Friday, October 07, 2005

More Midterm Musings

I considered a lot of professions that I could pursue upon graduation from college. Frankly, even after receiving tenure at my college, I still consider other professional opportunities. However, for better or for worse I chose to teach. To the horror of my mother I chose to teach Philosophy (she worried that I would never get a job, which was a reasonable worry). Philosophy isn't a subject you can teach at the high school level, hence, it is either at the college level or be a rare researcher.

I love Philosophy and, quite often, I love to teach Philosophy. However, the toughest lesson I learned when I started teaching was that your students are often hostile and unwilling participants in the educational process. When I was at a State University, students signed up (in large numbers) for philosophy because they needed a "humanities" course. Many of those students were alienated from the education process because they had to spend way too much of their time dealing with huge, nonsensical bureaucracies that only knew them as numbers. They would fight to get in sections with over 100 people. They had no chance of really learning philosophy in an auditorium.

I was certain that students would be less alienated from education when I came to a liberal arts college. Faculty are accessible. Many of us allow students to call us by our first names. We participate in co-curricular activities with students, ranging from hiking trips to on campus conferences. The class sizes are small, at most 35 students in a class. And, the administrators and support staff on campuses generally know these students by their names.

Nonetheless, during my first semester here, when I was teaching the Theatetus to my Intro to Philosophy class, I encountered hostility not only for philosophy but for the "stupid" questions that Socrates raises and how he never answers them. I stopped the class one day and asked students to explain to me why they were at college. I threw the book, with great dramatic flair, out the door and said " fuck this!" Let's talk about why anyone should bother going to college. (I wanted to ask why they chose a liberal arts college, but enough had been said for me to realize that most of them didn't know what that meant). The class complied a list of reasons: to get a job, to meet chicks, to get into graduate school and to learn. I then asked them to vote on the top reason for being in school, and, overwhelmingly they were here to get a job.

My experience over the last 7 years bears this out. Education has become instrumental for students. This explains to me, in part, why students are so neurotically grade conscious and why many students see their professors as mere services they pay for. It's quite disheartening to experience this disconnect between students expectations and faculty expectations at a liberal arts college.

I have spent a great deal of time "tricking" my students into learning afterall. If I may be so arrogant, I think I have succeeded in a lot of cases. I trick my students by making them do assignments that require them to meet in groups with other students and debate issues. The very best way to learn philosophy is to sit down, over a text, and read it with your friends and debate what it means. You cannot show up to class, listen to what the professor says, take notes, and expect to have learned anything important about philosophy. In fact, I discover that most of the time, my students don't do the readings before they show up to class. They have been taught by a failing secondary education system that the teacher will give you the answers anyway, so why bother?

To combat against this tendency to not read, I give quizzes and midterms. The quizzes and midterms are often quite difficult for most students and it pisses them off. The reason they are difficult is because the quizzes test two things: (a) that you read, carefully, all the assigned readings for the class and (b) that you understand what you read, such that you can apply it in another context. Now, from my standpoint, these quizzes shouldn't be hard. I assign a maximum of 8-10 pages of reading a night in my Intro or Ancient class. If you set aside the two hours per class hour that we recommend each student to do, they would ace these quizzes.

After the first two quizzes in Intro this year, I had several students score Fs. And, just recently, I was grading with my colleague at another college (who teaches Philosophy) and she found that a number of her students scored low Cs, Ds and Fs. It is sort of baffling when this happens because while the content of these quizzes is difficult, insofar as it is philosophy, these quizzes are mere tests of what you read. We are not asking students to write papers, which is a much more difficult task.

Which gets me back to my point about papers, a subject I blogged about a few days ago. The most difficult and yet important thing you can learn at a liberal arts college is to write. And yet, to write well, you have to have something to say. I find that most students, who leave their papers to the night before or even an hour before class, write papers that often deserve an F. Why? Because these students have not really engaged with the material, they have not talked to many of the other students outside of class or shown up enough to debate inside of class the material. They have barely grasped the concepts and hence are less likely to have something provocative to say about the subject. Yes, there are always one or two students who want to learn, who are intrinscially motivated to learn for the sake of learning, and do fantastic work. Sometimes I luck out and even have a whole class like this.

