Managing the balance within my capacity.

Managing the Balance between Pandemic Empathy and Generational Entitlement in Academia

Azalea*, a shy music major, was the type of student that made professors take satisfied, cat-like stretches as the class headed out of the door. She turned in her work for the College Writing course she had with me ahead of time if not on time and asked just the right questions to justify my going deeper into the subject matter in a way that didn’t seem forced. Since then, she went on to take her required courses, despite being diagnosed with cancer in the past two years. Not only did she fight through nausea, exhaustion, hair loss, and painful chemo treatments to beat it (under extreme isolation due to the pandemic), but she married her college sweetheart soon afterward. All, while staying in step with her classes to graduate for several days.

After battling through covid 19, fraternity member and former school mascot Renaldo* discovered that he not only lost twenty pounds but also a scholarship he relied on to finish his senior year due to budget cuts. He made pizzas at a local pizzeria and ubered in his Jetta to make up for a scholarship shortfall. After a shift with uber, he played a pickup game of basketball with a friend at a public basketball court. When the game ended, a Hispanic Trump supporter blocked him from getting back into his car, demanding proof of ownership beyond car keys. Renaldo literally had to fight to get into his own car. His harasser pressed charges, ironically. Renaldo stayed logged on to the Storyline Writing for Videogames virtual class he had with me even while sitting on the steps of the courthouse. The case was thrown out due to his harasser’s improper criminal complaint. Renaldo kept up with his six classes and graduated several days ago as well.

Charvelle* always logged in to my Black Men and the Contemporary Memoir virtual class with a sky blue hospital gown, a nasal cannula pronged in both her nostrils, and a smart patch on her bare right shoulder. Upon becoming pregnant months before the semester, she suffered kidney failure. Nevertheless, she stayed on screen each day for class while preparing for dialysis. There were instances when she seemed to shed tears in her sleep but assured me she was yawning with a closed mouth while resting her eyes. I called myself trying to make her feel better with humor every now and then until the nurse leaned into the screen to let me know that laughing was far more painful for her than I could imagine. Although Charvelle broke down on occasion about being overwhelmed with her circumstances, she persevered and passed the class on the strength of the work she submitted.

There are numerous stories of students at Florida Memorial University who found a sense of determination and resilience they did not know they had to get through the last fifteen months. On the other end of the spectrum, there are students who, in the words of a wise man who details my car, “showed up like the school owed them a degree.” They did so, by way of academic entitlement. For those unfamiliar with the term, academic entitlement, according to theology and psychology scholar Barbara Holdcroft, is “apparent in attempts to influence or reverse grades. When a student blames the instructor for a poor grade, the student’s perception of effort or ability is at odds with actual academic performance.”[1]

Once I grew familiar with the term academic entitlement, I was certain it was the result of more than inflated grades and helicopter parenting. More importantly, how would it possibly affect educators/administrators like myself at such a pivotal point in academia where so many universities struggle for robust enrollment numbers? I needed case studies, so I became more aware of students whose names were mentioned by fellow faculty and administration with a clenched jaw or shaking of the head. These were the students who had become more adept in circumventing administrative protocol to argue with a provost about a professor who’s “hating” on them. The reasons included not accepting late work, not disregarding two weeklong absences, or refusing to give term papers emailed in as a rambling text message from a phone a passing grade. Students like these matriculate and go on to graduate in universities throughout the country simply out of administration and faculty being exhausted with them. Said student then struts off in cap and gown into a job market with no graded curve or patience for their incessant complaining and fear of hard work.

There has always been and will always be a percentage of people looking to avoid the work inherent in any worthwhile process. I hold no idealistic vision of ever being in a space where that will not be the case. What concerned me, especially over the past fifteen months, was the vast disparity between those who tapped into their resiliency to meet their obligations and those who flagrantly tried to manipulate or sidestep any responsibility for their lack of work ethic due to academic entitlement. According to English professor Lori Isbell, the difficulties experienced by the latter are becoming easier to assess:

“Yet that is not necessarily because they lack academic ability — although that may be true as well at the community college level — 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.”[2]

That word made all the difference when I read it. To earn. It led me down the path of understanding the factors contributing to academic entitlement. I come from a generation and family where you poured yourself into your work when times were tough for distraction and to move forward. A certain sense of agency was expected of you to even earn the right to have a say about the process in question. Too many of us felt abused by this mindset apparently. We sought to correct it with children who step into the conversations of adults with no sense of respect, real-life experience, or contribution. They enter spaces we earned our rightful place in through contribution with little else but expectations.

