By Sara.

This question was prompted by This Essay that one of my friends, now working as a TA at another university, shared on her twitter. Before explaining why the answer is “No” in Part 2, I would like to take a moment to reflect on the content of the article in question.

The gist of the article is that there is a sense of helplessness amongst undergraduate students that wasn’t there a decade ago. Before running to the conclusion that the article’s author is just taking another jab at millennials (she isn’t), let us take a look at the claim she makes and some of the evidence supporting it.

The author begins with an anecdote about a student who emailed her asking for the name of an author – one who was discussed in class, on the syllabus, and also named on the front cover of the play he wrote – which they were apparently reading. This bemusing incident serves as (I hope) an extreme example to illustrate a pattern of dependence observed among her students, “[the] tendency to send emails and text messages of all sorts with the most basic questions about the most obvious matters. It is a helplessness, I believe, that is part feigned and part real, but nevertheless it is a problem…”

Her colleague suggests that students do this as a delaying tactic, an attempt to deflect work via inquiries. I think there may be some truth in this; however, the author’s own thesis cuts to the heart of what prompted my original question, and what I would like to discuss.

She writes that the situation, “…is not necessarily because they lack academic ability … but because they lack academic agency, it seems. They are unable or unwilling to recognize their own role in developing college skills, in earning a college education.” Point, set, match.

This is certainly the most parsimonious answer to explain the series of inane and helpless questions asked by students, so let us examine the support.

First, there is the anecdotal evidence she offers from her own experience and the added voice of her colleague.

Second, she highlights the ready interconnectedness that technology has brought and how this has potentially shifted the perceived exigencies of student-teacher contact during research.

Third, points to the fact that a number of colleges and universities are now going so far as to offer college credit for teaching time management and self-awareness skills. This point leads us away from anecdotal evidence and speculation and points to a cold hard fact: institutions have recognized a deficiency and they are taking steps to address it.

Thus, there is the case being made: Something is going on that is causing undergrads to appear helpless.

Is there something unfair about what is being asked of students, or is the problem deeper – having to do with a lack of academic agency?

Stick around for Part 2 tomorrow, wherein I give you my thoughts about what all this actually reveals, and what YOU can do about it.

Tomorrow, we will examine in greater detail the author’s thesis. Key to this will be unpacking what I think are some very real generational differences with respect to the academic world’s new technological landscape. I think it is this landscape that can be seen as partly the cause of as well as the solution to the “helplessness phenomenon” in question.


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