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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Is Cancel the New Normal?

I had fully intended to write a post this week on academics working in an online world (to follow up on my last post on academics and fake news), but something else is more pressing on my mind and is certainly related. Clearly, social and dating culture among students has changed in a tinder/bumble world such that when a better date or social offer comes along, people have no trouble cancelling on the first offer. This is documented in many contexts. Has this virus spread to academia? I wonder if our culture is changing in both the university environment and life such that cancelling (or to say it more glibly, flaking) has become the new norm. Sometimes cancelling just means not showing up to a conference, or a meeting, or to class. Sometimes it can come in the form of tardiness for an appointment or quitting a job altogether that you have committed for in advance. All of this is often done lightly and with little remorse

I have seen more of this cancelling phenomenon in the last three years or so than I ever have in my academic or professional career. My colleagues and I often complain about how often our research assistants, students, and others cancel/flake/drop out of whatever commitment they have made to us. I have told colleagues and people out of my field that I regularly receive student assignments a week after they are due, and people in Generation X are shocked, but I have grown accustomed to this. I actually build in a week or two of a cushion in case a student drops out of the task (cancels) or is late on a research assignment (not for a graded one, there are obviously repercussions for those).  This one is just sad, but I even often ask two or three research assistants to do the same research because I’m not sure that one or more will cancel on me.

Now don’t get me wrong, I try to be an empathetic professor and person. I am very sorry when students are ill, or their car breaks down, or a student has a family emergency. These things happen to all of us. In fact, in full disclosure I have had to cancel two or three conferences that I committed to myself due to Zika (I was pregnant and couldn’t travel to this part of Florida), passport issues, and newborn difficulties. And even though I felt bad cancelling, half of the panels I was supposed to speak with had to cancel as well. I think there is a growing culture of acceptance of people cancelling. I think on panels now, for instance, I will invite a few extra sometimes, just because I know some will cancel. And I wonder why this is happening. Is it because of the ever growing online nature of communications? It is so much easier to email a professor to tell them that you can’t turn in an assignment then to go to their office and have a talk about it. It is also easier for a professor to cancel on a colleague over email than to call and have to deal in person with the response. And what about cancelling on jobs. This is one that concerns me more than any. I have seen and heard about an unusually high number of students cancelling jobs they have committed to after receiving a better offer or opportunity. Maybe I am just focusing on the exceptions and not the rule, but I would be interested to hear others’ thoughts on whether cancelling seems to be the new normal.

Posted by Shima Baradaran Baughman on August 23, 2017 at 07:43 PM | Permalink


I just can't resist asking whether linking to Reddit threads (about Okcupid, no less) as "document[ation]" of what's "clearly" happening in the culture these days is the new Prawfsblawg normal. A Reddit thread "documents" the anecdotal and very possibly fictional experiences of a handful of anonymous Reddit users. I don't know that there's any evidence that date cancelation is more common today than at any other time in the history of modern dating; certainly classical Hollywood film suggests that stand-ups, as they were then called, were common enough.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Aug 23, 2017 8:46:27 PM

It hasn't occurred to me that there is an increased amount of cancellation now as compared to in the past. Off the top of my head, it seems pretty much the same. But it's really hard to measure such impressions, I think.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Aug 23, 2017 8:52:57 PM

Asher, clearly I was using the Reddit link as a joke about modern dating. There is a lot more where that came from though.

Posted by: Shima baughman | Aug 23, 2017 9:09:08 PM

You may well be right Shima but my cynical inner voice keeps singing that song from Bye bye Birdie, "Why can't they be like we were, perfect in every way? Oh what's the matter with kids today?"

Posted by: PaulB | Aug 23, 2017 9:11:15 PM

I don't receive student assignments late, nor are my research assistants ever late with their work. I have four or five at a time, and very short deadlines, and they never miss them. My students also don't no-show for class without telling me. So I am not sure what to say.

Posted by: nana | Aug 23, 2017 9:34:52 PM

Interesting Orin. I have my theories as to why this never happens to Orin (same reason students don't call him by his first name), though I don't know about any of the rest of you. I would love to hear the perspective of any female, junior (or junior looking) or minority professors in case that is a factor here.

