for that I am saddened. Yes, you are right in your point, we miss out on that crucial element of "college" and I have no idea how I'll think back to my life at this time years from now, because of that "college" train I seem to have missed.
I want to respond to hardworkingmom, but I'm not sure what to say. I guess the thing that hit me hardest about her (your) comment is the following:

"Academia, specifically higher education academia in universities and the like, is not geared toward non-traditional working students whom are parents or caring for loved ones. The professors I have had are cold, judgmental and unforgiving. Everyday I endure the same message "You made your bed, now lay in it." It's as if they think I deserve the hardships, as punishment or consequence of my choice to continue academia with such a negative prognosis: Full time worker, with child.
Therefore I am the outsider, the "one with the baby", the one so many misunderstand."

On the one hand, I can see where a student would or could feel that way, particularly if one is attending school in an institutional context that is primarily a traditional one. I guess that I bristled at reading that, though, because as a professor I often feel torn between the demands of being understanding to students with obligations outside the classroom (at my institution, probably about 75% of the student body works full- or close-to-full time) and my obligations to the classroom itself - my obligations to educating those students. The fact of the matter is, many students at my university according to the data that we've collected spend between 3 and 6 hours a week outside of class on schoolwork when they have a full course load. I expect them to spend between 3 and 6 hours out of class ON MY COURSE ALONE. And that isn't wrong. But the only way to make that happen is to demand that they do that and to be harder on them, rather than easier, less understanding, rather than more. It's not that I think students deserve to be punished for their choices, but rather that I think that they have made the choice to be enrolled in school, and thus it's my obligation to educate them, if that makes sense. I don't know. I'm rambling. But this is a very difficult issue both for students and for professors, I suspect.
In two comments, the dilemma is beautifully defined. Hardworkingmom is obviously right when she says that it's hard to do it all, and nobody cuts her slack. And Dr. Crazy is obviously right that professors need to uphold standards, and that it's utterly defeating for a dedicated instructor when nobody does the reading, even if their reasons are understandable on a human level.

I think the missing term here is external economic support. College used to be cheaper for students than it is today, and that's not only a result of increased spending by colleges. It's also a result of deliberate policy decisions that have shifted the economic burden for college from the public to individual students. That decision puts both students and professors in impossible situations.

I know there's a debate in economics circles about the extent to which higher education is a public or a private good. I don't think we've really had that debate politically, and if we did, I like to think we'd see it as public. As the rest of the world invests in education and higher-end outsourcing and foreign competition becomes greater, the loss to our tax base as our companies decline will be drastic. I, for one, would be willing to underwrite some admittedly indulgent short-term policies to prevent long-term disaster.
As a professor who is also a mother, I find myself more sympathetic to student moms (I let them bring their kids to class, for example) than the average slacker students who don't do the work because of some other reason (even if it's their full-time job). I think some students have to work, no doubt, but some students want a brand new car. I don't have a problem with that, but then why are they in school? I think part of it is the dangerous "consumer" model of education. They think it is something they can buy, just like that new car. When I was an undergrad, I had a bicycle. And I worked 20 hours a week. When I was a grad student, I had an old car. So it's not that they need a brand new car. They want it.
But I agree that education is more expensive, rent is more expensive, books, everything. But students seem to think they can have everything. They don't seem to understand that they can't have the job that pays for their toys AND a great education. Sadly, I think many of them opt for putting a mediocre effort into school.
But I also have to say that many of my best students are working parents, or people who are going back to school for various reasons. They are motivated and dedicated, and most of them are working full-time.
It's not just the US - we have exactly the same thing happening in Norway. And we have free tuition and student loans for everyone's living expenses (about $12000 a year, 40% is converted to a stipend if you pass your exams, it's means tested on the student's income not her parents, and there are guaranteed low interest rates for life and if you're unemployed/on parental leave/studying the loan is frozen, you don't pay and interest doesn't acrue) - and most students still work 30-40 hours a week. So it's not about having to pay for tuition or about covering basic needs.

I don't quite understand it, myself.
I share Lynn's experience that many of my most hard-working and motivated and bright students have been non-trad students with families/jobs BUT I think that I have a problem with the premise that non-trads with family obligations necessarily deserve more slack than a trad. student who has a car payment. Maybe that student needs a car that runs well to go see his ailing mother or [fill in the blank with a "good excuse" here].