Combine that dynamic with a hyper-consumerist mindset and the result is a generation of students susceptible to seeing the college experience as something to be merely purchased, not earned. Car rides, food, music, relationships (though superficial) can be accessed through apps and purchased with a click of a button. Many young people are experiencing their first real opportunity of earning something substantial, in this instance, a college degree, by becoming college students. As a result, faculty can be easily misconstrued as mere vessels providing a purchased service that requires no real sense of obligation from the customer.

Clinical psychologist Mary McKinney’s Inside Higher Ed article “Coping with ‘Oy Vey’ Students” lists common student demands and complaints that many faculty can relate to:

“I have to miss class; tell me what you are covering.” “I was sick all last week; did you cover anything important?” “I have so many personal issues that I haven’t been able to study for your tests.” “I didn’t cheat!” “You’re not going to give me a zero, are you?” “Plagiarism? I didn’t even see the website!”[3]

McKinney went on to share how during one academic year, her students complained that her course material was too difficult and demanded that she allowed them to retake exams, be provided extra-credit opportunities and that all grades be curved. Consequently, a study conducted by University of California psychology professor Ellen Greenberger revealed that:

66.2 percent of students believe that “trying hard” should result in a good grade;

40.7 percent believe that completing most of the reading for a course should result in a B grade;

23.5 percent believe that a professor should respond to an e-mail the same day it was sent; and

16.5 percent believe that students should be allowed to take calls during class.

As a result, my colleagues and I are challenged with managing an ever-shifting balance between pandemic empathy and holding accountable what many refer to as “the entitlement generation.”[4]

My role as department chair requires that I mediate disputes. Most are between my faculty and students like one that sat beside me just last week, sighing heavily and drumming her nails over her cell phone screen as I ate at a post-baccalaureate luncheon. The student refused to accept how the professor of the class in question refused to let her disappear for over half of the semester, only to submit some of the required work a day after final grades were due to the registrar. Her laptop wasn’t working. Her phone was broken… all of which was up and running on the day she mistakenly thought was her deadline. Didn’t this professor know she was about to graduate? Relatives were on their way for God’s sake. Plane tickets had been secured for commencement. I was so proud of the professor for standing her ground. She shared with me how the student, having found out she and the professor were in the same sorority, began referring to her as “soror” after appearing out of thin air at the end of the semester with her past due work.

One student took a paper I assigned and went in a direction that merits mentioning. The thesis of the paper questions whether the purpose of education is to create leaders or employees for the workforce. My intent was to have them take more interest in the purpose of the education they were receiving at the university to see if it indeed was in line with their vision of their future. Instead of doing the due diligence of researching his chosen major and that particular faculty’s work in that field, the student fixated on his having not only “paid for better caf food/dorms/homecoming concerts” but having “paid the faculty’s salaries” with his tuition. The interest in the participating of student organizations and the campus activities I had hoped for in this student stalled at his trying to derail class discussions with dismissive remarks such as: “this ain’t what I paid for.” The student became a disruption in other classes as well, asking faculty to “just email us all that stuff you putting on the board” to keep him from having to write anything down and allow him to retake tests he failed. After all, he’s a paying customer.

Another student, already working within the neighboring school district, storms the campus on occasion demanding his major professor “just give him a passing grade” for a senior project he has yet to turn in satisfactory work to complete. This has been going on for the better part of five years. The professor’s insistence on him turning in a senior project with the proper literature review, methodology, and in the required APA format is proof, he argues, that “after all this time”, she “still has it out for me.” His suggestion: “As much money as I already gave this school… It’s just best she give me the grade so I can go on with my life.” It has come to the point that the student even refuses to take part in a virtual meeting with the professor to resolve the issue.

