Dispatch from the Front Line

The Ol’ Bloviator would be hard pressed to come up with the precise number of times he has taught a freshman-sophomore-level U.S. history course, but by his rough guesstimate, he has just wrapped up his forty-fifth tour on the front lines of the incessant struggle against ignorance and/or militant indifference to the importance of studying the past. This fall’s stint in the trenches came after a two-year hiatus in which the O.B. had the time of his life teaching an upper-level course on the origins and development of southern culture, while otherwise concentrating his exertions on bedeviling as many graduate students as possible. Although he consistently encounters some really intelligent, hardworking, and downright inspiring students among his 300 charges in these entry-level courses—and this fall was certainly no exception—he recalls thinking as he tied the ribbons on his fall 2010 version of U.S. History since 1865 that much of what he was already reading or hearing at that point about the proliferating sense of entitlement and cyber technology’s aggressive, potentially devastating assault on youthful attention spans rang true to his experience that semester. Two years later, he is genuinely saddened to report that, in this respect, fall 2010 now seems like the proverbial good ol’ days.

All that said and dispensed with, what follows from this point should not be construed as simply more of the whining about students that is so readily associated with self-absorbed members of the professoriate. Rather, it is an expression of genuine concern about where we’re headed as a society and the disservice we have done, however unwittingly, to both our young people and, quite possibly, our enter-twined future.

While it is not uncommon to have to repeat one’s self in trying to get critical information across to this many students crammed into a single room, this fall has been completely off the charts compared to anything the O.B. has experienced so far. The number of times he was asked about material displayed prominently on the syllabus, which was distributed in hard copy, posted on the course web site and then reviewed in class several times, gave clear indication that regardless of whether they were trying to or not, a lot of kids were simply not getting a fix on the information provided them, and not just on some days, but on most days. The regular in-class orgy of surfing, facebooking, emailing, etc. that came with students bringing laptops to class forced the O.B. to ban them several years ago, and the syllabus states plainly that cell phones must be silenced and stashed once the class begins. The penalty for violating this rule (after an initial warning) is being counted absent in a course where absences counter the chance to win bonus points for regular attendance and can ultimately lead to a student being dropped. The O.B. is fully confident that any search for a regulation that, despite unrelenting enforcement, registered so little deterrent effect, would take us back at least to Prohibition, which was actually observed rather rigidly compared to the O.B.’s ban on texting and tweeting. In fact, one surmises that so long as an iPhone is anywhere within reach, it is fully as mesmerizing and irresistible for today’s college student as White House interns were for Bill Clinton or, for that matter, JFK. 

The O.B. realizes that the same might be said for the parents of many of these kids who have likewise allowed their addiction to constant cyber-contact to overwhelm whatever manners or sense of decorum they might once have exhibited. A truly disheartening case in point hit the O.B. squarely twixt the eyes last year as he gave a talk to a national meeting of archivists hosted by UGA. When he looked up to see a fellow in the audience not simply tweeting or texting on his phone but holding his iPad up fully in front of his face, the learned speaker, who had busted his butt preparing the presentation, struggled mightily against the impulse to encourage this lout to Google up a video of a good country ass whipping of the sort regularly meted out in this vicinity for behavior far less boorish than his.

To say that differences in cyber-dependence between parents and their kids may be mostly a matter of degree is not to say that the implications for the future are any more heartening. Widespread reports of students’ declining interest in actually attending home football games invariably include their complaints about being unable to text and tweet in a crowd of 92,000 people, well over half of whom are doubtless packing cell phones themselves. Across the country, athletic departments are shelling out millions to bathe their stadiums in Wi-Fi signals in a move that amounts to catering to a group of kids who already don’t find the game itself sufficiently compelling to merit their sustained attention by offering something else that can only distract them further from the main event. (The reality that the spectacle of major college football cannot command the attention of today’s students for more than a quarter or two should speak volumes about what we dog-assed professors are up against in trying to keep them focused on the protective tariff for roughly the same time span.)

