12/26/2011 05:12 pm ET Updated Feb 25, 2012

Winter Break

After what increasingly seems like a lightning fast roller-coaster ride, I recently huffed and puffed my way to submitting final grades, which marked the end my 61st semester of university teaching. You could say that the huffing and puffing is due to my age or my physical condition. Neither would be true. I may be approaching "elder" status, but I am physically fit. You could say that so many years of university teaching have made me weary of the old routines -- same subject, anthropology and the same set of courses. But as time as passed, I've come to enjoy teaching a great deal.

So if I'm physically fit and enjoy teaching, why do I find myself exhausted by the end of a 15-week semester?

Part of the reason, perhaps, is the importance that our institutions place upon getting grades. Students, of course, have always been very much concerned about grades. Getting good grades has always been a good a way to move forward on the highway that leads to successful careers in medicine, law, information technology or business. On that venerable highway there has never been much time for taking a frivolous detour that leads to an uncertain destination. In recent years, though, student tunnel vision seems to have become even more narrowly focused. Many of the students I teach would like me to agree to a grand bargain: the best possible grade for the least amount of effort. There are, of course, notable and inspiring exceptions. Even so, every semester students have the chutzpah to ask me to change their grade -- for no good reason. Two weeks ago, one of my introductory students who had earned a "C+" wondered if I could change her grade to "B-."

"Can't I get some extra points for attending class?" she asked.

Another student, who had barely passed my introductory class, wrote:

"Is there any way you could change my grade to a "C-?" she asked, not even offering up her record of attendance as an argument for a grade change.

Fortunately, student encounters about grades, which are always a bit irritating, are few and far between. They don't account for my end-of-semester fatigue.

Something has changed in higher education. When I began professing in 1980, there seemed to be more time to teach. We had the same 15-week semesters, but my courses were much more demanding -- for both me as well as for my students. We covered more topics and did so in greater depth. The readings were more extensive. I assigned more research papers, which required extensive work in the library. Students found the time come to my office for conversations about anthropology, philosophy, literature, or even the meaning of life! These days most of my students complain about not having enough time to do the course readings, let alone a series of moments to do more than a cursory amount archival research for a paper. Some of them hand in assignments after the due date. Most of them avoid my office and any kind of serious face-to-face social interaction. Although the aforementioned grade disputes do require some degree of professor-student interaction, they are usually argued in the impersonal domains of cyberspace.

There are external forces that have propelled these educational changes. In these hard times, many contemporary students have to work one or two jobs to pay for college expenses. Accordingly, they have little extra-time to read beyond the assignment, daydream, or to take intellectual risks. Contemporary professors, for their part, are so saddled with so many corporately contoured administrative tasks -- committee work, assessment studies, assessment workshops, assessment reports, peer evaluations, student evaluations, not to forget large classes to teach, grade, and, lest I forget, assess -- that we have little time to think about what we've done or what we want to do.

Every semester over-worked students have a limited amount of time to study. Professors are "too busy" to refine their teaching or pursue their research, which usually improves the quality of instruction. Students and professors are trapped in increasingly corporate institutions of higher learning that are designed for processing products -- moving student bodies through institutional stages -- that produce positive institutional profiles.

Incessant institutional processing produces a great deal of end-of-the-semester student and professorial fatigue, a symptom that something important is missing from the mix of elements on our university campuses. Higher education should be more than a system for processing student bodies. Indeed, it should be the serious attempt to teach young people how to be in the world--an attempt that will set a course for the future.

If we recognize the fatigue for what it is, we should use the Winter Break to recharge our existential batteries and begin anew the pursuit of knowledge.

Here's a New Year's resolution for college students: make a habit of visiting your professors and discussing the world of ideas. Taking such a small step will not only be rewarding for students and professors, but will make the university a little less corporate and a little more humane, which means, that everyone benefits.