Students complain a lot. This is neither surprising nor new. Students complaining about their classes is like adults complaining about their jobs; it's something everyone does no matter how good or badly they have it. George Carlin said there was a club for people who hate their jobs – it's called Everyone and it meets at The Bar.
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Replace people with students and jobs with classes and that's what it's like to work in education. You learn not to take it too seriously. Bitching and moaning is just part of what students do. It's not personal.

In the last two or three years, however, I've heard a brand new complaint with alarming frequency. I'm used to the traditional student gripes – the class is too hard, my grade sucks because you're a bad teacher, this class isn't interesting, etc etc – and I pay them little mind as long as I know I am doing my best in the classroom and the class as a whole is performing well. When I changed universities in 2012, though, I noticed a marked increase in complaints about the workload. In fact during my first semester I assigned Mark Twain's short story "Cannibalism in the Cars," figuring it would offer an enjoyable alternative to the extremely dry introductory readings on Congress. The students told me, when it became apparent that they got nothing from it, that it was just too long. In 12 point font with 1.5 spacing, the PDF was nine pages. I thought they were messing with me until one student helpfully offered, "We have the attention span of goldfish." This is a true story. I appreciated his honesty.

To be blunt, I went many years without hearing this gripe because my classes don't require an extraordinary amount of work. In my intro American government class, for example, I do what almost everyone else on the planet does: one textbook chapter per week. Gentle reader, this is not a lot of reading. Intro textbooks are basically formatted like teen magazines or popular websites these days. A chapter is about 25-30 pages. A good portion of that is not text (pictures, graphs, charts, and other visuals). It takes me about 20 minutes to read; for someone reading very slowly and carefully due to unfamiliarity with the concepts it might take 45. This is the total reading load for seven days. As my colleague is fond of saying, "The only way to assign less reading would be to assign none."

That is true, yet the students' complaints get louder every semester – there's too much reading. The underlying problem here has been studied both empirically and anecdotally by anyone who has been in a classroom in the last 15 years. An alarming portion of the students who enter college classrooms apparently have not read…anything, really. I have serious, well-founded doubts as to whether some of the students I deal with have ever read a book. I know for a painful fact that most of them read no news. At best they look at headlines. Essentially anything longer than a tweet or a Facebook status update is too long.
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Any video longer than about 3 minutes – the average Youtube clip – is also incomprehensible. This is the first generation of college students who were raised on both the internet and wireless devices, and it is absolutely goddamn staggering how poorly they are able to focus on anything. Anything at all, be it educational or entertaining. Open a textbook in front of them and their attention is drifting off to their smartphones before the end of the first page.

It's revealing to walk through the library in the evening, particularly during the busiest exam weeks of the semester. Every single student has a book open in front of them, and every single student is looking and pecking away at their phone. I am starting to think that these students think that if the book is open near them it counts as "reading." When I ask students who express concern about their grades how much they study, their answers make me wonder what portion of the time they report consisted of sitting in front of an open book watching TV, dicking around on the internet, or talking to their friends.

I know that every generation of teachers cries that the sky is falling because of The Kids These Days, but in barely a month I've had a parade of students through my office telling me that there's just too much reading (There isn't) or the reading is indecipherable (Intro textbooks are basically written at an 8th grade level). While these students are not illiterate, obviously, I really doubt that some of them are capable of sitting down and reading a chapter in a textbook. Those of you who do not deal with teenagers in this environment probably think I'm kidding or exaggerating, but it is becoming frighteningly obvious to those of us who do that these kids are leaving high school without the ability to focus on anything long enough to read a novel, a textbook chapter, or even a decently incisive magazine/website article.

When I really want to freak myself out, I remember that as a professor at an expensive private school my students are probably better than most. God help us all.

