ActiveHistory.ca repost – The Hubris of Academe, or, “Students Suck”

The editors of ActiveHistory.ca are currently enjoying our annual end of summer hiatus, but we’ll be back with new content in September. During the hiatus, we’re featuring some of our most popular and favourite posts from the past year.  Thanks as always to our writers and readers.

The following post by Elise Chenier was originally featured on September 25, 2017.

There are few moments in life as self-defining as being awarded a PhD. I got mine in 2001 from Queen’s University, one of Canada’s “top” schools. The ceremony required me to kneel before the Chancellor who tapped me once on each shoulder with his mortarboard. It did its magic. When I stood up and crossed that stage, I felt I occupied more space—literally. For the next ten years or so (okay, fifteen) I would occasionally get agitated when people did not give way when I passed them. Such is the hubris of academe.

One of the most disappointing manifestations of such hubris is the lamentation about “students today,” a weed that re-seeds every fall when university professors decry the atrocious behaviour of the hordes of ignorant, lazy, impolite students they are burdened with the task of teaching.

Lynn Crosbie’s contribution to this genre in a 2015 issue of Macleans, which recently made the rounds again in celebration of September, is just one example. Written in the epistolary form, she exhorts her students to sit neither in the front nor the back of the classroom, to refrain from bringing “ham bones and pungent noodles” to lecture, and to “give a thought to arriving prepared, with the syllabus read, and the correct texts in hand.” Just in case students still don’t get just where they stand in relationship to the instructor, we are told:

During the student work, I sit in the back row, draw, mutter, and look irritated: How wonderfully frightened you all look from my place, at the head of a group of strangers I am pushing, slowly and cautiously, toward a unified, politicized and knowledgeable student body.

Her unconventional and erratic teaching style is defended on the grounds that she offers students “their first sweet taste of moving out of mom and dad’s orbit, and they are feeling all of the joy that being very young, poor and free entails.”

I get that the piece exaggerates to be provocative and strives to be funny, but I don’t find it to be either. Like every other “students suck” piece out there, it is mean, insulting, and arrogant, and it misrepresents the vast majority of professors and instructors I have encountered in my professional life.

I have spent most of my career in the History Department at Simon Fraser University. Students are largely from lower to middle-income families and attended a public school in the surrounding region. Many hold down one or more part-time jobs, and often are responsible for the care of family members, and sometimes have children of their own.

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