Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Irene in Iowa. Finding Out the Truth.

After three wonderful years post-doc at my PhD school, I took a tenure track job this fall a hundred miles away at a sorta of notoriously lousy college. Sue me. I needed dental for my growing family of crooked-teethed children! I wanted a living wage, too, and a real office, and a title, and all the things that we are told are part of the academic dream.

I was pleasantly surprised to find a lovely spot with reasonable enough weather (I know where I live!) My colleagues were pleasant and welcoming. I became friends with them and their children and spouses. And my kids loved their new schools.

And then I started teaching. I taught two weeks of church camp 10 years ago to middle school aged kids. That's what my new job was like. They were boorish and impatient, unable to focus for even a minute at a time. They didn't buy the book let alone read it. I flunked 60% of them on the first test (short answers, 1-2 paragraphs each, about fairly easy textbook and lecture stuff.) They moaned. Why wasn't it multiple choice? All the other kids get multiple choice!

And it didn't get better. My classes started with 30-50 students, and now in the afterburn of finals week, I'm averaging about 60% of the students still left, and only about 50% with reasonably safe passing grades. (I've got a big bunch across all my classes on the D/C border, and after talking with some colleagues - who have been alarmed all semester at my attrition rate - I'm going to bump some of them up.)

These students won't work. My post-doc years were at the state's flagship school. The undergrads I taught or TA'd were bright, inquisitive, and above all, at least willing to try. I had no idea how special they were until I got here.

I had my last final today, and across from my classroom is a small lounge area mostly used by students. I started my students off on their test and took a cup of coffee to the lounge and just stared out the window. (Snow's coming; I love snow.)

Anyway, I heard a blend of conversations during the hour I sat there. I was pretty unobtrusive and I look young. I was half hidden by a piling and there was nothing forced or odd about the casual chatter I heard. (I only recognized one student I knew, but he was a long ways away and I never heard him talking.)

Some of the things I did hear:

  • "I have a 135% average in my math class. My teacher said as long as I got over a 50% on the final I'd get an A. Then she just said skip it. 'You're not going to get a 50!'"
  • "My roommate hardly ever makes it to class. He's got a 4.0 like me. Our whole floor is pretty much 4.0."
  • "With the calculator it's easy. It's all multiple choice so I just try it with the calculator and then bubble in whatever number is closest. I'd be screwed if I had to write something down."
  • "That bitch made me rewrite my paper. I didn't fix anything but put in new margins and a new font and she bumped me from a B to an A. Stupid bitch."
  • "This class is so much easier than high school. I swear, I'm in a 200 level class that is easier than my senior History."
  • "My teacher made everyone cupcakes and during the final we talked about how she was getting married and wasn't going to teach for a year."
  • "We only had 2 essays. The rest of the time we just watched videos."
  • "We had a textbook reading each week, but then he'd always read the important parts to us on Mondays and tell us what parts were on the quiz. And then the quiz was multiple choice and pretty easy."
  • "My professor took us to the gym and we shot free throws to see who'd have to do the extra problems."
  • "I told her I had my period and then I went to by boyfriend's mom's place. She was so worried about me she gave me an extension. I wasn't even going to write the paper, but I had extra time after that."
  • "Just email your essay and say you couldn't work SafeAssign. Then she can't check you for plagiarism."
  • "Don't get a paper off the internet; get one from someone in your dorm. If it's recent enough it won't get caught. My roommate and I both used the same nuclear power paper. But I got an A- because I didn't even have a bibliography."

Yes, I know students love to talk and are given to hyperbole, but these students talked like my own students acted - anything to avoid work. Happy to avoid work. Glad to get the easy grades and the easy classes. 

I've had such a sad semester. My kids keep me going, and their own classes feel rigorous to me at a distance. I sit and watch them do homework - as I do mine. And I get called Dr. Irene and Prof. Irene, and I bought a car and a duplex and my kids teeth are straighter! The town is cute, and big and small enough at the same time. And I just am lucky lucky lucky lucky, far luckier than many of my grad school cohort.

But this college! These students! These awful students!

Before I wrote this post I started reading final exams. I held out hope that 15 weeks of learning by osmosis might have revealed itself in the final exams. But no such luck.

When asked for specific examples, it's generalities. "There are many essential parts of study in Xxxxxx and its important to study them from back to fornt using all of the history of the great study of Xxxxxx and how essential and interesting it can be for people who want to spend their careers in Xxxxxx doing good work to make the United States a leader in Xxxxxx and a pagan to the rest of the world."

