Tuesday, November 15, 2011

No Particular Interest

Like one of the commenters on yesterday's post, I too was interested in this part of Grafton's NYRB essay, and in fact had planned to write about this today:

.. vast numbers of students come to university with no particular interest in their courses and no sense of how these might prepare them for future careers. The desire they cherish, Arum and Roksa write, is to act out “cultural scripts of college life depicted in popular movies such as Animal House (1978) and National Lampoon’s Van Wilder (2002).” Academic studies don’t loom large on their mental maps of the university. Even at the elite University of California, students report that on average they spend “twelve hours [a week] socializing with friends, eleven hours using computers for fun, six hours watching television, six hours exercising, five hours on hobbies”—and thirteen hours a week studying.

There seem to be data to support the existence of these "vast numbers", although I think that reality is (of course) a bit more complicated. That is, it is possible for there to be students who want to have Classic College Experiences (of the non-academic sort) and for these same students to have some, but varying, levels of interest in their classes. They might be taking my intro-level Science class because the university forces them to take a Science class and, despite my best efforts, they will not develop a lasting interest in Science, but that doesn't mean they aren't interested in any of their other classes. It is the challenge for all of us who teach to try to interest as many students as possible in our classes -- not by playing fun little games and handing out A's -- but by engaging their intellects, which, despite popular opinion, do in fact exist.

For the sake of discussion, let's be cynical (or realistic?) and assume that the data are correct: most students in college don't care about academics. They just want to hang out with their friends (in person or via social networking), go to the gym, watch their favorite TV shows, and do just enough studying so that they can go to their professors and whine about how they deserve an A because they worked really really hard.

What are we supposed to do about that? In the context of a discussion about Our Failing Universities, is this something we can fix? Or is this an intractable problem that we inherit from Our Failing K-12 Schools, which might be inheriting it to some extent from Our Failing Families and a national culture of anti-intellectualism? I am only sort of being serious here, but there is a real question: What can universities and colleges, administrators and faculty, do?

As an all-powerful but somehow, at the same time, powerless professor, here is the awesome array of tools I have, as an individual, for attempting to influence the academic interest-level of my students:

- I can try as hard as possible to make my courses as interesting and relevant to students, making connections to their lives, explaining complex concepts in a clear way, and providing stimulating examples and questions that make them think, even after the class is over.

- I can give them homework, reading, and other assignments that are specifically designed to enhance the course materials and provide for a deeper understanding and time for reflection outside the lecture hall. (In theory -- some universities specify how much homework can be given, tying the amount to the number of credits each course is worth; for example, a 3-credit course can only have 3 hours of homework assigned each week, keeping in mind that "hours" of homework is a malleable concept for each individual).

- I can encourage students to seek research opportunities, with me or with other professors, explaining why this might be interesting and useful, but mostly just making students aware of the possibilities.

- I can try to get to know as many of my students as possible, even in a large class, so that I am not just a talking head in front of a classroom, but a real person who knows their name and who clearly wants to engage them in a shared teaching-learning experience.

- I can keep track of how my students are doing, identifying any problems early and trying to help students learn strategies for succeeding with academic work.

- I can participate in teaching workshops to try to improve my teaching and to get new ideas from colleagues for ways to present difficult course material or to teach large classes in a more effective way.

What else? That's already quite a lot, and I think many of us at least attempt to do some or all of those things, with varying levels of success depending on some factors that are within our control and some that are not. And we can be particularly effective at some or all of those things if we are only teaching 1 (maybe 2) courses at a time and can really focus on them.

But is it enough? Now let's assume that we are all super-teachers and can do all those things (well) in every single class, no matter how many classes and students we are teaching, and get our other work done (a bit of research and advising and service here and there) and maybe see our families once in a while. Would our universities stop failing? Can professors reverse the trend? Can we overcome disinterest, disconnection, and sloth? Can we forget salary freezes, inadequate classrooms, the ever-increasing number of administrators asking us to fill out new forms adding up how we spend our time, and scandals involving highly-paid athletic coaches? Can teaching well save the institution?

__ This isn't preschool happy time. If students don't want to learn, that's their problem, not mine.
__ No, I wish we could help, but there are too many obstacles that are beyond our control.
__ Maybe, probably not, but we should try anyway.
__ Yes, it would fix a lot of problems if most professors were excellent teachers.


