Another Story About Ignorant Students

One thing that anonymous academic librarian bloggers are good for is sharing stories about their “ignorant” students. It would be hard to imagine any academic blogger who goes by his or her real name relating anecdotes about encounters with such students or even referring to them as ignorant or stupid. For one thing, the incident could be identifiable and possibly tracked back to the individual involved – which could all be quite embarrassing to the individual and library – not unlike the recent case of the public librarian who wrote a book with thinly veiled stories about her library’s awful patrons (BTW she was fired). I just happened to come across a blog called “The Singing Librarian” which had a post titled “Librarians vs. Student Ignorance”.

Long story short, some students came to the reference desk (this happened to a colleague of SL) and said they couldn’t find any books on nursing in the library catalog. Turns out, upon librarian investigation, the students were spelling it “nersing”. Singing Librarian finds this and other incidents of student ignorance quite shocking. While he doesn’t use the term stupid or ignorant to describe the students, I detect a slight degree of contempt for these students who lack basic knowledge we should expect of an undergraduate – especially a student in a nursing course who can’t spell nursing. I may be wrong. Singing Librarian may be genuinely worried and rightfully points out that our jobs now extend into the teaching of basic knowledge that was somehow never taught in the primary grades. When I read this it reminded me of an email I received that was critical of my use of “dumber students” in the title a recent Blended Librarians webcast. I apparently offended another academic librarian for disrespecting our students. I responded that the title wasn’t a reflection of my thinking but rather of the conversation about this topic in academia as evidenced by a half-dozen books on the topic.

Like Singing Librarian many of us academic librarians are deeply concerned about the students we encounter who exhibit a real lack of basic knowledge, poor spelling or just the simple yet complete inability to articulate what they need (were we so much smarter at 18?). Whatever we do about or think of this situation we must all remember to treat our students with respect and courtesy. We must never blame them for what they don’t know. We must never refer to them as dumb, lazy, stupid or ignorant – at our conferences, when talking to our friends and families, in conversations with our colleagues or in our blogs – even the anonymous ones. All we can do is to try our best to help them achieve academic success. To do anything less, it seems to me, is a sign that it is time to find a new career.

Of course, I don’t doubt a few of you – as I did when I read this post – asked why our OPACs don’t have spellchecking (some actually do). These students would have never had the same problem with a Google search. Then again maybe failed OPAC searches present us with a reliable way to force students to come to the reference desk for help.

15 thoughts on “Another Story About Ignorant Students”

  1. I fear for my future health if nursing students can’t even spell nursing.

    “We must never blame them for what they don’t know.”

    I disagree with that. Is there no point where we can expect them to take some responsibility for their own knowledge/education? It seems a dangerous path to follow absolving all blame. Not to say we should point and laugh or tsk-tsk and chastise, but… they are individuals with the ability to make choices.

  2. Perhaps ‘incompetent’ is a more appropriate word to use? An interesting study I just read (citation below) refers to certain subjects as incompetent — and they are Cornell University undergraduates! Perhaps it would not be unjust to call a college student who can’t spell the word ‘nursing’ incompetent.

    Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121-1134.

  3. “We must never refer to them as dumb, lazy, stupid or ignorant – at our conferences, when talking to our friends and families, in conversations with our colleagues or in our blogs – even the anonymous ones”.

    It sounds to me very authoritarian and controlling the speech how we can express our views. Can we express them in conversations with our inner selves? Seriously, I don’t mean to be cynical, but it is exactly this hyper-sensitivity and fear that causes us to be …. yes, cynical. DerikB said it quite right that it is a “dangerous path to follow” and in my opinion, even if we retreat as much as we want, someone else will let them know (most likely when they are fired from the first job for incompetence and laziness).

  4. As a young librarian who is also a “millennial” I think that one thing everyone should remember is that no one is perfect 100% of the time. Have we sent out every single email without spelling or grammar errors? Have we every written a paper perfectly the first time? Are there not times when even we, the trained professionals, have sat down with a project and wondered where to begin? What strikes me about librarians (specifically academic) complaining about their students is that a single incident is not indicative of anything. Perhaps they are having a bad day, maybe their student loans didn’t come through, they broke up with a significant other, or just haven’t gotten nearly enough sleep. It is my opinion that we should give these students the benefit of the doubt and more than one chance to prove their competency.

  5. I just got done giving a tutorial to a group of 30-odd Orientation (i.e. having tested as less prepared for college-level work) students…

    There’s a range of attitudes and skill levels among them. The disengaged, disinterested and vaguely hostile are more noticeable, due to human nature, than those who simply try and do the work.

    It’s hard to know to what extent they should be held responsible for their lack of knowledge and skills. To a large extent, I think the blame is not theirs but the fault of a society that puts far too few resources into education. These students have rarely or never encountered academic material that interested them. It’s always just been a boring or stressful hoop to jump through. And I doubt whether many of them were read to, or raised to take an interest in a variety of subjects, at home.

    By the time they get to us, they are already disenchanted.

    On the other hand, no one has forced them to come to college. And… I mean, come on, assuming the nursing students were native English-speakers, it is pretty appalling that they couldn’t even spell their own subject.

    Anyway, I try to address their disengagement by making tutorials lively and directly related to class assignments, and I try to make sure we have interesting and up-to-date materials in the collection, but it does sometimes feel like a losing battle. Students lacking basic skills can be taught, and if we’re doing the work that should have been done in elementary school, well, such is life… but students lacking the ability to engage with material, to want to learn, are really hard to reach.

  6. I applaud these students for even asking for help. Too often students just get frustrated and leave. Then they complain to their friends and/or professor that the library doesn’t have anything.

