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Professor admits: My students act like helpless whiners

Lori Isbell, an English professor at Yavapai College, has written in Inside Higher Ed about a phenomenon she has noticed among her pupils. They act like helpless whiners.

Helpless is her word, whiners is mine. But she is too polite to say what I am essentially summarizing for her.

In effect, they either ping her with really dumb questions (really dumb) or blame her for not doing enough to help them, she writes in her piece: “Can’t or Won’t: The Culture of Helplessness.”

[T]he majority of my interactions with students these days — especially via email — are not of the substantive or academic variety but rather banterings about whether an assignment is really due on the due date, or what we did in class last Tuesday if last Tuesday was an exam. I also occasionally receive the late-night rant in which an aggrieved student wants to know why he is failing the class, just because he has submitted a long series of failing papers and/or not submitted the papers at all.

In a shocking turn, she notes her school is now actually forcing her peers to coddle these kids even more!

[M]y college has recently approved a proposal (brought by a student group to the Faculty Senate) that both acknowledges and legitimizes our students’ demands of having access to instructors 24/7. We instructors must now include a pledge in our course syllabi to respond to student emails within 24 hours and to return all graded work (with feedback) in seven days. It seems our campus is formally affirming the danger I spoke of earlier: the shifting of more responsibilities from students to instructors.

One of the most astonishing anecdotes Isbell recounts is that of a student who is so clueless it boggles the mind:

Recently, I received an email from a student asking me the name of a writer — a writer whose book we’d been reading for two weeks. (And discussing in class. And writing about in class.) It was not a textbook, anthology or unusual digital source. It was an old-fashioned printed book containing one play by one writer.

I knew that the student owned the book, because I had seen her with it in class, and in fact, she had told me she was enjoying the reading. However, when it was time for her to do an assignment on the playwright … well, she was stumped. She just didn’t know his name.

I had to explain to her, carefully, and with what I hope was compassion, that if she hadn’t picked up his name in the class discussions so far (or, I was thinking, in the course syllabus and calendar), then she could always try looking on the front cover of the book.

I share this story from my composition course at a midsize community college to make a point about the increasing “helplessness” of our students and their tendency to send emails and text messages of all sorts with the most basic questions about the most obvious matters. It is a helplessness, I believe, that is part feigned and part real, but nevertheless it is a problem that is eroding academe.

Isbell questions the role of technology in this development — young people are used to having things right away with swipes and clicks. But what she completely overlooks is the role helicopter parenting may have played in this.

It becomes like a game of tennis, this batting around of responsibility. We serve an assignment over the net with clear guidelines and expectations, and they either let the ball drop, claiming they somehow weren’t prepared (I didn’t know … You never told me … The assignment sheet didn’t say …) or they question whether the ball was even fair in the first place (Too long! Too hard! Hey, out of bounds!).

The crux of this issue began with parenting way before the iPhone got involved, Professor Isbell.

Read the full piece.

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About the Author
Fix Editor
Jennifer Kabbany is editor-in-chief of The College Fix.