“The People In Our Classrooms Who Are Students”: Learning the Hardest Lessons of Higher Ed Today

[This blog has been edited substantially, thanks to excellent feedback from academic twitter!  Thank you all!]

My colleague Kandice Chuh uses the phrase “the people in our classrooms who are students” to remind us that students have full, complex, and increasingly challenging lives outside of school. 

That bright-eyed student who is always prepared, sits in the front row, and is at the ready with an answer to every question when the rest of the class is dosing may be in college full time, living in a dorm, maybe not working or working ten hours a week or in a summer job, enjoying all the fruits of a full-time residential college or university, perhaps even a year abroad.   Or, she might well be suffering from food insecurity or housing insecurity or other barriers that we, as professors, may not know about.


Demographically, statistically, it is more likely that the former student–full-time residential, no or few hours working a week, year abroad–will go on to graduate school to become professors  just like us . . .   


There is another student we all recognize. they often sit in the back. They do not raise their hands.  They look down, avoiding eye contact. They might well keep their sweatshirt hood pulled over their faces. Maybe they seem to be sleeping, or staring at their phones. They are lackluster. They don’t seem to care.

It’s possible that student just doesn’t care, doesn’t want to be in school, was out all night partying.  Or it is possible that they were working the night shift all night simply to be able to go to school. 

We give them Cs. They don’t even bother to ask for recommendations from us.  They do not go to graduate school.  They rarely, if ever, become profs just like us.

And that’s the problem.  Because, statistically, the student working the night shift or suffering from food and hunger insecurity is increasingly likely to be in our classrooms, especially at our public  universities but, also, we are finding even at our most elite private colleges.

Increasingly, there is a mismatch between the demographics of the professorate and the demographics of our students. 



At CUNY, where I teach, on many of our twenty-four two- and four-year campuses, the median annual family income is less than $28,000. In the nation’s most expensive city.

  • Nationally, a quarter of students in college are low income and a quarter face food and housing insecurity.
  • Nearly half of all students work more than 30 hours a week while attending college. 
  • A quarter work full time while going to school full time—a necessity for many since many states, including my own, where scholarships require one to be a full-time student.


I know of one student who cleans subway cars from the Bronx to Manhattan every night from 2 am to 7 am. He is pleased to have a job that allows him to work full time and also go to school full time so he is eligible for a state scholarship.  He leaves his grueling job and walks a few blocks to his campus which offers a breakfast room with healthy food and a bank of computers with internet access (which he does not have at home) where he can study or do homework or write his papers.  He feels lucky.


I know another student whose in-class writing is A+. She is a gifted writer and brilliant, but her attendance is spotty and her term papers are weak and sometimes careless, more Cs than A+.  It turns out she works all night too, as an EMT.  She is pleased that she is allowed to do school work as long as they aren’t in an emergency situation with a patient in the ambulance. It turns out that’s how she writes her research papers, on her cell phone, in an ambulance, waiting to respond to the next 911 call.


Neither is likely to go on to graduate school to become a professor–although I suspect both have more to pass on to students whose lives resemble their own than I or most my colleagues ever would. . .

And that’s the problem. Often the students who replicate their profs and who do go on to become profs tend to have undergraduate experiences and family backgrounds increasingly unlike the students they teach. Despite thirty years of critical race and gender theory, the professoriate has barely changed demographically whereas the student population at schools whose demographic matches the national average has changed enormously.


President Mark Becker of George State University, where seventy percent of the students are PELL eligible, noted on a recent academic panel that students at Georgia State are seven times more likely to drop out of college for financial than for academic reasons. 


Pres Becker noted that, needing as little as  $100-200 to repair a car or take care of a sick child, can necessitate dropping out . Few students at their income level know anyone, anywhere, who can spare that much  cash to get them through—and banks are not designed to loan money to those who lack a solid credit rating.  




What do we do as college professors to recognize the brilliance and potential of our students whose every day lives outside of school weighs so heavily that performance is always compromised? 


What kinds of pedagogy can we devise to ensure that brilliance is recognized even when preparation might be lagging, the body exhausted, the mind filled with worry? 


What kinds of latitude (attendance policies, exams, term papers) can we build into our syllabi that recognize the exigencies of the complex lives of students outside of school?  How do we recast our syllabi knowing that a quarter of our students may have full-time jobs even as they are taking a full course load? 

How often do we use active learning methods and metacognition so that every student in the class understands how they can use what they read, how they interact with one another in class, how they collaborate, as life skills for other courses and for the jobs and careers and civic lives ahead?  These are cultural, social, and educational skills–but they do not become “tools” that students can use unless we help to show students how to use them as tools

How often do we brag–colleague to colleague–about (this is for English profs) assigning one long novel every week? (How many profs themselves have time to read that much each week?)

