The Casual Student

In response to a twit about Harvard’s first-ever black student commencement, a random law student told me it wasn’t the bad sort of segregation because black students wanted it. While I understood her point, it reflected the irrational infantile perspective that segregation is an unspeakable evil when perpetrated by some and totally wonderful when perpetrated by others.

I replied that she didn’t get it (which she naturally denied, as everyone who doesn’t get it invariably insists they do, they *do*), but that the response that failed to honor her opinion was condescending. You bet it was. Not only did I not know who she was or care what she thought, but we were not peers. What could make a law student assume that she was entitled to expect not only my attention, but my respect?

The problem with children believing they’re entitled to unearned respect starts in the classroom. Not long ago, there was a discussion about students taking liberties with their professors, as if the teachers were no different than the students, except they go to stand in the front of the room instead of sitting in the seats. The discussion devolved into the risks taken by profs in offending students, not pronouncing their names properly, giving rise to complaints of discrimination.

What eluded the academics was the fact that they were the grown-ups in the room, and it was not their job to coddle the little darlings’ feelz, but to teach them. They got their degrees, earned their jobs and were now in charge of the classroom. If the little shits didn’t feel valued, there was a door available to them. Of course, this concept was utterly foreign, as they fought to find a way to maintain a modicum of professional dignity without risking the babies storming the ivory tower.

Molly Worthen, however, decided she no longer wanted to play this game.

At the start of my teaching career, when I was fresh out of graduate school, I briefly considered trying to pass myself off as a cool professor. Luckily, I soon came to my senses and embraced my true identity as a young fogey.

After one too many students called me by my first name and sent me email that resembled a drunken late-night Facebook post, I took a very fogeyish step. I began attaching a page on etiquette to every syllabus: basic rules for how to address teachers and write polite, grammatically correct emails.

Etiquette? What a quaint concept. Whether academics really want to be that “cool professor,” the one all the kids like and who uses words like “woke” properly and thinks their every thought and feel is deeply important, is unclear. I have long suspected that many don’t really like having the kids call them by their first name, inform them of how the world works and correct their misguided lack of appreciation of every child’s most heartfelt beliefs. Rather, they tolerate to get along with both their colleagues and their charges because the Academy is a dangerous place for grownups.

Over the past decade or two, college students have become far more casual in their interactions with faculty members. My colleagues around the country grumble about students’ sloppy emails and blithe informality.

It’s passive-aggressive to “grumble” about it. You don’t like it? Do something. Take back the classroom. And it’s not just about your feelz, sad academics who don’t like it when the kids no longer feel any need to address you with the formality once taken for granted. It’s about students understanding and appreciating that they are not yet the equals of their professors.

But the student response is that their opinions are as worthy of respect as their teachers. So what if their teachers know what they are first learning? So what if their teachers have the benefit of experience they lack? These are just weapons to suppress their very valuable feelings. Aren’t they just as entitled to believe what they choose to believe as anyone else?

Why are so many teachers bent out of shape because a student fails to call them “Professor” or neglects to proofread an email? Are academics really that insecure? Is this just another case of scapegoating millennials for changes in the broader culture?

This, unfortunately, is where Worthen attempts to profsplain her position in the context of infantile beliefs. While it may serve to make it more comprehensible within the framework of a child’s mind, it’s still pandering to lack of grasp.

Don’t dismiss these calls for old-fashioned courtesy as a case of fragile ivory tower egos or misplaced nostalgia. There is a strong liberal case for using formal manners and titles to ensure respect for all university professionals, regardless of age, race or gender. More important, doing so helps defend the university’s dearest values at a time when they are under continual assault.

Spare me. This isn’t an issue of age, race or gender, but of status. Earned status. The professors have earned their place at the front of the class. The students have not. Granted, academics have done everything possible to undermine the value of their status, their credibility, their knowledge and experience, but that doesn’t change the fact that as bad as the teachers may be, they are still the teachers. That fact, alone, is all that’s needed to justify their expectation that students behave with the required respect and formality of the relationship.

Insisting on traditional etiquette is also simply good pedagogy. It’s a teacher’s job to correct sloppy prose, whether in an essay or an email. And I suspect that most of the time, students who call faculty members by their first names and send slangy messages are not seeking a more casual rapport. They just don’t know they should do otherwise — no one has bothered to explain it to them. Explaining the rules of professional interaction is not an act of condescension; it’s the first step in treating students like adults.

Students have been taught to believe they are entitled to be treated as peers and to behave as peers toward others. They no longer need to be invited to address their elders by their first name, but assume it’s their right to do whatever they please. When no one tells them “no,” this becomes an entitlement.

But this isn’t “condescending,” although it’s become a fashionable put-down. This isn’t “patronizing superiority,” but superiority. It’s time for the kids to recognize that they are not yet adults, not yet their professors’ equals, not yet entitled to have grownups give a shit about their every feelz.

If they want to be treated like adults, then they need to behave like adults. They will never do so until they realize what distinguishes them as children and why they have not yet earned the right to be treated as equals. And if the professors stop lying to themselves, they can demand the formalities they’ve earned without having to make excuses or gaining the kids’ approval.

