Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Tuba-Playing Prof Does the "Honors."

As I near the end of my time here at Ambitious State University, more and more I am mindful—and as I have loved teaching and class preparations (especially developing special topics) often wistful—that I am “doing this for the last time.”

Teaching a course that I designed exclusively for the honors program was a true joy the first three times I taught it: a topic that arose from my teaching interests and research projects, a truly interdisciplinary focus that challenged students to examine something so common to all, and a fun class that most former students tell me remains worthwhile in their careers and personal lives.

For most of the summer, as I was working on the class, I kept remembering that I was teaching it for the last time, so I had to make it the best one yet, etc. And the general buzz across campus was that the honors students were the best students ever.

Four weeks into the semester, I’m thankful it is my final time teaching the class.

At first, I will admit, I thought the students boring and dull, yet I now realize that they are cautious, anxious, hesitant, alert yet passive at the same time, but mostly fixated on grades.

Of course initially I blamed myself: losing it, getting old, etc. But in my “regular” classes with “regular” students all seemed the same.

Yes undoubtedly I am losing it and getting old. (I seem to spend the same amount of time on trying to figure out a way to afford a 457B as I do reading and writing.) Nonetheless, I have to consider that because I exhibit much of the old energy, enthusiasm, and passion in the rest of my classes—as the students comments on daily “exit cards” assure me that I do—it is the honors students.

Besides my graying, what else has changed?

I think that I’ve decided that honors students have so much that they have too much to lose.

Since the last time I taught the course, the Honors Program has undergone some of the very big changes that Ambitious State has. The fund-raisers found a wealthy couple to fund the honors program with an undeniably generous endowment.

With the money and a new name, big changes came—mostly from the attention of the provost and his hooligans on campus.

Before the money, the Honors program had one staff member: a teaching faculty member to advise and coordinate. Hur four/four teaching load was reduced to three/three for the service. The main task was to convince departments to “give up” a faculty member for a semester to develop then teach a “special topics” course exclusively for honors students, offer a section of an existing course (especially a general education one) as option for honors students only, or allow an upper-level electives to be “cross-listed” as a choice for its majors and the honors students.

The Honors students had only one real privilege—early registration. The vast majority entered the program because they were curious. Their participation in the programs was noted on their transcripts, yet not on their diplomas. The only benefits were taking some unique options, being first in line for registration, and adding a line on résumés.

Although no one will confirm or deny it, the generous gift to the honors program came with the understanding—apparently or allegedly—that the honors students have their own dormitory. Of course the Honors Dorm is a new building, in the newest section of campus, one of the most admired dorms near the shops and restaurants just opening, or in other words, the “fun” part of campus, within walking distance of the fro yo shop. The Honors students have their own classrooms (with the very best of technology), recreation, media and game rooms, study spaces, parking lot, and a coffee kiosk. And the building is secured. Only Honors students are allowed in. The teachers teaching the honors courses are permitted access for only the semester in which they are teaching. Once my class is finished in December, my ID will not “swipe me in.”

The program now has a full time Director, who is essentially a dean (with an appropriate salary and parking spot) and a staff of three. The director mostly plans activities exclusively for the honors students. They have trips to the big city to the northeast and the big city to the northwest paid for. The program offers a number of interesting lectures and workshops, but the director limits those to honors students as the staff tries to hold down the cost of the food they always provide during these programs. A few students have admitted that the food is always good but have not ever mentioned the quality of the lectures or workshops.

I don’t have actual data as the new director guards those, but the general opinion across campus is that the Honors program is ever improving. Having a director working diligently to promote that view makes sense to me. And the admins usually show up for the lectures, adding another sign of the importance of the program.

When they learn that I’m teaching again for the Honors program, more and more colleagues state without apparent irony that the program is getting better and better because more male students from STEM are electing it. On this campus STEM majors are the “tough programs” as several admins continue to point out. So the Honors students from STEM program are therefore the “best” students.

What matters the most to the new board, the new president, the new provost, and their underlings are the university’s rankings in magazines that at times has this place in the top five of our category (although with so many different classifications, lots of schools make some sort of the top five). Two factors immediately matter: SAT scores and retention. And I think that I see a new purpose for the honors program: Entice “honor” students with splashy, attractive digs, exciting trips to world-class cities, and good food at lectures, because honors students help the average incoming SAT scores and tend to stay and graduate in four years.

At the same time, along with these perks, come strict requirements. Nowadays honors students can “flunk” out the program by not maintaining a very high minimum overall GPA. And I understand that too—they do enjoy some great benefits being in the program.

Preparing for this semester, I did not foresee the consequences arising from an honors program that first entices then threatens its students.

I designed the course to challenge, confront, push, or demand the students provide their best, original work—after the first part of the class readies the student to be able to do just that. The class next asks the students to write; it asks them to speculate, to offer different interpretations, possibilities—valid but not necessarily correct answers—to express what they might think. The main requirement: “do your best—but learn something.”

With the idea that this group of students had to be phenomenally better than the first three because the honors students were “the best students we have ever had,” I didn’t change the syllabus. As I had every time before, I devoted three weeks to cover a semester’s worth of material of a general-education class. And now what was always the best part of the class is here: making the students transfer or apply what they have learned. And this group is starting to panic. More and more, the students are finally speaking up—asking, “What do you want—exactly?” “Can we take more exams instead of writing essays?” “What should I do exactly?”