Anonymous said...

I think we have to try - and it's going to be different things that work for different faculty and students. I get frustrated with some of my students and many of them will never really engage in the way I would wish but some do. I think it's part of my job - not to babysit, not to "save" them all - but to give students an opportunity to be turned on to a topic or a way of looking at the world.

Also - I take issue with a few aspects of this report. Yes some students are really not engaged but the implication is that all the things students (or anyone) might do aside from work are inherent ills. When I went to college I wanted those "college life" experiences - and I got them in addition to an excellent education. As an undergrad, I partied pretty hard. I also did a number of "extras", in my case those were outdoor activities and sports and these have actually been important in my research so not all that time was wasted :). I spent a lot of time hanging out with friends AND I was completely engaged in my studies. I LOVED the work of college and the life of a student who could be utterly immersed in learning and exposed to new areas of thought. Yes many students should study more (I was probably in that category some weeks) but there's a whole lot of unnecessary tsk-ing in studies that implicitly criticize students for - heaven forbid! - hanging out with friends. Maybe young people are different now but as I recall at 20 sleep was way less urgent than it is now and those hours spent on "college-life" did not mean I wasn't an engaged student and I wouldn't trade those experiences for an extra couple decimals to my GPA.

I think engaging students requires a number of approaches - including acknowledging their humanity and desire for life's pleasures.

Alex said...

I vote:

__ Maybe, probably not, but we should try anyway.

The factors that we are up against are substantial, but we have to try.

sempoi thinker said...

evolution often begins with a spark.

teaching well is helluva good spark if u ask me.

and maybe someday, things might actually evolve for the better.

James Annan said...

Sounds pretty much like me, though I don't recall much whining. Is this supposed to be a problem?

Entertainment said...

Agreed. But Its nice to here.

rosa said...

YES, I think that we should try. Even though many of us already do, with varying levels of success. We cannot take full responsibility for the apathy which is prevalent among our students (prevalent – although pockets of real learning do exist and warm the cockles of my heart), but we should at least take responsibility for the apathy that lies in our own teaching practice.
On a different note, my son is in his junior year of high school and is starting to consider his future. He told me that he wants to come to the University where I teach, but he cannot decide what he wants to study. After a little probing it became apparent that what he wants is the lifestyle of the students that we see every day. So I have done the *most terrible thing*: I have told him that until he has some idea of why he wants a tertiary education, he should not have one. My reasoning is simple: if you do not enjoy learning, then a University education will be frustrating unless you know that it is leading to something that you do want. The idea of a general liberal arts “finding yourself” education is something of a luxury and life is full of that kind of education if you want it. He is not particularly interested in education right now and I teach too many students who are like him and end up unhappy even though they are partaking of every extracurricular opportunity. For those who love to learn, there is much to be gained from a University education, but why do so many students come to University when they do not really want to learn anything?

Ann said...

I think we, the professoriate have to do our best to figure out how to educate the students we get, even though many are not the students we wish we had. And "selling" your subject, trying to awaken an interest, showing them how cool science is and inspiring them to discover that for themselves is a huge part of that. While we cant fix everything, how we teach our courses is very important. I agree with anonymous that scolding students and griping about them isn't productive, and that college should be fun, as well as involving an intense amount of learning.

Anonymous said...

Teaching well is our jobs. We should always strive to teach well and be engaging as much as we can. And, that means not just teaching to the top 10% of the class.

But, other than that, it's not my job to force students to actually do their work or care about learning. If they don't care or put in effort they won't get a good grade, end of story. What breaks my heart are the kids who actually seem to be trying but still bomb the tests. I think we need some alternative for students who don't do well in a test environment but could do fine on their own or in a work environment.

I'm starting to shift my opinion a little more now that I'm teaching an intro physics for engineers course. I mean, mistakes of engineers can be deadly! It's my responsibility to make sure that the students who do well in my class are good enough. I never really thought about the idea of "weeding out" students from the engineering courses before, but now I see how that idea came about. I don't want to travel across a bridge or use electronics designed by some of my students! Trying doesn't cut it for bridges and other engineering products! It other works or breaks and someone could get hurt.

Anonymous said...

