Remembering what it’s like to be a college student


When working with others, it is good to respect differing perspectives and values, even if we don’t understand them. Professionals maintain this respect even when the behavior of others is overly selfish or inadequately respectful.

When I have read about how some of my colleagues at other universities regard their undergraduate students, I’m reminded of the saying, perhaps originally from W.J. King of UCLA:

A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter, or to others, is not a nice person.

Likewise, a person who is nice to you, but not nice to undergraduates, is not a nice person.

It’s never an easy task to get inside someone else’s head. There is no universal change that happens as a 20-year-old evolves into a professor. But change definitely happens. I think back about my priorities when I was in college, and it’s hard to imagine the processes that resulted in the me-of-now evolving from the me-of-then.

The me-of-then is a not a model for my own students. Nonetheless, if I can imagine what I was like back then, it helps me keep a more open perspective when my students seem irrational to me. While I recognize that people can differ in their values and priorities, seeing the fact that my own perspective changed radically over time makes me sensitive to differences of opinion with other people.

Here are two literature-based examples. Before senior year of (private, male, Catholic) high school, we were assigned three fat books to read. One of these books was John Fowles’s The MagusI didn’t get into it, and gave up, and just didn’t do well on the exam on the first day of school. But then my friends told me what a cool book it was, so when I had the chance, before starting college, I read it. It blew me away, in a couple different dimensions. The protagonist (Nicholas Urfe) gets his mind messed with by a bizarre, kind-of-conspiracy, and so does the reader along for the ride. I felt sorry for Nicholas and felt like I related with him in some way.

Last year, I re-read the same book, more than 20 years later. It still was an amazing book, but wow, was I myopic the first time I read it! Nicholas is self-centered, small-minded and overestimates his own understanding of the world. While he didn’t necessarily create his problems, he was a partner in their making. On this re-read, l still felt sorry for the guy, not because of what he experienced but because of who he was. I was sorry for Nicholas because he was a pretentious womanizing oaf and didn’t know how to not be one.

Back then, I was oblivious. I don’t think the me-of-then would have appreciated hearing about being so fundamentally wrong about Nicholas’s character. (Maybe the me-of-the-future will think that the me-of-now is wrong.)

Here’s the second example: I was also required to read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. This book has over a thousand pages of transparent characters and inane plot, designed as a vehicle for Ayn Rand’s infantile “philosophy.” (Why is it that a high school requires this book is whole other issue. As I learned at my high school reunion, my class did end up producing a gaggle of Paul Ryanesque economic predators.)

This is how messed up the me-of-then was: I didn’t think that Atlas Shrugged book was a massive piece of shit. Moreover, I read the whole thing! Any reasonable person would give up within a few hundred pages, because the book drones on about the same selfishness-is-good pablum over and over and over and that’s pretty much it. I haven’t re-read that book since then, but I remember how monotonous it was. With hindsight I see that a variety of young men of that age have a flirtation with Ayn Rand, so at least I wasn’t alone.

I don’t judge my students for any foolishness they might harbor with respect to Ayn Rand, though the topic is unlikely to emerge in the classes that I’m teaching. However, if one of my students manages to say something unwise in any other aspect, I can remember a time when I was fool, and be open to the prospect that I might be one at this moment.

If I liked Atlas Shrugged, and didn’t realize Nicholas Urfe was a pretentious prat, then I was a straight-up misanthropic fool. Or maybe I was just immature. Or maybe the two are the same.

Regardless, as a professional in the classroom, I need to give everyone the same respect that the me-of-then felt that he deserved. It is foolish to publicly complain about dealing with the occasionally foolish actions of our students, when being unwise on occasion is par for the course for anybody. If someone is going to learn a lesson from a poor decision, that lesson won’t be received any better when spiced with negativity and judgment. If a student does something slightly foolish, such as emailing their teaching assistant a simple question that could be answered by reading syllabus, that student still deserves respectful treatment of the instructors of the course.

It’s our job as college instructors to work with college students. They are adults. We need to expect them to act like adults and treat them as adults.

Keep in mind, though, that plenty of well-seasoned adults have ridiculous expectations, bizarre biases and are outrageously self-centered. If an undergraduate acts this way, it’s not because they’re an undergraduate, but because they are human beings.

If our students act toward us in a way that isn’t professional, then we need to respond with tolerance and establish an environment that minimizes the negative aspects of these interactions. It is nonproductive to assign blame to people who make poor choices.

In short, we need to treat the undergraduates in our courses with the same professionalism and respect that we show to our colleagues.

In case you’re wondering, this post is a rebuttal to something that I read last week.

3 thoughts on “Remembering what it’s like to be a college student

  1. At least the you-of-then was bothering to read good (or at least topical) literature! The me-of-then was mostly concerned with drinking to oblivion and trying to get kicked out of college his sophomore year. I ended up on probation and lucky to be allowed to stick around for another 4 yrs to graduate!

  2. With hindsight I see that a variety of young men of that age have a flirtation with Ayn Rand, so at least I wasn’t alone.

    Not just young men. I had my Rand phase at age 15. I’ve known a lot of smart young women who had a Rand phase (when I do informal surveys of my friends who attended the same college as myself, generally at least a quarter of us had a Rand phase sometime pre-college). It was absolutely coming from a place of misanthropy and alienation. I hated many of the people around me for behaving as though my being bored and bullied in school didn’t matter. For pretty much the same reasons, I believed that schools should be teaching at least two or three grade levels above where they were as a matter of course and if anyone wasn’t smart enough to keep up then screw ’em, they’re a bunch of bullying morons anyway. As you might be able to guess if you’re familiar with both books, I actually preferred The Fountainhead to Atlas Shrugged.

    Fortunately I got over it fairly quickly, and my teenage Rand phase allowed me to recognize the references in Bioshock (a video game set in an Objectivist dystopia) years later. I think it also helps me empathize with annoying teenage libertarians, since I remember the thought processes that led to my Rand phase pretty well.

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