Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Basement of the Ivory Tower

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.


Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

I love the "college of last resort." I'm going to start referring to some of my more desperate projects as "experiments of last resort."

And I will make every effort to execute them with emotional impunity.

Dr. Lisa said...

Thank you for taking on this article. As someone who has taught in both the community college and research university environments, I found this article to be enraging. I also feel sorry for Prof. X's students, to have an instructor who despises them so much.

Anonymous said...

I am clearly a failure at "emotional impunity", and I am by no means alone in not feeling "comfortably separated" from those I instruct.

C'mon FSP, we already established that academia ain't a fucking Care Bears tea party. Nor is it a Dora the Explorer adventure, nor a Wiggles concert! Fruit salad, Yummy, Yummy!!

Seriously, teaching basic science to medical students is very much a process of teaching something to people who think that it is just a stupid requirement and an obstacle to learning what they really care about: treating patients.

My experience has been that the way to motivate such students is to demonstrate to them exactly how learning basic science will actually tangibly improve their ability to treat their patients. Once you convince them of this--and it is, in fact, demonstrably true--they are eating out of your hand.

Anonymous said...

I loved this poignant and thought-provoking article. Many of the writer's insights on community college students are accurate. FSP could it have been the fact that he (unnecessarily) dissed biology professors early on that biased your thinking on the article. His world and your world are miles apart. Community college students are different even from the small colleges and comprehensive universities never mind the research universities.

EliRabett said...

There is always the "Journal of Last Resort" the choosing of which becomes an issue when the library budget falls each year

Anonymous said...

It is pretty disturbing how that Professor deals with teaching. The emotional aspect to teaching shouldn't be suppressed, it's part of human nature. Teachers and students aren't working in factories. It's the personable interaction between teacher and student that makes it all work.

Average Professor said...

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.

I have encountered the same attitude even from students in my upper-level disclipline-specific courses too. Many of them recognize the value of a college degree and are perhaps interested in the subject matter, but are NOT interested in taking classes, and see them just as necessary but annoying hoops to jump through before getting their diploma.

Yes, I'd love it if everybody in my class was interested in my subject matter as much as I am, and I do my best to engage them and enthuse them, but I also recognize that plenty of people can be successful in their chosen field without getting excited about my course!

Anonymous said...

I taught for three years at a comprehensive regional university (basically a four-year community college) before moving to an R1, top-of-the-line state school. And I miss my old students. Sure, the ones here do the readings and come to class and are going on to grad school or fantastic jobs, and they can spell and use correct grammar. But I miss the stories about student's full-time jobs and families and their greater drive because they *want* to be in college, not because it's the thing you do after high school.

The president of my former university said it best: the students who go to top schools are going to succeed in life no matter what. It's the students at the "colleges of last resort" where teachers can really make a difference in their lives. I was proud to be part of that, and I kinda miss it.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to know what enraged Dr. Lisa most [since there's little clue attached to the sentiment expressed]:

Was it that a professor accurately described the [lack of] skill among his students?

Or was it the fact that he didn't blame himself for his students' shortcomings?

It's obvious to me from reading some of these responses that some professors have no clue about the full range of instructional options available among their peers...and that there is indeed such an entity as a "college of last resort" that 1/ will accept ANYONE with the money to pay for courses [even if said individual has zero academic talent or competency] and 2/ is literally the LAST institution a student applied to and sadly was the only one s/he could attend/afford [which results in a great deal of resentment that often disrupts the learning process].

Criticizing a situation solely on the basis of "Well, that's not MY experience, so it's obviously wrong!" is a logical fallacy. Personal experience is a good entry into dissecting a situation, but it shouldn't be the sole criterion for judgment.

Anonymous said...

In response to "Community college students are different even from the small colleges and comprehensive universities never mind the research universities":
In my experience, that has not been so. In fact, they’re sometimes the same students. My state pushes its "2 + 2" program pretty hard, i.e. 2 years to obtain an AA from a community college followed by 2 more years at a state university. My school, which is a State U and a research institution, shares space with community colleges on at least two branch campuses. Some students do 2 +2; others resort to taking courses as a transient student at the community college when classes they need are full and/or not offered in the semester they wish and then transferring the credits back to their home institution. The budget crunch is only increasing both of these patterns. Community college students are not necessarily low achievers. They may be talented students with good grades who find that economics, location, family considerations, or employment make their county's community college the best place to start out.

Doctor Pion said...

I teach physics at a CC. I blogged about this article about a month ago, at the tail end of an entry that was mostly about the Norfolk State tenure denial case. As a result, I mostly addressed issues related to grading and proper evaluation of prerequisite skills. Your comments remind that I should have written a separate set of comments about Prof X's misconceptions about the typical student population at a CC, not to mention at the universities I know really well.

Most of my students, the ones in a sophomore physics class required for engineering school, are not exactly typical of the ones who walk into our "prep" classes. They are, in fact, quite similar to ones at a university. That does not mean they didn't start college in a class teaching basic middle school algebra. Some did. But they learned it, retained it, and have gone on to learn more than they ever imagined possible.

But I also teach a gen-ed class where they only need the same skills as a student entering this prof's composition class. Some don't make it (and those tend to do worse on a multiple choice test than one with free responses), but I see hardly any that I think should not have passed their "prep" classes. However, that topic is in part 2 of this set of articles so I will post about it there.

I also noticed how naive Prof X was about grading. There is plenty of subjectivity for partial credit on math or physics exams as well as in the other sciences, not to mention lab reports. (Anyone interested in that subject is welcome to comment on a recent article and a forthcoming one about lab writing.)

One other thing that jumped out at me from Prof X's article was how inappropriate the course materials were to the students in the class. I had to use Google to discover that one of them is by James Joyce. Odd choice, but "Araby" has potential for future cops in the hands of a gifted teacher. I never assume my students see the relevance of any particular class to their career or their next class. I've found that learning that relevance is as important as learning the material, and recently learned that one English prof thinks the same way.

vanzare apartamente cluj said...

I think that the emotional aspect of teaching it's part of human nature and it is very important especialy in our days to create relationships betwin us. It this very fast and competitive world it is almost imposible to succed alone.