This kind of “the customer is always right” mentality is incapable of honoring the longstanding importance of academic rigor or institutional integrity. It also breeds hostility or a sense of incivility that, according to Jerry Kopf, Joy Peluchette, and Katherine Karl in “Students Behaving Badly: Causes and Possible Strategies for Dealing with Classroom Incivility,” “includes disrespect for standards of classroom behavior as posted in the syllabus. Examples might be a late arrival, sleeping, texting or other cell-phone use during class, or offensive language and comments.” In short, the student’s academic entitlement declares, “I am not here to learn, be transformed or to better myself. I paid my money for the grades and to do as I please.”

To that end, it is quite easy for administration and faculty to respond with a hardline approach. We are, above all else, an academy, a place of study or training in a special field, not a glorified hotel where staff chase behind and appease the whims of its fickle guests. On the other hand, as stated earlier, we are in the midst of a global pandemic. Additionally, the highly contentious racial climate has made Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s) like Florida Memorial University a haven for students like Renaldo who have had bigotry step into their everyday paths systematically as well as in specific, pointed instances. As with all HBCU’s, our mission calls upon our legacy of nurturing, empathy and protection during such times. To not do so seems to encourage dismal statistics like that of the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, where Black Americans are 3.23 times more likely than white Americans to be killed by police.[5] Parents and their children buy into the notion of students being shielded from most of society’s hazards and distractions through the confines of a college campus, especially one full of administrators and instructors sensitive to their plight. HBCUs have enjoyed a spike in enrollment since Trump’s polarizing rhetoric took hold of the country. This fact and the weight of related current events is not lost on faculty. A literature instructor admitted to me recently that she now refrains from giving the “maybe you’re not ready for college” speech to unmotivated students in fear of sending them into situations beyond the campus walls that lead to their demise. We looked over to a group of students passing by and she toyed with her Black Lives Matter wristband. “It just seems like it will be quite a while before we can push them like we used to.”

How does that fare in the face of students who have no real interest in education or self-improvement? What does that mean to students who think it is solely the responsibility of the instructor to get them to learn the course material? How do instructors set aside the toll the student body’s mental health has taken as of late to provide the tough love its entitled need for growth?

The answer is to address such instances, and individuals, on a case-by-case basis. This means each professor assesses the situation to get a sense of whether a student is genuinely distressed or is testing the waters to see what professors will and won’t stand for in their classes. It requires the sound judgment and support of administration such as myself and others, judgment that balances the importance of the institution’s integrity with its need for increased enrollment. Every grade appeal is not going to be credible to warrant deliberation. At some point, a student who has been having their run of the campus for the past year with their hard-luck story is going to need that certain professor and situation to provide a badly needed reality check.

This means faculty must stick to their syllabi as much as possible and not apologize for it. This means we remain leery of students known for spreading the contagion of whining. This means calling them out when they feel that their tuition warrants our lowering academic and professional integrity for their convenience.

This also means we remain empathetic enough to recognize those coming undone before our very eyes, those needing counseling, therapy or assistance. This means we send them on their way for help with the expectation that they will return ready and willing to do the work.

The mission of HBCU’s will not allow us to dismiss the pain experienced by so many of our students in this moment. At the same time, the integrity of these institutions demand that we not cow-tow to this culture of defiant irresponsibility and baffling entitlement. We are creating global citizens, cultivating leaders, and building agents of change. They can become so by owning their own excellence, which is Florida Memorial University’s motto. In order for them to own their excellence, we must insist that they, regardless of the turbulent times of the moment, own their own agency.

[1] https://www.aaup.org/article/student-incivility-intimidation-and-entitlement-academia

[2] https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2017/03/14/professor-examines-why-her-students-seem-act-so-helpless-essay

[3] https://www.aaup.org/article/student-incivility-intimidation-and-entitlement-academia

[4] https://www.aaup.org/article/student-incivility-intimidation-and-entitlement-academia

[5] https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/hsph-in-the-news/blacks-whites-police-deaths-disparity/

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William Ashanti Hobbs

William Ashanti Hobbs

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Writer, thought leader, artist, educator, equal opportunity offender