68 thoughts on “LENGTHY”

  • My younger graduated HS last spring. She can certainly read well, but generally does not. I ragged on her for not reading most of her assigned English books, but somehow she was able to bluff her way through with Cliff Notes etc. and make decent grades. I'm pretty sure kids were generally not interested in Dostoevsky when I was in HS and generally did not read assigned material then either. I tend to think a lot of not particularly interested in academics type kids are being pushed into college by the EIC and of course the lack of jobs available to the "lesser educated". Given my SCL History grad at the local state school older kid just quit her job at Red Lobster 'cos the hours / pay weren't worth the trouble, I'm starting to wonder when the majority of kids are going to wake up to the fact that a BA in most fields is just not worth the money you'll have to borrow to pay for it.

  • Ask more of the little darlings. If you give people a sweet deal, they will bitch about the high price and try to get you to lower it. If you make them pay more, they will reverse-engineer the value and consider high price a great deal. Their judgment is strictly based on how they feel and has nothing to do with the work. On a street corner, you can sell an egg for a dollar but you can't give it away. Make them pay.

  • Ladiesbane has it partly right. Ask more. But not to get them to bargain for less. Teach to the kids who are there to learn.

    Although it is possible that 50-75% of your students are complete slugs, it also ought to be true that 10-25% of them (and maybe more) are eager to be pushed and to learn. Teach to them. They will appreciate it. And the others will sink or swim.

    My middle child is a freshman at an eastern lib arts school with an intended major of Health Policy Studies while also completing pre-med requirements. The required book list for his Int'l Politics and Freshman Seminar courses (Seminar is a requirement for all incoming freshman at his school) was no less than ten books. Some were short–100-150 pages–and others were longer. He is in the library reading for a couple of hours at least four nights a week. And as far as I can tell, he is loving it.

    While your classes might not be filled with kids like my son (and I know for a fact that my son's classes are not filled with kids like him), there are a few like him there. Teach to them. You will find your job infinitely more satisfying if you do.

  • Joshua beat me to it in the smart remarks category.

    From Ed's post it seems we're heading in the direction the plutocrats want, even if crediting them with total control may be going to far. We've been prey to a system that for almost a century has profited from serving the common denominator, indulging Americans in their laziness, making them feel good and "smart" through systematized flattery through clever gadgets with less and less content, a series of fun-house mirrors whereby we are made to seem brighter and better-looking and better off than we are. Every retailer knows that you can't make money challenging the American people to use their minds; reflexes, maybe, but not the slower mental processes of cognition and deliberation and reasoning.

    I think Huffington Post has an article that relates. It certainly relates to my paranoia.


    Ed and others of you probably know all about Mike Pence's initiatives.
    If I knew where J.B.S. Doghouse Reilly was buried I'd want to throw rose petals on his grave.

  • My oldest is now a sophomore in college. When he was in high school but still too young to drive, he took an evening course at a community college, and three nights a week, I found myself (the person with the driver's license) killing time in the hallway lobby. Since I am An Old, I used the time to catch up on my reading-for-pleasure, and since I am A Cheap, usually it was a library book in my hands. Most days the waiting was frustrating, because there was an English class that met right after my son's class, and invariably there'd be a gaggle of young adults hanging out in the lobby complaining about the workload assigned in this English class. One Darling Snowflake once complained for a full 40-some minutes about being expected to read a FOUR-PAGE short story.

    It occurred to me that the time she spent whining that she couldn't possibly find the time to read four pages…could have been better spent simply reading the four pages. Heck, even ten minutes *skimming* the four pages would have put her ahead of the game because she'd at least have cursory knowledge of what the story was about.

    It was a great relief to me on the days when the precious darlings spent all their time tapping and swiping away on their smartphones, because at least they were quiet.

  • A short story, huh? And they can't handle it? And Twain….you can't complain about Twain, he's jam for tea.

    I was one of the unusual ones at university – I not only read all the required reading but read other stuff all around it. The minimum requirements were very easy to meet. I made a point of referencing several other books not on the reading list in every essay I wrote.

    But that's because I had decided I was bright but ignorant, and I wanted to cease being ignorant. I am pleased to report that the level of my ignorance diminished somewhat as a result.

    The attention span thing is a real issue: I know for a fact that I, who love reading, am consuming information in ever smaller bites. I know my capacity for sustained concentration is a little less than it was when I was younger. I feel almost proud that I am currently near the end of a 1000 page novel. Didn't know I still had it in me. Growing up entirely in the internet/smartphone age could be a real problem here.

