May 16, 2023Liked by Paul Musgrave

I think there's another hidden structural factor in all this, namely that in the USA *more than half* of people under 30 can't read above an elementary level, i.e. they functionally can't read an adult chapter book. This is because of the changes that were made to how reading is taught in the early- and mid-2000s.

There's very little support to develop that literacy once they get to high school; students are just presumed to already have it. And we all know that the school system uses failure as punishment rather than a learning opportunity, so there are very strong perverse incentives for students with low literacy to cheat their way through -- which means the behaviour pattern is established before they get to university.

Like, is it any wonder that people aren't doing the readings when, on top of everything else you've discussed, they straight up don't have high enough literacy? It isn't just an issue of whether the student is in the habit of reading; we're talking about people who have not learned to retain complex information over the course of a text, which makes it extremely difficult for them to follow the development of an argument through a 15-page academic paper, for example. I *did* do the readings consistently for my classes and some of them were a struggle (like the media studies class that set Ardorno & Horkheimer, lol), I can't imagine how many hours they would have taken if I had an elementary-school level of literacy.

It would be easy to say "if they can't read at the level needed for university they shouldn't be going", but a) we're talking about more than half the population here, cutting them all off from higher education would not be good for the economy, and b) I think it's bad to consign a group of people to a life of poverty because the Bush government decided to screw up literacy education when they were children. The problem is really difficult to solve and while it shouldn't be on universities to do it, you're also the ones experiencing its effects most sharply, I think. It's possible that support services could extend to literacy education, but you'd have to find a way to convince students that putting in that effort was better than using the strategies they already have, and do so without making them lose face by admitting that they can't read well (which can be very shameful for an adult).

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May 17, 2023Liked by Paul Musgrave

This was an interesting read. In regards to media/news... it's difficult terrain to navigate. On the one hand, "News" has always been a mediator between people and events. In the past, this mediation was perceived as being, to an extent, objective. However, as the flow of information, political polarization and corrupt actions by corporations have all increased (or maybe just brought to light in the case of corruption) skepticism and cynical views of the world have also increased; especially for the college age population (which I'm a part of). On the other hand, the US has a massive lack of critical thinking education. The result is an increase of depresso-nihilism and paranoia for those who are skeptical, and an increase in the belief of extremist ideologies due to a lack of critical thinking. Students don't know what's real because objective reality is difficult to find. They are shutting down, going internal, and further deterritorializing themselves. Can you blame them? (and I'm not saying you do blame them; this is not an accusation)

Furthermore, as the current socio-economic state of the US is one that not only fosters, but FORCES competition, "productivity", and (I can already predict the eye rolls with this one) exploitation, education is simply seen as a block in the road that leads to a career instead of being viewed as an opportunity to expand the individual's understanding of the world. And instead of trying to subvert these subjugating forces, our education system and most, MOST educators seem to have given up and are now catering to those subjugating forces instead. Seems like classic complementary schismogenesis. The problem concerning education is almost totally an economic one; it is a big one, and it is frightening.

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May 15, 2023Liked by Paul Musgrave

I think publishers ought to take part of the blame for this as well -- we aren't allowed to freely share books online like TikToks. If the people are looking only at what's on the internet, why not put the things you want them to see on the internet?

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Generation gap caused by changing material conditions and changing media technology? I think you’re onto something here

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It's a bold hypothesis, I know

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May 15, 2023Liked by Paul Musgrave

I wonder how much of this is just COVID still. Chris Hayes hosts an interview podcast (it’s mostly good, I promise!) and his schtick is “COVID and our reaction to it is under-utilized as an explanation in almost all facets of life”. I couldn’t help but think about that during the last section of this essay, and it’s similarities to much of Dr. Musgrave’s writing on COVID over the past years.

I mostly think, as someone who recently graduated undergrad (in ‘20), that COVID accelerated something that was already bad: cheating/not participating. I went to an almost-ivy (WFU) and in my upper-level English courses, a lot of classes went by where it was very clear that I and maybe one other person were the only ones who did the reading. (These are classes where almost the entire 90 minutes were meant to be a student-led discussion on the reading.) My professors seemed wholly unequipped to deal with students who chose to take the course (not a gen-ed!) but did not have any interest in reading. My upper-level political-science courses were bad but not AS bad, depending on the professor. All my gen ed courses were pretty bad.

When COVID hit it really felt like a genie got let out of the bottle that couldn’t be put back in (not dissimilar to the remote work stuff). Cheating was incredibly rampant when I was an undergrad. I assume it only became the standard through ‘21.

I see some self-flagellation when I hear profs talk about this stuff but as someone with the experiences that I’ve had, I just don’t have a ton of sympathy for the students that cheat/give courses zero of their mental energy, especially because I hear it couched in the language of social justice too often. (“Students are being ground down by an economic system that does not care about them, so why should we expect them to give that system any of their attention” etc.) I was there! And the general vibe is just that 19-year-olds would rather drink or scroll

on TikTok than read. (This is undoubtedly much more the case at an expensive semi-prestigious school like WFU.) Reading regularly is about habit-forming, and it’s the easiest thing in the world to assume you’ll get around to doing something without recognizing that your own habit structure makes it nigh impossible.

I don’t know what I’m trying to say or why I’ve suddenly written a small essay in this comment section. I think Dr. Musgrave makes a lot of important points about cynicism and the economics of the professor-student relationship. I wonder how young people who are used to cheating (ie someone else like Quizlet or whoever doing the thinking for you) will fair in the workplace. Maybe they’ll be fine! I just don’t know.

Anyways, to make this comment productive everyone should read Matt Crump’s essay on being invited into a GroupMe that his students used to cheat, if you haven’t already. Not sure where it is but if you can track it down, it’s worth it.

