Lies We Tell Each Other When In College

January 4, 2014

Every lie is two lies quote, Robert Brauilt, January 4, 2014. (

Every lie is two lies quote, Robert Brauit, January 4, 2014. (

I thought about posting this at the beginning of this week, but decided against it, figuring that I should end ’13 on a more positive tip. But it must be said that one of the critical issues that we in higher education face in terms of college retention and success is the sheer lack of honesty surrounding student performance, especially in the first year or two of any student’s enrollment. No, I’m not talking about grade inflation — for students doing okay, especially at elite colleges, that’s another rampant issue. It’s about the lies students tell themselves, each other and their loved ones about their performance prior to either being caught in a web of them or, worse still, dropping out altogether.

As a college student and as a professor, I found and find it fascinating and disheartening when I’ve learned of the fantasy life of a student’s alleged good grades being shattered by reality. I fell into this trap myself during my first semester at the University of Pittsburgh. I only tell part of this story in Boy @ The Window. Yeah, I was nowhere near dropping out after a 2.63 GPA first semester (A in Astronomy, B- in Pascal, C in Honors Calc I, and a C in East Asian History), but I relied on an annual GPA of a 3.0 or higher to maintain my academic scholarship.

Yet from about the second week in December ’87 until I received my grades from Pitt on this date twenty-six years ago, I maintained the lie that my GPA was “around a 3.2.” The main difference — I gave myself a C+ in Honors Calc and a B in East Asian History. Mind you, I hardly showed up for either class most of the month of November! I was homesick, heartbroken, and unhealthily horny (and on two occasions hung over) most of the last six weeks of that semester.

The lies we tell ourselves (self-deception), Scientific America, February 4, 2012. (Richard Mia).

The lies we tell ourselves (self-deception), Scientific America, February 4, 2012. (Richard Mia).

So I told my former classmates like Laurell and Erika that my GPA was a 3.2. I told my dorm mates Samir and Chuck the same. It was a mild lie, I realized even at the time, and I knew that if I buckled down, that I could overcome my own lie, especially since I could lose my scholarship if I didn’t. And with a 3.33 second semester in Winter ’88, I did pull my GPA over the 3.0 mark, and in the process, decided not to tell any lies that big ever again.

But over the years, I’ve learned that I was hardly alone in the lying-about-my-college-experience category. The first time I figured this out was at the end of ’88, twenty-five years ago this week. It was a lunch outing with Laurell, her friend Maria and former classmates JD and Joshua at a pizza shop in the Fleetwood section of Mount Vernon. After the previous sixteen months of the Phyllis obsession, rage and grade-raising campaign, homelessness and financial struggles, I was finally fully on track for graduation and potentially, grad school. With this group of former classmates, though, almost all White, all but Laurell with upper middle class resources, I realized too that their struggles, or blues, weren’t exactly like mine.

As I wrote in Boy @ The Window:

There was a lot of “everything’s goin’ well” type of discussion going. Yet I got the sense that things weren’t all that great. Then JD admitted that he was a semester away from academic probation at Berkeley. His engineering classes were kicking his butt. From the looks of things, he was doing much better athletically than anywhere else, having bulked up to 190 with twenty extra pounds of muscle. Josh then admitted that his academic and social life wasn’t exactly going as planned. “I don’t know which one is worse,” he told us. He’d grown four or five inches since MVHS, good enough to put him around five-five or five-six. Laurell, of course, had a killer GPA at Johns Hopkins…and just loved things there. What she didn’t mention, between home and school, was that she was on the verge of burnout, 3.6 average or not…As for me, I talked a bit about some of my new friends and a couple of my classes. Nothing, though, about the drama of the previous year.

Umm, New York style pizza, Vesuvius Pizza, Brooklyn, NY, January 4, 2014. (

Umm, New York style pizza, Vesuvius Pizza, Brooklyn, NY, January 4, 2014. (

Given how they had reacted to my previous revelations of tiny nuggets from my life while we were in high school, I knew that they would have nothing to say about overcoming homelessness and my Phyllis obsession, much less my now 3.2 GPA overall. At the same time, though, I thought it better to say nothing at all than to tell half-truths and bald-faced lies about my college performance and experiences.

