BREAKING THE SPIRIT

I usually don't let the day-to-day aspects of my job get me down. Academia, yes. That gets me down sometimes. But it's rare that I walk out of the classroom feeling bad about what I do for a living. Yet this semester (we are currently in finals), grading research papers has kinda broken me. Not completely, of course – I'm not out on the ledge or typing up my resignation letter – but I'm second guessing myself even more than usual and not feeling particularly good about it right now. Perhaps my fellow educators out there can appreciate reaching the end of a semester or year and dealing with the nagging feeling that your students did not actually learn a damn thing.

These papers, nearly 90 in all, are among the worst things I've ever graded. A few are outstanding. Some are pretty good. Some are decent. But most of them are terrible. I feel bad about this for two different reasons. First, I tend to blame myself first and foremost when things vaguely within my control are not successful. Of the students who approached me for help in advance of the due date – you know, the good students who were responsible enough to take some initiative and put a little effort into it – I feel like I did not do a good enough job of helping them. If they're working with me and the final product has flaws, that is at least partly my fault. I failed them and I failed myself, but I can live with it because I know that I'm not a perfect teacher and it's a useful reminder that I need to continue improving. It knocks me down a peg. That's a good thing.

Second, I feel bad because sometimes these end-of-semester assignments have a way of making me feel like I was wasting my time. You know that one student who asks when the final exam is even though you mentioned it in class 15 times and the date/time are on the syllabus? He makes you feel like you're wasting your time talking because he's not paying the slightest bit of attention to you. Now imagine that he's half of your class. Maybe even more than half. I must have gone over the basics of this assignment a dozen times. I walked through example after example. And it's really obvious that some of these people did not hear a single word of it. They might be in class, but they're staring at their laptops and I'm ultimately background noise. Consequently I can't help but question the value of what I do. It feels like there is none, bluntly. We could stick a board with a painted-on smiley face at the front of the room and play audio recordings of the Oliver North hearings and it would not change the amount that many of these students learn in their classes. I feel about as useful as a travel agent sometimes.

It's hard to feel good when I am forced to realize that A) there are things I didn't do well enough, B) an appreciable portion of these students lack even adequate high school-level writing skills, and C) not many of them are putting effort into their classes, paying any attention to me when I teach, or both. Oh, and it's even harder to feel good when you read "charter schools and home schooling are more effective because the pace of instruction is not slowed because of minority and disabled students" in a paper.

That's not the kind of thing one overcomes to have a good day.

Usually I have a half-decent and not-too-cheesy answer to the "Why do we do this?" question that educators so often ask themselves and one another. Today I don't. Today I'm unsure what, if anything, that 17 weeks of hard work accomplished.

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61 Responses to “BREAKING THE SPIRIT”

  1. J.D. Says:

    Ed – can you ban the use of laptops in your class? Such a rule wouldn't address the lack of writing skills, and it may cause some grumbling, but I'm sure the students would get far more out of the class time.

  2. Matthew Says:

    Just curious, are there pressures to not fail students? Would a class full of poor grades reflect poorly on you?

    Sometimes I wonder if we fail kids by not actually failing them.

  3. fuzzbuzz215 Says:

    Writing is a hard skill to develop. Writing well really takes practice. Also, you have to read a lot. I don't know how you conduct your class, but maybe you should institute reading quizes every week or two weeks. Or maybe even page long summaries. I am a graduate student, and the writing skills are poor even at this level.

    Anyway, keep up the good work, fighting the good fight. Remember, that there are students you are reaching. You are making students want to perform their best for you.

  4. Grumpygradstudent Says:

    Let's not forget the fact that our institutions don't really give a shit if we actually do a good job.

  5. A.B.A.B.D. Says:

    About your first worry, it sounds like you're having a pretty healthy response—it's disappointing to feel that you could have done more to help someone be more successful (unless you're a Randian, of course), but it sounds like this experience is providing more motivation to try to be a better teacher.

    On the second front… I might be going out on a limb here, but I'm guessing that the majority of students that your feel guilty about not having reached are pretty much incapable of being reached. A very considerable proportion of college students in this country have little to no intellectual curiosity for any topics or issues that can't be parlayed directly into financial success, or have beliefs that are so entrenched that enabling them to critically reflect upon them would require the neuronal equivalent of a colonoscopy (not to mention a heart transplant). Throw in the distractions of the internet, Facebook, text messaging, etc, and to hold yourself accountable for their lack of interest in their own education is a fool's errand. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, you can lead the hordes to culture, but you can't make them think.

    If it makes you feel any better, I certainly hope that when my daughter is ready to go to college she has many professors with your dedication and concern for their students. Even the ones who are total fuck-ups.

  6. Phire Says:

    I recently graduated from "one of the best" universities in the country and I had a thoroughly disillusioning undergraduate experience. I thought higher education was going to be like something out of Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own", where I could throw myself into studying the most interesting concepts and swallow up the knowledge that would be offered me. I imagined university to be all hallowed halls and inspiring lecturers and eager peers ready to take on the big problems of the world. Clearly, that is not what I found.

    My answer to the question of "why do you do this" is "because some of us need you". You're not going to reach every student who goes through your class, because I genuinely don't think every student who attends university needs or wants to be in university… I think a lot of them are forced to do so by a labour force that refuses to accept anything less than a bachelor's degree as proof that they can perform the most menial tasks. For a lot of students, a university degree is a means to an end, and that's a failing of the institution, but it's also not something you can singlehandedly fix.

    For other students, the occasional professor who knows what they're talking about, who does more than regurgitate the textbook and read their powerpoint slides in class, and who's willing to engage in discussion and who is open to debate, is a godsend. Sometimes they might not come talk to you–I know I was reluctant to actually approach profs for fear of appearing a brown-noser–but they'll remember you with fondness and hopefully take the ideas you're trying to introduce to them with them into the world.

