Aliens in a College Culture

In Paragraph City, we have been discussing issuing a rule book to incoming students, largely because they seem to come from a society which operates on foreign traditions — that is, foreign to we who dwell in higher ed — and it seems only fair to spell out our culture’s rules. It’s much like any travel to a place of unexpected customs: they behave in a way we see is weird and illogical, and no doubt these academic tourists think we are arbitrary and bizarre.

So for instance, those fresh off the Royal Caribbean merchantman docked at ParagraphCity’s admissions office are likely to follow traditions such as these:

  • All regulations, policies, requirements, and mandates are actually suggestions, with a few exceptions. Those exceptions can be determined by violating any “requirement” and measuring the response. The first violation of such requirements will always be overlooked.  If you are met with repeated insistence that some activity is “mandatory,” you may properly suspect that eventually you will need to comply.
  • All information from a college instructor is inferior to information previously learned in elementary and high school. The longer you have held onto something taught, the more inviolate it is.
  • Teachers of every level never mean literally what they say. It’s all open to interpretation. The best recipe for truth is to mix the statement of a professor with equal parts of what you want to be true and what has always worked for you in high school and elementary school.

What I find fascinating about these traditions is how self-sustaining they are. In the face of them, for example, our notion of a rule book becomes perfectly impotent. There is no piece of guidance you could put there that wouldn’t be nullified by “Profs never really mean what they say” or “Every requirement is a suggestion.”

So for example, recently in a writing course on the first day of class I had each student exchange contact information with two other students. If they missed class, they could contact one or both and find out what had happened. My guideline was the familiar “you are required to know what occurs and what is taught in class, even classes which you do not attend,” and considering classes were over three hours long, that could be a lot. One student missed a class to attend a reunion; we knew it ahead of time and I told him what we expected to do, but during class students asked for a major modification of an assignment and it struck me as a great idea, so we changed it. The missing student, of course, never contacted other students (or me) following the missed class, submitted the original assignment, was penalized for missing elements, and blamed me for pulling a dirty trick on him, the dirty trick being that I had meant what I said.

I had a similar experience recently with a plagiarist who took his case to my dean, explaining what he took to be a perfectly reasonable complaint: that this was the first time he had plagiarized paragraphs in a paper. According to his tradition, he deserved a second chance. My dean, steeped in a culture which maintains that we should try to be truthful with students, accepted that my policy of immediately failing plagiarists was reasonable. His message: it’s the student who needed to comply with my course policies, and not the other way around.

Of course, there are a hundred smaller ways students hang onto these traditions, ways that don’t result in significant penalties, with the result that the college culture slowly wears away the old traditions and draws students into the new ones.

For example, take a look at my writing classes. Within the first few lessons I mention the importance of titles in essays: that they are more than labels but work with the first sentence or two to pique the reader’s curiosity about the topic and hopefully the thesis of a paper. “A paper is unfinished without a title,” I always say.  About half the first papers come in without titles. I reiterate; we look at examples from the first papers. The second essays run about 70% with titles and the third essays about 85%.  At that point, I’ll find a moment before or after class to have a word with that fifteen percent (whose papers were unacceptable without titles), and the most common remark is, “But I never had to use titles before.” It’s always said as if it is perfectly reasonable and logical, the way we would speak about any cultural tradition that we still have a firm grip on.

So we have trashed the idea of a universal rule book, but we have asked Bedeckers to visit ParagraphCity and see what they might recommend. For now, we will stick with syllabi, but I do find it enormously helpful to think of students being from a foreign land, struggling to shed the behaviors of the old country.

“Really, it’s that important that I was 400 words over that 800 word limit?”

“So no, I didn’t use the drop box, but I texted it to you and you still got it. Didn’t you?”

“What do you mean ‘Who’s Ed?’ That’s the guy that wrote the story, right? Ed. Edgar. Eddie. Whatever. Ed Poe.”

Not lunatics or rebels, I calmly tell my colleagues. Just visitors from an alien culture. It’s why I believe faculty should read more science fiction.






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