An insidious hierarchy

One of the harshest criticism that a professor can give to a graduate student is that s/he writes “like an undergrad.” PhD students bemoan that MA students do not participate in class discussion. Graduate students and professors alike rend their clothing and tear at their rapidly thinning hair to lament that undergraduates don’t go to class, don’t do the reading, they don’t edit, cannot spin out mellifluous prose, and (to hear some people talk) haven’t a solid thought in their airy little heads.

These are stereotypes and stereotypes contain a kernel of truth. In the case of the last example, it probably comes from the fact that most undergrads are not old enough to drink (legally). People need time to grow up, to learn, to mature. Writing like an undergrad–or acting like an undergrad more generally–is probably influenced in some ways by the college culture and college experience in the sense that the environment one lives in is going to affect behavior, but it is going to be even more influenced by the student’s age and educational experience. So, too, upper level undergrads are going to be different than freshmen. And there is no immediate change in newly-minted graduate students from “undergrad” to “grad.” Learning is a process, intellectual development is a process. One hopes that there will be an evolution from the first year through graduation and then continued development through a graduate school career.

Using “undergrad” as a term to imply intellectual retardation, even retardation through youth, is a problem on several levels. First, it implies a sharp division in ability, when there is really only a division in expectations. Second, such comments reinforce an elitist, ivory-tower perception of graduate schol. Third, and most problematic for me, it is not a constructive critique. It carries with it a number of implications, but doesn’t actually convey in what ways (analysis, source use, insightfulness) the graduate student needs to differentiate him or herself. One would hope that there would be further comments that would be more constructive, but the comparison to an undergrad doesn’t seem to serve any positive purpose.

The hierarchy implies an unnaturally sharp distinction between the categories. I mostly note this because one of the things I see most frequently on social media w/r/t student exams or papers is that undergrads claim radical historical change happens at unnaturally specific dates. And yet, the act of donning a robe and walking across a stage is a ritual that transforms a high schooler into a college student and a college student into a graduate student? Changed expectations are one thing, but the change in performance is not going to happen when the students walk across that stage.

A few weeks ago there was a John Hodgman quote floating around social media that highlighted how scary learning can be. Admitting ignorance is conflated with admitting inadequacy too often. Ignorance is correctable, but the admission, the struggle, is difficult. The mistake I feel that I am watching on the part of educators is sloppily,haughtily, fogetting how difficult this process actually is. None of us sprang from Zeus’ forehead fully formed. Yes, learning and school come easier to some than to others, but to forget that learning is a process only serves to discourage students. When students are discouraged from learning we have failed.

Writing this piece reminds me of an incident in high school where one of my friends was called out for hypocrisy over an essay for which she won a prize. I am not trying to excuse myself of wrongdoing, though. I am guilty of contributing to this hierarchy, too. I lament the state of undergrads and their inability to read a short assignment or participate in class, or how they can’t seem to answer all the questions on an exam. I generally make these comments while in the throes of grading. This is a form of venting and, in my experience, doing so makes it easier to continue grading. I do my best to avoid broadcasting these laments on social media or even to too many people. I need to vent, but the jokes and the complaints are not something that most people should hear–or should care about.Instead, I want to be more conscious of making these statements and caution against, in all our exhaustion, frustration, and stress, using this sort of hierarchical, exclusionary, and unconstructive language.

Here is my main issue with this hierarchy. Whether to cover up their own insecurities or out of a misplaced sense of self-righteousness, academics seem to go over the top with these complaints about “undergrads” (and usually seem to mean “underclassmen” for “undergrad”) and forget that they, too, were once undergrads and were once MA students. I suppose that it is possible that all of these other instructors were perfect students back in their day–always going to class, doing the readings, talking in class, editing their papers, having fully-formed and developed thoughts in their work–but I know that I was not. At one point in my college career I regularly skipped class, fallen asleep in class, did not edit papers, did not do the reading, and sometimes even turned in assignments that I am now ashamed to have attached my name to. Even when I did turn in work that I was proud of at the time, it was not always great work. That is because I was young. There were some subjects I wasn’t good at, there were some that I didn’t care that much about. I fully admit that I was not a particularly good student in college nor am I a great student even today and I wonder at the irony inherent in that I am now teaching college students and have to give advice on how to study on a regular basis. When I feel myself becoming too myopic about students, I remind myself of this past, that I was once there too.


The corollary to what I just wrote is that there will always be a wall of sorts between what the teacher says and what the students hear, there will always be students who give less than their full attention to the instructor, and there will always be an impatience on the part of students to find out their grade–something exacerbated, not created, by the Pavlovian nature of a grade and standardized test based educational system. On the former points, it is frustrating dedicate hours to preparing for class and to see apathy on the faces of the crowd, but even the best lecturers are going to have to deal with that. On the last point, grading papers is one of those things that it is impossible to understand how long it takes unless you have had that experience yourself. Are these things frustrating? Yes, absolutely, yes. But undue venting about these issues is also counter-productive. The type of understanding I have suggested throughout this piece the understanding David Foster Wallace was talking about in This is Water. “Understanding” and “patience” are not simple solutions to a long-trending institutional problem in education, higher education, and society, but it seems that to do otherwise is contributing to the problem.

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