I think that a lot of what is broken in universities has to do with how they are funded, rather than with how professors teach. There is not a lot that we can do individually about the structural problems that result in administrative bloat and overpay, nor in the takeover of colleges by professional sports. Teaching better is always a worthy goal, but it won't do anything about these problems.

Some things you can do: not work for a university that has professional sports (i.e. sports "scholarships"), participate in what crumbs of shared governance your university has and argue for more control of curriculum and admissions by the faculty, argue against hiring powerless contingent faculty to "save money", write to your legislators complaining about the privatization of public universities, join the AAUP, …

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I have the feeling that, back in the old days (when people had to walk uphill both ways in the snow to get to and from places), the mindset was definitely your first suggestion ('not preschool happy time'). It doesn't seem like that's a realistic possibility anymore (given parents complaining to deans if their children aren't receiving A's, etc). It would be interesting to see what would happen if we switched back to that system, where the average grade actually earned a C and people who couldn't keep up [note: not because of real problems like learning disabilities but because they didn't bother to study] actually failed the class. I can't imagine it, actually.

Anonymous said...

I think most R1 professors do care about both the teaching and research aspects of our jobs. I have personally attempted most of your listed activities, with more or less success. However, I also firmly believe that this is NOT high school, and that one of the advantages of teaching adults is that we do not have to force them to participate in the process if they choose not to. Thus, while I am continuously perplexed by the students who enroll in my upper level courses and proceed to earn an F (in a required course for their major!) by skipping class and completing little, if any, of the homework, I have learned that this says more about the student than about my ability as a teacher/mentor. These students have the opportunity to learn - the hard way - that being an adult includes taking responsibility for their own actions. So, while they may not have learned much about science topic X, their tuition dollars are going toward teaching them a substantive life lesson of a different sort.

That said, I am surprised by the "no more than 3 hours per week" homework concept mentioned in this post, as I had always heard that the appropriate conversion for college level courses was more like 3 hours per credit-hour, or approximately 10-hours per week for a typical college class. I actually explicitly tell my students this on the first day of school, so that they have a better concept of the expectations (particularly first-year students, who are adjusting to the less structured nature of a typical college school day). I also provide suggestions as to how to use this time effectively beyond just completing the homework assignments. Again, I view this as one of the fundamental differences between high school and college. As adults, college students are expected to take responsibility for learning the material and the instructor is responsible for providing opportunities for students to learn the material both within the classroom (lecture/lab/activities) and outside (homework/activities/projects). I would find it difficult to teach effectively if students were expected to only put effort into the class when they were physically present, as many of the concepts in my courses require practice and reflection before mastery.

Anonymous said...

__ Yes, it would fix a lot of problems if most professors were excellent teachers.

Anonymous said...

If they're passing their exams, who cares? Of course, if passing their exams isn't enough to demonstrate that they've gotten what they ought to out of the course, it's the exams that are broken.

Anonymous said...

"That said, I am surprised by the "no more than 3 hours per week" homework concept mentioned in this post, as I had always heard that the appropriate conversion for college level courses was more like 3 hours per credit-hour, or approximately 10-hours per week for a typical college class."

Indeed. At our university, 3 hours/week (in and out of class) is the normative workload for courses. The standard 15-unit load is thus 45 hours a week—a full-time job. Generally only engineering classes follow this guideline, though some science classes do also. In the humanities, 1 hour per credit seems commonplace (going along with the generally greater grade inflation in the humanities).

Margot said...

This is a situation straight out of game-theory. None of the players here (faculty, administrators, students, high schools, parents.....) are able to move to an optimal solution solely through their own action. In the absence of some outside force or decision to take coordinated action, the best option left for each entity is to optimize their own outcome - faculty might say that since it does not in fact matter that much whether or not their teaching is engaging, they should minimize prep and grading time in order to maximize time spent on more rewarding activities like grant writing. Carried through the chain of participants, this leaves us at a sub-optimal solution overall.
The answer, then, is that it actually *all* matters, but only if all parties act. We need clear communication of expectations from administrators, high standards in high schools, reform of the fraternity / sorority rush system, support for cultural shift in Student Affairs, and, yes, faculty who adopt pedagogical strategies demonstrated to impact lifelong learning, engagement, and intellectual depth (hint: strict lecture/problem set has not been found to be the best option for most cases). It's everyone's problem.