Thursday, November 20, 2014

Harris in Houston Asks A Big Thirsty For the Modern Age: What Does It Mean to "Meet Them Where They Are?"

I am fresh out of an endless departmental meeting where Judgy Judy saved up a ton of breath and bitterness while half the room vented some very mild student foibles.

"Well, I'd ask myself if maybe I was the problem, if your students REALLY act that way," she said suddenly, unable to keep it in.

A friend of hers, another veteran, tried to placate her. "Surely, Judy, you've got some students who simply won't listen, do their work, follow guidelines. What do you do when they keep messing up and won't own up to it."

"I put in more hours. I meet them where they are. The students are blameless."

And I and others sat in silence for a while as things turned to the matters of the day.

But it ate at me. Judy's face is burned in my brain. She stormed out of the meeting as it ended and a few of us sat around quietly.

"Do you think that's right?" Newbie Nora said. "Am I the one to blame if they won't work?"

Q: The notion of "meeting students where they are" is a fairly hot notion nowadays, and I find cites to it all over the place. I first heard it in the profoundly popular book called The College Fear Factor. But, what does the phrase really mean? Are there limits? If they're in denial, do I have to be to?

34 comments:

  1. "Meeting students where they are" is a euphemism for "dumbing down." In order to teach my general-ed science class at a level at which they can understand, I need to teach it at middle-school level. Even then, that's pushing the capabilities of many of them.

    One reason is that they are not blameless. I HATE that dead look in their eyes, so well described by Peter Sacks in “Generation X Goes to College.” As Len from Las Cruces put it in RYS in 2009, “…they fight me from day one to day last. They don't want to be in college, and have 999 reasons for it that I can't even begin to defeat or answer.” In 2003, a colleague put it succinctly: seemingly every year, our students get more, and more, and MORE IMMATURE---and WE are expected to do increasingly more about it. Well, intercourse that. I can’t and won’t accept responsibility for fools who so utterly refuse to take responsibility for themselves.

    Another reason is that if I didn’t dumb it down, only a single-digit percentage of my students could understand much of anything I say. Often, whenever I bring up anything sophisticated, such as astrophysics, the philosophy of science, or (heaven forbid!) anything mathematical, they simply cannot follow what I’m saying. No doubt I sound to them like that sound effect done with a trombone made whenever an adult speaks in a Peanuts cartoon. It's bad enough that my students have a thing for barnyard animals (that is now well documented in the posts from Sunday and Monday): it’s not unusual for my students not to know how to calculate percentages, which I learned in 5th grade, or not to understand fractions, which I learned in 4th grade, or not to understand the difference between "two," "to," and "too," which I knew in 2nd grade.

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    1. I've had students like that, too, while I was at (YP)^2 College ("You Pay, You Pass!"). When I complained about them, the answer I often got was along the lines of: "Oh, you're just saying that because you think you're so smart." (I had my M. Sc. when I started there and, later, I joined Mensa.)

      I heard comments like that from the very beginning. One of the instructors from the in-service sessions I had to attend before I started teaching was like that. Any hint at standards prompted him to say: "That's *elitist*!"

      Later, it was about meeting "needs and expectations" and creating a "safe learning environment".

      If there's someone in the system that's in denial, it's the administrators.

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    2. Just keep dividing the difficulty level by two. You'll never get to zero but will always keep getting obscenely closer, which is about as close to intercourse in public as one can get without taking their clothes off.

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    3. EMH:

      I didn't reduce the difficulty level on my own--it was forced on me in order to produce acceptable graduation rates, though that was largely due to my last department head's institutional ambitions.

      When I started teaching, it was not uncommon to have closed-book exams. There were some things that students were expected to know without even thinking about it, such as fundamental concepts like the cosine law or how to solve a quadratic equation.

      By the time I quit over a dozen years later, that had long fallen by the wayside. Open books, open notes, anything short of asking the next student, or even the instructor, was allowed. The sad thing is that attenuating the level of difficulty didn't affect the pass rates all that much, if at all.

      When I started, I would sometimes do a dry run on my exams. If it took me about a third of the time I allotted for it, then it would have been at an acceptable level of difficulty. By the time I quit, that was down to a factor of 5. For a 2-hour exam, I should have been able to write it in about 20 minutes.

      I taught at a technical college. One day, I compared notes with the university supervisor for my last 2 degrees. He noted similar changes.

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  2. Frod, I, too, find myself teaching at an 8th Grade level. Makes me feel not so alone to hear this is another's experience.

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    1. Me too. Recently a bunch of them made the same mistakes. Nine percent have a genetic condition. They wrote ".9". Take the square root. They wrote ".03". Subtract from 1.0. They wrote ".07".

      Apostrophes. Their / there / they're. Due / do.

      Yep. Doo-doo.

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  3. So, if a medical school student didn't know what they were doing, should the instructors "meet them where they are"? Oh dear.

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    1. Of course. Otherwise we would have to close all the county hospitals.

