I was taking an introductory course within the Advertising Department last semester when the professor of our small class asked us to name some attributes that set physical magazines apart from their e-reader counterparts.
“They’re tangible,” one classmate mused.
“Very good,” the professor responded.
“You can hold them in your hands,” another student called out.
“Very good,” the professor repeated, to my absolute confusion.
It’s hard not to notice when gilding starts to chip. It’s even harder still not to begin picking off the facade myself when I see it happening. I was starting to get the feeling that my peers weren’t taking their courses seriously and that our professors weren’t taking us seriously. My suspicions weighed on me in a manner that demanded investigation.
So, I started small. During a lecture in one of my major courses, my friend and I would look up the terms my professor defined in her slides. Without fail, each and every definition was ripped from Wikipedia. In a previous semester, I turned in a video project that could be objectively described as terrible work. I received an “A” and a written review from my TA calling it – and I swear this is true – “fun to wacth.” I’m not one to bite the hand that feeds me, so I held my tongue in the hope that this was just a fluke.
When the behavior of my teachers wasn’t shocking me, it was the behavior of my peers. People would show up to class in their pajamas. Others would spend the entire class on their phones. Even I would do it. The temptation was too great to pass up. It didn’t exactly feel right, but it’s hard to complain about getting hit with kid gloves. Some students enjoy sustaining themselves, while more advanced students enjoy a comfortable ride. Everybody wins, as long as you don’t focus on the working world.
As a result, class discussions became dominated by colorful personalities who had no idea what they were talking about. I’ve lost count of how many times a comment was preempted with, “I didn’t do the readings last night, but I think…” The worst part is that many of my professors depended on these students. They were the last line of defense against utter silence. But is a bad discussion really better than no discussion at all?
I’m not suggesting that these students be chastised, but when a regular commenter answers every question by standing and turning around to address the entire class so they can try out three minutes of what I could only guess is a club comic’s awful stand-up routine, perhaps a professor should reconsider the conduct of the discussion.
In lectures, it became a general practice to copy notes from a slide and tune out until the next one came up. It offered two benefits: my grade never suffered and I could live-tweet how stupid my classmates were. On the other hand, I was learning very little and my Twitter presence was becoming annoying.
I was succumbing to an environment that did not demand excellence. It barely encouraged it. This wasn’t always the case. I had a handful of professors who were engaging, smart and expected your best work. They challenged students to forgo apathy or risk failure. The results spoke for themselves. Grades were earned and knowledge was retained. Classroom discussions became a melting pot of valid comments overshadowing the invalid.
I was grateful for these experiences, but they were often fleeting. When a good class ended, two bad ones took its place. During these times, I felt outnumbered and hopeless. It’s not a good feeling to have in a day and age that frequently calls to question whether or not a degree is a sound investment. So I began speaking to friends, acquaintances, and peers to see if anyone else felt this way. Unsurprisingly, many did.
Taylor Plunkett-Clements, a senior media studies and production major, claimed the problem was adjunct professors. She said many of them are wet behind the ears and don’t know exactly what they were doing. She also said that they have a more informal attitude toward running class. It’s her opinion that many adjuncts have a misplaced sympathy for their students and intentionally give them a light workload or easily achievable goals in a class.
Almost everyone I spoke to at least partially attributed a mediocre class environment to the herd mentality of their peers. As I had noticed before, many experienced a lack of motivation to speak up in class, because few of their classmates ever did. Keira Campbell, a junior MSP major, suggested that when discussions were dominated by the same handful of students, she felt embarrassed for putting forth more effort than necessary.
Kim Selig, a sophomore marketing major at Fox, complained her classmates paid more attention to their phones than their professors. Ally Sabatina, a freshman political science and philosophy double major, expressed concern at her peers’ general indifference toward subject matter she found exciting.
It seems to be the general sentiment that an unmotivated and unskilled peer group poisons the well. There’s a comfort in apathy and you feel like a sucker for expressing anything different. Why put in your best work when the bare minimum will earn you the same grade? It’s high school gym all over again.
Many professors aren’t ignorant to these concerns. I later spoke to Kristine Weatherston, an assistant professor in the MSP department, because she is recognized by her students as an effective professor. She expects good work and gives meaningful assignments.
“Cs get degrees, but skills and strong portfolio pieces get jobs,” she told me in an email.
It’s a comforting sentiment, one that I’m sure is reflective of much of the faculty. But it’s often hard to tell if the student body can match that ratio.
So the question boils down to this: is our school failing us or are we failing ourselves? It may be an uninspired answer, but it’s a little of both. Wood will only ever float to the level the water rises. Professors need to challenge us more, either by being more engaging or by putting the fear of God in us of failing.
Alternately, we need to start challenging ourselves and each other. Class discussions should be impassioned debates, backed by fact and moderated by expertise. Curriculum should be diverse and unique to every professor, highlighting the subjects they specialize in rather than offering vague introductions to vast concepts. Ultimately, we all need to hold ourselves to a higher standard. An accredited university has no business appealing to the lowest common denominator. We can do better. We can all do better.
Ian Fletcher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.