Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Kids don't belong in universities.

Don't let the title fool you This post isn't about students, it's about how we treat them. 

The fall semester is underway for most of us. The students I TA saw me yesterday in their lecture, but I won't meet them until the week after next. The start of a new semester seems like a good time to start a discussion about how we, as TAs, professors, and non-academic staff, treat students. It drives me crazy when I hear college students, most of whom are legal adults, referred to as kids.

If you do a Google search for "kids," what comes up are programs, clothes, and toys marketed towards grade-school people. Our students have outgrown this marketing demographic, so why do we still label them as "kids?"

As someone who looks at least ten years younger than I am, I know from experience that people in their twenties are treated very differently from people in their thirties (or more), and nowhere is this more painfully obvious than in academia. There are undergraduate and graduate students who may be older than you, and lumping them into a general term like "kids" is insulting. More importantly, age, like gender and ethnicity, is something that individuals cannot control. So why do we think age-based terms are any more appropriate than gender- or ethnicity-based terms? 

There's another motivation to stop referring to our students as "kids." How we refer to them, even when we think they can't hear us, defines our expectations for their behavior, and their behavior will reflect this.

I was a high school exchange student. At 17 I headed across the Pacific Ocean for an extra year of high school. Expectations were high. I was representing my family, my community, my country, and the program that ran the exchange program. 

Several years later, after I'd returned and completed my undergraduate degree, I had the opportunity to become involved in the same exchange program, this time helping organize and run orientation weekends for our exchange students. I worked with high school students who were preparing to go on an exchange, students who had just returned from an exchange, and the international students coming into our district for an exchange. We worked hard to make sure they understood that with the privilege of being part of this exchange program came great responsibility. The upper teen years are a tough time for anyone, and we put extra pressure on these students because they were exceptional enough to be chosen for our program. 

I'll never forget the day some feedback came back to our committee from some of our students. They overheard two committee members referring to the students as kids. Their complaint was simple: if we expected them to act like adults during their time as exchange students in our program, then we should treat them with more respect, starting with not calling them kids.  You know what? They were absolutely right.

One of the things I say to my students on the first day I meet them is that I will treat them as adults, and I expect them to behave accordingly. From some students I get a look of surprise, but most students appear to appreciate it. The first semester I did this, I taught a total of 85 students. Most of my students met or exceeded the expectations outlined in the syllabus. Some tried to test the limit of what they could get away with, but only 4 refused to accept the consequences when they didn't meet the expectations outlined in the syllabus. 

We want students to rise up to our expectations. We want them to be more invested in their own education, to be more accountable for their decisions, to be more willing to take initiative. Let's start by treating them as adults, both in the classroom and behind their backs. Let's stop referring to our students as kids. The term "kid" doesn't belong in university (unless you're studying baby animals).

Students on a field trip in the Drumheller region of Alberta, 2012