Yeah, so there's that. That's 25% of the final grade there.

I'm home now. The kiddos are in their last week. There's an actual goddamned chicken in the crockpot and potatoes and carrots and my oldest helped me make sugar cookies. We're going to have a good night, and then tomorrow I'll look at the rest of these finals.


  1. I got a twinge of survivor's guilt when I was hired as a tenure-track assistant professor, after many years of the postdoc/Accursed Visiting Assistant Professor treadmill. I knew well how many of my colleagues had also applied for the job, having spent seven years applying for over 150 positions and weathering dozens of interviews. The survivor’s guilt quickly evaporated, thanks to the abominations thrown at me by modern students, and by the administrators who appease them.

    I suggest you read "Generation X Goes to College," by Peter Sacks. He went through a similar culture shock, as did I. This book helped me a lot with that feeling of isolation, that the inmates are running the asylum and you're the only sane person left, which you get from seemingly determinedly mediocre students and colleagues apparently drunk on hallucinogenic Kool-Aid.

    The end of "Generation X Goes to College" is particularly germane here. Peter Sacks had been having a hard day, and one of his better students followed him back to his office, and made a crucial observation. She said, "One of these days, an interested student will come up to you and you will no longer be able to recognize it, because you’ll be just as dead as your students. That vacant look will come over you, too. It’s contagious.”

    Fighting this is much of what keeps me going, now 16 years in. That, and getting to be an astronomer, which is even cooler than being a cowboy. (Sorry, Bubba.) I have two observatories essentially all to myself. As some alien told Captain Kirk, “We are much alike, Captain. Both proud of our ships!”

    Also: every now and then, you do get some victories, with students who do want to learn and can do it well. Savor those, since they are far too rare. There are other perks, too: once you get tenure, rise in seniority, bring in some research grants, and serve as department Chair, your department will come to rely on you, since it becomes obvious that they need you. You therefore get the wonderful privilege of being allowed to add the word “No” to your vocabulary. It will also help that I’m now getting ready to go on a year-long sabbatical, so I can get some actual scientific work done. Best of luck!

    1. When I was doing my interview for my current job, they had me teach a class. I noticed that at least one student slept through it. I thought, “With this level of apathy, am I going to make it here?”

      It hasn’t been easy. Even after 16 years, it still isn’t. Something so appropriate of our students’ attitudes, aptitudes, and interests, was the time a Computer Engineering major who’d taken one of my classes was caught fucking a sheep.

      Perversely, this incident helped. It reminded me that no, I am not the crazy one here. Disturbingly many of the people around me are.

      My previous job had been at a place near a major NASA facility, teaching students much like younger copies of me. In a way, it was wonderful: it was like getting to teach at Starfleet Academy, during a more interesting period in history. But I couldn't live there: there was no tenure for anyone, and there were positively feudal payscales and attitudes. It was time to go, and there was no going back.

    2. Well said, Frod.

      Irene, you seem to be doing a pretty good job of focusing on what's most important. That's a skill I did not have enough of early in my career and it made for some awful mistakes.

      Good luck!


    3. You know academia has come to a very sorry state indeed when the RGM compliments you with a "Well said," when you have been discussing the infamous "sheep incident"...

  2. My students are generally not as awful as yours sound, though there have been a few really egregious cases. I had the same culture shock (am still having it to some extent, even after many years). It sounds like your students are fully aware that they're gaming the system and their professors are letting it happen. For me the problem is that the student definition of "worked hard" is very different than mine; they're often sincere when they tell me they worked hard on an assignment when they skipped all the math problems. Try very hard to focus on the good parts, like your happy children and good health insurance. You can't fix the system by yourself and you'll only get stress ang aggravation if you try.

  3. Condolences to Irene and Froderick and others with such crappy students. It's not quite that bad where I am yet, but we are headed in that direction. The point about different definitions of "working hard" is key. Increasingly, students seem to think that college should be a little side thing they do that can be completed just by passively sitting in class and maybe working one hour outside of class, total, every week. My students are mostly first generation college students and most work 20-40 hours per week to pay for college. I appreciate this, but somehow their school work is always the lowest priority. I also think many so-called "digital natives" don't have proper study skills--you can't really learn when you check your phone every few seconds. And I had a new experience this semester, that I hope doesn't signal a new trend: Two students tried to gaslight me, digging further and further into lies despite incontrovertible proof to the contrary. Welcome to the new fact-free world!

