Undergrads Today Are the Worst: A TA's Confession

More and more, college students are showing up to class like it's a business transaction and don't think very much about the bigger questions.

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Apr 14 2015, 1:55pm

God, just look at them. Photo via Flickr user University of Saskatchewan

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

It's final exam season now at most of Canada's colleges and universities. Once upon a time, this was the most stressful part of my year—I'd be scrambling to track down old illegible notes, frantically skimming the textbooks of all the courses I'd skipped, negotiating late-night existential crises about why the fuck I picked economics as a minor—but now it's a weirdly peaceful time. Now, as a TA, March is actually the worst part of my year. As much as it sucks writing bullshit course papers in your undergrad, I can guarantee you that it sucks way more to be on the receiving end of 60 bullshit course papers you have to turn around in less than two weeks.

Given how many nervous breakdowns are triggered by this time of the semester, I try to end every year with a trip to the campus bar and a round of drinks on me. This lets the students know that I'm still human, and it also teaches them the most important lesson of all, namely that the best intellectual developments happen half cut in a bar somewhere with your colleagues.

Or at least, this has been my experience. The best class I took in my undergrad was a class on communism taught by a (self-professed) Czechoslovakian Leninist who repeatedly told us to drop acid and fight cops. I never followed his advice exactly, but I did skip a lot of classes to get stoned and play Mario Tennis, which is pretty much the same thing. Sometimes we also talked about Nabokov or Newfoundland politics, so it was basically just like learning.

I've offered free pints to a couple of different classes, and in my experience no one, anywhere, ever, turns down an all-expenses-paid trip to the pub that gets them marks for attendance—even if they don't drink.

Except this year, when almost 80 percent of the students said they'd rather just bail than go for a round. What the fuck?

I was blown away. I couldn't believe it. Who turns down free drinks to go home and take a nap? If they were hardcore keeners I could believe it, but no one's even doing the course readings after the beginning of February. Kids these days are fucked. I'm pretty sure you can suss out all the problems with the modern university through their failure to blow off class on a fucking Friday afternoon for some free beer.

Foucault is for the children
I use "kids" here pretty loosely—at 27 I'm basically still a baby and have seven years max on most of my students. A couple have probably been my age or older, or at least they look it, which might mean they've been partying a bit too hard.

I'm a doctoral student in political science with the good graces to be funded for the privilege, which means I spend eight months out of the year as a Teaching Assistant. TAing is a kind of weird gray area between student and professor. I'm sort of an authority figure but also not totally terrifying. I'm still a student, just older, fatter, and deeper in debt. It's basically a scholarly cross between mafia lieutenant and shop steward. I'm not a full instructor but every week I'm given control of a couple seminar sessions where I can "rap with the kids" and put a human face on what they learn in class.

Sometimes I run seminars on Canadian politics, where I'm basically a referee: I'm there to make sure that the discussion is a level above what you'd hear in a dive bar (or trying to make sure that the students don't unintentionally veer into horrifyingly racist rants about Aboriginals or the French). I also have to spend a lot of time clearing up misconceptions about Newfoundland, because for some reason they all think we're just a bunch of rowdy drunks. Occasionally, I have to remind them that Stephen Harper is not literally Adolf Hitler, but because I'm in Alberta that's actually a pretty rare occurrence.

Mostly though, I run seminars on introductory political philosophy. Political philosophy is a fun specialty because other political scientists don't take you seriously (there is no math involved so it's not a Serious Topic) and neither do actual philosophers, who don't have the time of day for anyone who can't immediately process obtuse burns about Heidegger or whatever. Basically, professional philosophers are the worst people.

I'm really just here to talk about power and domination, just not the kind your suburban mom reads about.

It's actually wicked to TA these classes. Yeah, we spend two to six months slogging through a lot of tedious shit like Plato's homoerotic fan-fiction about his brothers or Machiavelli teaching us how to murder our friends for fun and profit, but then we get to the modern period and I get to introduce people to Marx and Foucault and friends and watch everyone's brains melt. It's really fun to ask a pre-law business student to seriously think about what "exploitation" means for the first time or spend 40 minutes talking about how the modern school system isn't so much for learning as it is for disciplining us to obey authority.

Contrary to the chain emails your racist uncle sends you, we don't actually spend whole semesters teaching students that god is dead before we're punched out by religious Marines fresh off the plane from Afghanistan or Iraq or whichever country it is we're bombing right now. But we do actively encourage students to think about whether the story their parents and/or televisions told them about how the world works is actually accurate or useful. Some of that sticks more than others.

Teaching in the time of austerity
This is a weird bit of business now that the role of the university is changing. More students are showing up treating it like any other business transaction—they pay for a service ("education" in the form of course credits and grades) and a commodity (a degree which makes them more valuable to employers). The general undergraduate culture is less interested in any expansive idea of learning than in being told exactly which page(s) they need to quote to get an A on their paper. And god help you if you don't post your PowerPoint slides online.

Schools are more and more like factories, and the governments that fund them either grant or withhold that money based on the "value-added" products (i.e. people) we churn out for the labor market.

Unfortunately, this model breaks down when it comes to a lot of arts degrees—especially political theory. Yes, we teach "critical thinking and research/writing skills," but mostly we're there to teach students to question what power is, how it works, what makes it legitimate, and whether or not the social status quo makes any goddamn sense. Depending on where you're sitting, you'll either be relieved or alarmed to know that most students don't bother thinking too hard about the big questions of social justice.

As you can imagine, governments don't like this nebulous "thinking" shit very much, so the axe tends to come down on us hard and fast whenever they want to save money. And since the modern university is less a utopian space of free thought and intellectual exploration than it is an assembly line for fleecing money from young adults, they are often only too happy to follow suit. Just ask the fine folks at York and the U of T.

It's really easy to sell university as a good target for cutbacks in austere times, because who actually wants their tax dollars going to a bunch of punks on the poverty line who teach kids to hate Canada? It also helps that most of us will readily take the beating and gladly turn the other cheek. Except in Quebec, where students and faculty actually give enough of a fuck to hit the streets in response to bullshit provincial budgets.

Meanwhile, in Alberta, we're all going to stay inside and then reelect the Tories again for another trillion years. Who cares if the whole system is falling the fuck apart as long as we can ride out the comedown with ease?

Which brings me back to the free drinks. Given the absolute mess that is The Academy (tm) in the Year of Our Lord 2015, it makes no sense to avoid a momentary boozy reprieve where everyone can share some Real Talk on the same level. At the very least, accepting free shit is a good business practice. It's one of the few moments in this perverse corporate ritual where we can pretend that education is something bigger than just an extension of childhood where you're given a piece of paper at the end that'll make it marginally easier to pay back all the debt you picked up trying to get it in the first place.

It's also the only way to genuinely evaluate my students, because writing papers and memorizing exam answers can be a total crapshoot and isn't always reflective of someone's actual insight. Life happens. It's only when you're sitting down with them splitting a pitcher and they tell you they actually learned something—that there is something about themselves and the world around them that they suddenly "get" for the first time—that you know whether or not you actually succeeded at this education racket. There is something incredible in watching someone cool and smart take their first tentative steps towards enlightenment and to know that you played some tiny role in helping them get there.

At least, that's how you feel until it's a year later and you learn they're now applying to grad school in your field and this incredibly cool and smart person is actually your direct competition for the one academic job that will exist in the world five years from now and then you realize, fuck, I taught this kid Machiavelli.

At least this year, I probably didn't buy that fucker a drink.

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