    Another problem is that finding good and elegant writing is getting harder. Some of the blockbuster science/current affairs tomes of recent years have displayed shit writing. There have been many books on subjects I like that I have just given up on because of the poor writing.

    If I were teaching I might try to introduce my students to short pieces of exquisite prose, just to show them that reading can be pure joy.

    But I could never be a teacher: I would totally ignore those who were drifting and bumming, and I would struggle with the stupid. I would end up teaching to the three or four good students in the class, and then I'd get fired.

    I'm gunna go and look up that Twain short story now.

  • I'll own this: I graduated high school in 2003, and I somehow managed an A in AP English despite the fact that I only actually read one of the assigned novels (All Quiet on the Western Front). After that, I realized that if the motivation was getting information out of the book, I was doing so inefficiently – the test on said novel revolved around the significance of the title, things that happened in roughly the first chapter and a half, and the eventual ending of the book. When my classmates and I asked about the sex scene (I attended a Catholic high school and so "you get to read a book that includes explicit boinking" was not a thing any of us expected) the teacher's mouth dropped open – the version of the book he had didn't have that scene and no one else had bothered to read the book before. So there was just no point in it for us anymore. It was clear you COULD pass the class without reading, so why bother?

    As university teaching faculty now, I am learning that one of the things I have to teach is how to get shit done – reading, coding, studying – because otherwise students just don't know how (and I'm at an R1 university, we've nominally got "really good" students). My fellow faculty are like "RAWR KIDS THESE DAYS" and just keep teaching the way they have been, so I don't know if I'm now the one putting too much effort into things…

  • I can confirm, from an anecdotal point of view, that I maybe read 5 books prior to leaving high school. Even through college I maybe read 20 more books. And I would be considered relatively 'driven' and 'smart'…so I can only imagine what the bookshelves of the more challenged students look like.

    Now I try to read a book every two weeks, to try to make up for all this lost time. My key was finding books that I really enjoy reading (non-fiction), but it would be nice to find what that key is for the younger generation. If there is no key, then we're truly in a full sprint towards the bottom.

  • Judging by the crowds at "Harry Potter" release parties at book stores, there should be a few students loose who aren't afraid of reading…

  • Both my boys (aged 19 and 17) are huge readers, and even prefer actual books to reading on their Kindles. So there are some out there.

    As much as I'm generally not a fan of blaming parents for their children, it does make me wonder – I read to my kids well after they were capable of reading for themselves and although I don't read as much as I used to (I knit as well, and can't do both at once) our house is full of books. I know plenty of people my age who don't read so maybe the kids weren't read to much either.

    My eldest is at a private liberal arts hippie school outside Asheville, NC and still reads for pleasure, as well as for school.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    I'm sorry, Ed, but your post was too long for the younger folks.

    Can't you just scream and punch at the clouds?

  • I've been a heavy reader since I was a kid. I'm almost 50 now. I went to a local state college in the 80's and ended up flunking out because the classes were so boring I skipped them constantly. It would have been cool to be challenged a bit more back then.

  • My mother is a classical piano teacher. As many of you may know, the amount of sustained concentration and discipline required to learn classical music is pretty extreme for any generation. You simply cannot learn the piano (or any other classical instrument) without intense concentration.

    And, true to Ed's post here, within the last few years, she notes that her students have largely lost the ability to concentrate on anything at all for extended periods of time. It is endemic, and is definitely a generational thing. This has had extremely negative effects on their ability to progress on the instrument at all, to correct mistakes, to memorize lengthy pieces, etc. Every time I speak to her, she complains about it. It's sad, really.

    I routinely credit my upbringing in classical music to my ability to concentrate while reading extremely dense philosophical or historical texts. You don't get through Kant or Heidegger while poking around on your cell phone.

  • As long as they're smart enough to punch the colored buttons on the cash register at McDonald's or lace up their boots in Bumfuckistan, the corporatocracy will consider them "educated" enough. Having them reading and, God forbid, thinking will only muck things up. Mission Accomplished!