    I've evidently not been in your lectures, but if the spirit you exhibit in this blog is anything to go by, I'm sure they are head and shoulders above what the average class experience in university is like. The fact that the apathy of some of your students still has the capability to wear you down is testament to the fact that you still care about your role as an educator…and we students need people like you, who are interested in learning for its own sake. I'm sorry you're frustrated today, but I hope that when the next term arrives, you'll continue to work your magic on a new batch of young hopefuls. Some of them are listening, I promise.

  7. Andrew Says:

    I don't usually care even half enough to comment on peoples' blogs, but I feel like I have to say something. Teachers who care about their field and put effort into teaching it effectively are appreciated by that small minority of students who care enough to try to learn.

    As a student just finishing up finals week, I can definitely say that the quarter would have been much less bearable if all of my instructors had been jaded husks of human beings. In fact, I actually feel like I'm letting some of my instructors down (the ones who clearly cared / had a passion for the material) by not knowing the material well enough at exam time.

    The world needs good teachers. They make a huge difference to those of us who actually want to learn. You're not wasting your time as long as you're doing the best you can with the circumstances you're given.

  8. Middle Seaman Says:

    In a class of 20 students with a weekly assignment with an explicit due date, i.e. next week, no midterm and no final the following happened. Five students asked when the final is. After posting the solution following the due date, at least seven students submitted their assignment after the solution was posted. Seven students asked for detailed grading of their solutions despite having the right solution in front of them and being told that grading evaluates effort and not correctness. There are several more beauties of similar depth.

    Lessons: many students are only partially aware of what is going on in class. Many students have lousy work habits. Many students think that screwing the system is rewarding (even though 20 students are easy to monitor). In any crowd when you say that it's raining, some will insist that yesterday the rain was worse. That is, some just cannot join the discussion without changing the theme.

    Do I feel guilty? Am I frustrated with the responses? Could I have done a better job? Is it possible that after 14-16 years in schools, students still have difficulty understanding the concept of "due date?"

    Yes, on some rainy (or sunny) days. I have been at it for 30 years and like an old hooker I don't get excited anymore. When the president is missing the main point for three years, i.e. unemployment, don't expect too much from your own students.

  9. Sarah Says:

    Second what J.D. said. I couldn't use laptop, cell phone or iPod in class at all this semester, and the professors enforced that rule. It does make a difference.

  10. ADM Says:

    Hey, what a coincidence! I was just thinking the same thing way over here in Korea where I teach esl.

    I learned this past week that about 3/4's of my students have no idea what to do with the prompt: "This is Brad." (For us native speakers the possibilities might be endless, but for the esl learner, "Hello Brad, how are you?" should be a gimme.) Kinda frustrating. But! The students do show a marked improvement between grades, so something's sinking in at some point, even if it doesn't seem so in-semester.

  11. MKULTRA Says:

    Apathy, arrogance, sloth, gluttony, selfishness, malevolence, deliberate ignorance, and automaton-like behavior of people who mostly care about one and only one thing in their lives…
    themselves.

    The idiocracy is here. Get used to it because it ain't gonna change.

  12. JP Says:

    Run this problem from the opposite direction, the demand side say, and the issue looks even worse. Far worse actually, for nearly everyone.

    Take your salary. Add some needed benes. They add some unexpected ones, like dental. A very lax dress code and a relaxed informal atmosphere. Come & go as you like, mostly 'self directed' pacing for work completion. Did I mention the possibility of doubling your salary if you actually a.) want to work full time or better and b.) doing 'well' at this? No matter. Most of our employees don't qualify. Most are clearly unwilling for unable to actually work anything near 'full time', which in this day & age? Yes, actually means sometimes weeks of 50+hrs for $50K. Sorry that's reality. But no, we've got mostly folks who are working under 30-40hrs for better than $40K. Why hire more?

    Worse, most of the work is producing lengthy written financial reports. We can and have trained English majors to do this reasonably well, and may have to resort to that again. Some of our best and most experienced 'producers' simply refuse to proof their work adequately. We could & might have an editor to aid in this, but we have never found any of them who can keep up with the needed pace. They usually quit in frustration or just stop editing in the middle of a rush, unhelpfully.

    Still, we've been hiring throughout the crisis, or trying to. Somehow we have strict requirements, mainly that you be able to read, write & speak English in complete sentences & paragraphs. What I was able to do as a HS grad, evidently is now unobtainable or even unimaginable now from post grads. MBA's seemingly are some of the worst here too. (Happily we can not actually afford to employ them at their inflated expectations of compensation that start @ $100K here in Ga., when they graduated from middling schools with nothing special by way of grades or experience).

    But most depressing overall? Is that evidently no one expects these poor souls to actually write much of anything in college, least of all for any business related degree. We require a 5 page writing sample from applicants. About half or better are unable to supply one for their entire under grad careers. Of those that do, many of their samples are clearly and openly plagiarized or actually stolen from someplace wholesale. Others, even from the much vaunted MBA's are so inadequate as make us wonder how they managed to graduate. (This for a few MBA theses too). So many of our slots go wanting.

    Still, even for those 'good writers' we have, many or most of them have such poor work habits, and likely deliberately so, that they are effectively working part time for full time wages. And these are ~$40-50K jobs walking in the door .

    So I don't know what we can do to improve the motivation much. It's the clear lack of much sustained effort, and evident sheer exhaustion (physical and mental) in doing so, that's what's so striking about the current 'generations'. If you're unwilling or unable to personally work much beyond 40 hrs/week, even during critical times, no one's going to want to take a chance to hire more of your ilk going forward. It takes about 2-3 years to properly train our staff. But the basic work habits and patterns, we likely can not even touch. Likely not even doubling their salary either.