    1. Not even one of their priorities it seems.

    2. Lots of first in their family college students and most working outside of campus here, too.

      For students in our major we (with the able help of the math department!) have four years to teach them a meaning of "worked hard" that we would recognize from our own student years. And it takes that long.

      The students in the gen-ed and service classes are a different matter: we don't have enough control to teach them anything of the sort and have to take what we get.

      My very worst students in those classes are much like the one described by Irene. A substantial traunch of them are like those that ed describes: willing after a fashion but not really comprehending what is expected.

      But where I am every class has a few that are genuinely willing to work. A lot of them are non-traditional. Even the young ones mostly have some serious adult responsibilities. Frankly a lot of them are so overwhelmed with life that the work they turn in suffers—sometimes a lot. But I'm sure that they will at least make something out of their time here.

      I teach to the last group and make sure that the necessary resources are available to all the students if they want to take advantage of them.

  4. Janice from JellystoneDecember 14, 2016 at 1:53 PM

    Great post, Irene. Wow, your experience is a lot like mine, but mine happened a couple of years ago. I'm not a veteran, but the lack of interest in college among my students is steadily and rapidly declining.

    They just come because they have to and are antagonistic about anything that requires thought or action.

    They do love Snapchat, though, as I have learned the hard way. (Another story for another day.)

  5. I have realized lately that I don't think I can continue teaching because of this sad state of affairs.

  6. I agree with the commenters who advise focusing on the students who want to be there. And "console" (?) yourself with the thought that if college were limited to the college-ready, 2/3 of us would have to shut down.

    1. This sounds like music to my ears. Thanks to the insane costs of California real estate and of university education most everywhere the students don't have sex with sheep, we're having a population explosion here. Of course we get no breaks in teaching load for it: the faculty have been grousing much like in Wat Tyler's Rebellion, and you know how that worked out. Still, a reduction by 2/3 would mean that my physics-for-engineers class next semester would shrink to 27, making it possible for me to grade homework. This ignores an annoying fraction of a student, but I could always fix that with a meat cleaver.

  7. Frod: This killed me: "It hasn’t been easy. Even after 16 years, it still isn’t. Something so appropriate of our students’ attitudes, aptitudes, and interests, was the time a Computer Engineering major who’d taken one of my classes was caught fucking a sheep."

    My own experience is so much like Irene's. I'm pretty fucking sick of it. This has been the worst semester in over 25 years in the cage. I assign weekly writing projects that equal 20% of the final grade--no small slice, eh? Day after day, student after student: "I didn't do it." I look at them and smile, saying "Okay!" The dear little shits, I guess, don't believe me when I say I don't reward sitting there looking cute. I tell them to revise the shit out of their papers, that a 72% average is necessary to pass. One of the cutest ones skipped that step on a key essay. Time and again I was confronted with apathy and crappy, last-minute "work." Here's how the semester rolled:

    End-of-semester stats from hell:

    Total enrolled at beginning of term: 86
    Final enrolled at the end: 66
    Number actually putting butts in seats: 48
    The grades:
    A's = 0
    B's = 9
    C's = 19
    D's = 16
    F's = 22

    Quite the pile of shit, eh? It's getting pretty hard to get inspired by the good students. I'm retiring at the end of next semester. Prolly a good thing.

    1. Gog, I'd bet as far as your local employers are concerned, that grade distribution is a mitzvah.

    2. A distribution like that would have led to an email from my dean to my chair, who then would've contacted me. Good on you for sticking to your guns and recording the consequences of students' choices. I guess almost-retirement has its privileges.

    3. Indeed. And congratulations on your impending retirement. I hope you either get to teach only willing students from now on, or you never have to teach again, whichever floats your boat.

    4. Thanks, one and all. I've been VERY fortunate to have a department that always has my back. I've never been given any grief for failing students who earn it. I get few complaints, too, as I have all of the sweethearts fill out a contract that lays down the law.

      I might do some part-time work in the future, but I'm going to take some time off first.

  8. I resonate with the descriptions of basically willing but underprepared/overstretched students above. That's (most of) our student body: heavily first-generation (college and/or American), generally hard-working (but not necessarily used to working hard at school), in need of substantial guidance, even when I meet them as juniors (or seniors who have put off my required class), to learn how to learn. It's daunting, but there is potential there (and there would be even more if we could find a way for them to spend more time on school work, and less on paid work, which is at least theoretically doable, though unlikely to happen anytime soon).

