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Can the Humanities Be Saved?

The university’s core mission has been corrupted by pedagogical and political orthodoxy.

by
Janice Fiamengo

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April 22, 2012 - 12:00 am
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When I finally landed a tenure-track position at a Canadian university, I was ecstatic and full of hope — exhilarated by the opportunity to teach students about literature and ideas and to have conversations with colleagues equally in love with literature and ideas. I didn’t realize that my experience as a university teacher of English would have much less to do with these passions than with the distortion of the university’s core mission in the name of pedagogical and political orthodoxy.

To begin with, the student writing that came across my desk left me aghast. I had taught before, but I was unprepared for the level of illiteracy, the stunted vocabularies, near-complete absence of historical knowledge, and above all the extraordinary apathy of many English majors. The most basic of expression rules — the difference between it’s and its, the incorrectness of “would of” for “would have,” the role of the apostrophe or semi-colon, the fact that “a lot” was two words — were beyond the grasp of the majority, no matter how often I reviewed grammar or devised mnemonic devices. And the sheer sloppiness and muddled thinking in the essays, where the titles of poems and authors’ names were frequently misspelled and dates were wildly inaccurate, suggested a fundamental indifference to the subject matter.

Not only was my students’ writing appalling, but I soon encountered their resentment at being told about it. “Who are you to tell me I can’t write?” was the attitude — once expressed in those very words. More than one student insisted that her other teachers had always rewarded her with high marks for her “creativity.” Most believed themselves more than competent. After sitting with one young woman explaining the cause of her failing grade, I was befuddled when her only response was a sullen: “This doesn’t exactly make me feel good.” When I responded that my job was not to make her feel good, she stood haughtily, picked up her paper with an air of injury, and left my office without another word. In her mind, I later realized, I had been unforgivably cruel.

I was up against it: the attitude of entitlement rampant amongst university students and nurtured by the utopian ideology that permeates modern pedagogy, in which the imposition of rules and identification of errors are thought to limit student creativity and the fostering of a hollow self-esteem takes precedence over the building of skills on which genuine self-respect might be established. In the Humanities subjects in particular — and in English especially, the discipline I know best — such a philosophy has led to a perilous watering down of course content, with self-validation seen as more important than the mastery of specific knowledge.

With this philosophy has come a steady grade inflation. The majority of students in English courses today can expect a B grade or higher merely for warming a seat and handing in assignments on time. The result, as I soon discovered, was a generation of students so accustomed to being praised for their work that when I told them it was inadequate, they simply could not or would not believe me. They seemed very nearly unteachable: lacking not only the essential skills but also the personal gumption to respond adequately to criticism.

When I mentioned my dismay to fellow teachers, a number were sympathetic, sharing stories of student resistance and unwarranted smugness. One told me of her humiliation at being hauled before the department head by a posse of disgruntled students who alleged that the grades she had awarded were at least 5% lower than their average, and must therefore be raised to correspond with their accustomed level. Rather than laughing them out of his office, the department chair undertook to investigate the matter, informing the instructor that if the allegation was found to be correct, her marks would have to be revised. In the end, the case was not as straightforward as the students had claimed and my colleague’s marks were allowed to stand, but the damage to her sense of authority — and the outrageous notion that a professor’s marking could be determined by precedent and forcibly harmonized with previous grades, regardless of quality — had already taken effect.

Other professors with whom I spoke were not so sympathetic. They stressed the personal challenges students faced at university, the need to consider so-called alternative pedagogies to pique student interest. In other words, the problem was mine if students did not “feel good.”

One colleague suggested — when I complained that not a single student had read the assigned novel on the day we were to begin discussing it — that I should show a film on a related subject for a change of pace. At a professional teaching workshop designed to re-ignite one’s teaching passion, I was told that group discussion need not be stymied by the fact that students came to class unprepared; a student who had done the assigned reading could explain the reading to the others in the group so that all could participate and benefit. The message was clear enough: being hip and cheerful and expecting little and demanding nothing were the keys to happy classroom encounters. And student happiness — not commitment to the subject — was unquestionably the goal.

As Mark Steyn analyzed in his recent book on the decline of America, the emphasis on a vacuous therapeutic empowerment of the student body has led to a drastic lowering of expectations in North American post-secondary institutions. Students now read less than ever before for their courses, and professors are under increasing pressure to evaluate students in non-traditional ways (i.e., outside of tests and essays). The burgeoning number of students who register with a disability complicates evaluation: teachers are expected to accommodate invisible learning problems — their nature undisclosed due to privacy considerations — which mandate that they provide extra time on in-class tests, refrain from imposing late penalties, provide their lecture notes to students, or allow them to write exams on a word processor. The emphasis in hiring decisions on student evaluations of teachers — see, for example, the public website “Rate My Professor,” in which students’ often crass assessments are posted for all to see (“She’s hot!” “His voice puts you to sleep”) — makes it increasingly attractive to instructors to earn popularity, or at least to avoid attack, by giving high grades and making their courses fun rather than demanding.

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