    That's where we're at today. Most of your students will never attain the security of a middle class job. Some of that's the magical missing social infrastructure we all bemoan here & elsewhere. Some of it is the combined effects of yes the years of disinvestment in almost all forms of human capital. But some of it is a basic lack of interest & effort in self improvement in matters of the mind or academically, writ large. Some of it is the accumulated bad work habits that accrued from the poor study habits they've had all their lives. This is across all classes and incomes too.

    There are some good jobs going wanting due to the clear lack of adequate or even plausible applicants. And even at the higher income reaches here, it's all about the basic behaviors you note, and the habits ingrained by years of neglect, atrophy and lack of use. You're not failing your students as much as they're failing themselves and our collective future.

    Sorry for the length.

  13. c u n d gulag Says:

    I was an Adjunct Professor for 6 years back in the mid-late 90's, and experienced some of the same things – minus the laptops and other personal communication devices, which I'm sure make it much worse.

    What I told myself was that not everyone in college belongs in college, and I'll do what I can for those who want to learn. And that I'll be there for those who make any sort of effort at all. And I'll try to reach out to those who don't. But in the end, for those who don't want to make the effort, or make minimal effort, that's their issue, not mine.

    And there are societal issues here, too. Over the past few decades, there is less and less respect for intelligence and expertise in our country. To the point where, if you watch TV News, subject knowledge is apparently inconsequential, since it's 'the harder you blow, the more you must know!'
    And that's with the ADULT'S!
    So how can we blame kids who are just products of, what Charles Pierce in this great book, calls "Idiot America?"

    Ed, you're one of the good guys.
    There are barbarians at the gate, and you definitely ain't one of 'em!
    As a matter of fact, good and caring K-12 teachers, and college professors like you, are all that are standing between America and a Dominionist Christian Corporate (read Fascist) "Idiocracy" – which I keep telling people was a future documentary, the way the "1984" was a future work of non-fiction.

    So don't beat yourself up too badly. Just keep doing what you're doing as best you can. They may not realize it today, but more kids than you think will thank you for your efforts later. And if they don't, well, again – that's their problem.

  14. * Says:

    1. Technology is to blame. (Think about it everything is instantaneous. I want the new ____ song – Itunes has it, I don't have to go to ____ store where it may be sold out. Thoughts are accepted in 140 character increments – why waste time writing 5 pages, I can go on & on.)
    2. Removing the technology from the classroom will not help – remember the guy from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" who just stared out the window. I worked with a guy who slept with a pen in his hand (so as to appear to be taking notes) during meetings. Similar things are happening in college – or awake & doodling – just like in Middle School.
    3. Many of your students are in College/University for the Greek/Sports/Bar Scene (if they even need to be separated.) experience – PERIOD & it really is silly for anyone to believe otherwise.

    The problem needs to be fixed at the elementary school level. Children need to learn early good grammar, so that any advanced concepts that they may lear later they can express adequately.

  15. Mrs. Chili Says:

    My misery loves your company. I had the worst semester EVER with a freshman writing class at Local U., and I'm pulling teeth with my high school kids to get them to do any of their work (and, of course, they're all flipping out because we're at quarter 2 progress reports and they're JUST NOW noticing that they haven't done any of their work).

    I'm not sure what to do about it. Somewhere, there's a disconnect. The kids aren't valuing education. Now, I understand that EVERY generation says that about the ones behind it, but I'm seeing it even more than usual lately. I have no idea how to combat it.

  16. Coffeeman Says:

    In a perfect world, students have a hunger to learn and a University presents an opportunity to expand one's world. It used to be said that the purpose of an education was to teach one how to think, which was the reasoning behind mandatory courses like physics in high school, where most students will never remember or feel the need to call on what they learned, in their adult lives.

    On occasion, Ed, you may have the privilege of having one of those individuals who is in love with learning. That is your reward for teaching the herd.

  17. Woody Says:

    (Suburban MN HS teacher POV):

    The longer I teach (year 17), the more I believe that the true linchpin of a class' success lies in the mix of personalities in the class. I believe this to be more important than class size, technology policy, dress code, even SES (up to a point).

    This was particularly apparent this year for me. Due to scheduling constraints, I had three AP Government classes remix – that is, some students were shuffled around the three periods the class was taught. One of the semester 1 classes was quite small in size and featured some crackerjack students – smart, engaging, social. Yet this class had overall lower scores, lousy class discussion, a meh attitude, etc.

    Since the shuffle, all hours are actually quite engaging (we'll have to see about their scores, though) and a pleasure to teach. Same kids, shuffled classes, starkly different class attitudes.

    Sorry about the experience, Ed – but your post definitely shows that you've got true teaching chops.

    PS: As to the hammerheads asking stupid calendar questions: put up a sign: "There has never been an easier time on Earth to look something up than right now. It's on Moodle (or whatever). Look it up." You'll still get the questions, but a simple point of the finger is somehow more satisfying than actually having to verbally respond to idiocy (mostly because you have to stifle obscenity).

  18. botwot Says:

    I have taught at a University for 32 years, after teaching 6 years in K12 . I have always found the end of semester / year depressing because it reveals what wasn't done and who didn't connect with the material and thus didn't achieve.
    When the "teachers have it easy" trope is trotted out, esp about K12 teachers who have the (ever shortening) summer on vacation, I always challenge such an uninformed to try K12 for one week (1 day in elementary !) — just try it.
    I am lucky that I managed to get into heaven (which University teaching in computer science is compared to K12) but the end of the semester is always measured personally, alone, after all the interactions are gone, in the units of disappointment. That is the nature of the business.
    Trying to get students to express ideas, with words, in paragraphs, coherently, is incredibly difficult, apart from getting across the ideas that comprise the content of the course.
    The profession is a bipolar experience, and in a field where re$earch is really the measure of success, the depressive mode can dominate.
    You are not alone.

