Saturday, August 10, 2013

The CM Interview With Introvert Prof: Second in a Series.

  1. What's wrong with the current crop of undergrad students?
    My institution is a rural SLAC that seems unable to attract anyone from the "well above average" demographic. Most of our students have been coddled in high school. They have no idea what it means to study. They haven't the discipline to stick with something they find a little dull unless it is an athletic practice. They don't get (or sympathize with) the link between learning and struggle, because many have never been made to struggle with learning before. On the other hand, most of them can write at a reasonable high-school level. I seldom find students who are execrable writers -- though unfortunately the ones who are are getting passed along in college, just like they were in high school.

  2. What's wrong with the current state of higher education in America?
    There are a number of things that are wrong, though I can't say that I have a good handle on it myself. Things that I see include the expectation that everyone should be in college -- making it an extension of high school. On the other hand, without that expectation I would very likely be jobless since most of the students we attract would be at the bottom of the barrel in a larger or more competitive school. So part of the problem is the fact that we have too many institutions for the population we *should be* serving.

    Another part of the problem is the lack of public support for higher education. This takes the obvious form of failure to provide enough public money to support the expectations of the American public for higher ed. It also takes the form of the seemingly prevalent idea that our colleges and universities are there to provide credentials, not to educate. EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes.

  3. What could regular faculty do locally to improve things?
    I've got nothing. I uphold standards as well as I can, but I've got tenure. Even so, I will occasionally get called on the carpet when some student or other complains about what a mean meanie-pants I am. If more of my colleagues with tenure would enforce basic standards of writing and research, perhaps my students wouldn't complain so much (or at least they'd complain about somebody else).


  1. Amen. I'd welcome a return to a period (perhaps mythic, but only partly so) when students could work all summer at a job (and could find such jobs) and earn enough to pay for tuition, books, and modest living expenses, in part because tuition was heavily subsidized by the state, but/and welcoming speeches to the freshman class were often of the "look to the right; look to the left; only one of you will be here next spring" variety.

    I still hear talk of the Vietnam-era draft as one cause of grade inflation; I've heard less talk of workload/expectation deflation as the result of the fact that many of our students (well, mine, at least) are working so many hours outside school just to pay for school. I'd like to see us (as a country) invest far more, and also expect far more. But I don't know how in the world to get there. In the present climate, high expectations would undoubtedly be enforced by some sort of standardized test (and would probably need to be, since so few of us have tenure, and so many are evaluated on the basis of student satisfaction and/or "success"). And I don't see the political will, inside or outside the academy, for seeing a situation where even 25% of the class fails as "appropriate challenge," even though it might well be. (Caveat: I'd only be in favor of a high failure rate if second chances were easily available, though perhaps metered/spaced after the first instance: you can retake a class right away once; if you flunk again, then you need to wait a semester and do something relevant to increasing your chances of passing the class -- retake a pre-req, take a study skills class, get counseling, whatever -- before doing so again, and so on, with ever-increasing gaps and catch-up requirements between tries).

    1. Since I teach mathematics, I don't consider 25% to be a high failure rate. Through the junior-level courses, rates of 40-50% are not uncommon throughout the US. And those rates are about to get worse - students no longer devote enough time to subjects which require mastery, yet those are the very skills in high demand right now.

    2. 40-50% failure rates are politically impossible at my institution, no matter what the subject. We have a rep here as a tough department because we have a failure rate. In gen-chem, it can reach 25%; that's the main weeder course for us, since everyone has to go through it. Sophomore physics gets the rest, but my understanding is that the failure rate there is 10% or less.

  2. I've heard less talk of workload/expectation deflation as the result of the fact that many of our students (well, mine, at least) are working so many hours outside school just to pay for school.

    This is what our students claim--I have seen no statistical evidence that this is generally true, and my own experience as well as that of my friends and relatives--within the last ten years--belies it.

