The bad apples of the student population

For those of you who read this column, you’ve probably noticed one preachy theme throughout it. That message is to fit your university experience into your broader framework of life. I think professors have a responsibility to help you do that.

For example, what you learn should be useful in life. It should engage you in questioning and thinking about your present life and the world around you. When I started teaching, I used to take newspaper clippings of current events and ask students on exams to analyse them in light of what we studied. I try to open with a current issue relating to what we just learned. At times, I am still disappointed to see in students an unwillingness to integrate what they are learning into their lives. It is like they keep their university education and their non-university lives in separate boxes.

One day as I walked around campus, I was happy to pass several current and former students. I am genuinely interested in how they are doing and I tried to make eye contact with them. In most cases, the students pretended they did not see me, looked the other way when we passed and did not respond when I greeted them. Now why would they do that? OK, some may have been shy or embarrassed to see me unexpectedly. Maybe some even have bad memories of me and they vowed that they wouldn’t have anything to do with me again. They certainly don’t have to greet me or anyone else ever. The point is to see how one’s socialization and experience at this university help to prepare us for the rest of our lives. Will we duck and avoid a co-worker or supervisor we meet in Zellers? How are we learning to manage our extemporaneous occurrences?

If we think honesty is important at work and home, why not at the University of Calgary? Once a student made off with the reference book for the course that was on library reserve–the very week that I was teaching ethics! In most of my courses, I use readings packages that are a fraction of the cost of textbooks. For convenience of students I sell these in class. I used to trust students to pay me by the next week if they did not have the money on them; they signed their names on this honour (IOU) list. More students than I am pleased to admit used the readings all term and refused to pay for them. They had no shame in receiving them on their honour, coming to class and choosing to steal from Printing Services. Would they do this for Co-op groceries if given the chance? Would they break trust with an employer in this way?

Even this term, several late registrants asked me to make copies of the readings package for them. I promptly did so, and none of them bothered to come by later in the day (or since) to pick them up. Too often students will lie about whether they were present in class. No courtesy, no accountability, no shame. What does this behaviour reflect?

Years ago I was working late at night in my office and two students broke in through the ceiling tiles to obtain a final exam in another professor’s office. I caught them and identified them. Why is the U of C different from any other organization in the world? Would they cheat at work and in their community to get ahead like this? Or is there something about university life that is not part of their broader reality?

I am curious whether students act differently here than they do off campus. Obviously, there is only a small number of students that will act in these ways. I am still surprised how many will abuse the university system and how fleeting integrity appears to be in this slice of life. Behaviour during one’s university years may be pattern-forming, therefore we cannot forget that this slice is part of the whole loaf.

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