  19. squirrelhugger Says:

    Be advised that if you quit and go get a job in the real world, you'll be surrounded by coworkers who were that chaff in classes. You'll then have to work alongside and under them, instead of above them.

    I think back on my top-quality education 35 years ago and I doubt it was different, just fewer in-lecture distractions. I was one of the clueless, and eventually grew out of it. Sort of. Tell yourself you're in the business of nurturing seeds that grow at wildly different rates, and move on.

  20. Aaron Weber Says:

    A lot of the issues have been covered in other comments, but: Yes, not all your students will be paying attention. There are some solutions to some of the smaller issues– you can come up with snappy comebacks for the dumb questions, you can ban laptops or internet in class. I had a teacher once (in high school, but still) who gave us a daily 5-question, 5-minute quiz about the reading, then went over the answers with us, and discussed them with us, for the remainder of the class. Really improved my critical reading skills. If you want to enforce study skills, make them write outlines and summaries of their reading.

    But ultimately, you're going to have to realize that your students are imperfect. Squirrelhugger has it right: Seeds. Some of those seeds will flourish now, some will flourish later. Some will be merely adequate. Some will fail. But you can't be a farmer and insist on excellence from every seed. Good enough: It's good enough.

  21. acer Says:

    FWIW, right now must be an incredibly demoralizing time to be an undergrad. I don't know how the fuck I would have made it if the post-collegiate prognosis had been this bleak.

    You're also dealing with a lot of people who, let's be frank, would be better off in trade schools. And a few who listen, learn and emerge tougher and wiser. Don't give up on those kids.

  22. Xynzee Says:

    1) What Squirrel said.

    2) You are *not* your job.

    3) At this point taking a lib-retard-ian view of the world can be good for you. Did they *choose* to pay attention or not? If you've put due dates on the board and on the syllabus, and barring a defect eg blindness, well then they're screwed aren't they. Some lessons can only be learned by getting smacked squarely between the eyes w a mallet.

    The mark I'm most proud of was for Stats. On the first lecture the lecturer stated, "'Allo. I am Dr. X. I want to be your friend. But! (waggles finger in the air) I will not hesitate to fail you (stabs lecturn w finger)!" I worked hard! Damn *hard* to just pass, I suck at math you understand.

    He was a nutter, but I respected him. He told you up front the lay of the land.

    The only thing I would change in his opening lecture would be changing "but" to "therefore". It's stating that good friends want what's best for you and will give you a good smack upside the head when you're dicking around.

  23. Matt_L Says:

    Ed,

    Dude, just remember that every semester you teach, in every class you teach, you've probably reached more people than you would have with a peer reviewed journal article. It doesn't matter what the test scores were, or how they did on the papers. Grades are just a measure of how the student did on one exercise at one point in time, but the education lasts a lifetime. There are things you've said that will stick with some of you students for the rest of their lives. So show yourself some compassion.

  24. Anonymouse Says:

    Squirrelhugger says:>>Be advised that if you quit and go get a job in the real world, you'll be surrounded by coworkers who were that chaff in classes. You'll then have to work alongside and under them, instead of above them.>>

    That is so very true.

  25. Xynzee Says:

    @JP: Really? You've got good work? I might know someone.

  26. Shane Says:

    When I have days like these I have to hold on to those other moments…the moments where I actually have real intellectual conversations with an isolated student and see the light turn on or change shade in a meaningful way. Or the moments when former students contact me from grad school and say "So much of what I learned in your class has been essential to my success as a grad student, thank you." Or hearing from other former students that are now achieving personal success at an agency they wanted to work for because they just wanted to share a news story with you that reminded them of a conversation you once had in your class. These are the mental snapshots I hold on to and bring out as needed.

  27. Edward Says:

    If college were like a job and students were paid a salary they would probably be more serious.

  28. bookwormz Says:

    Ed, don't feel bad….my husband, a lawyer, teaches (as an adjunct) in a graduate level tax program at a MRU. His students are practicing attorneys and accountants. All they ask is, "Will this be on the exam?" And even when Husband say, "Pay attention: this WILL be on the exam," they seem to ignore it. Most of his students would fail the class if it wasn't for his epic curve…

    My semester at my little 2 year school ended with a division meeting yesterday in which many faculty, FT and adjunct, discussed the level of intimidation they felt from students in the classroom. And why the first year of college has most definitely become 13th grade. Perhaps it is time to leave some children behind…..

  29. ladiesbane Says:

    The older they get, the less influence you have. If you taught middle schoolers, they would worship you as a god, and decades later, could whip out facts both meaningful and trivial that they soaked up because of your awesome powers. (Thank you, Mr. Hjulstad, wherever you are.)

    But college kids? Please! Some of them are jumping to new conclusions, trying on ideas for size, and are seeking the consolation of certainty — or simply haven't yet figured out critical self-checking. (Imagine you have a nascent Grover Norquist or Karl Rove in your freshman class — what paper might he turn in?)

    Some lack practical experience and have not yet sifted out much of the bullshit they inherited from their parents.

    Some are more caught up in their personal lives than in academics. They might be planning the Tri-Delt carwash, wondering if that itch means a trip to the clap clinic, panicking about overdue rent, or aching over a cheating sweetheart. Life is chaotic for the newly autonomous.

    Plus, many students think that payment of tuition is full performance of their end of the teacher-student contract, and seem to think you will funnel knowledge into their little minds like force-feeding a Strasbourg goose.

    If you think they are wrong to assume that, you also understand why you cannot be responsible for their abdication from engagement.