  • This is why you generally don't see secretaries under 35 anymore. We've tried to hire young adults and they just don't have the attention span to enter time sheets (takes 10 minutes if you're slow), format documents, create tables, make and bind copies, or even just learn how our digital document system works.

    We gave up after the third try. That woman would take out her phone and start playing with it while I was explaining how to do things. I finally flat told her to put the phone down and she said, "This is boring. I can't pay attention to it."

  • It's hard to make a transition between being babysat to taking what you do seriously enough to even go through motions as most people do at their jobs.

    For me I feel embarrassed at how much stuff I half-assed by I generally had about 200 pages of reading for a lot of my classes and those were mostly academic press history books that are almost all text, not shiny textbooks.

  • There really is something going on in the lower education curricula. A friend from HS, posted an issue he was having with his 4th grader's math homework and this new fangled math. Dude it just did my head to look at what she has to go through to solve a simple arithmetic problem.

    Whatever it is, it's like the "Whole Language" approach to reading and writing. Why can't kids read and write well?* Whole language getting rid of the foundational building blocks of written language and grammar.

    Found this, it's 15min, skip to the last 3min where the presenter makes her point about "kids today" being unable to compute the most simple equations in their heads and the why.

  • Forgot my footnote:
    *I'm aware that there's more nuance to it than this, but Whole Language is the antivax of education. As for opposition to "kill and drill" phonetics, Dr. Seuss! Your argument is invalid.

  • It does work both ways. Jobs have been Taylorized ("engineered") and whittled down to the point where only rote behavior and thought is required. There is a reason many jobs are "boring"…because they ARE. They have been designed to be.

  • Your privileged students have been told from birth that they are exceptional. No one has ever been allowed to contradict that tenet throughout their academic life.

    Besides, in future they'll hire people to read and write for them and do all that other monkey work. No need to be bothered with that now.

  • I thought I read a while back that there has actually been an increase in students choosing to major in English over the last 5-10 years?

  • I totally agree with Ed, but a lot of this problem (not reading, short attention spans) has to be blamed on the parents.

    When our kids were little, bedtime was reading time. When they were too little to read, we read to them for half an hour or so. When they learning to read, bedtime was reading time. Every night.

    So now they are 23 and they still have pretty short attentions spans, but they also blow through dozens of novels every year. Parents have to install a love of reading and teachers have to make reading fun (admittedly a challenge with all of the changes going on in the schools these days.)


  • If you haven't read Twain's story or have forgotten it (as I did) it's online and free:


    I could imagine college freshmen not getting the point of the story, nor in particular of it being assigned reading. Do they even know the protocols of the legislative process? Probably they haven't ever seen clips of the Senate in session on the evening news (with its ads for Cialis and Boneva). And shouldn't there be a Young Adult translation of Twain's 19th c. prose? Long is when you're not having fun.

  • It can't be as simple as just smartphones/electronic gadgets. My 26-year-old daughter was not particularly interested in books as a child, despite the fact that my husband and I are both wide readers and have a houseful of books. And this was years before cell phones were ubiquitous. She has turned out to be a late bloomer — reads a lot now, has gone back to grad school and seems genuinely inspired and enthusiastic about her studies. Was it the child care? Did I not read to her enough? Was it something in the water?
    Meanwhile I just have to say that I am up to page 400 in Piketty — but it takes me so long I have to keep returning the book to the library and going back on the waiting list…

  • Nancy the math teacher says:

    "I remember that as a professor at an expensive private school my students are probably better than most"

    I think this may be a false assumption.

  • If you only read the parts of The Teacher Wars that deal with NCLB and subsequent Value-added evals you will understand what has been going wrong for the last 15 years, wrong in an already wrong system.

  • I don't remember how many chapters I was assigned each week in college (seems to be more than one), but I do remember always looking at said chapter and realizing I could breeze through it in minutes and always putting off the reading until the night before class. But then, I was a reader from the moment I learned to read. We also only had one black and white TV in the house. Those were the ancient days of yore. Who knows what I would be like now–although if I had the same mother, I wouldn't have been given a mobile phone at all–would have had to wait until I got a job that could pay for such a gadget.

