Everyone loves a good Take This Job and Shove It story, and the collective catharsis we feel when reading about a flight attendant getting fed up, activating the emergency slide, and walking away with both middle fingers skyward is palpable. That could be me someday, we think. Maybe one day I will have the balls…because god knows I feel like doing this approximately every third day.
It was not difficult to get my attention, in that spirit, with the story of one Irwin Horwitz. A professor at a branch campus of Texas A&M University in Galveston, Horwitz got so fed up with a spectacularly bad class that he sent them an email informing them that he is walking away and they are all receiving an F. To wit:
"Since teaching this course, I have caught and seen cheating, been told to 'chill out,' 'get out of my space,' 'go back and teach,' [been] called a 'fucking moron' to my face, [had] one student cheat by signing in for another, one student not showing up but claiming they did, listened to many hurtful and untrue rumors about myself and others, been caught between fights between students."
Horwitz said he would fail every single student. "None of you, in my opinion, given the behavior in this class, deserve to pass, or graduate to become an Aggie, as you do not in any way embody the honor that the university holds graduates should have within their personal character. It is thus for these reasons why I am officially walking away from this course. I am frankly and completely disgusted. You all lack the honor and maturity to live up to the standards that Texas A&M holds, and the competence and/or desire to do the quality work necessary to pass the course just on a grade level…I will no longer be teaching the course, and all are being awarded a failing grade."
This is the waking fantasy of every teacher or professor who has dealt with a miserable class, the educational equivalent of dumping a plate of food on an asshole diner and walking out of the restaurant straight to the nearest bar. Obviously the university administration will engineer some outcome other than automatic failing grades for the students enrolled in the course, and Horwitz is likely to be (and no doubt expects to be) disciplined. Even if tenured, non-performance is one of the few open-and-shut ways that a faculty member can be fired for cause. My guess is he will be punished short of that, if for no reason other than the administration's desperation to keep him from telling the world everything he knows about just how dog shit the university and its students are.
I'm sure there are some good students at the Texas A&M-Galvestons of the world, but when a university isn't even in the top 25 or 30 in the pecking order of public institutions in a state there is an outstanding chance that phrases like "feeder" and "open enrollment" and "of last resort" are applied and not without justification. This is to say that I have taught at three different four-year universities and I am extremely privileged to have taught at three universities much closer to the top of the pile than the bottom. It's not like I taught at Stanford or Oxford, but all have been good, selective (on paper) institutions that generally limited the pool of students to those who might reasonably be expected to succeed in college if they care to do so. I cannot imagine how challenging it must be to teach at a place like Dr. Horwitz teaches; I say that with both admiration and elitism. I am glad I don't teach at such a place, because it sounds horrible in every way that the job could be horrible. Yes, there are good students there. They are massively outnumbered.
Bearing in mind that I have taught exclusively at Good Schools, in some cases expensive and in all cases prestigious, it is shocking to many people to hear my tales of some of the students I have dealt with. I've had students with behavioral problems so severe that they could not live or function without assistance. I've had two students I know for a fact could not read, and several others that I've suspected. I've had students with scores like 15 on the ACT or the 25th percentile of the SAT, scores that suggest either that the exam taker filled out the answers at random or lacks the most fundamental high school level academic skills.
And here's the part of Horwitz's story that will get no attention but is truly beautiful: "The same day Horwitz sent a similar email to the senior administrators of the university telling them what he had done, and predicting (correctly) that students would protest and claim he was being unfair. The students are "your problem now," Horwitz wrote."
That is his point. This isn't about the students; it's about the administrators who decided that these were college students. On the (thankfully limited) instances that I have had to deal with students like those I described just above, my urge has not been in any way to punish the student. It has been to take the student gently by the hand, walk down to the Dean of Admissions or whichever apparatchik was responsible for admitting him, and announce, "You let him in here, you fucking deal with him." It is not about lashing out at students but about returning the problems dumped into our laps to the responsible party. Horwitz has effectively made his problem the administration's problem, and I understand that impulse completely. Because the administrative mindset is to take anyone who can pay the tuition or qualify for Federal loans/grants, even students that they know beyond any shadow of doubt cannot succeed in college. Once that financial transaction takes place, the admissions folks are happy and that millstone of a student now becomes the faculty's collective problem.
It is a very clear and persistent case of "Oh well, I won't have to deal with it!" and "You're someone else's problem now!" frosted with a nauseating layer of pap about how we're doing something noble because doesn't every student deserve a chance? Yes, educational opportunities should exist for everyone. But I am not a high school Special Education teacher. I am neither trained nor prepared to deal with students who literally cannot stop themselves from singing and throwing things throughout class. I am not prepared to teach a college course that both challenges the best students and accommodates those who can barely read. That is why universities are not one size fits all, why Harvard accepts people who have a fighting chance at succeeding at Harvard and rejects those who probably (although not definitely) do not. At a place like TAMU-Galveston, where the school by design and necessity accepts essentially anyone who submits an application, the task given to professors there is unrealistic and unethical at best, professionally negligent at worst.
So, congratulations to Dr. Horwitz. Not because this stunt will work or because he Showed Those Darn Kids. The dynamic in which clueless MBA types walled off from student contact and from reality make decisions without having to deal with the consequences needs to be dismantled. If the admissions process is going to involve no standards beyond the ability to pay, then the faculty (and the students who are actually hoping to learn something) should not bear the entire burden of dealing with what follows.