“Sorry, But I’m Not Feelin’ It…..”

A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article explores the challenge of developing empathy for students who fail to get vaccinated for COVID or resist wearing a mask in class (October 7th online).

Guess what?  Research indicates that empathy is a struggle for faculty interacting with students in a variety of contexts, not just those that are COVID-related.  A national survey jointly sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts and University Life finds that professors across the country are having a difficult time feeling compassion for their students.  Consider the following 1st-person accounts:

—  Nathan S., DePaul University:  “Gary, a sophomore, showed up at my class in a full body cast yesterday.  Over the weekend he had been struck by a runaway ice cream truck while helping an elderly widow fix her car’s flat tire on the side of the highway.  He wanted to know if he could postpone taking the midterm exam for a few days.

“I said no.  It seemed to me that an 83-year-old woman should not be driving on the highway in the first place.  Gary was simply enabling her reckless behavior, and he needed to own the consequences of what he did.

“Gary took the exam and failed; I could not decipher his scrawled answers to any of the essay questions.  Now I feel kind of bad about all this.  The kid has a good heart.  Maybe I was too harsh.”

—  Marjorie L., Miami University of Ohio:  “On the day a term paper was due in my class, I was notified that Trent was in jail, having been arrested the night before for pistol-whipping the cashier at a 7-Eleven while attempting to shoplift a bag of Twizzlers.  Trent wanted an extension on the paper.

“ARE YOU KIDDING ME?  I know for a fact that our local jail has both PCs and printers available for inmate use.  Trent could have finished the paper in his cell on the night of his arrest and had his classmate Gretchen submit it the next day.  Just for the record, the two of them have been groping each other in the back row of the classroom like hamsters in heat since the beginning of the semester!”

—  Horace R., University of Arkansas:  “So, I get a text from Ruth Ann three days ago telling me that she’s just gone into labor.  She claims that she didn’t even know she was pregnant, which could be true, since Ruth Ann is a large, big-boned girl.  She wanted my permission to miss class for the next two weeks, because her delivery was going to be a C-section.

“Absolutely not.  The syllabus for my Senior Humanities seminar on The Art of Courtly Love clearly states that the course is only open to students who have not had sex in the year prior to the first day of class.  Ruth Ann clearly violated that policy.  I wish nothing but the best for her and her child, but there was nothing I could do.  She had to drop the class.”

Sometimes, the ones who need our empathy the most are our colleagues.    

Fever Dreams….

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay entitled “The Data Is In: Trigger Warnings Don’t Help,” Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder report that they “found no evidence that trigger warnings improve students’ mental health” (October 1st print issue).  

The authors’ claim may be true, but the data tell a much different story when we focus on faculty mental health.  

It turns out that trigger warnings are essential for professors’ well-being, as indicated by the results of a joint research project carried out at Gettysburg College and Cornell University.  According to Cornell Psychology Professor Melvin Côte d’Azur, there are certain trigger sentences and paragraphs that consistently produce Sartrean existential dread, Level 3 nausea, and loss of bladder and bowel control in college faculty, both tenured and non-tenured.  The Top Ten include:

— “You have been selected to serve on an interdisciplinary faculty task force charged with revising the University’s core curriculum.”

— “The Dean called; she wants to discuss something that happened in your class on Monday.  You might want to bring a lawyer.”

— “I’d like to introduce you to Todd and Meghan, the branding consultants who will be facilitating our discussion of what to do with the Philosophy major.”

— “As your President, I’m proud to announce that our institution is embarking on an exciting dual-degree program with Okefenokee Swamp Bible College on the Florida/Georgia border.  Anyone interested in teaching a raft-based course on Alligators in the Old Testament next spring?”

— “The Provost and CFO are here today to help us review the implications of Philosophy’s cost/revenue metrics for the department’s future.  Has everyone brought their lawyer?”

— “Stan, your name popped up on a student’s Facebook page yesterday.  You should probably take a look.”

— “Stan, there’s someone here from the Title IX office to see you.”

— “The Undergraduate Curriculum Committee will meet on Wednesday to consider the proposed Sociology minor in White Guilt.  Father O’Shaughnessy will be available to hear confessions after the vote.  All faiths welcome!”

— “An all-day faculty training session on “Monitoring Your Public Utterances” will be held this Friday in the Forklift Annex of Spackle Auditorium.  A lunch consisting of locally sourced tofu squares, turnip smoothies, and unpeeled eggplant crumble will be provided, along with a communal burlap napkin.” 