  • Information today are more dense. People expect more information per unit of attention than ever before. They get bored because they can't slow down. It's not that they can't pay attention, it's that universities haven't sped up to meet their speed.

  • So what’s the difference between the illiterate, the functionally literate, and those who can read but don’t? Not much. The live social experiment running since the onset of the Media Age is now manifesting in people whose brains have been retrained away from the printed (or pixilated) word to the image, and to a lesser degree, back toward the oral tradition. It’s not merely a matter of laziness or motivation. These people are as profoundly unable to penetrate beyond the surface of text as someone trying to read hieroglyphics or cuneiform.

    Smartphones are perhaps the worst distraction device known to man, and screenheads are buried in them 24/7/365. The modest literacy required to use their functions in no way prepares a person to gather, interpret, and synthesize information to become educated accordingly to the modern university model.

    Now days when someone complains that Johnnie can’t read, it’s just as true at the university as in the general population. I don’t see the brain drain abating anytime soon, and the full range of follow-on effects are as yet unknown. Bitching and moaning that students won’t do their homework (can’t is more like it) or that the Powers That Be prefer the masses kept dumbed down is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

  • Your last paragraph causes everything to make sense.

    It's not the kids these days, Ed. It's the boss.

    I'm a corporate whore. My job involves a good deal of technical knowledge, both giving instructions to more knowledgeable people on what to do, and summarizing the knowledge for less knowledgeable people.

    I spend way too much time in powerpoint. And gods would I be more productive if I could just write a document that outlines what I'm trying to say. But no, I have to make sure everything is bullet-pointed. Each point cannot have a line break, it has to fit on one line, because that's too much information. Charts need to be simplified and not too complicated. Everything needs to be distilled into the easiest-to-undertand format. And there's even a movement to stop using powerpoint and start using web apps, because powerpoint is "too much like reading".

    So it makes perfect sense that an expensive private school will have students who are not used to reading and processing information. The more expensive the suit, the more grand the title, the bigger the office, the more time and energy I have to put into making everything simpler to understand.

    The system is working exactly as it should. These kids are being trained that smarter people with lower salaries will distill information for them for the rest of their lives. Reading and understanding shit is now a sign of the lower classes.

  • It's not just reading. I recently took the Southwest Chief from Albuquerque to Los Angeles. East of Gallup there was a spectacular show. A Thunderstorm was breaking up, the sun was in and out of the clouds, mesas shrouded in mist, lightning. Really beautiful. I looked around the observation car. No one was paying attention. Everyone either had their faces buried in a laptop screen or was busy pecking away at some hand held gizmo.

  • @Karl: Thank you for the reminder that I'm really a scribe, interpreting concepts and ideas in the written word so that those who run things can grasp the facts–just like in the Middle Ages.

    @Ed: this is a relief to read. We're doing a better job of teaching than I sometimes fear.

    My kid, who is a 9th grader, is taking an AP course using (probably) the same text you assign. She needs about a week, of 45 minute sessions, to read a chapter; this is largely due to her limited vocabulary (month 13 post-hearing aids, and improving all the time, but words she had to get help on included 'contraceptive', 'diffusion' and 'subjugated'.)

    The text is designed to appeal to the modern student, in that it's colorful, flashy & full of visual representations of the information. These are distractions from the concepts and ideas she needs to integrate in order to understand more complex material, so she's set up a shield that blocks it all out to focus more readily. As far as we can tell from the written tests & interviewing the student, she seems to be getting it.

    But I'm concerned that we are educating her to be unfit for today's colleges. It would never occur to her is to complain about how LENGTHY and DIFFICULT the reading is: she goes to school to learn things. Things she does not already know. It is impossible for her to understand the HS students she knows who sit & play with their phones during down time; she assumes, erroneously, that they must be a lot smarter than she is, else they would be studying.

    This may be the socialization gap we were warned about.

