THE SHARING ECONOMY

Posted in Quick Hits on August 12th, 2015 by Ed

Academics are used to watching this profession change for the worse, which is to say we are watching it keep up with the rest of the job market in the New Economy. Full-time work becomes part-time work, benefits are replaced with pep talks, and what was once a good career becomes piecemeal work at a subsistence wage. Most of us have done or will do the illustrious sounding "visiting assistant professor" gig, which in reality means a nine-month contract with more teaching and 1/4 the salary of a "real" professor at the same institution.

Hold onto your hats Doctors and Doctresses…things are about to get even better. Introducing a new kind of VAP – the "volunteer assistant professor." Yes, that's right. You now have the opportunity to do the full-time job of a professor for free at Southern Virginia University. You won't get paid any, you know, money, but don't say no until you've taken a look at what this position has to offer!

"In exchange for their service, the university provides volunteers with complimentary apartment-style housing and five meals a week." So, a dorm room and about 1/5 of your weekly nutritional needs. That's pretty cool.

"In addition, volunteers are welcome to participate in the full life of the university attending concerts, recitals, plays, athletic competitions, and student life events. They are also welcome to use the library and recreational facilities." Oh you're welcome to use the library? In exchange for working full time for no money? That's nice of them. Is the right to walk around the campus also included? Or does that come with Volunteer Tenure?

"At least once a month volunteers gather for a Family Home Evening or pot-luck dinner." Volunteers are also welcome at nightly potlucks at the downtown Chesapeake men's shelter.

Note how they had to get the Provost to write the ad, no doubt because they couldn't find anyone in an academic department sufficiently devoid of dignity and shame to put their name on a request of this kind.

The future is here, and it blows.

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COLLECTIVE INACTION PROBLEM

Posted in Rants on May 12th, 2015 by Ed

What follows is an outline of a conversation I have had repeatedly throughout my academic career. It is a representation of no individual or institution in particular, as I have had it with people at all stages of their career and at all types of post-secondary institutions from community colleges up to major research universities.

As a preface, everybody must know that educators spend a tremendous amount of time complaining about the students. I imagine doctors and nurses complain about their patients, and that people in retail and service complain about customers. Well, I can promise you that teachers are no different. If you know any teachers, you probably know this firsthand. If not, well…your suspicions are true. We complain.

Some colleague will spend a variable amount of time – years on end, or a single conversation – complaining about some aspect of his/her students. Usually it is their complete lack of effort or their utter lack of preparation / skills necessary to succeed in a university environment. My experiences have led me to believe what they tell me without being terribly skeptical. At some point I will ask a question like, "So did you end up failing a lot of people? Was that an issue?" or "What did your grade distribution look like?" Since I do not record these conversations and keep them as evidence you will have to take my word for this part, but I'd estimate that about 75% of the time my fellow educator reports that the grades were all A or B. Maybe, if he or she is a real ball-breaker, they give grades all the way down to C.

This is not universally true. Sometimes other professors tell me they fail a lot, or they pride themselves on being a tough grader who does not simply hand out A's like candy. There are some of us out there. But take a look at the statistics on grade inflation. Not only is A the modal grade in college courses now but the average GPA at any campus in the country has increased steadily since the 1990s. Maybe the students are just getting smarter. I kid, I kid.

I don't understand how people who have a Ph.D., not to mention considerable college teaching experience, cannot put two and two together. The students are terrible, yet somehow giving them all passing grades (and in some cases B or higher) isn't making them less terrible. Shocking, isn't it? It's almost as if the students can glean information online or from the campus grapevine about which faculty members are creampuff graders and take their classes with the confidence that if they don't feel like putting in the effort necessary to get an A they can do absolutely nothing and walk out with the B. Someone should do some research to study the question of how hard people will work above and beyond what is necessary to accomplish a well-defined goal.

That leaves the question: Why? Why do some faculty do this?