    Teach the hell out of your subject, help those who ask, but pay the little darlings the respect of letting them go to hell in their own ways. And don't give up. Even if the lambs are befuddled now, what you give them may sink in and resonate later. I know you know what Michelet said:

    "What is the first part of politics? Education. The second? Education. And the third? Education."

  30. c u n d gulag Says:

    @ Squirellhugger has got a great point!

    After adjuncting, I became a Training Manager at a large telecommunications company and had to figure out how to train these former college students.

    God, it was a horror show!
    Almost none of them could spell, and even fewer knew how to write a coherent sentence.

    Especially right before I left, when I had to remind trainees everyday that writing to customers in twitter abbreviations was not acceptable.

    I kept waiting for someone to answer back "wel may b not 4 u!", because they paid no attention to me, or their Supervisors or Managers.
    And progressive discipline doesn't mean shit if they hate their jobs, and don't care if they're fired.
    And if that doesn't scare you in this economy, I don't know what the hell will!

  31. c u n d gulag Says:

    Oh, btw – they weren't tweeting our customers, but e-mailing them, or writing comments in places that the customer will probably read.

    If they were tweeting, I wouldn't have been that concerned, I'd only have asked to make it as close to real English as humanly possible within the character limitations.

  32. johnsmith1882 Says:

    ed, you can't make people give a sh!t if it's not inside them already. it is not a failure on your part. if the students that take your class don't want to learn poli-sci (or history), and don't care enough to put in the work, that is on them. you care, you work hard, you put forth the effort. if that isn't reciprocated, that is their loss.

    1) people are stupid. this is evident. but if you need proof, i'll just point to this: more people in this country believe in creationism than in evolution. this is a country of retards. 2) and this ties into the first, you can't take it personally. if you are dealing with an ignorant person, and they don't get it, or don't care enough to get it, that is not because you failed to get through to them, that is because they failed to listen.

    look ed, we are in the minority here. education and book learning and ideas and thinking for yourself are bad words in this country. but here is the silver lining: there are still people like you, the readers of this blog, and the students in your class who care, that value education. what you do is important. we need you. the 40% of students in your class who tried need you. the rest of them can go p!ss off.

  33. J. Dryden Says:

    To springboard of of Squirrelhugger's point:

    "Learning" takes a long time. "Education" is a limited and brief exposure to knowledge. Which means that the shit we tell them doesn't sink in until they're way down the road.

    Like most of my colleagues who teach College Level Composition (i.e. The Remedial Introduction to What You Should Have Learned Four Years Ago), I've stared at What I Have Wrought in the form of a stack of end-of-term papers and contemplated taking a slow, sweet suck on a gun barrel.

    "Holy shit was that a waste of all our time," I tell myself. But what did I expect, really? That they would all go from "answers the prompt by flinging his own poop amidst loud screeches and grunts" to "Spinoza weeps with envy" in the space of 15 weeks? Learning to write takes time; I didn't manage it until I was well out of my undergraduate years. Learning to *think* takes even longer; I'm still struggling with that one.

    All we can do is teach them to play chopsticks, and hope that they remember to use their fingers to do so. We're the first of a long line of sculptors, and we only get one stroke of the chisel, and then we have to move on. There's no payoff; Mr. Chips and whoever the hell Sidney Poitier played into To Sir With Love were fictional for a reason.

    So what keeps us going? The same faith that sustained Medieval monks, toiling away in their scriptorium, illuminating texts that, as far as they knew, no one would ever read–we carry the light forward, hoping that it will kindle little flames along the way. We never see these flames–we live in faith and hope of what we'll never see. We're the priests of the modern era, devoting our lives to the belief that knowledge is light, and light is better than darkness.

    But–and this is my point, at last–as this day's thread has shown, you can always look to your right, and look to your left, notice that on the same bench where you're sitting, others are keeping the same faith, struggling with the same doubts, hoping for the same small rewards. You're not alone, and if you can live a life where the choices you made, the things you value are shared by people of intelligence and good humor and integrity (I'll exclude myself, and instead point to my fellow posters), then surely you're doing something right.

  34. exlitigator Says:

    I teach High School and have the same feeling sometimes. It is really hard to care about students that don't care themselves. Sometimes you have to try to connect to them on a personal level (required one on one conference?). We have to do what we can to reach the kids that we can. those select few can make a huge difference. I try to focus on my students who would not have gone on to college except for me, and not those who will probably end up in dead end jobs or prison. I try to remmember that although the classroom is the center of my world, I am just one class for one semester in a lot of things that are goingg on in their lives. Hang in there.

  35. sixbass Says:

    Now, hang on a minute there, Ed…as useful as a travel agent? Ask anyone who's been rescued from the other side of the planet by a travel agent how useful they are. Everyone who performs a job/task/thing for money is useful in some way. Especially teachers. So there.

  36. whetstone Says:

    "If they're working with me and the final product has flaws, that is at least partly my fault. I failed them and I failed myself, but I can live with it because I know that I'm not a perfect teacher and it's a useful reminder that I need to continue improving."

    I dunno: you're working with people, not widgets. I was a good student at an august university (the one that gave us David Brooks and Ahmed Chalabi, so you know it's quality), but I wasn't a good student in every class.

    Sometimes I went for help and wrote flawed papers. Sometimes I didn't and wrote totally kick-ass papers. And I was good at writing papers by my school's standards, having as classmates some of the barely-literate MBAs mentioned above. I wasn't as good a student when I was working on the student paper; I was an excellent one when I wasn't. I'm sure some of your class just sucks, but 18-22 year olds are unpredictable.

    And sometimes you just get a shit class. My mom taught freshman English for 20 years, and I'd hear about it whenever it happened.

    Think of college like baseball–baseball teams theoretically have vastly better resources to recruit 17-year-olds and shape them into men and piles of money to keep them in line. Sometimes you get Pujols. Sometimes you get Brien Taylor or Todd Van Poppel, despite your best efforts.