Posted by: Shima baughman | Aug 23, 2017 9:44:17 PM

Hi Shima, I'm junior & female and I don't really get flaked on by students, nor are they tardy to class or meetings. I teach at a small school, fwiw, and I am very clear in my syllabus that if a student needs to reschedule a meeting with me s/he should do so by midnight the night before; my rules about deadlines in my paper class are also fairly strict and explicit. I stress professionalism and I also tell them if they do miss a class or take a pass on a given day, they need not explain why, they simply can't exceed the maximum absences.

Posted by: writey spice | Aug 23, 2017 11:35:51 PM

Shima, fair question. Although I'm not saying it doesn't happen to me: Much of it does, just as students did much of it to professors when I was a student. I just don't know if there's more of it now. For example, I was often late to class as a student, and now some students are often late to my class. Hard to to know if there is more now than then. And I rarely hire research assistants, so I can't tell if students are late or flake out more now than they did in the past

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Aug 24, 2017 1:33:46 AM

As it happens, I have noticed just the opposite. Students are now far more diligent about letting me know when they will miss class, and also about explaining afterward. Of course, communication is much easier with email than it was in the past, but I find current students to be extremely responsible about attendance and meetings.

Then again, I have been in teaching a long time and there may be a difference between long-term and short-term trends. To paraphrase Zhou Enlai's observation about the French Revolution, it may be too soon to tell.

Posted by: Steven Lubet | Aug 24, 2017 8:23:11 AM

Is it possible that student behavior varies by school ranking? Perhaps students at highly ranked schools are more conscientious, or perhaps the opposite.

Posted by: gdanning | Aug 24, 2017 11:17:56 AM

On the job front employees are just following employers' lead. Employers are the ones that fought for and won well nigh universal at will employment. What's good for the goose is good for the gander. Claiming that you are a good employer and would never just let an employee go because it advantageous for you to do so is neither here nor there. The pertinent question is whether or not you offer those research assistants a contract.

Posted by: brad | Aug 24, 2017 11:33:32 AM

female. middle aged, middle range school. they don't call me by my first name, but it really wouldn't bother me if they did.

Posted by: Nana | Aug 24, 2017 1:24:16 PM

The more entitled someone is, the more likely that person is to cancel. I remember many times I attended various conferences as a junior prof, only to find that numerous big names had backed out at the last minute. Because millennials are notoriously entitled, it is no surprise that they cancel lightly. But you can nip it in the bud with serious consequences for late papers or late class arrival, if you care enough.

Posted by: Suzanna Sherry | Aug 24, 2017 2:49:52 PM

To be charitable to the cancellers: if it is becoming more pervasive, is it because technology has enabled a much more voluminous spigot of interaction, and our social norms haven't figured out a good way to deal with it yet?

This is surely true in online dating: now that technology has enabled the young'uns to talk to hundreds of potential partners in a few minutes, one potential way to address the glut is to accept offers quickly, but then flake in the cold light of regret or when given the time to reflect on the opportunity cost of the commitment.

I suspect it might be true in more professional contexts as well. Suppose our communication tools give us lots more small tasks and opportunities, but our social norms around things like refusal haven't quite caught up? Is it easier today than in the past to find oneself totally overwhelmed with stuff to which one has agreed, because the e-mail caught one when one was juggling 20 other tasks (many of which had been similarly agreed-to), and, again, one didn't have a moment to think about the opportunity cost of saying "yes?"

Not that I'm speaking from personal experience or anything...

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Aug 25, 2017 12:15:31 AM

Suzanna Sherry writes: "The more entitled someone is, the more likely that person is to cancel. I remember many times I attended various conferences as a junior prof, only to find that numerous big names had backed out at the last minute."

That's certainly possible, but I wonder if it only seems more common because we would tend to remember that more. Junior profs often go to conferences in order to see/meet big names, so a big name cancelling is something you'd tend to remember. If someone you have never heard of canceled, that would be less likely.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Aug 25, 2017 1:42:14 AM

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