The point for me, I suppose, is that my job is to teach in my field, not to become some moral arbiter of excuses. The bottom line for me is that all students - by enrolling in my class - take on a certain level of responsibility. I offer extra credit opportunities to all (one of my concessions to teaching in this kind of a context where so many students work so much or have things that make them miss class), and I am very up front about where their grades will come from on the syllabus and throughout the semester. I think that Dean Dad is right that the problem ultimately is an economic one - the economics of education are getting in the way both for students and for professors. If I begin to spend my time deciding who "deserves" slack, when do I find the time to teach?

(By the way, I don't mean for this to sound as harsh as I think it does - I'm just thinking out loud here.)
Unless I completely misunderstand DD, by calling for "slack" he is not asking us to accomodate the busy lives of our students, rather, he questioning the consequences of their busy lives. (Right DD?)

Like Dr. Crazy, I am sympathetic to the true hardship cases and, like Lynn, I find my non-trads are often the best students in the class. However, non-trads do certainly miss something from the "college experience," and that something is important.

I'm of two minds regarding "hardworkingmom's" comments. As I said above, I'm sympathetic. However, the fact is that you did "make your bed" and I will expect you to "lay in it," just as I do my other students. I have all the admiration in the world for you and what you are doing, but I will expect you to come to class, meet deadlines, show up for exams, complete assignments, etc. Would you REALLY want it any other way? Is there any chance that you will look back with pride at this stage of your life if not?
Anonymous -- you're right. I'm not suggesting that we water down the academic expectations on students to make room for their jobs. Quite the contrary. If students never really wrestle with the full weight of a college education, the entire country will suffer.

Jill's comment really disturbs me. If my guess was right that the problem is mostly economic, it's at least theoretically easy to fix. If increased external economic support doesn't fix the problem, then it's much tougher. I didn't know those circumstances held in Norway. That's disturbing, not least because conservatives love to use cultural arguments to argue that money spent on other people is money wasted anyway.

I totally agree with Dr. Crazy that trying to judge the deserving and the undeserving excuses is a fool's errand. There's just no end to it, and you wind up rewarding creative whining and punishing dignity. Better to build some forgiveness into the grading system upfront, explain it clearly, and then hold students responsible for their performance (or lack thereof).
I just started teaching an online class where only one of the twelve was "traditional." The rest, and this is a Freshman intro course, were middle to older full time workers, most with kids.

To a person the non-trad dozen counted job advancement as the reason for getting a degree. And this should be taken into the discussion...higher education has moved from a scholarly elite to an educated/skilled percentage where contemplation gives way to skill acquisition.

You won't get a job thinking big thoughts...
No, but you won't move up very far beyond that first job if you don't have the critical-thinking and communication skills. Those develop slowly, but they're remarkably valuable.
Also, big thoughts are what the end of education is meant to be (not getting jobs -- though getting jobs is fine and dandy and I am not in any way opposed to students getting jobs). But, as Socrates pointed out some time ago, money is not the end of life: it is the means to life. If we just turn out students who only want jobs or who can only be workers, have we done anything worth doing?
I don't know. I always worked during university and my final year of undergraduate work I bumped that up to a fulltime job while enrolled fulltime. And this was twenty years ago.

In other words, some of us doing the same stuff back then, only it wasn't perhaps as common and it certainly wasn't as widely recognized. But to do that all well requires a huge amount of personal commitment and drive as well as the good fortune not to become sick or get further derailed in your personal life.

In my experience, more non-traditional students work hard and devote a lot of time to their studies, whatever their outside work commitments might be. At the same time, I find is that most traditional students don't have that drive and commitment for their studies. Students without that drive will do the absolute minimum they believe is required to get by and excuse themselves for the rest if we let them get away with it, whether they have an outside job or not.

