Are your students awful, or is there an ongoing pandemic?

It’s midterm time in higher ed in the US, and I’m hearing from colleagues who are frustrated by what they describe as a lack of engagement in students. High rates of absenteeism and missing work are the main complaints, but some college-level educators are worried about a general lack of preparation, including understanding the high work load demanded by college professors. The blame tends to be placed on “the pandemic” generally, which is always framed as past tense, but the implication is that  remote learning in high school and, later, too much laxity in in-person classes, caused children to turn feral. Apparently, students picked up a lot of bad habits during their weeks, months, and occassionally years of remote education, and when they returned to high school, they were disrespectful, lazy, and disengaged–if they bothered to show up at all. These students are now in college and causing professors to pull out our hair with frustration. 

Sometimes professors’ complaints are downright ugly: blaming high school teachers for failing to maintain rigorous standards during a pandemic none of them were trained or adequatedly supported to address. Other times, they’re condescending: students were coddled beyond what they needed and now need to have standards increased, out of concern for students’ long-term success. Indeed, I recently participated in an academic training where the presenters predicted that higher education will likely see the effects of pandemic-era (again, always in the past) school disruptions until 2036, when the kindergartners of 2020 graduate from college, and so we, college educators, must figure out how to help them meet the challenges so that they won’t be forever disadvantaged.  Implied in all of it is that we over-reacted to the pandemic by easing up too much on education–and that we won’t recover until faculty once again enforce high academic standards. 

Along with all this, I hear lamenting that today’s students lack resilience; they describe every difficulty as “trauma”; and they simulataneously refuse to put effort in or accept failure. Instead, they’re begging faculty for exceptions to policies, overwhelming college counseling centers, and melting down over their bad grades.

In some cases, this complaining about students is coming from bad faith actors–faculty who have been irked since March 2020 that they had to consider students’ actual lives in their teaching. 

In most cases, though, this concern is coming from faculty who care about students, who have extended themselves beyond what was modeled for them in their own undergraduate years, and who typically find that their tricks to engage students work well. Only now those tricks–even the ones they learned as part of “pandemic pedagogy”–aren’t working, and these faculty, knowing that they’re giving their all each time they teach, have no one left to blame for why students are so… well, disappointing…except students themselves. 

I think that there is some hand-wringing happening here that is a distraction from a bigger, scarier problem. And as long as we keep framing disengagement as caused by either teachers or students being apathetic, low-skilled, or “soft,” we’re making the problem worse.

The problem is: We haven’t yet dealt with the already-incurred effects of the pandemic, and we are ignoring the fact that the pandemic continues. 

Early in the pandemic, I frequently argued for ease, compassion, and priority-setting that placed student welfare at the heart of our work. Those posts were pretty popular. I think they’d be less popular now. Why?

Many of us would say that it’s because the pandemic is over. So why keep up practices that were difficult and emotionally tiring when they’re no longer needed? In fact, some readers might wonder if my advice to be more compassionate didn’t in fact create this bunch of needy, whiny, underachieving students. 

If the pandemic were over, I’d understand that criticism. 

But what if the pandemic isn’t over? What would we expect to see if the pandemic isn’t over?

  • We’d see high rates of absenteeism as students and faculty are sick or caring for others who are.
  • We’d see exhaustion as people tried to “push through” their work when their bodies need rest after infection or after caregiving.
  • We’d see mistakes in student (and our own) work due to that exhaustion. 
  • We’d see people prioritizing, even if unconsciously, relationships with people who care for them over relationships–including their relationship to work–over those that risk their health. We’d see them choosing activities that protect their health, including sleep or skip assignments, over activities that don’t. 
  • We’d see high rates of turnover among colleagues, including staff.
  • We’d see people with no reserves of strength left.
  • We’d see people angry at having more demanded of them than they can give. 
  • We’d see people choosing activities that bring them joy and connection, even if they come with risk, over those that do not, because they don’t have hope for a future–and if there is one thing we, through our climate change and COVID efforts, have robbed young people of, it’s hope for their future. 
  • We’d see the social and emotional impacts of being in a constant crisis.

If we recognized that the pandemic wasn’t over, we would recognize grief, not apathy, as the source of our shared struggles.

Arnold Böcklin’s The Plague, 1898 shows death riding a bat-like creature with a long tail through the streets of Medievel Europe, felling people as they walk. 

In other words, even if you don’t believe all the other measures that say that the pandemic isn’t over (regardless of what our political leaders say), maybe you can believe your own experiences: if students are acting like they’re affected by an ongoing global pandemic that has killed 1.1 million Americans during its acute stage, caused the deaths of tens of thousands more through secondary means like strokes and cardiac arrest, orphaned over 200,000 American children, and disabled millions more people through long COVID, including, in some studies many, many college students–well, then, they probably are. 

And maybe you are too. 

And maybe that–not students’ appropriate grief at our collective refusal to recognize and then curtail mass death and disabling– is why so many of us in higher ed are frustrated. 


PS. Times are hard. Here are some strategies to build and find sources of strength.


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