I’ve seen so many students do what I and my former classmates did during our first semesters of college over the years. They lie to me about their issues with my courses, they lie to themselves about their performance and preparation. Mostly, they lie to their friends and family to protect themselves from embarrassment. They lie until the truth of their performance shows up, in their grades, in academic probation, in suspensions and expulsions, in dropping out, in other myriad and dangerous ways.

And we in higher education encourage these lies, as if the money and grade trail won’t expose the reality of struggle and failure for so many. This is where we as educators and administrators need to be much more proactive, to encourage students to seek help, to tell the truth and not bury themselves in a coffin of lies.

Grading and the 21st Century Professor

September 3, 2012

Between a rock and a hard place, The Simpsons (movie), September 2, 2012. ( Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws -  low resolution.

The Chronicle of Higher Education and other prominent periodicals have been talking about the precarious rise of grade inflation for more than two decades now. Article after article and story after story has shown professors at elite and public institutions lowering their standards and bending into advanced yoga positions to give students higher grades than they’ve earned. All to ensure a minimum of contention over grades and maximum scores in student evaluations of their courses.

But what of the many professors who don’t want to lower their standards but so far, who can’t ignore a student’s lack of attendance or participation, their late assignments or attempts at plagiarism? For those college instructors, they can expect more grief and stupid ass excuses from students, not to mention lower evaluation scores.

Sigmund Freud hanging by one hand by David Cerney (1997), Prague, September 2, 2012. ( Qualifies as fair use – pic has low resolution.

For tenured professors, particularly those at research universities, this doesn’t matter at all. For some tenure-track professors, instructors at teaching-focused liberal arts colleges, and the army of adjuncts that are the majority of instructors at the college level, this could mean the difference between steady employment and homelessness. It’s a sad situation when folks aren’t secure enough in their jobs to actually do the most difficult parts of their jobs, to evaluate a student’s performance accurately and to confront students whenever they violate an academic code of conduct.

It was part of the deal that I made with myself when I began teaching my own sections and then course as a graduate student twenty years ago at the University of Pittsburgh. To be fair and flexible, to be tough when necessary, but to be compassionate when the circumstances called for it. For the vast majority of the 2,000 or so high school, undergraduate and graduate students I’ve taught since ’92, that has been a workable philosophy. It’s even gotten me the occasional praise and recognition for being a very good professor.

Of course, I faced the occasional student who complained to me about their grade. Most of those students were C students looking for a C+ or a B, or a B+/A- student hoping for an A. Really, prior to my current faculty position, I had only had three complaints of any major consequence. One was from a student who managed to never show up for my US History to 1877 sections the spring semester of ’93, who failed the final exam so badly that I let him get away with his attempts at cheating — his cheat notes were that bad!

The other two came from two students in my History of American Education graduate course in the summer of ’98 at Duquesne University. One thought that someone as young (and as Black) as me could give her a grade lower than an A, while another harassed me with emails for a month because her A- in my course ruined her 4.0 average. Though an adjunct, I stood my ground, knowing that I had the support of my department chair.

Since starting my current teaching position in January ’08, I’ve faced a couple of dozen situations in which students have complained about their grades. I think I’ve only taught three courses out of about twenty in the past four years in which I haven’t fielded any complaints from students about their grades.

Most of these complaints have been really ones about me not accepting every cockamamie excuse for a late assignment or plagiarism. Excuses like their Internet or their access to the university’s online classroom platform being down. Or not knowing that cutting and pasting ten pages’ worth of other people’s words for a ten-page history research paper was in fact blatant plagiarism. Or that their jobs, last-minute deployments (which were hardly last-minute), children (who in many cases were teenagers), three car accidents in two weeks or other life challenges managed to get in the way of them submitting multiple assignments on time, even with extensions. But somehow, when I’ve held these students accountable and assigned an appropriate grade, I’m the bad guy.

That the students I teach these days are technically adult learners (I say “technically” because they don’t act like adults when they complain about their grading) actually makes this matter worse. Whether in the military, married with children, or working a full-time job, these students in their twenties, thirties and older tend to complain, beg, threaten me and then beg again. It’s exhausting to constantly have to persuade students to read my syllabus in order to make them understand that the rules and rubrics I’ve laid out are the reasons for their F, D, C or B.