We don't lack for theories. Some people believe that giving high grades buys positive teaching evaluations, while others insist that no such relationship exists. Others argue that faculty, particularly at smaller and more teaching-intensive schools, grow to like their students to the point that they will not grade them harshly. Others blame parents and administrators for emphasizing grades above learning and retention above quality, respectively. Students who fail out of school don't write tuition checks, after all.

I have a simpler theory: laziness. It's rare that I don't side with academics, for obvious reasons. But I really think this one is largely our fault. Faculty give out inflated grades because it's easier. It's easier than working hard to improve a student's performance when said student simply does not care, and it's easier than giving out D and F grades and having to deal with students complaining about their grades and trying to negotiate higher ones. That's really all there is to it. Passing the students along, as America's high schools figured out long ago, is the easiest way to avoid making their problems your own. Just give them a C so they won't take your class again, or a B so you won't have to watch them cry in your office about how dad is going to take the SUV away.

Ironically, the perception of how much work is involved with giving out real, uninflated grades is…inflated. Being a Dick Grader is not nearly as much work as most faculty seem to think. If you lay out clear expectations and let the students know up front that you're not going to tolerate negotiations and that anyone looking for a course that can be passed with no effort should look elsewhere, it turns out that you don't have to spend hours and hours at the end of the semester in pained negotiations with aggrieved students.

It is not our job to hand out an A to anyone who enrolls in the course. When we choose to do so, however, we shouldn't be surprised that the students adjust their approach to our courses accordingly. If I could get my paycheck without having to put any effort into the job you can be certain that I would. Why would the students, grade-oriented as our system has become, do any differently?

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CAN THIS 900 POUND GORILLA PAY TUITION?

Posted in Rants on April 6th, 2015 by Ed

Another week, another "Why does college cost so damn much?" article, this time in the NYT. The author discounts the argument that states have slashed funding for higher education by emphasizing that adjusted for inflation, state support is much more extravagant today than prior to 1980. Instead, as I have suggested in the past, he blames:

the constant expansion of university administration. According to the Department of Education data, administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009, which Bloomberg reported was 10 times the rate of growth of tenured faculty positions.

Even more strikingly, an analysis by a professor at California Polytechnic University, Pomona, found that, while the total number of full-time faculty members in the C.S.U. system grew from 11,614 to 12,019 between 1975 and 2008, the total number of administrators grew from 3,800 to 12,183 — a 221 percent increase.

This argument is irrefutable. The number of administrators in higher education today dwarfs any previous era. Moreover, their penchant for paying themselves lavish salaries is a big part of the problem. What does it tell you that among mid-career academics it is often tempting to make a push to go into administration? It's not that anyone thinks it's a good idea to quit being useful as a teacher to become another soul-crushing bureaucrat, but when you realize that the people who do the least work make 250% of your salary it has some appeal.

That's not the whole story, though, and everyone in higher education is terrified to talk about the rest. Some of the administrative bloat is pointless. The rest of it is a result of two legitimate problems. One is that competition for students is intense (at private schools, "desperate" doesn't go far enough to convey the enrollment situation these days) and colleges increasingly look to compete by turning the experience into a playground. Not only do they need to spend billions collectively on creature comforts – elaborate Rec Centers, luxury student housing and food, etc – but they have to hire countless paper pushers to administer the programs intended to keep students entertained. A gym is more than throwing up a building and filling it with treadmills. There have to be group fitness classes, semester long programs in whatever is trendy, a calendar full of events, and anything else you'd find on a cruise ship or resort.

The second part is the one people only whisper about. More and more students are going to college over the past two decades, partly driven by the availability of loans and the inability to enter most fields without a degree. The end result is that moreso than any time in the past, today there are huge numbers of students flocking to college who have zero ability to succeed there. Universities of course want to retain these students, and in order to do so they have to create a massive bureaucracy of support services. Any skill tangentially related to completing college level work now has a lavishly staffed support center devoted to it on campus. A writing center, a study skills program, tutoring services, a math helpdesk, a massive bureaucracy devoted to the shockingly large share of students diagnosed with various disabilities, and anything else you can imagine.