  • Regarding "The Cannibalism in the Cars," you could try asking them to listen to a free podcast of someone reading the story, although if they don't want to spend ~30 minutes with no more exertion than listening, even if it is to a guy with a hilariously pretentious accent reading aloud (and for free!), I don't know what to tell you.

  • It's not just the kids today — in a meeting I was running my soon to be retiring boss was playing angry birds on one side of me while a co-worker did a sudoku on the other side. But everyone is 'so busy' these days.

    America needs a good Cultural Revolution to shake things up.

  • Karl –

    Bertie Wooster & Jeeves, eh?

    These kids are being trained that smarter people with lower salaries will distill information for them for the rest of their lives. Reading and understanding shit is now a sign of the lower classes.

  • Seconding Ed and lots of others here. I've taught for decades (biology), and in the last five years or so there's been a marked change. The students have, by and large, not all of them, lost the ability to focus. Which means they've lost the ability to understand or to think their way out of a paper bag.

    And, no, this is not just Kids These Days. I've been old enough to be saying Kids These Days for quite a while. This is a new problem, and different from kids being glued to transistor radios or trashy books or TVs or even gaming consoles. So much so that I've really been wondering what's going to happen when they start working.

    Amaryllis answered that upthread. They won't.


    I see No Child Left Behind as being some of the cause, in addition to the social media addiction. One of the crucial nuggets in that is that teachers get judged by how their students do. Since no teacher has that level of control over student performance, the simple solution has got to be to just basically give students the answers and call it a day. (Excuse me. Give students the "study guides.") I think maybe in their short lives the kids have already learned that if they complain, the teacher will make it ever-easier. Until NCLB catches up to college, that's their first experience of standards they have to meet if they want to pass.

    I'm just guessing on the influence of NCLB. I haven't seen any studies confirming that. (Be hard to do. Who'd admit to teaching totally to the test?) But it seems to fit the patterns I'm seeing.

  • Emerson Dameron says:

    I read TONS of books in college, mostly for pleasure, and I wasn't a great student by most lights. I still read a lot, much of it on the internet – this, for example.

    The #longreads movement was easy to mock, and yet, I think there's an opportunity there. Most existing e-learning strategies apparently predate Kurt Cobain's suicide. Someone could crush it with some innovative ninja disruption.

    Wait a second. [Scrolls up.] Mark Twain? THAT Mark Twain? Sweet Satan, we are all fucked.

  • Phoenician in a time of Romans says:

    I have to wonder what would happen if you tailored your course to the last date for dropping it

    i.e. if that date is D-DAY, then run a schedule as such at the start of the semester:

    START : Announce a heavy reading schedule with a tough test very early on:
    FIRST COUPLE OF WEEKS: Teach, with continued instructions on where they should be in assigned reading based on actually putting some effort in.
    D-DAY – 7: Administer test based SOLELY on assigned reading
    D-DAY – 3: Tests returned, with instructions on how to drop the course if they want

  • My Truth Hurts says:

    I am a very avid reader. My problem in high school and college was that I was rarely interested in the assigned readings. So it wasn't quantity or even quality, I enjoyed and easily read Shakespeare for example and much easier than my fellow students, it was lack of interest. I devoured history texts and science fiction, in fact I still do, but some of the so called "classics" were stuffy and boring and some of it like say the Scarlet Pimpernel were nothing more than 150 year old soap operas. Classes and assignments and tests were a game. If you knew what to study for the Cliff's Notes were almost always enough.

    Once I finally graduated from college I was relieved that for the rest of my life my reading list was my own to make up and I could pursue and study what I wanted at my own pace.

  • @quixote; ah, the trashy novel! When I was a kid back in the 1970s, the public library would excess old books at the beginning of summer, and you could get paperbacks for a nickel or so. In the days before cable tv, kids would load up on a dollar's worth of books and trade them all summer. I remember my parents being annoyed at the Dark Shadows and Partridge Family novels and calling them trash…but at least we were reading, which meant focusing our attention and using our imagination for an hour or more at a time. On hot summer days when the house had no air conditioning and it was too sticky and humid to move around, it was an entertaining way to spend an afternoon.

