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The Rise of the Helicopter Teacher

A week before the first paper was due, a young woman in my class raised her hand and asked where the rubric was.

Shamefaced and stuttering, I had to admit that I had no idea what a rubric was. She helpfully explained that this was a set of guidelines explaining what I expected them to write, how I expected them to write it, and how each aspect of the paper would be evaluated. A set of boxes that students could check off to guarantee that they had met my expectations. For all intents and purposes, in other words, an outline for the paper.

Oh, I replied. No, I continued, there would be no rubric. And as I saw the crestfallen faces in front of me I realized what these students expected me to be: a helicopter teacher.

We have all seen (and made fun of) helicopter parents. They hover. They are endlessly accommodating. They put up with rude, spoiled behavior from their children without offering much by way of discipline or punishment.

Over the last generation or so, teaching has come to resemble parenting in several ways, swayed by the currents of hyper-parenting that come from the larger culture and responding to the dictates that come down to us from higher up our institutional food chains.

Perhaps it started with the now well-documented phenomenon of grade inflation. Reluctant to make students feel bad, we started giving A’s for effort, not necessarily for accomplishment or mastery. When I was in graduate school I overheard one of my comrades arguing with a student over a grade. He’d gotten a B on the midterm: “But a B … that’s like a C!” the student yelled in utter desperation. The student, it turns out, has been proved largely correct. The children at America’s colleges and universities may not all be above average, but their grades usually are.

Some have decried grade inflation as a sign of declining academic standards and intellectual rigor on the part of the faculty. Others have blamed it on systems of course evaluation that reward easiness and popularity and punish … well, high standards and rigorous courses. Either way, like those parents who swaddle their kids in bubble wrap before letting them use the slides, too many faculty members now are scared to watch their students struggle and fail. Bad for their self-esteem, worse for my annual evaluation from my department chair.

Just as technology now tethers children to their parents more or less 24/7, so too new campus technologies carry the expectation that faculty members will be on-call well beyond their posted office hours. It began with email, of course, but has now expanded to include lots of other ways we are supposed to stay connected to our students.

Classroom “management” platforms include digital discussion boards so that we can all interact virtually with each other at any time. Sort of like digital play dates that faculty must monitor because we no longer think our students will talk among themselves. Actual interactions, like in the classroom itself, or one-on-one in my office, apparently no longer constitute enough togetherness time. That this caters to the convenience of students is something that goes without saying because we hardly ever say it out loud.

And then there is the spoon-feeding. The student who asked me for a rubric did so because she gets them in all her other classes, and has gotten them during her entire school career. Without such road maps, so I have learned, students feel the free-floating anxiety that they will have to do all the work of writing a paper on their own, that they might not do it well, and thus might wind up with a B on the paper. Which as we all know is the same as a C. Hey, I’m sure I’m just as guilty of inflating grades as anyone.

Perhaps the blame lies with No Child Left Behind, which has a created a generation of rubric-addicted students. My students have better standardized-test scores than they did 15 years ago, but they are terrified of thinking on their own. They don’t know how—and perhaps 19-year-olds never did—but they are scared of trying. I am now a member of my local school board, and I am more convinced than ever not only that regimes of standardized testing are bad for education but that their real purpose is to punish teachers. NCLB was never about improving learning, it was about breaking the public schools.

Cleaning out some files not too long ago I looked at a syllabus I wrote in my first year teaching. It was four pages long, had a rough-and-ready description of the course, and then a week-by-week schedule of lectures and assignments. The syllabus I just used in that same course ran to 13 pages, including as it now does a two-page explanation of what a “thesis” is and a page explaining each of the assignments.

I am also now required to include pages of administrative boilerplate. My favorite bit is the section where I have to explain my “learning objectives.” Head hung low, I confess that I have no idea what a “learning objective” is, though it sounds like the intellectual analog to having your dad remind you to brush your teeth.

This is not, I hasten to add, entirely the fault of students. Just as toddlers pick up the messages their overinvolved parents send them, students pick up on the “customer service” ethos that now permeates so much of higher education.

Rarely do students hear that their education is their own responsibility or that it must be worked at rather than simply consumed. And that’s the point: I can teach in a meaningful way only if students are prepared to learn.

Teaching and parenting share this in common: In both relationships, the goal is to produce independent and self-sufficient human beings. The risk that helicopter parents run is that they will raise children so coddled that they have a hard time functioning on their own in the larger world. So too with the way we have infantilized our students. Afraid or unwilling to challenge them, we pass them through with perfectly good grades but without much of a sense of how to work on their own or think for themselves.

It takes two to tango, as the old cliché has it. But the new partners will never learn to dance if the others keep dragging them around the dance floor, doing all the steps for them.

Steven Conn is a professor and director of the public-history program at Ohio State University.

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