Anybody who flies, dines out, visits the mall, etc. and falls captive to cell phone users shouting out their side of the conversation as if they were communicating via tin cans connected by string or observes them abruptly shutting down face-to-face conversations in order to respond immediately to the latest text from God-knows-whom/where, surely understands the smartphone’s capacity to effectively devalue the importance of the immediate interpersonal context. Accordingly, even if these little concentration-sucking buggers cannot be assigned sole culpability for the general decline in the respect for propriety and decorum, they must certainly be listed as accomplices. Having grown accustomed to espying several texters/tweeters every time his eyes swept his student audience this fall, the O.B. considered himself generally inured to casual in-class displays of disregard until he found himself distracted in mid-profundity by a young man who, having exited the room a few minutes earlier, now returned bearing a cup of coffee and a bagel and proceeded to enjoy his late breakfast with all the nonchalance of someone who might well have been seated all by his lonesome on a park bench. Because the class was so large, this student’s identity was unknown to his dumbstruck professor until grades were actually recorded. Although he found the incident itself more depressing than amusing, it is fair to say the old prof’s mood briefly lightened just a bit upon his discovery that the young man whose hunger for a bagel outstripped his hunger for learning had received a “D” for the course. Pathetic as such meager satisfactions might seem to others, they are absolutely vital to professorial sanity and survival in what might be called today’s Age of Entitlement.

As Exhibit A in support of this characterization, the O.B. submits verbatim this note that he received from a student this fall, six days after the final exam had been given:

Hello Professor. 

My name is—–. I’m in your 11 o’clock Tuesdays and Thursdays. I missed last weeks final, due to medical reasons for which i have a doctor’s note. Is it possible for me to make it, or an alternate version up tomorrow?

Here is the initial reply drafted by the O.B.:

Dear—-. No problem whatsoever. In fact, I commend you for getting back to me so quickly. It’s barely been a week since the final, after all. When would you like to take it? Would it be more convenient if I came to your place? Jc 

P.S., What kind of doughnuts do you like? 

Ultimately realizing that this could quite likely be just the kind of response he was expecting, the O.B. gave out with a big sigh, hit the delete button, and simply gave him a time to meet for the makeup.

The gentle readership of this rather erratic site may well have come across the story of a 16-year-old Texas scion of the super-rich who blew .24, three times the legal blood alcohol limit, two hours after a drunken escapade in his truck resulted in the death of four innocent pedestrians. Although the young man pled guilty to “intoxication manslaughter,” which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years, his attorney won him a 10-year probationary wrist-slap after making him out to be not a villain but a helpless victim of “affluenza.” This condition is said to afflict primarily the offspring of the uber-wealthy, who have been so consistently indulged that they simply cannot conceive of any sort of behavioral limits and expectations that they are bound to respect. 

The Ol’ Bloviator does not mean in any form or fashion to compare the feelings of entitlement he detects in some of his students to that displayed by this young man or his parents, but he does not think it too much of a stretch to see them as leading and trailing tips of the same iceberg We can only hope the outraged blowback against this facile pseudo-diagnosis that so readily transforms spoiled brats into children at risk will be a wake-up call sufficient to alert more parents to the tragic possibilities that their willful naiveté and myopia about their children’s development might raise. The O.B. only wishes that the child development geniuses who emphasize preserving youngsters’ “self-esteem” by steering them away from any and all challenges that present opportunities to fail could be on hand when he returns the first exams of the semester, some of them bearing  “Cs” and even “Ds,” to 18-year-olds who have never seen any grade other than an “A.” Even allowing for a drama queen or two, their individual and collective trauma is very real and genuinely disturbing, as the folks at the UGA counseling center will readily attest, and their first, frightened impulse is to cut and run. Despite the O.B’s earnest pleadings to hang tough, at least 30 of his flock took flight after the first exam this fall, throwing their academic progress off kilter from the get-go by giving up on a course where the final average turned out to be a low “B.”

The O.B. has always been about demanding their best from his students in the hope that they will come to demand the best of themselves.  It pains him all the more, then, to find himself unable at this point to reach so many bright young people who seem almost pre-programmed to retreat from any even remotely daunting challenges that might stand ultimately to advance their intellectual and emotional maturity. This release of frustration should by no means be construed as an admission of defeat, however. As a discerning friend recently observed, after all, where students are concerned, he is much more a barker than a biter, and even when they really get under his skin, he rarely stays torqued off for very long. Trying to help students not just to learn but to learn to enjoy learning is his primary calling, and when Jimmy Buffett says, “I love my job,” he has nothing (save a lot more zeroes in his paycheck) on the O.B.

This is simply to say that for all his grumbling and despite the recent season of sorrow and loss that has enveloped him and so many close to him, the Ol’ Bloviator is by no means unmindful of how truly fortunate and blessed he is. Ms. O.B. joins him both in wishing all who now and then venture into bloviating range the happiest of holidays and in embracing the highest of hopes for the New Year. As visual evidence of the sincerity of our sentiments and the extent to which they permeate the entire household, let us leave you with the now-customary spectacle of our 1994 GMC, which, even after 100k miles over some pretty rough terrain, maintains an enthusiasm for the holidays that, as you can see, flashes and occasionally fades but never expires.