Who among us has not heard the student in distress, claiming not to know ‘what the professor wants’? As if getting good grades is dependent on finding out each professor’s hidden idiosyncrasies – on figuring out how to please. This attitude has become very prevalent, and I’ve seen students paralysed by it. A professor will assign an essay, and students who are uncertain about how to proceed believe it’s because they don’t know what the professor wants; they truly believe they’re missing some crucial bit of information. Of course, the real reason for their uncertainty is usually their poor academic skills – they don’t know enough about the topic to generate some ideas or opinions with which they can then play around and organize into a paper. But instead of heading to the library, they wander the halls and poll other students, trying to discover ‘what the professor wants’.
My answer to this question, which is ‘I want you to demonstrate your competence with the course content’ – has been met with blank stares. If I’m lucky. Otherwise, it’s been met with anger, as if I’m being maliciously evasive and unclear, as if I’m holding something back, as if I’m being unfair! I’ll persist then: ‘I want you to do exactly what I said – write a critical analysis of X’ or ‘Answer the four questions I pose’ or whatever. ‘Yeah, but, like, what do you mean? You aren’t actually saying what you want us to do.’ Students who are really keen to ‘succeed’ might come right out with it: ‘But what do you want me to say? Tell me what to say and I’ll say it!’ I imagine the rest of the conversation – ‘Well if I did that, I’d be writing your essay for you.’ ‘Oh could you do that? That would be really helpful. And could I borrow your notes for your lecture? Oh and I missed the reading guide you handed out for the chapters we were to have read. And when will you be giving us the exam questions? And the answers? So we know what you want?’
(Thinking the problem might be lack of imagination as well as lack of knowledge, I’ve started giving students specific examples of what I want: for one course, I prepared four versions of a specific assignment, an A, a B, a C, and a D; when I work with students to help them improve their writing skills so they can pass our Writing Competency Test, I give them lots of examples of essays that would pass. But it takes an accomplished pianist to hear the difference between a Rubenstein performance and a Kiwanis Festival performance. It sounds the same to the person-next-door. I’ve learned that often the students who ‘need’ examples of good papers are exactly the students who can’t see the difference anyway.)
It used to be that one was careful about image, careful to make it represent reality. You didn’t want to give ‘the wrong impression’ – ‘wrong’ meaning one that was inaccurate, one that really wasn’t you. Now people are careful to present the image of what they want to be. Or worse, if they are aiming to please, the image of what they think the other wants them to be.
Why is this attention to image so dangerous? There are two reasons. One, we are losing the ability to see through it. Quite simply, the ability to think is becoming obsolete. My students provide me with the evidence. When I first taught critical thinking, I took for granted that they would understand the material – the letters to the editor, the informal essays. My objective was to teach them to critically assess the material. Surprise! Indeed I was surprised – and appalled and enraged – to discover that they couldn’t understand the material. And so teaching them to critically think about what they couldn’t even understand was – well – difficult. (And these are university students, the cream of the crop, academically speaking.) Now if we can’t understand the substance, let alone evaluate it, of course we’ll be at the mercy of the pretence.
And this leads me to the second danger. A vicious circle will surely develop: if people can’t respond to the substance anyway, why spend time on it, why not just focus on the pretence? But if we spend all our time cultivating the pretence, there will eventually be no substance. So it won’t be ‘image above all': it’ll become ‘image is all’! First you separate image from reality, then you focus exclusively on image, then you’ve got no reality, nothing’s real anymore. Read William Gibson’s Idoru.
Remember the airband craze? High school students practised pretending to play musical instruments. (That’s another thing that’s becoming obsolete – the ability to lay a musical instrument.) Whatever happened to Battle of the (Real) Bands contests? I heard a ‘new’ piece the other day. It was based on a sample from a Gene Krupa drum solo. That’s how technopop is ‘composed’ – it’s just someone using bits and pieces of (someone ‘sampling’) other people’s music, putting the bits together, often at random and mostly in repetition. That is, there’s no coherent development. Or shall I say, there’s no substance.
So no wonder the students fret, ‘Okay I get it, I have to have an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. But what do I put – I mean, what do you want me to put – in the paragraphs in the middle?’ Hm. Does it matter?