If you want to stay open, you have to admit a certain number of students. In an ideal world you accept only students who can succeed given the nature of the school. In reality you end up taking a lot who probably can't. And if you accept students who do not know how to write sentences in English, you better have someone ready to hold their hand if you expect them to last longer than a semester. That costs money – a lot of money.

When you add up the cost of huge salaries for presidents, provosts, deans, and deanlets, recreational facilities that resemble theme parks, athletic programs (a competitive D-I football program costs a small fortune), shiny new buildings, and an army of functionaries tasked with guiding students who sometimes lack even high school level academic skills through college coursework, it makes sense why costs are exploding. Those of you who went to college in the ancient past can attest to how austere the accommodations were, how barebones the support services were, and how little "fun" universities paid to provide.

There definitely are too many administrators and they have a terrible habit of paying themselves too much. But some of the growth has been of necessity, as more and more students need more and more help to have any hope of succeeding at this academic level. That isn't cheap. College costs a lot more than it used to. But "used to" didn't include paying half a million bucks to bring Katy Perry to campus and having to teach high school graduates how to do math involving fractions.

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STRENUOUSLY SEEKING

Posted in Rants on February 3rd, 2015 by Ed

I'm pretty sure I can do this without running afoul of the law.

So, without getting into specifics, I'm involved in a hiring search at my university. It's in an academic field in which the job market is very, very bad. Bad even by the low standards of the academic job market in general. If there are five permanent (tenure-track) positions in this field available across the country in a year, it qualifies as a good year. And that small handful of jobs is fought over by an applicant pool of perhaps 300-500 people who either have no job or have a terrible one. That number comes from the number of applications that large universities get when they list an opening in the field.

We got about 100. Just over 100. If you toss out the handful of cranks and people in entirely different fields, it's more like 80.

This was far fewer than I was expecting, and it reminded me of a type of story I hear repeatedly in the media and from other academics. NPR, for example, runs a story approximately every six to eight weeks (given their target audience of urbane latte sipping liberals in Volvos) about the terrible state of the academic job market. Here's Joe. Joe has a PhD and hasn't been able to find a job for ____ years. He is waiting tables and hoping for a break. What a nice guy. Poor Joe.

Now, believe me when I say that of all people I sympathize with Joe and everyone else floundering in a very bad market. It took me four years to find a tenure-track job. It was absolutely goddamn brutal. I wouldn't wish it on an Ebola-infected pedophile who chews gum loudly. I wish everyone similarly situated could find a decent job and be reasonably happy. But if you read / listen to those stories closely, you'll notice something with forehead-smacking regularity: many of these people are imposing some pretty exclusive restrictions on their job search. It's all I can do to avoid laughing when I read these stories about academics who say "I can't find a job anywhere, and I've looked all over – Boston AND New York City!"

If you're going to limit your search to two places (that happen to be absolutely choked with jobless people with academic credentials) you're going to be unemployed forever, barring hit-by-lightning luck. If you're going to rule out 90% of the possible places that might be hiring out of hand, my level of sympathy for your admittedly difficult situation drops precipitously.

So when I see a position barely get 100 applications, I think about all these people I encounter at professional conferences and online who talk endlessly about how horrible the job market is. I'm forced to wonder, at the risk of my mortal soul and feeling like a dick, just how hard are you looking?

Look. I will be the first to admit that my current location is far, far, far away from ideal. It is not a desirable location. The job itself, though, is about as good as they come in this particular field. The teaching load is reasonable. Your colleagues will leave you alone and allow you to work. The pay is fine. And it bears repeating that it's one of no more than a half-dozen such jobs available right now. Despite all that, something like 50-80% of the jobless potential applicants decided that they were too good for it. Which is, you know, interesting. Because I came here despite the less than stellar location based on the wild theory that having a job is quite superior to not having a job or having some temp position that works you like a mule for peanuts and dumps you back on your ass after two semesters.