What's hard is balancing the merciful side of accomodating the overworked and overscheduled student against the slacker who wants not so much an extension as an excuse from having to really think or work at all at this whole university thing.
Long time lurker, first time poster. I'd probably remain lurking int he shadows but there have been so many issues in this thread that I struggle with myself, I wanted to jump in.
Like hardworkingmom, I too had children at home during my undergraduate education, though in my case, I had three when I decided a high school diploma wasn't enough and returned to school. I realized I had made my bed and had to lie in it... I just wanted sheets with a higher thread count is all... ! I never dreamed of telling any of my professors that I had children though because I didn't want to be labelled or judged in any way other than on my academic merit. Like hardworkingmom, there were times I didn't give my schoolwork everything, though I earned good enough grades to allow me to move on to graduate school, where I am now.
I still don't talk much about my children, at least to people who are evaluating my performance. All the other graduate students know I have children, but I've only told a handful of faculty who I have worked closely with that I have a family (not that I don't realize that more might know than I've told). When I step into a seminar room, or onto a conference podium, or when I get out there on the job market, I don't want to be evaluated on anything but what comes out of my mouth.
I understand what Dean Dad is saying though - I'm worried about students today. I see that the students who I teach often put in less than their full effort, which is why I think it important that they need to be held accountable to a high standard so they strive to meet it. My colleagues think I'm the most hardass of all of us, and attribute it to my having children, and perhaps it is, but I think we do a disservice to our students if we expect less of them simply because they are willing to give us less (even if for very good reasons, like having children).
I also worry about my oldest child who heads off to university this fall. I can't afford to send her anyplace local, so she has to go away, but this means she'll also have to work just to eat and pay rent, let alone new clothes, cars etc. I worry that she will work so much that her education will be worth less than it could be, that she'll be at her job rather than having those late night conversations, or those restless moments that can be so productive. I know I've struggled with balance and allowing myself to take the time to have those "veg" moments where really productive ideas seem to blossom. I don't want her to as well. I think part of the problem is general economics and a social attitude that says you should have it all, but these are big things I can't do anything about. What I can do is hold my students accountable and push them to think, not just recite. It's not much, but it's all that's within my reach, so I'll keep pushing them to think (including my own children!)
In my comments earlier, I was in no way suggesting that I would like professors to give me "breaks" or extend deadlines. I have never asked for such extensions or such leeway. What I do expect is for my professors to be mindful of students in our modern times. Most notably this can be pinpointed within group projects, my university gives a disporportionately large amount of group projects. I like working with my peers, and I love the act of taking part in a project with others. However, schedules are so different...obviously I can't do a project at midnight like most students because I need to be at home with my kid. Working 40 hours a week also eats into my time, therefore, it would be so much easier for me to do things on my own. I respect my professors, and I am very very supportive of holding me to the same standard they hold every other student; that is only fair. My point was simply to express my frustration with professors almost exponentially trying to pull away from a non-traditional way of teaching, and permanently footing themselves on a track where only single, dependent, 18-24yr olds need apply.
My concern is a bit different from what has been expressed above. I'm worried that before long the model of student who comes to class and does little contemplation outside of class will become the norm.

I currently struggle with my students, trying to motivate them to read hard original authors in philosophy. Why should a modern student work hard to digest Kant or Descartes? The core of my worry is that most students will move away from working on the hard stuff and only take classes in disciplines that are "feel good" and not a challenge.
Hmmm. See, I know that Dr. Crazy and I are both non-traditionals, in the sense that we are both first-generation students (I think I'm remembering that correctly). And I know I worked 30-40 hours a week as an undergrad, and then worked in grad school, both teaching and waitressing on top of my fellowship (it was a great fellowship, but not enough to live on, and I didn't have a luxurious life, even with the extra income). I have lots of non-traditional students at my CC -- most of them are very dedicated. Most of my students work, too, so I don't give a lot of outside group work. But those kinds of stresses and personal obligations are typical for my traditional students, too. And the fact that I understand what these people are going through really doesn't mean anything in terms of my doing my job. What I tell my students is that the standards set for people to get college degrees were set for people whose primary job was going to college, and who had spent years preparing to go to college. The standards haven't really changed, but the circumstances of students have. I teach at a level that will make it possible for my students to make a successful transition to a very good 4-year. In fact, my classes are probably harder than those taught at some 4-years. But the difference is that I am more available to most of my students to help them to get to the level they need to be at. In terms of standards and work? The students just need to suck it up and do what they need to do to get through. If they have a sick kid and miss an assignment or test, then need to call or e-mail and let me know and bring me some kind of documentation, just as any other student needs to.
You see, this is why I am so hesitant to go back to school to finish my degree . . .