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You speak of the prevalence of cheating and a lack of participation. You also disregard the commonly used (simple) explanation that these issues are caused by the economic situation and instead assert that these issues stem from laziness. I don't completely disagree with you. Laziness has certainly become more widespread in recent years. But I think we have to move beyond that and ask: Why has laziness become more prevalent in the student population? I don't want to try finding the answer to that question right now; I'm feeling particularly lazy at present.

However, I do disagree with your analysis to a large degree. I'm currently studying at a community college and attempting to transfer to a four-year university. I'm also a disabled Marine Corps veteran, so I don't personally have to work (because I can't) and I technically don't have to pay for my undergrad degree at all. This isn't the case for most of the other students that are in class with me. Most of the other students are obliged to work in order to survive.

I'm in California. The absolute cheapest rent you can find within 50 miles of my school is $850 a month and that gets you a single room in an area with a high crime rate, low walk-ability, etc. etc. That means you probably need a car. Cars have both an expensive up front payment, and a high up-keep cost (gas, oil, tires., car insurance, yearly registration). Food is expensive here. The cheapest that you're going to be able to go for food costs without sacrificing your physical health is about $200 a month; no eating out, no pre-made food other than noodles (but you can't eat noodles for every meal, you'll die), no sweet treats, you get the vibe. Healthcare? Go without it, too expensive; just pray that you never, ever have to make an emergency visit to the hospital or you have some sort of genetic disease (the odds... they are not in your favor, but there's still hope, right?) then you have phone bills, hygiene products, kitchen utensils, toilet paper, etc etc. Add school expenses on top of that. So you MUST have a job in order to survive.

A job is time in exchange for money. The minimum wage here is $15.50 an hour. That's typically what an unskilled, college aged person can expect to receive here. But let's say this student gets a job for $20 an hour; this is generous. If this student works 25 hours a week that means they're bringing home $2k before taxes per month. After taxes that's more like $1,500. This just simply is not enough to live, even at the bare minimum. Now, because most places aren't going to allow an employee to choose their hours, the student is going to have to work full-time. That's at least 40 hours a week.

In order to finish an undergraduate degree in four years without taking summer classes the student needs to take 15 credit hours worth of classes per semester. That's 15 hours of in-person class time per week. The amount of study time that my school recommends is the amount of credit hours taken multiplied by 2. That puts the student at 45 hours per week spent solely on school.

So, the student spends 85 hours a week on school and work. There are 168 hours in a week. In order to maintain good health (which is something that the student desperately needs because, remember, healthcare is expensive) mayo clinic recommends at least 7 hours per 24 hours - so 49 hours per week of sleep. Between work, school, and sleep the student gives up 134 out of 168 hours every week.. 34 hours left for every other facet of life that I did not mention, many of which are necessities.

The above schedule is not living, it is surviving. I know that this outlined situation is not the reality for the majority, but it is still the reality for many. I would argue that in order to not go absolutely insane, the student stuck in this sort of situation is required to cut corners. They must choose which corners to cut. The easiest corner to cut is homework that the student decides to not be essential to their understanding of the academic material presented, but because the student should still aim to do well in school, and those homework assignments are still worth points that affect their grade, they turn to cheating out of necessity.

I hope that you don't take my comment as a personal attack; I don't mean it as such. I think that there's a massive disconnect between the realities of different people because it's incredibly difficult to imagine oneself living a less ideal reality than their own. Discourse such as this - by which I mean Dr. Musgrave's essay and all of these comments - can allow us as individuals and as fellow human beings to better understand one another. This is where solidarity begins.

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I definitely don't take your comment as a personal attack! And I actually think we don't disagree that much. A few quick points:

First: Yes, I absolutely agree that school-related stuff is the first option for "cutting corners" when one's first priority is paying rent and buying food. A number of people I know who have dropped out of undergrad did so precisely because they had to put their material needs first. (And in fact the majority of people I know who dropped out of undergrad did so for severe mental health reasons.) I suspect this is the case for a lot of people who drop out of school. Material needs come first. I was probably too quick to disregard this basic point in my initial comment.

Second: This discourse, frankly, is just overdetermined. A student choosing to cheat does so for many, many reasons, so trying to analyze why they do it is a bit of a hopeless endeavor to begin with. (I do not think this is a reason not to think about cheating.) I can think of friends in dire economic circumstances who were fine with cheating; I can think of friends in dire economic circumstances who weren't. I can think of friends from the 1% who were fine with cheating; I can think of friends from the 1% who weren't. One's material reality is undoubtedly a factor here, and maybe even the strongest one, but from my (very limited) experience, that's not the whole story. The "whole story" is just very long and messy.

I will say, to Dr. Musgrave's original point, AI opens up a whole new kind of cheating. (Actually, I might be mixing up Substack posts now that I go back and look but it's a good point nonetheless.) A student who chooses--for whatever reason--to have ChatGPT write their essay on the Cold War ended up not learning anything about the Cold War (and in the process that student didn't learn how to write, either). I guess all I have to say is just that it's depressing. I'm not under the illusion that students ten years ago were thrilled about writing essays, but all the same, it's depressing.

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That essay appears to be defunct

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Not sure if I'm going to be booted for posting links, but the Wayback Machine caught it:


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May 15, 2023Liked by Paul Musgrave

Sadly tracks with what I'm seeing too (at another of your old schools -- although I have never seen a VIP column in my registration lists). I have cut the number of readings expected, try to relate what I do list to things the students care about, and hope for the future, but have yet to submit to TicTok-ification.

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A nice expression of what I have sensed here in your old school, and likewise I'm not quite sure how to respond.

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May 16, 2023·edited May 24, 2023

When you say Russia invaded Ukraine in 2008 - did you mean the invasion of Georgia?

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