    The poorest students get financial aid to the tune of their full expected expenses for the semester. Any student who is 26 or older, and is working entry-level-type jobs, will get the same. This package will be roughly half grants and half loans, with half the loans subsidized. In my own case (most recent year was 2002) it was about $11,000 per semester.

    It is simply not true that students HAVE to work to the point that they do badly in school. They have many choices. They can wait until they are 26 and don't have to claim their parents' income. They can get GI Bill when they get out. They can go to a cheaper school. They can do 12 credits a semester, still get full-time financial aid, and take longer. They have any number of choices and "I can't study because I have to a work" is a cop-out.

    1. I had zero help from family, a raging case of epilepsy, and a full workweek. I worked 40 hours a week during undergrad, because I couldn't be uninsured. No insurance, no pills, lots of seizures.

      Yet 40 hours a week was not enough to cover $12,000 per semester for out of state, nor $5000 for in-state. I was poor with no family assistance, yet since my family existed, I was not allowed the reality of my financial situation (earning $700/month) but rather it was assumed that my parents would contribute.

      They didn't. We didn't talk for 4 years, yet their existence meant I couldn't receive financial aid.

      So I took between 13-17 credits per term, worked 40 hours a week, and did everything on loans.

      One summer, I had a coffee shop job from 5am to 11am, painted houses in the afternoons, and worked at Kinko's from 4pm to 11:30pm. It was the worst summer of my life.

      Your assessment of what poor kids do to be in school is pretty naive and comes from a sense of entitlement and privilege.

    2. And your critique of Flamen's opinion is riddled with personal bias and anecdotal evidence too.

      You are just like every other instructor who thinks your students' sob story is exactly the same as your own. Ever hear of the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf? Substitute "boy" with "college student" and "wolf" with "poverty" for an idea of what some of us see from students who want to manipulate the system by playing on myths of working to pay for school.

      The simple fact is this: If you couldn't handle your situation, with attendant decent grades, then you should have flunked out. But you didn't, did you? Therein lies Flamen's thesis. It's about tough choices and consequences.

    3. His thesis was that this didn't really happen. My personal experiences shows that it does happen. That is the proper use of an anecdote. I didn't pretend that my experience was universal, but that it is part of a larger existence, which is what Flamen's colleagues are referencing when they refer to those who do indeed have to work.

  3. Here's a link to the FAFSA forecaster.

    I put in values that would have applied to my own case in 2002--single, over 26, making less than $22,000. According to the Federal government, I am eligible for about $12,000 in Federal financial aid. $9500 was in the form of Direct Stafford loans, which are currently at 3.4%, which is literally free money thanks to inflation.

    Any student who is willing and able to put forth the effort can get a college degree in this country, and the poorer they are the less they "have to work".

    1. "Direct Stafford loans, which are currently at 3.4%, which is literally free money"

      You also don't seem to understand basic math.

    2. I got all loans like those above for my PhD Program. I'll likely be paying them off until close to retirement. I didn't understand basic math, either, thinking that 2.9% was pretty low.

      And I worked 40 hours a week and struggled to keep up with my reading. My SI also worked two jobs in the summer so that I could cut back and work 30-hour weeks the second year of my program. It was great incentive to get DONE quickly.

      Mostly, I should have done my PhD at a school that was in my state to avoid the out-of-state tuition and taken time to apply for more fellowships, but I also didn't know about such things until I got to school.

    3. AM, if the interest rate equals inflation, then the loan is, in a sense, free. A borrower still has to pay back the principle but the amount of accrued interest is offset by the decreased value of a dollar due to inflation. In a nutshell, the bank would collect $1.034 for each dollar of principle but that $1.034 would only buy what $1 bought a year earlier. In that case, the bank effectively only gets back the principle amount without earning any interest on the loan.

    4. If wages do not follow inflation -- and they haven't -- then it isn't free.

      Also, when you consider that many students start off life with no loans to pay off at all, while others have $50,000 or more, we see that people are from the very beginning facing wholly different and totally unequal challenges applied at random. Hardly free.

  4. I started my undergrad studies 40 years ago next month. I graduated high school with a high average and I thought that university would be similar.