    Given the information above, Irene, I'm of several minds about your current situation. Especially given that you have a family, and your present situation works well for them, it sounds like the wisest course for the pre-tenure years is to stay put, blend into the local teaching culture as much as your conscience allows (advice from the local center for teaching excellence *might* be useful -- or not, but it's worth a try), save money if at all possible (for moving or sabbatical or whatever) and publish as much as possible. You'll then be in a position after tenure to assess your options: go on the market (but quite possibly not succeed in moving)? try to change the local culture, either within your department or by going (gasp!) into administration? Just follow your own conscience/drummer, a la Frod, despite the local culture? Found a center for teaching excellence (that actually works; ours is very good in its own way, but I fear it mostly reaches those who already care about good pedagogy, and/or those who are just starting out -- both useful, but probably not culture-changing). Go into industry/the private or public sector (if that's an option for your field)?

    In the meantime, maybe you can find a compromise between multiple choice and actual essays? Maybe some sort of guided outline -- e.g. write your thesis here (maybe at the end, once they've worked their way through the evidence), list at least 3 examples that support subpoint 1 here, list three that support subpoint 2 here, and so on? They'll probably be unhappy about that, too, because they think they know how to write essays, but they just might learn a thing or two, and you'd get actual examples (or not, but at least you might increase the chances).

  9. from Irene

    Please tell the readers how much I appreciate their thoughtful comments. I have so much respect for your blog and to communicate in this way was really fulfilling.

    I have felt, simply, that I was going mad this year. To hear from others commiseration and strategies was just the greatest end-of-year gift.

    Happy Holidays everyone,

  10. Irene, you are so not alone -- as the responses here indicate. You are also focusing on the important things: your kids, building a decent life for yourself and your family, your future, and using your degree to get a job that sustains you.

    That last part is the most important. I have come to realize this as well.

    I teach in a truly wretched place. I'm not just talking about LD3C, which worsens by the day. The president of the college is two-faced and has zero interest in working with faculty. At all. The rest of the executive administration is filled with petty, vindictive people who do everything they can to remind faculty that we are the asphalt beneath their feet.

    But I am not merely talking about LD3C. I mean, I teach in a truly wretched city. There is a culture here that is impossible to describe. It's lazy, needy, distrusting of education, quick-tempered, and resentful of anyone who has reached any level of success, and that includes professors. This culture pervades both the city in which I teach and the better-off suburbs that surround it -- and we draw students from the city, the suburbs, and the surrounding counties.

    When I first moved here for my job at LD3C, I took a little comfort in the atmosphere of the college; there has been an administration change since, though, and now there is no comfort even in that. I plan to leave within 10 years, even though I will not be able to afford to retire by then.

    What this experience has taught me is that my job is just that -- a job. It pays well enough and I don't have to work my body to death doing it (although it is exhausting). Because I live in such a bad area, economically, I can afford a decent house in a suburb that is a bit easier to live in than some others, a bit less entitled than others, a bit safer. I don't have kids to care for, but like a lot of people, I'm completely alone in this world financially and I came from nothing, so this security and the hope for a retirement above the poverty level is what I work for.

    I focus on the fact that I can pay my mortgage, have a car that I can keep repaired, spend a little money on vacations -- a luxury completely unavailable to me until I hit 50 -- work in my garden in the short summer term that I now no longer have to teach, attend cultural events in the nearest "big" city with my amazing boyfriend, and visit friends in other cities when I have the time. I have health, dental, and vision insurance, things I did not have until my mid-40s. I have a crock pot that I use regularly, wind chimes in the backyard, a little wood for the fireplace, and a couple of really happy cats. I can afford race fees for silly 5Ks and I'm rejoining the gym this week. I can send presents for Christmas to various nieces and nephews. I can donate to political causes and nonprofits, both small amounts of time and money.

    I can do all of this because I have a job. It's a shitty job. It's an overwhelming job. Teaching at a CC is not for the weak. I live in an area of the country where I do not want to be. But I have a job that I do well, for which I am compensated reasonably well, and one for which I am actually using my education.

    And because I have that job, I have a life outside of that job -- and that is my real life, the things that define me, the connections I make, the creativity I experience, the joy that I can snatch wherever and whenever I can.

    And that is your life, too. You are not defined by your job. You are defined by the life you create in the space that is truly yours, and it sounds as though you are doing it right.

    Sending a big internet hug.


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