  37. Chase Says:

    I completely understand Ed's discouragement. I occasionally teach Philosophy as an adjunct nearby or as a grad student in my PhD program and sometimes get the sense that students regard my classes as the academic equivalent of gym.

    But I've also taken to the challenge of getting through to more students. Some of it, I think, begins with setting good policy. For example, I ban all electronics from class. I give simple quizzes covering the basics of the reading. I have an attendance requirement and a fixed penalty for unexcused absences. And I discuss academic honesty more than once during the semester, making clear that I sweep nothing under the carpet and that even relatively small infractions may result in failing the course.

    Beyond that, I find that students seem to do better if I enjoy what I'm doing in class. Sometimes, this means putting aside the day's topic and doing something else, vaguely related to the course. If I'm bored or annoyed that they're bored, some of them will sense it and give up. But other times, it's enough to ignore their boredom and at least entertain myself. Most of them respect my own curiosity; the ones who don't are going to do poorly anyway.

    Finally, I've found that I need to spend much more time than I ever expected discussing the mechanics of writing. I shouldn't need to, but I do. I haven't settled on a routine for this yet. It's a project for the future. But oddly enough, many students who tend to write poorly often write much better if I give them the option of writing fiction, though on a topic relevant to the course. They understand narrative. What many of them don't grasp is that an ordinary essay is also story-telling of a sort.

    Anyway, I feel Ed's pain. I, too, am grading papers and see how much better I could have done. And I boggle at how willing some students are to take low grades. So, I give them low grades. Most of them don't complain, and it's rather fun when they do — stressful but fun.

  38. Mo Says:

    Thinking back on "all the crap I learned in high school" … and college … I wonder if we're not teaching people what they really need and want to know.

    Teachers on a treadmill, teaching required texts and the same old shit. Think of the fraud perpetrated in most Econ 101s, for example, compared with what would actually be useful for students to learn.

    There are plenty of alarming and frightening examples of how disaster looms for those unable to think critically and pay attention to annoying details. Why is it so hard to translate that into a course that slaps students upside the head and gives them the motivation to pay attention?

  39. evrenseven Says:

    Take solace in the fact that your salary, as paltry as it may be, if fueled by the debt these students are taking on that will crush them as they search for a job that their mediocre college experiences will ultimately exclude them from.

  40. sluggo Says:

    Almost every exam I had in college, the teacher handed out blue-books. I have mentioned this to college kids that I have come across and just get blank stares.

    Did anyone take exams like this in college?

  41. Xilla Says:

    You need to fail those who are not up to standards. This will wake them up.

  42. JohnR Says:

    "If college were like a job and students were paid a salary they would probably be more serious."

    Haha, Edward! Hahaha! Oh, that was a good one; you should be on stage!
    Anyway, tough it out, Ed – that's why alcohol was invented, after all. Do what you can for the ones who want your help, and do what you can for the ones who need your help, and try not to get too aggravated about the ones who don't think they have to do shit. Think of it as training for being a parent. Also, I'll never forget almost flunking out my first year (and this, back in 1976, mind you). I honestly didn't think that 15% of the grade could be too much, so I didn't bother handing in any homework. And I was an A student in HS, and worked pretty hard when I felt like it. O tempura, O Morays. You can't babysit the world, and they'll learn sometime the hard way. Let the fat, lazy birds leave the nest and plummet down to the interstate far below; all you can do is make yourself available and stay secure and confident in the knowledge that they'll blame you for all their failures. As I said, practice for parenthood.

  43. SeaTea Says:

    This whole "I bought my education so you owe me an A" mentality is killing our country. I don't mean to be hyperbolic, but I really believe that. What made us pay attention and do well in school and LEARN things despite ourselves was either a) We were interested in the topic or b) we were inherently self-motivated, but most importantly c) We were terrified of failing!!

    With C removed and kids today inherently lazy, that leaves a) which as far as I can tell isn't happening except in rare cases. I pity Ed, but I pity the future of this fucking country more.

  44. adamr Says:

    You forget that you cannot control whether or not your students actually WANT to be in college. Being in some level of higher education is sold to students coming out of high school as being a requirement for life rather than a choice they make on their own. If they have no genuine interest in higher education and/or do not understand what it can do for them personally then you cannot be expected to have them produce above par work… or even at par work. Honestly, on some level you just have to be happy that you're GETTING papers.

    As Carlin said, "not all chidren are smart and clever. Got that? Kids are
    like any other group of people: a few winners, a whole lot of losers!"

  45. anotherbozo Says:

    @sluggo: yes, blue books. But I went to college in the 60's, aka the Pleistocene.

  46. Townsend Harris Says:

    The most depressing freshmen come from the ranks of the socially-promoted. I've written before about their corrupt offer "hey professor, you pretend to teach me, I'll pretend to learn".

  47. jazzbumpa Says:

    I'll just share a couple of pearls I got from my managers over the years.

    1) Fight the battles you can win. Trying to reach students who don't care is a losing battle.

    2) Don't fail at your level. Do your best every day, and you can go home feeling proud of yourself.

    These two points suggest controlling what you can control, and not trying to control other people or things.

    And I'll add my own thought. I'm not religious, but this reminds of the parable of the farmer sowing seed. Some lands on fertile ground, some on stones, and some gets trampled underfoot. Nurture and nourish the ones that take root.

    If you reach one student, make a difference in one mind or heart, then you've accomplished something.

    And you are reaching some in ways you don't know, and will probably never know. Despite the frustrations, you are making a difference.

    Cheers!
    JzB

  48. HoosierPoli Says:

    All I can really add is "regression to the mean". Sometimes you get a great group. Sometimes you get an awful group. Look at it this way: next semester you're sure to see better results.