  • On the topic of dumbing down; in my house, we've subscribed to Consumer Reports for a number of years. Our renewal notice came with the latest magazine, and we won't be re-subscribing. They've undergone a redesign and the layout has been dumbed-down to preschool levels; it's all flashy pictures and big letters and much less room for, you know, actual data. If I wanted "Pat the Bunny," I'd dig it out of one of the kids' closets.

  • @Phoenician:

    You don't understand. Your scheme would result in effectively ALL the students dropping the class. Then Ed would get fired.

    The problem is that today's college students simply can't handle college level work. So, either you:

    * Dumb down the class to something they can handle (often literally elementary school,)

    * Insist on college-level work, and get fired, or

    * Pull some magic out of your ass.

    I remember I once assigned a magazine article for my class to read. They absolutely FLIPPED THE FUCK OUT because they couldn't figure out where to find the article. Bear in mind that I gave them a complete citation. The part they couldn't figure out was, quite literally, the part where they go to the library and get the magazine off the shelf.

    Fuck 'em, right? Nobody is forcing them to go to a State university? Wrong. I was called on the carpet about my "Ivy League standards" and accused of deliberately making my class so hard that no one could pass.

    In the end, I got fired.

    Now, at a new university, I am literally reduced to testing my college students on the developmental milestones of five-year-olds, because I am finding that a substantial number of my students can't even do that anymore. They can plug-and-chug, sure, but if you say "suppose I hold on to one end of this 1-foot piece of string, and stand right here. Would you be able to grab the other end and pull it to the other end of the hall?" then a lot of students reach for their calculator and sweat it out for half an hour of calculations, before telling me that the answer is "yes."

  • I'm going to turn 45 in a month, and when I was in high school, I read every single thing that was assigned except for Lord Jim, which I ended up not having to read anyway because I switched schools. I considered Cliff Notes to be cheating, and I was an obsessive reader, so why *wouldn't* I read the assigned books?

    Now, I'm in college to get a Bachelor's, and I hate reading textbooks with a burning passion. I prefer the textbooks that are not laid out magazine style, since I can actually focus on the text rather than the sidebars or pictures or whatever. Also, I have to read a Statistics textbook and it feels very much like reading a foreign language. It is also laid out like a magazine, with arbitrary terms given definitions while others that I don't understand are not, some types of problems are presented with a worked example of the problem, but most are not. Statistics is going to kill my 3.92 GPA. All of my school complaints revolve around the problem of hiring people who are good at and enjoy math to teach students who struggle with the concepts.

  • Can't count on the kids' even knowing how to read an essay and figure out its argument, etc.

    Might be worth trying to walk them through the first reading in class, as an exercise in how to read; put the text up in a projection, mark key sentences, number points in the margin, practice summing it up & raising questions or conclusions from it. Then say, ok, that's the method, now do this for your remaining readings.

    True, you shouldn't have to do that, but when I taught English 101 in grad school, I shouldn't have had to explain what nouns are.

  • Had a meeting with a window-installer this week. He told me it would be 6-8 weeks before they could get to my installation. "I'd hire 20 guys today if I could find anyone qualified! We've got more work than we can handle!" Umm… how hard should it be to find someone and teach them to install windows? This isn't rocket science, at all. WASF.

  • Emerson Dameron says:


    Well, that bites. I learned a lot less about skepticism and critical thinking in public school than I did from my Mom's Consumer Reports subscription in the '80s and '90s. I recall it being quite funny, too.

    Check out Consumerist.com. It's affiliated with Consumers Union and, for a blog of its type, it's publishing some wonderful, incisive journalism.

  • Thanks, Emerson Dameron! Yes, I was quite disappointed, too. If I'm looking for (say) a toaster oven, I want a rundown of features of Model X and Model Y and read how each performed in the lab siimulating daily use; I don't want to see dancing penguins in the margins and 30-point font saying NEW! New! NEEEEEW! Their back cover of advertising fails is also dumbed down and looks like a smartphone. That's not why I buy the magazine.