— “Thanks for seeing me today, Professor.  The Department Chair said I could enroll in your Calculus 904 course this semester even though I haven’t taken any of the prerequisites.  I need 3 more Math credits in order to graduate in January, and your class was the only one that wasn’t filled.  Is there a Billie Eilish video I could watch that would help me catch up?  I have to get at least a B+ in your course to get my Bachelor’s degree in Craft Brewing.”

Students aren’t the only ones who experience terror.     

The OTHER Pandemic….

Colleges and universities across the nation were stunned yesterday when it was announced that consulting firms to higher education will soon be classified as Level I PARASITES — and a threat to public health — by the Centers for Disease Control.  

According to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, “we did not make this decision lightly, but we had no choice.  A parasite is an organism that lives in or on a host organism and obtains its nutrients at the expense of the host.  This is precisely what higher education consulting firms do.  They most closely resemble arthropods such as ticks, fleas, and lice, burrowing deep into the moist, fetid, germ-friendly crevices of a school’s organizational infrastructure for long periods of time, sucking out the institution’s discretionary financial resources.  

“What do colleges and universities get in return?  Generic diagnoses that are laughably primitive (‘Trust is low, communication is poor, silos are high’) and recommendations for change that are stupefyingly simplistic (‘Build trust, communicate better, use action verbs, HAVE A RETREAT!’).  

“And don’t get me started on firms that specialize in diversity training.  Dammit, there goes my acid reflux again!

“By the time a consulting firm is finished, all that’s left is an organizational husk — conference rooms filled with cynics, jargon-numbed zombies, and whiteboards hemorrhaging buzzwords (SYNERGY!) drawn with multi-colored dry-erase markers.  Behold the afterbirth of a newborn Vision Statement that puts an emphasis on ‘THE FUTURE’!  Crap, I just threw up on my blouse.  

“Once we get COVID under control, we’re going to take on these insidious ectoparasites.  Pfizer is working on both oral and anal vaccines for college presidents and provosts.  This is a battle we can’t afford to lose.”

“Can You Hear Me Now?”

In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jane Halonen and Dana Dunn offer advice on how to give written feedback to students without alienating them (September 10th online).  The overall suggestions the authors provide are valuable, but the examples they employ could be more pointed.  As a service to our readers, and with gratitude to Halonen and Dunn, University Life will now use the authors’ headings to illustrate their principles with a bit more punch. 

Explain your feedback style:  Let’s say that you’re one of those professors who prefer their students’ writing to be factually accurate.  In the current climate, where “my truth” is a phrase that many students view as a blank check, it’s important for them to know that such truth can represent the on-ramp to an assertion that is profoundly stupid.  It’s your responsibility to inform them that you will correct these assertions.  (“I hate to tell you this, Skippy, but Belgium was not one of the Thirteen Colonies.”)

Identify your quirks:  If you often use the term “dipwad” in your written feedback (“Hey, dipwad, a run-on sentence of 250 words is not OK.”), it’s a good idea to let students know this ahead of time.  Tell them not to take it personally.  

Emphasize WHY you’re giving students the feedback you’re giving them:  “Skippy, the reason I called you out for mistaking Belgium as one of the Thirteen Colonies is that you are a dipwad.”

Highlight what students have done wellThis is terrific advice.  Example:  “Tabitha, you looked really attractive in class today.  In fact, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you as I grade papers tonight, all alone in my king-size bed.  Thanks for being you.”

Limit corrections to the most important ones“Clyde, the assignment asked you to analyze the economic causes of the Franco-Prussian War.  You submitted a paper that discusses the process by which you assemble your NFL Fantasy Football team.  I’m confused.”

Ask students which kinds of critique will be most useful to them“Autumn, if I notice that you’ve engaged in wholesale plagiarism in your paper, do you want me to point that out, or would doing so make you feel uncomfortable?”  

Give students an opportunity to revise to recapture credit:  Once again, a great idea.  “Tabitha, now that I’ve finished reading your paper this evening, I must say it’s not very good.  Should we meet at Olive Garden for dinner tomorrow night to discuss what we can do about this?  My treat.”

Resist the urge to adopt current slang in your feedbackInstead, use slang that you’re more familiar and comfortable with.  (“Hate to bug ya, daddy-o, but some of the grammar in your essay is less than groovy.  C’mon, hep cat.  Remove those cool shades and eyeball that prose one more time.”)

I can dig it, man.  Slip me five on the down side. 


The $800 Million Misunderstanding

TRUE FACT HEADLINE: “Harvard Will Move to Divest its Endowment from Fossil Fuels” (Harvard Crimson, September 9th online)

Well, not quite.