    And college is the big leagues. It's not your job to make them learn. It's your job to present the material the best you know how and then grade how well they've grasped it. If they sucked, it's not YOUR fault.

  49. Redleg Says:

    Hang in there- it soon shall be the bright beginning of a new semester!

    I feel the same way at the end of a semester. I am always a bit behind in grading at the end and have tons of little administrative things to deal with. At the end I tend to grade papers without providing the same detailed and helpful feedback I provide earlier in the semester. It doesn't really matter since most students have no intention to look at their graded work.

    I usually tell my students this in the last week: "You students are on edge, we professors are on edge, and we ought to stop pushing each others' buttons." It doesn't actually help but it does usually get a few laughs.

  50. JP Says:

    Yes, we've already run this experiment in our small business. Paying them to value their work is evidenty a lost cause for most, even at $50k per year. And yes, strangely our best performer is a 1st gen immigrant. He did indeed double his salary inside of 5 yrs by showing up and doing consistenty good work in a timely fashion. Very mysterious, no? For everyone else? It's like discovering the Higgs Bosson on their own, nearly impossible. Even with the tools and recipe before you.

    As others have noted, most of the kids are not smart enough to understand how badly they're screwed. If they did, perhaps they'd try & work harder or more diligently. Many are perfectly capable of doing that, but they're always & forever doing a half dozen other things more interesting to them at the moment. That almost never includes the job you're paying them to do, but for all too many, it's a 'side business' they imagine to be more lucrative, or paying off 'bigger & sooner'. So most could & might be more properly described as 'independent' contractors, but we hopefully (and generously) employ them full time just the same. This also includes many of our older staff too.

    Practically that means being very wary about hiring even more similar folks, as just a few more similar slackers could & would easily break us. But yes, despite it all, we're still hiring. But they do need some business basics & qualifications because we really do not have the time (or staff) to train up newbies who do not know what to do with a basic balance sheet, and do not understand a basic P&L statement etc. Which of course is something of a Catch 22 as nearly none of the biz majors can write to save their lives.

    So concurring, we're doomed & screwed at the same time.

  51. blahedo Says:

    Man, have I ever been there. The most frustrating thing about grading is the number of papers/problems/programs I get where it was a great assignment—I know it was—and a huge chunk of the students got absolutely nowhere on it. I've found it personally valuable to identify early a couple students who A) have no background in the subject matter (i.e. they're not ringers) and B) pay attention and study. I can look at their work and know that I'm not losing my mind, that I really did teach something, that I really did lead them to some new understanding. (Conversely, if even they get something wrong, I need to back up and re-think things!)

    And that's in the courses that are geared to feed into the major (and even the upperlevel courses *in* the major). Gen-eds are a whole other ballgame.

  52. good test taker Says:

    One thing that is often overlooked is that people learn in different ways. One of the reasons that places like Japan have such high math scores is that they teach their kids that there are multiple approaches to solve the same problem. One kid may not comprehend the "standard" way to calculate a problem, but there might be an alternate way that really clicks for them.
    For instance, I suck the big one at learning via lecture. Thank god, there were no laptops in my day, because I wouldn't even have been able to feign interest in what the prof was saying. It is not an exaggeration to say that in four and a half years of college, I took a grand total of less than 25 pages of notes during lectures. I simply could not pay attention.
    On the other hand, I simply kill it when it comes to reading comprehension, and retention. My worst fear was Teachers that didn't teach from the text. If they did I was golden.
    I was also very lucky in that I am an excellent test taker. People don't realize that knowing how to take a test, particularly multiple choice tests, is actually a skill.
    Finally, I was very fortunate to grow up in an area that had one of the better public high schools in the country, and went to a parochial school with a tiny class size (8 in my graduating class) and teachers that hammered the basics of grammar and writing, giving kids a great foundation when it came to doing things like writing essays and reports. I still have occasional nightmares involving diagramming sentences.

    Also, be honest with yourself, how many classes that you took during your collegiate career actually interested you? Most classes I took, were taken not because I looked at the student handbook and said, that looks compelling, but because I needed them for my major, and thus my main goal was passing with a decent grade, and not learning.

  53. xynzee Says:

    Giving this some thought from the student's POV (I just finished additional formal study to expand my skill set).

    I just finished a subject with someone who was teaching for the first time. Teaching really is both an art *and* a skill.
    *However* unlike blow your mind creativity these can be developed with practice. Having the correct temperament – eg. patience in the face of that student who's needling you – is most important.

    Coming back to my point: This instructor knew his stuff. Really knew his stuff and was passionate about the subject. My understanding was the he did have a some experience in training, which is much different than teaching.

    He just wasn't used to complete newbies to the software and the subject, so he would speak from the assumed knowledge position, and we'd stare at him blankly.
    In a manner of speaking he would tell us to launch the application and we were still trying to figure out how to turn the computer on in the first place (not that bad, but you get the idea).

    The same question came up over and over again during his assignments (variations on the "I don't understand") and we got the same response, read the assignment. When you cannot see the trees for the forest doesn't help much. It also didn't help that most of the people in the course were ESL and even ETL.

    It was when he finally understood that what was necessary was to walk us through the assignment that the lights went on.
    For someone that has done something for years, it's easy to forget what appears obvious to you is not so to the neophyte. Personally I believe that once he starts breaking the early lessons down into the component parts, I think he'll do pretty good.

  54. Jon Says:

    If you ever take a teaching job in the Boston area, I'll be signing up. I won't be writing any papers, because I don't want to, but I love to listen and learn. If you need to quiz me and gauge my learning, it'll require a dimly lit bar and a couple of pitchers.