The students are worried about their final grades, for once grades determine more than one’s overall GPA, then grades become imperative. Doing one’s best in a fun but challenging course isn’t enough. I can't help thinking: The new honors programs has ruined the honors classes.

I am working very hard to help them—as any teacher should. Yet I have to admit that this class requires more and more of my time in ways it never had before.

I don’t mention any of this to my colleagues, especially those teaching general-education classes. I know the likely responses: “you’re telling me, that teaching the best students, with a class of only twenty students, has been a disappointment, because….” I’m not the only teacher on a campus who has wrongly anticipated how awesome, how excellent, how life changing, etc. a class will be. It has happened before, and I know to keep it to myself.

Yet this particular disappointment also reminds me of the misery of what is happening here as we celebrate our top-five rankings. The new honors program is the latest reminder of what’s wrong: the fanatical attention to the branding of this educational institution.

Why has every “big change” on this campus—that is, the ones that come from and with money, that warrant administrative attention and overstatement, and that make it in the big-city newspapers—make everything seem not as noble, as pure, as meaningful, as essential as before? Why has every big change that seemed so exciting in the press release, on the web page, and on the feature segment on the local tv news, proven to be so disappointing in practice, in the exchange between students and teachers?


  1. Depressing, but not entirely surprising. It sounds like the changes in your honors college parallel, in a more extreme way, the direction in which colleges and their students in general are going, in an age of assessment, increased competition, and hyper-attention to "reputation." I, too, find that my (non-honors) students are "cautious, anxious, hesitant, alert yet passive at the same time, but mostly fixated on grades," and, often, just want to be told "what I want," so they can give it back to me, exactly as I have described it. It isn't all the students, of course (that may be the blessing of non-honors classes), but it's enough to be dispiriting, and exhausting. There's a vicious cycle under way, and I don't know how we're going to interrupt it, and (maybe?) get things going the other way. I actually have some hope for the common core, and its emphasis on critical thinking (though I also realize why K-12 object to the way it came about -- with very little input from classroom teachers -- and, like many of them, fear that it will mostly end up enriching Pearson et al. as they turn it into a canned "product" forced on classroom teachers expected to follow it in lockstep -- the exact opposite of the habits the curriculum is supposed to promote in students).

  2. In a similar way, the crowded academic job market is one reason that science isn't as interesting as it was in the '60s. The people who get selected for tenure-track jobs tend to be ones who haven't made any career errors. This therefore does not favor the risk takers. It makes for science that is incremental, conservative, conformist, plodding, and pedestrian. Revolutionaries need not apply, unless they know how the experiments will work out in advance.

  3. I could see how changes in the honors program can account for some of the changes in its students, but I also find myself agreeing with Cassandra. My programs are fed by the graduates of your programs, honors and non-honors alike, and I have found that all college graduates are getting a bit more "cautious, anxious, hesitant, alert yet passive at the same time, but mostly fixated on grades," and that they also tend to "just want to be told what I want so they can give it back to me, exactly as I have described it". It is tempting to ascribe this shift to putative shifts in undergraduate curricula at colleges and universities, but especially when I hear similar ruminations from within those ranks, I look to other causes, proximal and distal. I blame the kindergarten teachers. No, just kidding, mostly.

    Current students may be set apart from their predecessors by having been born into a culture in which these things were already well established (listed in arbitrary order):

    * Helicopter, bulldozer, and other such parenting styles
    * NCLB
    * Structured playtime and over-scheduled weeks
    * Amber Alerts
    * Four hundred cable channels the norm in many houses
    * Reality TV
    * Broadband internet and World-wide Web
    * iPhone, iPad, iPod, iPoop, or any other iCan'tGoTenMinutesWithoutCheckingThisThing and/or iTuneOutMyImmediateSurroundings capability
    * Netflix, DVR, on-demand cable, YouTube
    * and no doubt many others

    In short, they were fucked before they set foot in a classroom, be it K-12, college, grad school. Kids these days have different challenges, perhaps some of which are less challenging than those before, but that in itself is a challenge of sorts, for is it not our challenges that shape us?

    When TV had only three channels we got bored and got off our asses, rode bikes, played kickball, got into trouble, curled up with books, read magazines, wrote letters, drew pictures, wrote and acted in plays for each other, etc. Those were things our brains were already evolved to do, and they (generally positively) shaped our brains and personalities for all that was to follow.

    This word we're in, it's too new for our brains.

    We're fucked.

    1. Another way to say this is that when we let machines do our thinking for us, it doesn't make us smarter. It can make us stupider, because of the atrophy.

      That said, as much as I'd like to ban calculators so my students will develop actual math skills, I never will. I'd be lynched!

    2. Yes, indeed. Ogre, you have hit it on the nose.

  4. “What do you want—exactly?” “What should I do exactly?”

    And I want to scream at my students - "If all you can do is give me what I want exactly as I have described it, then you are a robot. And you will never be as good a robot as an actual robot. And actual robots will take your jobs. Actual robots will eat your lunch.

    They'll. Drink. Your. Milkshake!

    And then, being robots, they will simply hold said milkshake in some internal sealed container thingy, undigested, yet cryogenicly preserved until their next maintenance download, when they will discretely deposit the milkshake, unchanged, untasted and unappreciated, into the disposal module.

    Kinda like you're doing with this education!"

    Awesome post Tuba.