According to Harvard President Lawrence Bacow, what the school actually plans to do is divest itself of fossil faculty.

“The misunderstanding is all my fault,” says Bacow.  

“Here’s the problem we’re trying to address, and it’s a serious one.  Our aging, tenured professors are becoming increasingly cranky and expensive to maintain.  And when they talk, it sounds like their brains are filled with kettle corn.  Have you tried engaging Steven Pinker in a lucid conversation lately?  Good luck. 

“Well, Boston and Cambridge are teeming with bright, unemployed, PhD-bearing adjuncts who are more than willing to teach a 100-seat section of Renaissance Poetry for the price of a Fenway Frank.  We can’t in good conscience continue to spend Harvard’s limited resources on faculty from the Cretaceous Period.  So, beginning in January, 2022, the mandatory retirement age for our professors will be 65.  Will we get sued?  Hell, yeah.  But I’m sure Martin Luther King would be on our side.  We’re fighting for our principles here.

“As I said before, I take full responsibility for the confusion that has arisen.  What I meant to say in my formal announcement is that all of these terminated professors, 65 and older, will be given an opportunity to have themselves immediately converted into fossil fuel.  This ‘faculty fuel’ will then be used to provide emergency power to the Main Reading Room of Widener Library during storm-related power outages.  We intend to call this our “Legacy of Light” initiative, and it’s quite inspirational, when you stop and think about it. 

“Unfortunately, I garbled this message when briefing reporters a couple of days ago, resulting in the Crimson’s erroneous headline.  In my defense, I turned 70 in August.  Would you like some kettle corn?”

Student Empowerment in the Age of COVID

Today’s True Fact:  The University System of Georgia has not mandated the wearing of masks in classrooms (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 27th online).  

This is bad news for Professor Wendell McGlebben, who teaches a course on Faulkner and the Novel at the University of Georgia in Athens, but good news for his students, who are now flexing their negotiation biceps.

On the first day of class this semester, they presented McGlebben with a written list of demands that included the following:

— Eliminate the final exam

— Replace the required reading list of “The Sound and the Fury,” “As I Lay Dying,” and “Absalom, Absalom!” with “The Bridges of Madison County” (abridged version) and “To Kill a Mockingbird” (the movie)

—  Reduce the number of “reflection papers” from 8 to 2, and the length of these papers from 2 pages to 1 slogan, proverb, or aphorism

—  Award extra credit for attending class, and double-extra-credit for not texting during class

In exchange, the students promised that they would wear masks whenever they decided to come to class.

According to student representative Hanson “Skeeter” Blovell, a junior English major, “we all knew that we had some leverage going into this course.  Professor McGlebben is 78 years old and is missing a lung due to a botched emergency appendectomy at the Marietta Urgent Care Center in 2019.  He coughs a lot, and both his wife and his cat “Raspy” have severe asthma.  Need I say more?”

The professor agreed to the students’ terms, telling reporters that “a part of me has to admire the little bastards.  They saw an opportunity and took advantage of it.  I just hope our Bulldogs football team can do the same on the gridiron this fall.  And I’ll be honest: Faulkner bores the crap out of me.  Five pages in, and I’m nodding off.  The man is weird.”

In Defense of Free Trade….

Let’s be honest.

We knew it was coming. 

Yesterday the NCAA announced that on July 15, 2022, it will grant all colleges and universities in the United States the right to trade varsity athletes from one school to another.

That’s right:  A running back who plays for Purdue in 2021 might end up starting for Syracuse in the 2022 season, due to his being exchanged for a defensive end and a placekicker from the latter institution.

NCAA Commissioner Mark Emmert beamed as he briefed reporters:  “With this action, college sports finally enters the 21st century.  The facade of amateurism that we have been winking at for decades can finally be toppled, so we can get down to the real business of higher education: serving as an efficient delivery mechanism for March Madness and postseason football — except in the Ivy League, of course, where they’re preoccupied with restocking the ruling class.  More power to ’em, by the way.  Damn, I’m happier than a horny cocker spaniel that just tumbled into a prairie-dog brothel on the shoulder of a lonely Montana highway on a cold winter’s night!”

Trades will only be permitted during the Drop/Add period at the beginning of each semester, when students are traditionally able to switch courses.  (“We’re working hard to honor long-standing scheduling policies at colleges across the country.”)

In addition, a school can only trade an athlete to a college or university that offers the same major that the student had at the institution where he or she initially enrolled.  (“Not a problem,” promises Emmert.  “Nearly 92% of all varsity athletes major in E-Sports, General Studies, or Branding.”)

