We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us

Well, we’re at mid-November, and in college and university campuses near and far, faculty members’ Grump-O-Meters are pinned to the maximum. In the immortal words of Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel, “this one goes to eleven.”

Maxed out. Hide the sharp objects.
Maxed out. Hide the sharp objects.

It’s a fundamental maxim that if you give an academic the opportunity to list his or her grievances/pet peeves/to-the-barricades burning causes, they will fill any and all available space to do so, like air rushing into a vacuum. Nothing exemplifies this more than the time-hallowed tradition of complaining about students. It’s a routine so consistent as to be performed unthinkingly in the hallowed halls of higher ed: the later in the semester it is, the worse “today’s students” are compared to those predecessors. In August, the new crop of students looks great; they’re engaged, talkative, and have that new car smell. In September, the luster’s off a little bit, but they still show up and do most of the work, so good for them. In October, the thrill is almost gone; they start to skip class, discussions become anemic, attention spans have shriveled. And come November, OMFG HOW DID THESE MOUTH-BREATHERS EVEN GET INTO HIGH SCHOOL MUCH LESS COLLEGE THEY ARE WHERE CIVILIZATION WILL GO TO DIE A SLOW AGONIZING DEATH I HATE THEM ALL.  

Every year, this same sad song plays in certain quarters of campus. This, of course, begs the question: If you’re bitching and moaning that today’s students pale in comparison with their predecessors, and you’ve engaged in said bitching and moaning EVERY YEAR, when were students ever not horrible? And the short answer is, well…we do it because it gives us something to do. It’s like talking about the weather, or about sports–it’s the vehicle for grousing and complaining that’s really important, not the specific context in which it takes place. Most of us like our students a lot, or at least most of them, and our kvetching is a way to relieve stress and find some snarky humor amidst the frantic backdrop of the semester’s work. And students do engage in annoying behaviors: shuffling in 15 minutes late dressed in pajama pants and Uggs; writing emails in all lower-case letters, bereft of punctuation, and using “hey” as the salutation; starting an essay on the Civil War with “Since the dawn of time, mankind has found reasons to go to war.” It happens. Often. I get it.*

But I would submit that students are the subject of faculty grousing not so much because of their sartorial choices and poor email skills (though the sweatpants & Uggs look has got to go, kids!), but because they’re a visible, easy target that in many ways lets us off the hook. We decry in others what we are loath to confront in ourselves. It’s occurred to me this year, perhaps more than any other in my career, that a lot of faculty target behaviors that they themselves are the poster children for. As the Great and Wise Philosopher Pogo once intoned, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

[Pogo, c. 1971, Walt Kelly]
Truer words have never been spoken.
Think about it: many of the student behaviors that have us reaching for the pitchforks and torches are the same things that we do when we’re left to our own devices! We’re not just like our students, we’re often WORSE THAN THEY ARE.

Don’t believe me? Consider the following scenarios [names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent]:

  1. Student: I failed the quiz because I didn’t have time to do the reading; the team traveled to a match yesterday, and I forgot my books, and I’m really busy with a project for my Org Behavior class. FacultyI hope you learned a lesson about being accountable and prepared for class. You should have better time-management skills as an upperclassman. Sorry, no make-ups allowed.
  2. Committee Chair: Let’s go ahead and get some language down for this assessment report in order to meet our deadline and allow department chairs the chance to give feedback. Committee Members (a chorus of tenured faculty): Do you have extra copies of the background reading? I didn’t bring any. I haven’t had time to read the protocols we’re using. I had advisee appointments all morning and had to floss my cat over the lunch hour. You’re expecting too much of us between meetings! WE’RE SO BUSY WITH OTHER THINGS WE’RE IMPORTANT THIS COMMITTEE IS A WASTE OF TIME.


  1. Students: Foucault/Derrida/Linear Algebra/The Canterbury Tales is HARD! How can you possibly expect us to become experts on it? We’re just not good at complex/esoteric/difficult-to-read stuff like this! Faculty: I know this material is complex, and it’s new, but this is crucial to the rest of the course. And anyone can become good at it–with EFFORT. I need you to put in the time to make sure everyone’s comfortable with it. I’ll do the best I can to help guide you through it, but you all need to stop complaining and suck it up–this is college-level work.
  2. Dean: I’d like to recommend that you use Blackboard for student grades and assignments; it keeps communication flowing, and the students like being able to monitor their progress in your courses. Faculty: Blackboard is HARD! How can you possibly expect us to become experts on it? We’re just not good at technology!


  1. Student: Can I have an extension on this paper? I didn’t really understand the assignment, and I’m behind on my research. Faculty: I don’t give extensions–if you get one, then everyone will want one. You should have come to me sooner, and not procrastinated on your research. Sorry, but this is college.
  2. Registrar: I need your department’s course schedule for next year so that I can publish it for pre-registration. It’s already late. Department Chair: I don’t understand the format you want us to use, and I haven’t gotten to it yet because of grading/advisees/meetings/personal grooming/incompetence. I need an extension.


  1. Student: [walks in to class 15 minutes late]. Faculty: For the last time, you need to be here when we start! It’s distracting when you come in late, and it’s disrespectful to me and your classmates. In the real world, you can’t just blow off scheduled commitments!
  2. Student: [knocks on faculty office door during posted office hours].  Faculty: [left the office an hour ago].


  1. Faculty: Does anyone have any questions? Students: [awkward silence]. Faculty: You know, this stuff will be on the midterm, and if you don’t use this time to ask any questions, I’ll have no sympathy for anyone who doesn’t do well.
  2. Faculty Senate Chair: Is there any discussion on this crucially important curricular motion? Faculty members: [awkward silence]. Faculty members, after meeting: The administration never consults us on anything! What happened to shared governance? They don’t even pretend to care about our voice. TO THE BARRICADES


  1. Faculty: You used this paper for another class last semester; you can’t turn it in for the project in my class, too. That’s academic dishonesty! How do you expect to be able to adapt to changes in our field if you take the easy way out and recycle out-of-date work? C’mon. I expected better out of you. Student: [dejected gaze].
  2. Faculty: [takes out sheaf of yellowed lecture notes that haven’t been modified for seventeen years]: OK–let’s get class started, everybody….


So the next time any of us are tempted to slam student behavior, or grouse about THE KIDS THESE DAYS, stop and think: “When have I done the same thing?” Because chances are, it’s been fairly recently. Look–there are plenty of things to be legitimately worked up about in the education world. And I’m as ready as the next person to grab the torches and man the barricades. But taking the easy way out and slagging on our students–when we do the SAME THINGS THEY DO–is not just hypocritical, but flat-out silly. And academe has more than enough silliness already. We can do better.

*I’m making an exception for those faculty members who go beyond the routine griping and genuinely hate their students. That’s a subject for another post down the road, but the short version: if you’re that miserable, and you really dislike students, get the hell out of the classroom. Now. We’ll all be better off if you do something else.

[Image Credits: Pogo, c. Walt Kelly, 1971; This one goes to eleven: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Up_to_eleven]

2 Replies to “We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us”

  1. Totally agree. I see adults using their phones during faculty meetings way more than I see my students doing it. I even saw one teacher answer the phone and start the conversation before he left the room.

    In yesterday’s faculty meeting, we were put in groups for a critical thinking project. I was “that student” who did the art for the group and completely ignored all the real work and discussion. The difference with me? I don’t blame my students for doing the same thing; I fix the design.

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