    Maybe they are terrible spellers or maybe they just had a brain hiccup. Years ago I worked in order entry at a catalog center. A customer named Joan called and I could not for the life of me remember how to spell “Joan.” My brain just shut down and all I could think of was “Jone” but I knew that wasn’t right. I’m no spelling bee champion but I did know how to spell “Joan.” I just blanked for some reason.

    I think there are issues with the educational system, student motivation, parents who don’t encourage learning, etc., but when I encounter a patron like this, I don’t worry about who’s fault it is. I take them as they are and go from there. Yes, they should know these things but when they don’t I help them as best I can to bring them up to speed. A lot of these kids know they are behind and are nervous about asking for help. A good experience with a librarian will ensure they are comfortable asking for help again when they need it. To me that is the most important thing, at least as far as my part in their education.

  7. I have an MLS and a spelling disability. As a high school student I was not chosen for a foreign exchange program because I misspelled Spanish all the way through my essay! I would never have known if not for the fact that one of the lay committee members knew my father and told him the reason I wasn’t selected. My father, in his kindness waited several years to tell me this story.

    Several years ago my supervisor asked a friend and I to head an important accreditation committee. My friend was and is a great professional and later told me that I helped her understand that learning disabled people can have high IQs.

    Even today I still struggle with spelling and written expression. As I exit my fifth decade, I find myself using shorter words and limiting my exposure because of my handicap.

    My years as an educator and librarian have taught me that my job is to take the student and/or patron in front of me and move them one step along on the research process.


  8. Good spelling is not a measure of intelligence. Spelling involves memorization and knowledge of the rules of spelling.

    At some point we must all take responsibility for things we need to improve upon.

    So, if you are a poor speller take steps to improve, and by providing spell check it helps students/patrons to help themselves and also improves their spelling.

  9. The questions raised are very good ones, but I believe what I reject is the labeling of all people under the age of 30 as “The Dumbest Generation.” That is what I find objectionable, and what I find incendiary. As a recent college grad and now Web Designer for a Library, I could easily recount a number of circumstances of absolute idiocy during my college years, and I even transferred schools to find more academic rigor.

    However, I fear when we generalize these powerful, memorable anecdotes onto the broader population it clearly disparages those of us in our generation who rebel against this anti-intellectual culture (and my generation didn’t start the anti-intellectual fire). I was disgusted by the anecdotes related in Baurelein’s book and found the students he illustrated to be lacking in curiosity and education, but as a sociological/statistical analysis I thought his book was weak (in short I felt it was written to prove a thesis, rather than a meta analysis of high-quality, well controlled studies). It provided some good examples, but the ability to broaden these to our whole under-30 population is a stretch unsupported by the data. I also actually chuckled a few times while reading the book as the author lamented our generation being uninspired by George Will (really?) or that we attend fewer Jazz Concerts (I guess we’re “Fine Art” heathens). Furthermore, and most problematic analytically, the book never established a baseline — that Bauerlein’s generation is an intelligent generation (1/3 of all adults believe in real, actual ghosts, for example). Yet despite these problems, this book is framing the conversations around this topic as evidenced by your conference call (which I was unable to attend because of a prior commitment).

    I’m not asking that we reject the existence stupidity, or reject poking fun at it (because Nersing is hilarious in a dark way, and Idiocracy is a brilliant concept). An action can be dumb, a question can be dumb, an individual can be dumb.

    What I want is for this conversation to stop disparaging smart people by generalizing us all as the “Dumbest Generation,” while missing the point that we need to help ALL adults increase their literacy (as 43% of the total US adult population has low literacy []).

    As an analogy: How do you feel when “Americans” are written off as stupid, fat, lazy cheese-eating slobs by foreigners? What’s your initial reaction? You have to acknowledge their points to some extent, but you also have to reject the concept as an over-generalization. That type of over-generalization is what is I feel is happening with these books in reference to my generation.

    I hope I’m not going to crazy, I just want this “Dumbest Generation” business to be thought out before it becomes the framework from which to examine these problems.

  10. I’m not suggesting that we can never discuss the challenges of students who are not performing up to their potential, but that we do need to be careful about our choice of terminology and where we have those conversations. My intent is to avoid situations where we humilate students or bring embarrassment to our organizations. I don’t think that’s being overly sensitive or expressing fear. It’s more about understanding and compassion. We should hold students to high expectations and I’ve written that on a number of occasions – as well as the need for faculty to raise the students’ expectations for themselves. I also appreciate those who have written to point out the reasons for why students might be spelling challenged, but if it’s true they were in a nursing course and couldn’t spell nursing correctly, that is difficult to accept.

    Thanks for adding your comments and making some good points.

  11. None of us, it is true, have perfect spelling, and we have a great many students with dyslexia or other factors affecting their ability to spell. We’re used to that. It was the sheer scale of two (yes, English-speaking) students not knowing how to spell the name of their course and chosen profession that struck me.

    I am frequently disturbed by the level of education that students seem to have acquired prior to entering the HE sector and it worries me particularly with student teachers. I will always help the student in front of me, if I possibly can. It just strikes me that teaching a student nurse how to spell nursing should not be in the range of things librarians teach students. Not really.

  12. I too would be dismayed at a nursing student who spelled his/her major incorrectly. But I probably would see it as a teaching moment–“Oops–spelling counts when you are using the library resources. Let’s make sure this is spelled correctly.” Something like that.

    Slightly off topic, but I myself am famous for misspelling during library instruction sessions. Not on purpose, mainly because my middle aged eyes are weakening! It does provide a little humor in the classroom though–“You spelled that wrong!” The students seem to get a kick out of pointing out the mistakes. At least I know they are paying attention.

  13. Thank you for this blog and reminding individuals to refrain from criticizing students for whatever their shortcomings might be. It is important that all of us remember the focus of our positions- to help students and clients be successful in their quest for information and materials.

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