It was a bruising semester, probably the most difficult I’ve ever experienced. Some students disappeared for weeks. Others made no discernible effort to prepare for classes, and sat in the back of the room listlessly scrolling their phones. One came to every meeting and spent most of the time complaining loudly to anyone who would listen that the course requirements were ridiculous, even unjust. He also told me he googled the assigned novels rather than read them. (And still, incredibly, he was shocked to receive less than full credit for the work he submitted.)
Many arrived late. Some refused to buy the required books. Virtually none were inclined to remember much of anything from one class to the next. As weeks passed, the collective antipathy became palpable. A passive-aggressive resentment at being asked to read lapsed into putty-eyed indifference punctuated by sporadic flickers of contempt. We have become something like galley slaves on a foundering ship, I thought at one point, taking on water yet too dispirited to swim.
Every other faculty member I spoke with agreed that Spring was intolerable. One suggested that even by the standards of the post-iPhone era– that watershed moment when the internet’s ubiquity was perfected, thus gutting the attention spans of the world– this semester was a bust. I know teachers who have given up on asking their students to complete long form texts. The most they can handle, a colleague remarked, are excerpts, possibly poems, though reading comprehension levels seem to have declined to such a degree that any effort to move beyond the most literal, superficial level of meaning poses a challenge. His curriculum consists primarily of visual art now.
I’ve always had students in my courses who didn’t like the material and frankly didn’t like me. That’s just how it goes. But I can honestly say I’ve never before witnessed an alienation this implacable. It seems that an entire cohort of students is on the brink. Their intellectual stamina has been vaporized by endless shock waves of digital stimulus. They have been carefully instructed in regimes of pop psychological self-care yet are confronted by imploding conditions no institution appears able or even willing to arrest. They have been locked into habits of mind dictated by algorithms the only purpose of which is to accumulate likes and cash. Shackled to their benches, their chains are a source of cold comfort.