But no matter the vitriol I provoke from assigning a grade, I also have to be careful in my language, emotions and tone. That is the reality that is teaching in many higher education institutions today. It is unfortunate, for there are many students who don’t understand that being a student requires being a responsible and ethical adult. Whether seventeen or seventy, whining, complaining and threatening your professor for a higher grade is completely unacceptable, and deserves at least a little sarcasm in response.

Ego Inflation

May 18, 2011

My PhD Graduation, Thackeray Club, Pittsburgh, PA, May 18, 1997. Angelia N. Levy

May 18th. Another year, fourteen years now, in fact. I’ve been Dr. Collins to my students and the world of academia officially for that long. I’ve learned a lot of lessons about the values and limits of having a doctorate in history over the course of the past decade and a half. One of them is how easily egos are inflated by it. And everything else gets inflated in the process of having an ego that could challenge the Himalayas for supremacy.

One of the more stunning and thoughtful moments I had during the graduation ceremony at Carnegie Mellon on that hot and sticky Sunday in ’97 — besides the dreadful realization that my own mother was jealous of me — was shaking Peter Stearns‘ hand on stage. The Napoleonic red-and-white-haired Stearns — currently the university provost at George Mason — was the Dean of Humanities & Social Sciences at

Provost Peter N. Stearns, George Mason University, 2008. Source:

Carnegie Mellon at the time. Having to touch his rough yet clammy right hand as they read off the names of the doctorates that afternoon brought back quite a few not-so-pleasant memories of why I found Carnegie Mellon a terrible elitist (as opposed to elite) school to attend for four years.

I’d most recently co-presented with Stearns on how to successfully finish a doctorate that March, which wasn’t so unpleasant. Except for the fact that most of his presentation was off-the-cuff ego-stroking. Except that the lessons learned from writing a dissertation in six weeks in ’64 were mostly irrelevant to the students in front of us that day. Except that I already knew that Stearns was equally polite and dismissive of my presentation by proxy.

Too bad hand sanitizers — or as my son Noah calls them, hanitizers — were in their infancy in ’97. For as I shook Stearns’ hand, the memory that crept to the fore was my other experience working with the man, when I was a teaching assistant for two sections of his world-famous World Stereotypes, oops, World History course in the fall of ’94. He spent lecture after lecture entertaining mostly White college freshman with dirty jokes about beer and sex in covering World History Plato-to-NATO style. I spent most of my teaching time attempting to refocus my group of students away from stereotyping South Asian women as “demur” and Arab men as horn dogs.

Then the end of that semester came, and I turned in all of my grades. I had a few students with D’s and F’s because they had failed their exams, or hadn’t shown up for class really, or both. One of those students was a White male freshman who’d only been to class twice, had failed one exam and barely passed his final. I received an email from Stearns two days before the end of the semester ordering me to change the student’s grade from an F to a C. The reason: “[h]e’s a good kid…he showed up for a couple of my sections…” [emphasis added]. I send an email back that basically read, “So?” Stearns repeated his order to change the grade, in person, which meant that I needed to change the grades of five other students so that their grades weren’t worse than the student that Stearns had coddled.

It was the one and only time I found myself inflating grades. That exchange confirmed so much that I heard and suspected about the father of college-level World History. Stearns was mercurial, egotistical and played favorites, who somehow were usually White and often male. I knew of at least one former grad student who’d all but been blackballed from finding academic jobs because of him. I also knew that he arbitrarily provided vastly different pay levels to grad students and instructors when he was the history department chair.

Denholm Elliott in A Room With A View, 1985. Source:

When my future wife first saw Stearns in ’96 at some history department conference in which my then advisor Joe Trotter forced me to do a presentation, she said that the five-foot-four man looked like the late British actor Denholm Elliott, especially from the movie A Room With A View (1985). That’s really in insult to Elliott. A better comparison would be between the actor who played the emperor in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Or, more specifically, like the late actor Jack Nance’s character Nefud from Dune (1984). Very mean of me, I suppose, not to mention, a digression.

As I began to walk off the stage after shaking Stearns’ hand, I felt agitated, and thought of all that I’d gone through with him and with Carnegie Mellon in general. Ultimately, like the characters I mentioned above, Stearns was and remains an imperialist, building an academic empire in his image and crushing all opposition (real and imagined) along the way. His legacy will be the multiplication of inflated student egos who believe they understand the world but instead really only understand how to see the world in their own egocentric ways.

Jack Nance as Nefud in Dune, 1984. Source:


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