    But there's a fundamental difference between the students nowadays and me. Whenever I had problems, I blamed myself. I believed that I earned my grades because I was clever and worked hard and when there was material I didn't understand or had difficulties with, I thought it was because maybe I wasn't as smart as I thought I was. I certainly didn't hold my profs entirely responsible for my academic misfortunes.

    It didn't take me long to catch on that university has different rules than high school and that I had to figure out how to play by them if I wanted to succeed.

    I suspect one reason I did have problems was that post-secondary institutions, as a whole, weren't entirely honest in their advertising. There was a lot of emphasis on the "fun" aspects and many of us believed that. There was, however, no mention that obtaining a degree would require a lot of hard work, enduring a great deal of frustration and disappointment, and, sometimes, simple luck.

    While I was an instructor at a local tech school, I was required to be on hand during the open house sessions. The "fun" and "success" were to be emphasized but we were discouraged from telling prospective students that succeeding wasn't necessarily going to be easy.

  5. (1) Succinctly, it's that seemingly every year, our students get more, and more, and MORE immature, and the administration expects us to do more, and more, and MORE about it.

    (2) Jeez, where to start with this one? It's been documented at book length. "Generation X Goes to College" by Peter Sacks is a good one. Others are "The Five-Year Party," by Craig Brandon, and "Beer and Circus," by Murray Sperber.

    Succinctly, it's this: Only about 10-20% of the undergraduates are really getting any sort of meaningful education. More than half don't even want to be here, and really have no business here. Much of what ails today's universities would be quite impossible without the latter kid of undergraduates' full complicity and enthusiastic participation. It has always been possible to get a good education at these universities. Spending 5-6 years in drunken stupor, like so many of the undergraduates do, is entirely avoidable.

    The lunatics took over the asylum in the mid-to-late '80s, when demographics caused a downturn in the number of students attending college. This gave rise to the idea among university administrators of "students-as-customers," the evils of which college teachers have grappled with ever since. The ground was made fallow for this by three other developments, all from the '60s: (1) the advent of anonymous evaluations of teachers by students and their enthusiastic adoption by university administration, particularly of the numerical scores they generate; (2) the rise of grade inflation, a by-product of deferments from the draft for college attendance during the Vietnam conflict; (3) the abandonment of in loco parentis by nearly all American universities, which meant that students could run amok and faculty have no right to say anything about it. A parallel development in American society, which started around 1970 but became really noticeable in the '80s, around the same time "Baby on Board" stickers became common on cars, was the rise of “self esteem” in education, a symptom of which are rewards for participation: every kid gets a trophy, not just the winners. God help us all.

    (3) What do you mean by "regular faculty"? A trend in American society that has led to significant erosion of the middle class has been the casualization of the American workforce, also referred to as the ending of the Keynesian compact. This trend has affected university faculty particularly. The chancellor of my university system until last year publicly stated his goal of reducing the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty to 20%: he wanted 80% of the faculty to be adjuncts, essentially. Adjunct faculty often have no job security, and often can be dismissed for no reason given, simply by not having their contracts renewed. They are also often critically dependent on enrollment, and on anonymous evaluations of teaching by students. They therefore have no incentive to keep up standards: indeed, they have strong disincentives to challenge students.

    I am one of those stubborn weirdos who did my best not to compromise standards when I was on the tenure track. The result was that I very nearly was denied tenure. I do my best to keep up the good fight today, but what can I do when half the graduating seniors can't write at what a generation ago was considered 9th grad level, graduate students in the sciences can't understand significant digits (which traditionally is covered on the first day of class in intro chemistry, the first class in any physical science curriculum), and fewer than 1 in 100 can solve for X where X = 1/3 + 1/2?

    1. This is brilliant. I have to say, this series seems to be drawing out some really engaging and bright comments from our readers.

    2. Thanks, but soon the term will start and I will quickly degenerate to screaming, "STAPLE HIS DICK TO THE FLOOR!!!" again.


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