The June issue of the The Atlantic Monthly has an interesting article, "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower", written by anonymous Professor X, who is a part-time adjunct instructor at two colleges that he describes as "colleges of last resort".
There are of course major differences between Professor X's experiences teaching as an adjunct instructor of introductory writing and literature classes at these colleges (in one case, a community college) and my experiences as a tenured professor of science at a research university. There are, however, fewer differences than Professor X supposes, at least in terms of how we interact with students.
A few examples:
The Students. Professor X introduces his students by comparing them to their extreme opposites -- the 18-22 year old students at elite colleges or universities. When I read the article, however, his students seemed familiar to me. I thought: I know students like that.
Professor X's students did not spend years preparing for college. They did not spend their high school years working with tutors to prepare for standardized tests, they did not do extracurricular activities specifically designed to help their college applications, and so on. In fact, most students don't. Perhaps the hyper-prepared student trying to beat the odds and get into an elite school is the type that gets the most press, but the nation's public universities are populated by students who had a different experience.
Although most of the undergraduate students at my university are in the 18-22 year age range, I seldom teach a class in which every student is between 18 and 22. Some students are returning to college after years spent in a job, in the military, or raising kids. Most students work at least part-time, and some are paying their own way through school by working. Most are from the state in which the university is located. The difference is one of magnitude. Most, if not all, of Professor X's students are so-called 'non-traditional' students, whereas these students are in the minority at most universities.
Professor X's students are attending college because of a requirement for their jobs. Most don't want to take his classes, but they have to take them. I think that Professor X's description of teaching students whose life experiences, interests, and expectations are very remote from the subjects of his classes will feel familiar to anyone who has taught an introductory level class at a big university. I can certainly relate to the experience of teaching a class that is largely comprised of students who don't want to be there but have to take the class for a requirement. The experience can be both fascinating and frustrating.
Grading and grades: subjective /objective. Concerning grading and grades, Professor X has a 'grass is greener' complex, and is, alas, seriously in error.
Professor X writes: "How I envy professors in other disciplines! How appealing seems the straightforwardness of their task!" He mentions the "psychic ease" of multiple-choice tests ("Answers are right or wrong."), and gives an example of a hypothetical biology professor who just wants some memorized facts repeated on an exam.
Au contraire! Scientific concepts are not so easily distilled into memorized vocabulary words, and multiple choice tests can be ambiguous, at least according to the students who take them. The questions might be poorly worded. The array of possible answers might be designed to 'trick' the students. The answer key might be wrong. I have never felt the aforementioned "psychic ease" of giving (or taking) multiple-choice tests. I prefer other types of tests and assignments, which have their own issues, not so different from what Professor X describes in reference to grading papers.
Grades and grading: failing students. Professor X's students ask him to change failing grades to passing grades because they need to pass in order to graduate or get a tuition reimbursement or just because they worked "really hard". Who among us has not experienced this? I have encountered this everywhere I have taught, from an elite small liberal arts college to a big state university. A variant on the request to change an F to a passing grade is the request to change a passing grade to a higher passing grade, as some things depend on the student's maintaining a certain grade point average (e.g. scholarships; academic probation stipulations; eligibility to participate in sports).
A difference, however, is that Professor X fails many more students/class than I ever do. I would find it wrenching to fail so many students (see next section).
Grades and grading: emotional detachment of professors. Professor X writes: "The full-time, tenured professors at the colleges where I teach may .. feel comfortably separated from those whom they instruct. .. Professors can fail [younger/traditional college students] with emotional impunity because many such failures are the students' own fault: too much time spent texting, too little time with the textbooks."
I know not this "emotional impunity" of which he speaks, and do not find it any easier to fail younger students than older students. Even when I teach a large class and assign an F to a student who never/seldom attended class and who missed one or more exams, I wonder what will happen to that student. What is going wrong with their life that they can't attend class and/or can't manage their time and don't know how to get help in time? What will happen to this 18 (or 19 or 25) year old if they flunk out of school? And so on. I am clearly a failure at "emotional impunity", and I am by no means alone in not feeling "comfortably separated" from those I instruct.
Professor X has a difficult job: he teaches at two different colleges without job security. I only spent a year as an adjunct/visiting prof, and the lack of respect (and compensation) from my college was staggering considering how hard I was working. In many ways, to be a tenured professor is to live in a different world.
In some ways, though, we are not so different. Some student behavior is universal no matter what the age and life experience of the student, and some of us professors may not be so different either. The emotional aspects of interacting with students, grading them, and passing or failing them have many similar elements whether we are teaching literature or science, and whether we are teaching at a "college of last resort" or at a research university.
Note: This post became rather long, so I am dividing it into two parts, the rest to appear tomorrow, when I will discuss the more cosmic issues raised by Professor X regarding the 'morality' of teaching students who can't do college-level work.
1 year ago