Whenever students, usually juniors or graduating seniors, talk about the post-graduation world I hammer home one point over and over and over: you must be flexible in this weak job market and economy. Be willing to apply for jobs in places you had not previously considered living. Be willing to apply for jobs that you had not previously considered doing. The surest way to be unemployed for a long, long time is to insist that there is one job you will accept and one location in which you will live. The odds of those stars aligning in your favor are low unless you happen to possess some astonishingly valuable skill that, frankly, most graduating students cannot claim to possess.

I'm not suggesting that my job-seeking colleagues should take anything placed before them, but we must all be realistic about how selective we can afford to be in a bad job market. If you can afford to sit around pouring coffee until that absolutely perfect job in Portland or Austin or wherever comes along, more power to you I guess. But there is a serious disconnect between the number of "My god, I just can't find a job anywhere!" conversations I have and the number of applications some of the open positions receive. The perfect is often the enemy of the good.

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PUMP IT UP

Posted in Rants on December 24th, 2014 by Ed

Check out this neat online tool for graphing grade inflation over time at a large selection of US universities. It comes courtesy of fan and reader Steven Ranney. Thanks!

It is naive to suggest that this is entirely a recent phenomenon; the "Gentleman's B" has been a punchline for decades' worth of jokes about Ivy League schools. The academic perspective on this – feel free to chime in if I'm off base here – is that everyone recognizes grade inflation but feels powerless to stop it. In my limited experience, there is external pressure as well as internal pressure to give higher grades than students' work deserves. We are put in a difficult position, yet part of the problem is us.

The external pressure at the college level comes from two sources. One is the grades students received in high school, which are even more wildly inflated. The modal American high school student is so academically indifferent that any student who actually completes the assigned work and masters a few rudimentary aspects of each subject is given A and B grades. In their defense, K-12 educators face constant pressure from parents to give their special special snowflakes the high grades they deserve. College professors have the unbelievable luxury of being able – legally required by FERPA, actually – to refuse to deal with parents. The second source of pressure comes from other professors within our institutions. We all know the faculty who are either Pollyanna-ish or completely checked out mentally and end up giving every student who enrolls in the class an A. When Professor X gives the students an A in English Comp despite the fact that they are completely unable to write a sentence in the English language, how am I going to give them an F, Or even a C, without getting an avalanche of complaints? When the tide keeps rising, it's very difficult to keep the boat anchored to the seafloor.

The internal pressure comes from the fact that when an entire class's performance is comparable in quality – and if that quality happens to not be great – it feels "wrong" to give an entire class a C. The voice in your head starts telling you that you're being a dick and you should give some A's, which you end up doing for whichever students performed a little better than the rest of the pack. And let's not kid ourselves either. Colleagues, Deans, and other people in the university who evaluate us are definitely going to raise eyebrows at entire classes full of C and D grades. Inevitably they are going to ask what I'm doing wrong, why I'm such a bad teacher that all of my students got C's. Personally this has never happened, I've always had normal grade distributions in my courses. But I know other faculty who have had this problem. The assumption is never going to be that none of the students did work that merited an A. It will always be assumed that the person in charge of the class has failed somehow. Sometimes that's a fair point. Sometimes you just get a batch of students who give zero shits.

Grade inflation has gotten so silly (take a browse through some of the schools on that list with mean grades in the 3.5 range) that it can't continue forever. A common complaint about graduate programs is that they obsess over standardized test scores. This is accurate, and it is a direct result of undergraduate GPAs becoming nearly meaningless. As for what to do about it, your guess is as good (and most likely as unworkable) as mine. All I can control are my own classes, and despite my reputation as a Harsh Grader I'm feeding the problem too.

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LENGTHY

Posted in Rants on October 2nd, 2014 by Ed

Students complain a lot. This is neither surprising nor new. Students complaining about their classes is like adults complaining about their jobs; it's something everyone does no matter how good or badly they have it. George Carlin said there was a club for people who hate their jobs – it's called Everyone and it meets at The Bar. Replace people with students and jobs with classes and that's what it's like to work in education. You learn not to take it too seriously. Bitching and moaning is just part of what students do. It's not personal.