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  4. As a matter of principle, I would rather take more responsibility vs. less responsibility. I just wish more of my students would reciprocate. I can entirely imagine too many of my students saying, "Amen, Judgy Judy. If I have to read, study, or think, then my professors aren't doing their jobs. If I don't get good grades, then my professors have some explaining to do. Of course, I'm 'blameless.' What the hell am I paying you people for?" I wish had a genuinely effective way to combat what I see as a poisonous attitude, but I don't.

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  5. Too many of my colleagues have eaten this candy and have given up. I get sophomores who can't complete a single assignment but who have 4.0s.

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  6. There was one thing that disturbed me while I was teaching. If I had ever been like my students while I was in high school over 40 years ago, I would have been given the boot and I would have deserved it.

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  7. It's bullshit. Frod hits the nail on the head with his opening line. I teach junior high material, and my students barely keep up. What they are unable to do, of course, is follow any kind of instruction or direction. If they've never had to so far, or if someone has covered their ass before, then they're not going to get it.

    I just want to fucking blow up the whole system for so many reasons, but one of the chief ones is because I see colleagues just like Judgy Judy who drink the kool-aid and become the problem and not the solution.

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    1. I taught Geometry a couple of times. Had students tell me "This is stuff we learned about in 7th grade. Why are you teaching it to us? This is supposed to be college level!" Those same students were also failing.

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    2. Of course. Those who claimed they knew that material during the lectures seldom demonstrated that knowledge on their exams.

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    3. That's because they are just "bad test takers.". I've noticed that bad students are quite often bad test takers.

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  8. Yeah I want my doctors, nurses, engineers, etc to have a rigorous training! I am sure I also "dumb" down some of my material, but some of my students get to class having no clue about Hamsterology. At worst feel like half of what I am supposed to teach to my majors is high school material and those that excelled in high school have had the material before but then their are others...
    Thankfully in departments where I am a adjunct there are no Judgy Judy's (damn is it apostrophe s?). They are on campus those. Students can graduate without taking a lab now and instead take a science class from an English professor. Yeah. The science faculty are non too happy. Also makes me glad to only be an adjunct here...

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  9. Oh, I thought "meeting my students where they are" was a nicer way of saying "see you in Hell." That changes my pep talk that I give to the new faculty.

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  10. We all meet the students where they are. The problem is that they don't want to go anywhere else.

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  11. _I_ thought the point of 'meeting the students where they are' was to start where they are and then drag them kicking and screaming up to where they ought to be, rather than starting over their heads so they have no chance to get on board?

    A surprisingly large number of people seem to think it means 'settle down with them where they are' rather than _start_ where they are, _end_ where they need to be...

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    1. I remember when I was an undergrad, I saw material that I was expected to master by the time I finished my degree. It was filled with all sorts of equations: integrals, exponents, and summation signs all over the place. My thought was: "You've got to be kidding!" When I was finished, and looked back, that changed to: "I had no idea I could ever do that sort of thing!"

      The thing is, my profs knew and what I thought didn't matter. They set the bar high above me when I was a freshman and they expected me to reach it--maybe not the first time, but certainly by the time I was finished.

      It was that sense of accomplishment, of being able to what I thought was impossible, that helped make me a responsible adult.

      After I finished my Ph. D., I crossed paths with some of my old profs and even some of my former high school teachers. I thanked them for having done that. I might not be Dr. Vertical today if they hadn't.

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    2. The problem is that "where they are" is further and further away from where they should be. I can only teach so much in 14 weeks. I can't do remedial English, basic writing, basic math, study skills, etiquette, and everything else they need to know AND the whole of Hamsterology.

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    3. Unfortunately, one's colleagues are often at fault. I taught a number of courses that were the next or close to the last in a series.

      Those colleagues that taught the prerequisites frequently got away with presenting only part of the needed material. ("So what if I didn't teach everything I needed to cover? What I taught, I taught *well* and that's what counts. Look at my evaluations!")

      Consequently, I ended up spending a large portion of *my* course time teaching them material that they had to know in order to understand that *I* was supposed to cover. Woe betide me if I proceeded to teach that course assuming that the students already had all of the prerequisite concepts.

      Sadly, many of the aforementioned colleagues were never held accountable for their negligence, pushing the responsibility for cleaning up the mess on me.

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  12. Meet them where they are probably started out as a good idea. But like all good ideas, adminflakes glommed on to it, and sucked any wisdom or goodness out of it, and turned it into a vapid catchphrase masquerading as a cure-all.

    It's like this. If you need a ride to New York, and you're in Chicago, it's no good me trying to pick you up in Pittsburgh. (translation, I can't teach you advanced hamsterology if you aren't yet able to find a hamster's ass). That makes sense.

    But there's a catch. If you were in Pittsburgh, I could probably drive you to New York in a day, if we didn't stop too long for lunch. But if you're in Chicago, it'll probably take me two days to drive you to New York. (translation - I can't get a student from basic hamster anatomy to advanced hamsterology in one semester). If you're willing to accept that, I'll meet you in Chicago next semester, and we'll see if we can get to Pittsburg. Then we'll move on to New York the semester after.