Most of the time, however, I am trying to "trick" my students into learning. This transformed me into what Scott Lemieux calls an "old skool" professor. I demand that deadlines be met, I take attendance and start lowering a student's grade when they miss more then 3 classes (which is a week and a half of class), I send violations of the honor code to the honor commission. I have strict rules and boundaries.

I set them up because I have learned that many of these students thrive in this situation. They have been scheduled to death their whole lives by parents who wanted the "best'" for them. Hence, they have had little time, in most cases, to ask themselves what they want.

I also create many different kinds of assignments, none of which makes or breaks their grade, in order to subtly teach them how to be a good thinker, scholar, and writer. Many of my friends, especially if they teach at Research joints, shake their heads at me. "How do you have the time to do that?" "Why not treat them like adults?"

One of my colleagues noted, wisely, that a liberal arts education is a huge banquet, rich with a variety of delicacies for the eater's delight, to which we invite our students. If they choose not to show up to banquet, then, their loss.

I find that view attractive, and yet, I have decided not to take this approach. Let's return to the story of my student, who failed to show up to class the day an assignment was due, who then turned the paper in two days later, and unhappy with my clear statement that I would give it an F, continued to push me to grade it. Let's also remember, in this scenario, that I did write comments on this paper, I also spent time with him in my office (right after the incident) to discuss how to be well prepared for class.

Many students who read this blog took offense that I had been irritated with this student. Fair enough, perhaps I should've been less irritated. Other students found it ludicrous that I would give an F to a student for turning in his work two days late. (I might also mention that part of his assignment was to meet and debate the merits/demerits of intelligent design and evolution with his group, which he did not bother to do). And, one student found it tasteless, or worse yet, immoral, that I wrote about this case on my blog.

Now, let's consider what would happen if I didn't hold fast and firm to my policies. Let's say that upon the third time the student came to my office, I said, "OK, you are right, I will change your grade to the X you deserved." (Which, most likely would've been an F anyway) Now, what has this student learned from the situation? He has learned that if you do not show up to class, do not engage with your fellow classmates, and turn in your paper late with no explanation, you can still get a grade on it. Moreover, he has learned that if he pushes me enough on this, I will eventually cave. What else will come about here? The other students who also recieved Fs will have to receive a grade for work that was late. And, the students who did the assignment, met with their group, and even met with me before it was due, all get their grade cheapened.

But, that is the least of the problems. What also will happen is that this student will continue to learn that if he barely does his work he can float by in college. He will never have to actually engage with the material or his fellow classmates.

To my student who thinks that I was in poor taste for telling this story, I humbly disagree. I write my blog about things that matter. I think its troubling that this student has taken this attitude and relationship to his learning. I also think that he broke my trust by the way he handled himself in relation to my course. And yet, I didn't "ostracize" him in my post, nor was I unfair or mean spirited. I told what really happened and I sent it out into the public blogosphere to elicit reactions.

If you followed Robert Farley's post on Lawyers, Guns, and Money, or even the comments of many faculty on my post, you will see how pervasive is the experience of dealing with students who treat us like "obstacles" to their future goals, or of cruel judges of their worth, or capricious graders, who make rules or decisions based on how we feel on a given day. This shows to me a real breakdown in student faith and respect for faculty. We do not get rich doing this, we do not often get thanked for doing this, and yet many of us continue to do the best we can to teach you, not only the content of our courses, but to value learning and education for the sake of education.

My last point at the end of this long piece today: the whole point of writing a blog pseudonymously (and to not identify where you teach) is to be able to write posts like I did the other day and do quite regularly. In some cases I have let my former students know about this blog, or current students. This has been a mistake. It leads them to worry about the consequences of me writing about them, which I probably will. I think its worth writing about my experience with the student because it captures something profoundly wrong about higher education that we need to work on. I also think its worth writing about the anguish I might feel sometimes when I have to give a relatively bad grade to a good student or the time I spend writing letters of recommendation. These posts identify me as human and struggling with the real and complex problems of being a Philosophy professor in this age. I also, often, paint myself in unflaterring lights in those posts.