    I went to their website yesterday and let them know exactly why I wouldn't be renewing. Haven't heard a peep back.

  • The thing is – as much as people are saying "in the past five years" things have changed – all of the complaints on this thread are things that I've heard from professors since I started working at the university level.

    Which was 20 years ago. Of that I've been on the teaching side for about 10 at this point.

    Sorry guys – the kids don't seem any dumber or less likely to work or less able to focus than they were 10 years or 20 years ago.

    On the other hand – my students now are much, much more likely to complain about classes being "filler" and a "waste of their money" than they were 10 years ago. I suspect because they're paying so goddamn much more out of pocket now than they did then. And they're much more likely to blow off a required class that they think it "stupid university bullshit to take my money" than they were 10 years ago. They'll focus on the classes that they're convinced will help them get ahead in a job later, and other than that they're there to get the certification. They don't care about learning because that's not why they're in college – they're in college to pick up some skills and to get the piece of paper that will get them accepted by the HR department of a company that will pay them. Anything that isn't directly relevant to that goal is "stupid bullshit" as far as they're concerned.

  • Spiny Norman says:

    "bjk Says:
    October 2nd, 2014 at 1:56 pm
    Information today are more dense. People expect more information per unit of attention than ever before. They get bored because they can't slow down. It's not that they can't pay attention, it's that universities haven't sped up to meet their speed."

    Sweet troll, d00d.

  • Ed has apparently never tried teaching a social science course at an engineering school. I was hearing "too much reading" 20 years ago at Michigan Tech and encountering students who had never read an actual book when I had the nerve to assign one that wasn't available in a Cliff's Notes version — now they could probably find a summary on Wikipedia so might be smart enough to remain silent about their antipathy toward the written word. I have a hunch the students Ed encountered before were every bit as ill-read and uninformed as the ones he's seeing now; they were just a little smarter about not whining.

    There is a great classic Doonesbury on this topic from IIRC, the 1980s. Students have always hated reading; it interferes with the true meaning of college: learning how to binge drink and/or indulge in various pharmaceuticals not available back in whatever podunk town they're from.

  • Bitter Scribe says:

    "Cannibalism in the Cars"? Seriously? They can't concentrate long enough to read that? "CitC" is basically a black comedy sketch, like something you'd see on the early Saturday Night Live, if it (and TV) had existed then. Your students must have the attention span of fruitflies.

  • I think the problem here is that you need to either transmit these reading assignments through twitter or post them on your facebook page along with various "hooks".

    I think what is going on here is that we are conducting the twitter/facebook/advertising/video game experiment on our society. We are not familiar with the effects of these new technologies on our society and are not geared to deal with them. Maybe these activities are as addictive as cocaine.

  • To be fair, it isn't just students doing this. Remember Sen. McCain playing video poker during a hearing on war in the Middle East?

  • I don't think the problem is attention span. The high school kids I've tutored recently had excellent attention spans. They were just never taught how to extract meaning from a page full of letters. They were never taught parts of speech or sentence structure. They were never taught basic rhetoric. They were never taught how essays, books and libraries are organized. They were never taught how to follow a series of written instructions.

    It was actually rather sad when one of my more driven students tried to figure out some math concept from her textbook and just couldn't. Granted, it was an awful textbook, full of flash and distractions that made it hard to follow the thread of the argument, but still. She had never been taught how. She deserved better.

    One of my other students had similar problems, but he had an excellent vocabulary which he attributed to reading Warhammer books. Unfortunately, Warhammer was also his undoing as he applied far to much of his focus to playing the interactive game and not enough to his schoolwork.

  • http://ultrafactsblog.com/post/100808095771/movement-is-the-key-to-staying-alert-and

    "Movement is the key to staying alert and maintaining focus, according to several studies. The elementary found that their students who spent more time in the Read and Ride program achieved higher proficiency in reading while students who spent the least amount of time in the program had significantly lower scores. This is also a better alternative to desks because continuous sitting can lead to chronic pain, obesity, decreased productivity, poor posture and other various health issues."


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