  55. quimby Says:

    I'll speak from the other end of things: I was a somewhat indifferent undergrad at a middle-tier southern school. I was perpetually late to class. Many of my papers were of the "here's a bunch of stuff that happened" variety. Particularly in my first semester, I showed up hung over, sleep deprived, and generally unprepared. But I had some good professors, and some of the things they said actually did sink in, even if it took some time to do so. I came in a pro-life Republican and left as a liberal leaning independent (it was a start). College was useful in a lot of ways, and what I learned in class unfortunately wasn't always reflected in my performance. I imagine there were professors who wrote me off as hopeless. So just keep in mind that it may take longer than a semester to change hearts and minds.

  56. Mudder Says:

    I'm a Water Resources Engineer. My job is to help cities and counties with discharge permits clean up their stormwater and maybe eventually clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Most of the time, after 12-18 months of field work, water quality modeling, site assessments, and concept designs, we find enough projects to cut the pollution loads by ~10%. At the cost of millions of dollars that the taxpayers won't want to fund.

    Have I put in the effort? Yes. Have I done a good job? Yes. Have I made a difference? …. doesn't look like it, does it?

    I feel your pain. Maybe all jobs are futile except the ones that can be graded by how much money you made.

  57. Mudder Says:

    Botwat: In my business, the end of the project is the equivalent of the end of the semester. All those discussions you had with the client at the kickoff meeting about all the cool stuff you could do?

    All tossed aside in the grind of meeting the bare bones of the scope within the budget.

  58. Karlo Says:

    Wow, it's like I'm listening to my wife, all over. She taught in what was the Community College (2 yr) but which became the College (4 year because they offered one BA in something or other) and she taught Prep English. Five sections a semester. For no money. Well, not a living wage anyway – but I'm probably preaching to the choir. She had the same reaction you are having – my advice, which was finally listened to after we got over the male/female communication divide of me trying to fix stuff and she just wanting to vent – was that she could only help the students who wanted to be helped and she should be happy there were a few of those in each class each semester. Now she's teaching in law school and doesn't let the students use their laptops – claims she gets a better response.

  59. pkat Says:

    The real question is why can't a college student write a coherent sentence?

    My daughter is an adjunct professor and emails me the real howlers that she gets. She teaches a writing intensive course in a field that for the most part will require coherent writing skills at nearly every turn. These students are getting to graduate level courses without basic skills. (Skills I might add that I seem to remember aquiring in about third grade.)

    She spends an inordinate amount of time teaching writing skills as apposed to the skills they are supposed to be aquiring in her class. She is pulling her hair out and doing tequila shooters with her cat to get through grading term papers even as we speak.

    She asked one class how they got by in the supposed writing classes that they had to take to get this far in college and the response was "we didn't have to write anything."

    WTF. This is a wholesale failure of our education system. The majority of these kids are virtually illiterate in any meaningful sense of the word. They were ignorant and apathetic long before they got to your class and were "rewarded" for the same with "passing grades."

    My dad was a high school english teacher before teaching the tests came along and I guaran-damn-tee that no student would have left his class without the skill to construct a sentence that was coherent and gramatically correct.

  60. good test taker Says:

    Pkat. You think that your dad never let a kid leave his class without those skills, but I'm quite certain you are incorrect. I would say this not because your dad wasn't an excellent teacher, but because you can't fail all the kids that don't absorb everything you teach. Think how many times when writing you have to stop and think about whether or not your mixing tenses, if something is singular or plural etc.
    Plus, for whatever reason, in my freshman year of college I became the dorm floor proofreader, then later served the same function for many members of the lacrosse team. I was simply stunned at the wretched writing skills that I saw. It could not possibly have been because these kids all had crappy teachers. I think that the English language is very complicated, and there are many, many, strange rules that need to be followed. I certainly wouldn't want my former high school freshman English teacher, Mr. Bill, (that was his name, and it was right in the middle of SNL's heyday when he was my teacher) proofreading any of the work that I do for work, and for that stuff I actually attempt to be accurate from a grammar/ structure standpoint.

  61. arithmoquine Says:

    I hate to give practical advice that you've already received hundreds of times over or already know, but here are a couple of general things that help me survive. I teach philosophy, so maybe what I do won't work for you (and I'm not sure it really works for me, but I've learned to live with it at least most of the time).

    First, I make sure everything is written down. If it's in multiple places (syllabus, class schedule, etc.), students do not have to look much for it and are slightly less likely to ask. Most of them are just going to wait until the last minute to check the syllabus for the exam time anyway, and telling them does not accomplish very much. In general, telling students something works for a small percentage of the students each time you tell them but at least 20% are phased out whenever you say something, so repetition does get through to many over time. Then I simply practice patience when I tell them the same thing every day. I get through this by thinking of the students I did not have to tell twenty times rather than the ones I did.

    Second, I try to learn to let go. Students are responsible for their performance. All I can do is provide as many and as varied tools (and feedback) as I can so that they can take what I have given them and produce their own work with it. The most important thing I do is that I try to get them to be interested enough to think about and pursue the ideas. Then they can pursue the materials I have provided in writing (primarily). I do lecture, sort of, but I don't expect them to take away much factual information from the lecture. I make sure the factual information is available, but I try to get them to see how it all matters and try to teach them how to use that information effectively in their own thinking and writing. Lecture is really not a good way to provide information; its value is only its apparent efficiency in transmitting the information (since you provide it in parallel to a large number of people at the same time). So, I use class time to motivate students and get them to see why the readings that they have done and the additional material I have given them can relate to their own thinking on the issue.

    There's no way to teach conscientiously without blaming yourself to some degree when the students don't seem to learn even the most basic skills or information, but if you think about it as a collaborative effort with the students, and that you've done all that was practically possible given the unreasonable demands universities make on us, then it's a little easier to sleep at night.