13 thoughts on “The Casual Student

  1. B. McLeod

    “What could make a law student assume that she was entitled to expect not only my attention, but my respect?”

    Well, she undoubtedly has a free ABA membership.

    1. SHG Post author

      And she may well renew after the free year is up, because she shares their progressive values.

  2. Dragoness Eclectic

    Some of us who go back to college for further learning are adults and the equals of the professor, just in a different field or sub-field. However, it has been my experience that adult professionals act, well, professional with the instructors they are paying good money to teach them. Said professors also tend to treat the student-professionals with respect, as well. As you say, it’s earned status; the relationship is different when both parties have it. There’s also the element of “You get what you give”; treat your instructor with respect, and they are more likely to treat you with respect.

    1. SHG Post author

      Well then, let’s make this all about “some of us,” meaning you. Because you are, as always, a fascinating individual.

    2. Michael Lockard

      “Some of us who go back to college for further learning are adults and the equals of the professor”

      I agree with Mr. Greenfield (in him nailing the subject matter in the article AND the response to your comment), and you managed to “make it all about you” and mangled the subject matter without apparently making an attempt to understand what he is pointing out

      Going back to college as an “adult” does NOT make you an equal to a professor other than you may be around the same age. Your age does NOT make you a peer in school (or in life). Many college professors have their Doctorate and PhD (sometimes in more than one field), and they worked hard to achieve what is considered the highest level of professional recognition in a subject matter.

      You appear to utterly fail to understand that your remark of “you get what you give” applies to college professors, and their status as professor starts with the premise that they are due respect based on a number of factors, not the least of which may be their PhD that allowed them to be retained at a university to teach. Luckily for you, a lot of professors do not make a big deal of students being too lazy, ignorant or impolite in calling them by their professional title, but you show a lack of etiquette by refusing to recognize what they are due in polite society by trotting out the tired cliche you used.

      I did not go back to school until I was 30, and I was older than a number of my professors, but I would never presume to call them by anything other than “Doctor” or “Professor” in class unless they specifically told the class otherwise. I have come to know many of my professors from college socially and in the local community as I achieved local success in a number of areas, and even though they tell me to call them by their first name, I value the respect of recognition they earned, therefore I am still likely to call them by “Doctor” or “Professor” because I value our friendship.

      Mr. Greenfield has outlined a valuable teaching moment with this article, and it is sad that even folks such as you are seemingly missing the point. Respect is not and should not be casual, and those that have earned the simple societal respect in the arena of teaching (especially at the college level) are due proper respect without having to demand it.

      For crying out loud, is adding two (Doctor) or three (Professor) syllables a freaking imposition?

      1. David

        Why so much about degrees? Situationally, if a teenage high-school dropout with zero degrees is teaching me how to do something with my computer (to be stereotypical!), I owe them politeness even if I’m employing them, because in that context they’re superior to me in knowledge. And even if, unlike a judge in court or a professor in a course I’m taking for credit (i.e. grades) they have no power over me (though if they know how to fix my computer, they have power…).

        1. Scott Jacobs

          Fine, then how about this – you are admittedly not a subject matter expert on the topic of the lesson, so your claim to some level of equality is 100% incorrect.

          If you were equals, you could be the one up there teaching the day’s lesson. You aren’t, so you aren’t. It doesn’t matter what other degrees you have or what your job is, on that campus they are your superior.

          I can virtually guarantee you that if we were to speak to your professors, and mentioned your name, they would roll their eyes. If we got their colleagues to do so, they would roll their eyes and say “Oh, that asshole?”

          1. SHG Post author

            No need for that third paragraph. He wasn’t suggesting that the student should be impolite, but that having a degree shouldn’t be the only metric for being polite to a teacher.

      2. Dragoness Eclectic

        Mr. Lockard, you appear to have completely failed to read my comment, since you are ranting about the exact opposite of what I said.

        TL;DR version of my comment: Adult professionals, who could well have the same “earned status” in a different field as the professor, tend to treat professors with courtesy and respect. In return, professors are usually courteous and treat them with respect.

        My attempted implication is that disrespectful young students are spoiled brats who need to grow up and learn manners, okay?

        1. SHG Post author

          Or perhaps you failed to write a comment that expressed what you were trying to say, but that would mean it wasn’t him but you. And that couldn’t be possible.

  3. ExiledV2

    *shrugs* Does it perhaps occur to you that the general decline in etiquette, formality, and respect has perhaps come from some other place than “feelz”? Perhaps a growing disdain for people who purport to be other’s betters demanding that they be knelt to whilst swaggering about with a snide superiority?

    I don’t know. Perhaps I’m projecting my own experiences in the corporate workplace onto the students. I only know that over the past 20 years I have encountered a multitude of people who were supposedly my more-experienced superiors…and found them to be not worthy of any respect, at all, much less the deserved respect and etiquette you propose. Gladly, I am now in a position where I can ensure that such people are quickly fired, as it is results that matter, not some proposal of “due respect” given for a fancy title or the number of years their unproductive bewalkus has been planted in a chair.

  4. Sacho

    Eric Clanton, Rebecca Goyette and Melissa Click are also professors, and they demand respect, By Any Means Necessary.

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