On the other hand, schools will be allowed to engage in “cross-trading,” a major NCAA innovation in the sports world.  For example, a football player from one college might be traded for a basketball player from another school.  

“We’re so dang proud to have come up with this,” says the Commissioner. Let’s say your starting quarterback has just been sidelined for the season by a nasty case of gonorrhea, while the All-American point guard on the women’s basketball team at another school has severely fractured her shooting wrist fending off the amorous advances of the team chaplain.  You could exchange a point guard from your school for the starting quarterback at theirs.  A win-win.  Is that cool or what?”

Yes, it certainly is.  It’s very, VERY cool.  



Really, It DOES Make Sense….

TRUE FACT #1:  On August 6th, Louisiana State University’s beloved tiger mascot, Mike VII, received his second COVID-19 vaccination (LSU Media Center, August 9th).

TRUE FACT #2:  As of August 9th, only 36% of LSU students had been vaccinated.  The school has not taken the step of requiring its students to get vaccinated against COVID-19 (Chronicle of Higher Education, August 12th online).  

According to LSU officials, Mike VII was not given the option of declining the vaccine.  


“This was an executive decision,” claims a high-level LSU administrator who wishes to remain anonymous.  “Let’s face it, the cost of replacing a full-grown Bengal-Siberian tiger that’s been felled by COVID can approach $20,000, not including transportation fees.  And the last thing our university needs on social media right now is pirated photos showing Mike VII stretched out on a gurney with a ventilator mask covering his snout.  The optics are horrific.

“On the other hand, we have a long waiting list of community college students who would be happy to sacrifice a limb to transfer to LSU.  So, even if a few of our current unvaccinated students have to drop out for a semester to recover from COVID, we can replace them in less time than it takes for a freshman from New Iberia to guzzle a gallon of Planter’s Punch at a fraternity party on homecoming weekend.

“Do the math, and tell me if I’m wrong.”

University Life did the math.

He’s right. 


Tastes Great, Less Filling!

According to a recent article in EdScoop, “some California higher education institutions plan to shift away from textbooks toward open educational resources in the coming years” (August 9th online). 

Idaho is going one step further.

Beginning in Fall 2023, all courses offered in Idaho’s public colleges and universities will be content-free.  

As State Board of Education Executive Director Matt Freeman put it, “going content-free will address two major problems plaguing higher education in the 21st century.  The first challenge is the difficulty of course content.  Have you ever seen the material that is covered in an Organic Chemistry class?  That stuff is hard, man, especially for students raised in a state where science only appears on high school worksheets as an extracurricular activity.

“The second problem is bias.  Now that both post-modernists AND the far right agree that the concept of objective knowledge is a non-starter, the whole notion of ‘course content’ has become moot.”  

When Freeman was asked by reporters to describe what would replace course content in Idaho colleges and universities in 2023, he indicated that state institutions would rely heavily on cat videos that are inclusive of all breeds, as well as Tweets from LeBron James and Ben Affleck.  Advanced courses would consist of TikTok dance routines featuring expressionless teenagers channeling Billie Eilish, Megan Thee Stallion, and Tom Brady.  


Damn, Those Side Effects….!!!

TRUE FACT:  Beginning in Fall 2022, Minnesota teens who have spent time in foster care will have their college costs covered by a new state grant program (Star Tribune, July 31st online).

Sounds like a terrific idea.

In theory.

Unfortunately, many middle- and working-class parents in the North Star State have responded to this initiative by abandoning their biological children.

Minnesota State Police report that the number of teenagers left at rest areas on Interstates 94 and 35 has increased 50-fold.  According to one state trooper, “we used to see about 2 or 3 abandoned kids per week on our Interstate highways.  Now, the number is close to 150.  Unbelievable!

“What generally happens is that the family is out driving somewhere when Junior says he has to go to the bathroom.  The parents stop at a rest area and let him out.  As soon as he enters the facility, the parents take off.  They hightail it home, pack up all their stuff, and move out of state with no forwarding address.  How cruel is that?”

For their part, the majority of these parents claim that no one ever told them how expensive it would be to raise children.

“On any given day, my 14-year-old son Chester would eat his body weight in Cheetos,” complains a single mom from Duluth who immobilized her Orange Boy with a tranquilizing dart and then deposited him on a bench in a local dog park before departing for Las Vegas with her boyfriend. “I’m entitled to a life too, you know.”

The Minnesota State Legislature will meet in emergency session in mid-August to address the perverse incentives embedded in the grant program.  Says Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazalka: “I thought Minnesotans were better than this.”

We all did, Senator.  We all did.

First Garrison Keillor, and now this.