Culture of Helplessness?

Lori Isbell has a story that I would file under “you can’t make this stuff up”:

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….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.

Isbell relays this story in an article in Insider Higher Ed, under a headline bemoaning the “Culture of Helplessness” among students. It’s a pretty funny story, and she tells it well. I have my own (overflowing) “you can’t make this stuff up” file. From reading her article, though, I think my reaction to these situations leans more toward sympathetic amusement and less toward judgmental irritation.

Her contention is that helplessness is a relatively new problem. After all, back in her student days,

If one wanted to ask a question of a professor in those days — specifically, over the weekend or in the wee hours of the night — it would have required going to her house and doing a tap-tap on the front window.

I find the comparison unfair. We are available to our students (and everyone else) electronically now. Our professors were not. We are available to them, and they ask us things. I say more power to them. Isbell claims that “[e]vidence abounds” of growing helplessness. One element of that evidence is her observation that there is less note-taking now than back in our day. And that students would like to have slides or other lecture resources posted. This difference in behavior from then to now seems rational to me. If we have the darn slide files, why wouldn’t we post them? I don’t think it’s out of line for students to want that.

Isbell cares. I can tell. She wouldn’t feel so pained by the behavior she observes if she didn’t. In her final words in the piece, we see that she is attentive and responsive, despite her misgivings.

I respond to those emails — I respond to every email — returning the ball back over the net and awaiting the next missive. I explain and repeat, reiterate, reaffirm. Yet I wish, as I am typing my fingers into nubs, my students might take their education into their own two hands.

I wish that, too: that the students would take full advantage of the opportunities in front of them. That’s a lot to wish for. Hunter Rawlings, classics professor and former president of Cornell, expressed that idea this way,

Unlike a car, college requires the “buyer” to do most of the work to obtain its value.

Rawlings’ article inspires me. He observes that the responsibility for learning is shared between students and teachers. And that for learning,

you need a professor who provokes and a student who stops slumbering. It is the responsibility of colleges and universities to place students in environments that provide these opportunities. It is the responsibility of students to seize them.

Creating that partnership, and those environments, is one of the glorious challenges of our profession. We can’t throw up our hands, in our own helplessness, when we face that challenge.

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