College students are adults

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Even you might not think of your college students as adults, it would help if you treated them as if they were.

Not long ago, I had a conversation with a friend and colleague that took me a little bit by surprise. They said their students were not adults. I generated a comical degree of side-eye and said something like, “I mean, if they can vote, join the military, and be tried as an adult, aren’t they?” And then they said, “Well, technically, they are.” That said, I do think I’m pretty much on the same page as my friend, as we ultimately interact with students in a similar way.

We should regard and treat students as the adults that they are. I think I understand those of you who disagree with this perspective, and there is a lot of subtlety involved. Where do things get murky? Well, I conducted a(n entirely invalid) survey:

A solid fraction of us think that being an “adult” is somehow is not just a matter of age. Many asked, “What do you mean by ‘adult’?” To which I thought, “Well, I want to know what ‘adult’ means to you.”

Yes, under typical circumstances, the brain isn’t fully cooked until some point in the early ’20s. Which is about the age of graduation for what wealthier campuses call “traditional students.” If we use brain development as benchmark for adulthood, then I can see why 18 isn’t ‘adult’ to you.

Several other people said they use maturity as a criterion for adulthood, such as an appreciation that their actions impact others, or that they can make decisions in light of foreseeable consequences. The problem with that criterion is that there are plenty of Grown Ass Men who don’t fit that criterion, including the current president of the USA. I know a lot of professors who can’t be characterized as mature. But, they have lots of authority over other people, pay their own bills, have grown children, and all that. Are we to say that these people are not adults? I don’t think we can use “maturity” to decide if a person is an adult, if not being adult means that you’re not expected to demonstrate the same responsibility as adults.

Perhaps the adulthoodness of younger college students is moot, if we can’t agree on what constitutes adulthood. But should we expect the same agency of our students, and provide the same latitude and respect, and expect the same level of responsibility, that we accord to our own image of an adult? Yes, I think we must.

If we are regarding a student as something less than adult, how would we be treating them differently? Would we have lower expectations? I would hope not. Would we be more likely to give a bit of flexibility for poor decision making under stress? Perhaps. Would we be more empathetic if they are experiencing negative consequences of poor decisions? I would hope so. Would we scaffold large writing assignments to allow them to meet benchmarks more effectively without risking a high-stakes failure? That sounds like a wise practice.

When you think of every way that you might treat a student differently because you don’t think of them as an adult, wouldn’t it be true that these all would be nice ways to treat adults, too? Why not be gentle with everybody? Why not give everybody the benefit of the doubt when they screw up?

On other campuses, I’ve seen a number of professors who have this message on their office door: “Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” I think this is a fully reasonable perspective. After all, if a student comes to me with a request for a letter of recommendation at the last minute, I shouldn’t treat this as an emergency to drop everything and get this letter out in a few hours. But also, it’s a dick move to post this sign outside your office, to treat every visitor with an assumption of guilt. This is infantilizing our students, by expecting the least of them.

I think the best take on thinking about our students and their agency as adults is:

Compassion and space to grow is a good thing for everybody, regardless of age.

When we treat our students as adults, that means that we’re not designing our courses to ease them into adulthood. Nor should we institute unnecessarily harsh policies to teach less mature people a lesson about what we think adulthood is. We should design our classes for our students to learn the course material and grow as human beings. In a way that supports learners of all ages. As a litmus test, let’s say your spouse or your parent or your dean was a student in your class. Would they feel that you’re not treating them with the proper respect with the way you run your course?

One way we can give students space to grow is to not refer to them as “kids,” even if we are older enough to be their parents. Because we’re not their parents, and according to the law, they’re not kids. Even if they see themselves that way, by giving into this self-image, we’re inhibiting their growth as adults.

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