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Student, you’re lazy! Professor, you’re a zero!

IN RECENT YEARS, college students have been giving some of their professors bad marks in anonymous postings at ratemyprofessors.com. The site has become as much a part of college life as course catalogs, with students consulting it for the inside word on who’s hard and who’s easy.

The professoriate struck back at rateyourstudents.blogspot.com, where, without naming names, academics vented about lazy students, overindulged students, students who have no business being in college.

What do such online body slams tell us about generational differences and the state of higher education today?

Current asked MICHAEL SKUBE, a journalism professor at North Carolina’s Elon University, and EMILY SCHWARTZ, a student at Elon, to debate the question by e-mail. Their exchange has been condensed and edited.

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Skube: To anyone who attended college in the 1960s, anonymous online reviews confirm the belief that higher education has mutated beyond recognition. Many changes have been for the better. But vulgarities such as ratemyprofessors and rateyourstudents are crude degradations of what used to be higher education. Yet they are products of our time; that is, they reflect a culture that devalues intellectual curiosity and values, above all else, consumption and entertainment.

Schwartz: There’s a rumor going around in academia that the professors are revolting. They’re sick and tired of these lazy, lifeless heaps -- students, that is -- taking up space and absorbing as much as a pile of rocks. Indeed, ratemyprofessors and rateyourstudents play to the tune of intellectually vapid entertainment, far from any respectable standard of higher education. But professors, why fuel this demon? You’re more mature than to contribute to such ridiculous vulgarities. Think about the real image being reflected here.

Skube: But the questions are: What gave rise to anonymous online reviews, and what do so many of the thoughtless postings reflect? What gave rise to them is the unexamined assumption that students are in any position to judge how well they are taught. And what such reviews reflect is the complacent belief that students are to be made happy, that education centers not on the subject matter but on whether they enjoyed the experience. If a student didn’t like a course -- for whatever reason -- it couldn’t possibly be his fault. It must be the professor’s.

Schwartz: What gave rise to these anonymous online reviews goes well beyond any predetermined notion held against today’s students. The postings may be, at times, tactless and cheap, some even bordering on niggling and downright hurtful, but who said they reflect a lesser breed of students than previous generations have spawned? They reflect a time in which students have been coddled by teachers their entire lives, a time in which, perhaps -- if change is so desperately desired -- values and ideals should be reinforced instead of such tasteless forms of expression. Take note.

Skube: But that is precisely the difficulty -- affirming and reinforcing values that have been, if not lost, tossed into some musty corner of the basement. Anything that happened before a student was born -- let’s say before 1986 -- is of no consequence, no relevance, no interest. What’s more, many a student will express an irritated surprise that they should be expected to have even a nodding acquaintance with it. (The Weimar Republic? Forget it.) This gets back to the point we can all lament but hardly deny: that the assumptions and expectations of today’s college students are not those of earlier generations. Higher education, to repeat, is solely about them and what they might find entertaining.

Schwartz: What students “might find entertaining” is a lively professor who brings these pre-1986 occurrences to life. Instead, students find themselves lazing in classrooms where often the professor is not only detached from the subject matter but detached from the generation in front of him. If professors feel they are unable to connect with students, then students, guaranteed, aren’t going to go out of their way to remedy that. The vicious cycle will continue until someone is brave enough to start turning the wheels the other way. When professors are passionate, it’s evident. Higher education is about humoring students only if one makes it so; it doesn’t have to be doomed.

Skube: No doubt the street runs both ways. By bending over backward to entertain students, we reinforce the expectation. One of the cruelties of nature, though, is that not all are born with the same gifts. Some are naturally witty and animated. Others of us are a bit dull. This leads to the more important point. Students often rate teachers by two criteria: the grade they expect to receive and how much they “enjoyed” the class. Never do they say they were intellectually stimulated. They want it to be fun, fun, fun. One wants to remind them of Noel Coward’s remark -- “Work is much more fun than fun.” But they wouldn’t get it -- and they wouldn’t know who Noel Coward was.

Schwartz: No, maybe not, but they surely wouldn’t care for the accusation. Such a comment has potential to rile them and, if you’re lucky, move them to counter the claim with a retort: a Noel Coward remark of their own finding, perhaps? When speaking to the masses, Coward advises, “interest it, stimulate it, shock it now and then if you must ... but above all, never, never, never bore the living hell out of it.” Who would have thought? Stimulate your audience? Unheard of, impossible! Professors, ignite some flames in your students! If you want to see revolutionizing ideas, stir the revolutions. The spunky ones will emerge, don’t you worry.

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Skube: Rile them? If only one could. But this much must be said: The spunky ones will stand out, like diamonds in a box of costume jewelry. There just aren’t many of them. It’s the other ones, somnolent most of the semester, expecting an “A” for average work, who presume to rate their professors. Anonymously, of course.

Schwartz: Anonymously indeed! -- for the same reasons “The Professor” and his blogging devotees remain unidentified: Is anyone really proud of these endeavors? Academics of the world, demand your respect, demand your high standards. Play your game with your rules in your home court. One may be pleasantly surprised to find that students -- gasp! -- can actually hold a respect for such ideals. Now there’s a lost concept.


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