    But the adminflakes can't accept that. No no no! If you meet them where they are, you just (insert edubabble wankery) and presto - New York.

    The students can't accept it. They've been told they're in Pittsburgh so often they're convinced Lake Michigan is just a widening in the Ohio river. You want to scream "Listen Dude - you're in Chicago. That's Lake Fucking Michigan. There's the Sears tower. There's a bunch of guys in Bears and Blackhawks jerseys. You're in fucking Chicago!!" But you can't do that - heaven forfend! . That would damage their self of steam.

    So you say "Sure kid - hop in. I'll get you to [wink] New York" And when you drop them off in Pittsburgh (Aww, who am I kidding? It'll probably be Cleveland). You give them a gold star and a pat on the head and turn them loose on an unsuspecting city to wander the streets wondering why they can't find the Statue of Liberty.

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    1. The job description for an instructor at the institution there i used to each should have been: sow's ear -> silk purse.

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  13. It means, "hey, we're not asking you to spin straw into gold. We're just asking you to take this label that says GOLD and stick it onto this bale of straw."

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  14. I came across this item today:

    http://www.gocomics.com/doonesbury/2011/08/14

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  15. R+/*G has encapsulated a lot of my ideas on this matter in the Chicago-Pittsburgh-NYC scenario.

    I think that, as with many things, this concept has been lifted from its original context and applied to more situations than is reasonable. At first, I think it was just a name for something found to be useful in sessions with individual students, or perhaps small groups, as described in this comment.

    Then it morphed into something one was expected to do for a whole class. Adminiflakes tell admissions to expand the class by an extra 10 warm bodies, which means they matriculate students who had previously been considered less desirable, and they are shocked, SHOCKED I tell you to find that the number of dismissals and withdrawals increases by about 10. "You must not be meeting them where they are," they tell you. So like a rule honored in its breaking, the concept becomes a stand-in for whatever it is you're not doing right.

    I've increasingly heard rumbling about "meeting them where they are" being more literal, as in, going to their physical location or virtual proxy thereof, such as Facebook as mentioned in this comment, because the preshuss youneek ducklings can't possibly be expected to meet you where you are.

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  16. I'm with JaneB,Reina, R &/or G (bravo!), Ogre (and probably a couple of others I missed): I don't really object to the idea of meeting them (i.e. starting) where they are, but the destination *does* matter, as does a realistic picture of how long it will take to get there given the realities of available time, abilities of the participants, etc., etc.

    I teach writing in the disciplines to (mostly) juniors. They've all graduated from high school (or at least passed the GED), and they've all taken English 101 or an equivalent. But every few semesters (which means every few hundred students) I encounter a student who genuinely doesn't know when to use quotation marks. They've obviously been taught it, but somehow it didn't sink in. I still may not sink in when I explain it. But I'm willing to explain it, and do what I can to help the student get it. I will also flunk intermediate drafts, and report to the honor council any final draft, that contains plagiarism. The student has to learn how to use quotation marks to pass the class. If (s)he doesn't do so in my section, (s)he will in another section, while retaking the class, or (s)he won't graduate. If I allowed a student who can't use quotation marks correctly to graduate from college, I'd be failing not only hir, but also other stakeholders such as taxpayers and potential employers. (S)he and I may, indeed, part ways in Cleveland or Pittsburgh rather than in New York, but the graduation ceremony has got to remain in New York. If we move it to Newark (just for convenience, you know, so you don't have to cross one more river to get there), it's eventually going to end up in Allentown, and then Bethlehem, and before you know it it's in Pittsburgh, and you have to pursue a Masters degree to get to New York (actually, I think we may already be there).

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  17. Cassandra, I love that you included the Allentown/Bethlehem/Easton region in this discussion, because it reminded me of a road trip of about 20 years ago. (My recollection that Allentown is actually farther from New York than is Bethlehem may have dislodged the memory.) My trip was from approximately South Bend to approximately Newark, which is approximately Chicago to New York. Because I had no business near Pittsburgh, I opted for Interstate 80 and thereby also bypassed A/B/E -- so much the better for our story.

    As I would find out, I-80 steered well clear of pretty much any (if not every) urban center in the upper half of Pennsyltucky. I had driven about five miles off the interstate to refuel, whereupon I discovered a problem with my trailer, which happened to be full of car parts but not the one I needed; yes, I smiled at the sweet irony. The "town" comprised only the gas station and its quickymart, which naturally didn't stock the thingamajobbie, thus did I set out to the next town (read: intersection) 20 miles away, where there was alleged an all-night service station. Whilst enroute on that 2-lane road, I often noted in the headlight glare expired vehicles and major appliances, left to rot in their owners' yards.

    This is where our students may find themselves when their four years run out: sidetracked well short of their destination, laden with cargo that can't be used to get them back on the highway, assuming they had ambition or tools to apply towards the situation to begin with.

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