How often do profs (again, English teachers take note!) complain that “students today” no longer have “the attention for long forms” (i.e. long novels) . . . Are cell phones, social media, TikTok really the cause?  Or is working at a full time job while going to school full time?  (Think about the difference in respect in assuming students are spending their time on Instagram rather than knowing they are working full-time in order to support their education!)


And how do we erase the same for students who arrive to class exhausted, not fully prepared, not able to perform at peak levels on a given day?  What ways can we recognize their commitment, even when they are dragging—perhaps especially on those days that weigh most heavily?


NB: It is a source of hope that, in the last three or four years, more attention is being paid to such things as  “working full time and graduating cum laude while going to school full time” or, for graduate students, “teaching lots and lots of undergraduate classes while earning a PhD” than ever before.  We profs may well be learning these lessons and our institutions are increasingly coming to understand the odds our students face. 

More and more, profs are becoming activists on behalf of “the people in our classrooms who are students.” 



Whenever I am asked the biggest difference between K-12 and higher education I say that college is voluntary.  By law, you are not required to be in college. That means deciding whether or not to be in college, whether or not to get to class on a given day, is already an act of commitment.  For most students today, it is an act of sheer heroism.  How can uphold standards in our classrooms while recognize the singular dedication and commitment of “the people in our classrooms who are students?”


The stakes of higher education could not be higher.  Despite the constant barage of punditry saying “college isn’t worth it anymore,” there is a literal 1::1 correlation between wealth and likelihood that one will send one’s own children to college.  For those in the upper 95% income bracket, for example, there is almost a 95% chance they will send their children to college–and that’s the case even for pundits who insist college isn’t worth it.  They mean for other people’s children, not their own.

College is not and never has been just job preparation.  It is also a cultural passport to middle-class income and middle-class life.  Those from the lowest 8% of the economic scale also have about an 8% chance of attaining a college degree (and eluding the cycle of poverty) by the time they are 25.


Especially for students at public institutions like CUNY, the stakes are high every day . Every day they have to make the voluntary choice to attend college against all of the pressures, realities, financial burdens, transportation disasters, and social, cultural, economic, health, and other factors that never go away.


Think about how often yhou hear the heinous word “coddled” bandied about by those well past college age and out of touch with today’s realities.


Think about how many books and articles by pundits today are really about higher for the .4% of college students who attend the Ivy League or equivalent.


Think about how many college professors, even at our most stressed public institutions, were themselves   educated at the Ivy League or equivalent and believe that their education mirrors that of their students.


Think about how many of the most radical, progressive academic friends –including the most vociferous critics of neoliberalism–send their own kids to elite private schools in order to escape “poor” public schools and give their kids a chance to go to elite schools.


Think about how many graduate students at elite institutions are there on tuition credits their academic parents are awarded as a benefit instead of higher salaries.  (There is nothing wrong with sending one’s children to the very, very best schools; simply, one must thing about the implicit bias perpetuated when one values cultural advantages rarely afforded the public at large, including others from one’s actual economic background.  This is a complex issue worthy of more discussion than it has been given.)

Think of how many of those same graduate students face lives as adjunct professors with lives as precarious as that of the undergraduates they teach.

Think about how few conversations one hears at academic conferences or in faculty meetings about the lived lives of students.


The structural inequalities of higher education–perpetuated by our social structures (including racialized disparities at every level)–are supported and even amplified in our classrooms by all the ways we recognize, count, and understand “excellence.”  (For an excellent insight into the psychology of inequality that our pedagogies perpetuate, see: Samuel Delany, “On the Importance of Everyone Raising Their Hand.”  )


The vast differences and inequalities of higher education—and professors in higher education—unconsciously but consistently perpetuate inequality by not addressing the actual lives of students today.


NB: This is not a generational allegory.  #OkBoomer is a funny hashtag—but it is infuriating in its implicit class assumptions that an older generation all enjoyed wealth and privilege.  The income and privilege of the parents and grandparents of most CUNY students are even lower than that of their offspring who are “lucky” to be working 30 hours a week to attend a relatively inexpensive city university.  Higher education is their one chance to escape the dire lifelong circumstances their “boomer” elders have lived. 

Sometimes I think “OkBoomer” is simply “Make America Great Again” from a youth perspective.


So that’s this morning’s lesson, pure and simple:  The vast majority of the people in our classrooms who are students do not lead coddled, easy lives. The sleepy-eyed C student may, in fact, have worked all night at a difficult job.  That students C is not a mark of indifference but a badge of willpower, motivation, commitment, determination (and also good luck in a perilous circumstance).  Such students may not get to grad school. They may never become profs.  But they are higher education’s true heroes.  And that is all.


PHOTO CREDIT:  Food Life Line.  https://foodlifeline.org/hunger-on-campus-satellite-food-banks/


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