If I am going to spend the ridiculous amount of money to go back to school, I want to be able to do the group projects and have the "dorm-room debates." I want to study philosophy and literature and take the risky classes and think the big thoughts. I want to be educated in the fullest sense . . . I already have a job that I enjoy (most of the time) and am not looking to study my way to career advancement.

However, I do have to work 40 hours a week - my husband and I need both our salaries to pay our mortgage, and while we tried to buy the cheapest thing we could find, if you know anything about Northern VA you know what "cheap" is. I took a couple of semesters at CC to get my AA, and at 2 night classes a semester, I was constantly exhausted and not very pleasant to live with. While I had a high GPA, I know that I did not give the classes my best and did not get out of them as much as I should have.

So I am reticent about going back, because I DO want to get everything out of the experience, but right now I know I cannot. I don't want to get into Dr. Crazy's class and be so tired that I'm just going through the motions. I guess since I've "made my bed" so to speak, I should probably wait until one of us wins the lottery to go back to school full time . . .

I guess I sound a bit bitter, only because I do care about it so much . . . this post just struck a bit of a nerve . . .
Random Kath....

If you are in an economic situation that is stable and your job is not terrible -- why not take one class at a time... maybe even just one class per year to finish your degree?

I'm going to post more about this on my blog... I don't want to have another huge comment here when what I have to say is probably postworthy...
I can generally tell the students who are working 40-hour weeks; they're the ones who simply don't have the time to have done the readings and the homeworks, and therefore regularly fail my classes. No one ever seems to have taken them aside and told them that if they are going for a degree which is something other than a piece of paper, they will be forced to make some decisions on how to spend their time. By the time I figure out what has happened, it's often too late. I feel terrible for them, but I feel very strongly that I'm teaching at the appropriate level and with the appropriate standards.

Of course, this doesn't even get into slack time. Or how long it takes to finish a degree.
And random Kath -- part of my point is that you can get a degree while working -- it's just harder. And lots of profs will cut you some slack -- I've had people bring in xeroxes of work schedules when someone's sick and they've been called in to pull more shifts, etc., and granted extensions. I really do believe that life happens, and in the real world, there are sometimes exceptions. But the exceptions stop when they mean that we are giving unfair advantage or dropping our standards.
One class a semester? That will take *forever*!

Actually, I kid . . . I actaully did look into doing just that for a program that I wanted to get into: taking two classes a semester in the A.S. program at the local CC and then transfering to local, well-regarded U for their B.S./M.A. program. I talked to the head of the head of the program at the CC, and he highly discouraged me from taking only two classes a semester - in fact, he recommended that most people take *6* classes a semster - 4 regular classes (held each night M-TH) and then 2 8 week Saturday classes. That looked like a recipe for misery, so I've had to put that dream on hold, even though I know I love this field and do stay well read in it, and everyone who knows me thinks I would be suited for it . . .

Maybe I just ran into a big jerk who happens to run this particular program, but he's the one who teaches most of the major, important classes and gives the recommendations, so I'm kind of stuck at the moment . . .
Small rabbit trail here: If we want students to not take the easy route, to not focus on education as a means to a job, then perhaps we should stop advertising our schools as a way to get that better paying job. Stop telling everyone the lifetime earnings of College grads versus HS grads, and certainly stop talking about how great we are at placing our students.

And for gosh sakes, let us stop designing curriculum around all of that. let us go back to requiring the classics, requiring significant math courses, and requiring a broad, liberal arts focus.

Engineering and Business be damned--those are trade schools. If we want to teach trades, let us make that something we do after they get a liberal arts education.
I want to respond to HWM's argument that non-traditional ways of teaching (e.g. group work) have a disproportionate impact on "non-traditional" students.

In a sense, I want to validate that comment, since active teaching that requires that the first exposure to class material occur outside of class will force greater tradeoffs with other outside of class demands. But I think it is also indicative of a model of teaching that has created the expectation that students only have to spend 1-3 hours per week preparing outside of class. The heavily lecture based model of pedagogy does create a perverse incentive to not prepare for class since material will be "delivered" there. While this can be a convenient model (for instructors, and for students), it is also one of the worst ways to learn.

On another note, I heart the comment about being the arbiter of excuses, the one about rewarding creative lying and punishing dignity. It was very well said.

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