In the last two or three years, however, I've heard a brand new complaint with alarming frequency. I'm used to the traditional student gripes – the class is too hard, my grade sucks because you're a bad teacher, this class isn't interesting, etc etc – and I pay them little mind as long as I know I am doing my best in the classroom and the class as a whole is performing well. When I changed universities in 2012, though, I noticed a marked increase in complaints about the workload. In fact during my first semester I assigned Mark Twain's short story "Cannibalism in the Cars," figuring it would offer an enjoyable alternative to the extremely dry introductory readings on Congress. The students told me, when it became apparent that they got nothing from it, that it was just too long. In 12 point font with 1.5 spacing, the PDF was nine pages. I thought they were messing with me until one student helpfully offered, "We have the attention span of goldfish." This is a true story. I appreciated his honesty.

To be blunt, I went many years without hearing this gripe because my classes don't require an extraordinary amount of work. In my intro American government class, for example, I do what almost everyone else on the planet does: one textbook chapter per week. Gentle reader, this is not a lot of reading. Intro textbooks are basically formatted like teen magazines or popular websites these days. A chapter is about 25-30 pages. A good portion of that is not text (pictures, graphs, charts, and other visuals). It takes me about 20 minutes to read; for someone reading very slowly and carefully due to unfamiliarity with the concepts it might take 45. This is the total reading load for seven days. As my colleague is fond of saying, "The only way to assign less reading would be to assign none."

That is true, yet the students' complaints get louder every semester – there's too much reading. The underlying problem here has been studied both empirically and anecdotally by anyone who has been in a classroom in the last 15 years. An alarming portion of the students who enter college classrooms apparently have not read…anything, really. I have serious, well-founded doubts as to whether some of the students I deal with have ever read a book. I know for a painful fact that most of them read no news. At best they look at headlines. Essentially anything longer than a tweet or a Facebook status update is too long. Any video longer than about 3 minutes – the average Youtube clip – is also incomprehensible. This is the first generation of college students who were raised on both the internet and wireless devices, and it is absolutely goddamn staggering how poorly they are able to focus on anything. Anything at all, be it educational or entertaining. Open a textbook in front of them and their attention is drifting off to their smartphones before the end of the first page.

It's revealing to walk through the library in the evening, particularly during the busiest exam weeks of the semester. Every single student has a book open in front of them, and every single student is looking and pecking away at their phone. I am starting to think that these students think that if the book is open near them it counts as "reading." When I ask students who express concern about their grades how much they study, their answers make me wonder what portion of the time they report consisted of sitting in front of an open book watching TV, dicking around on the internet, or talking to their friends.

I know that every generation of teachers cries that the sky is falling because of The Kids These Days, but in barely a month I've had a parade of students through my office telling me that there's just too much reading (There isn't) or the reading is indecipherable (Intro textbooks are basically written at an 8th grade level). While these students are not illiterate, obviously, I really doubt that some of them are capable of sitting down and reading a chapter in a textbook. Those of you who do not deal with teenagers in this environment probably think I'm kidding or exaggerating, but it is becoming frighteningly obvious to those of us who do that these kids are leaving high school without the ability to focus on anything long enough to read a novel, a textbook chapter, or even a decently incisive magazine/website article.

When I really want to freak myself out, I remember that as a professor at an expensive private school my students are probably better than most. God help us all.

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WATER LEVEL

Posted in Rants on September 17th, 2014 by Ed

The first time one teaches a college class comes with no meaningful preparation. In most graduate programs there is a one-semester lip service course on pedagogy that ostensibly exists to teach teaching; in reality it is the graduate version of a blow-off course and it mostly imparts crucial lessons like "Don't fuck the students" and "Make a syllabus." To say the least, teaching (as the instructor, not as a teaching assistant) for the first time is largely a "jump in an hopefully you'll figure out how to swim" affair. Accordingly the first year or two in the classroom ranges from awful to barely adequate depending on one's natural abilities. The learning curve is steep.

Among the most common mistakes we make at the beginning is creating a course that is far more difficult than the undergraduates expect. We start out naively assuming that undergrads are like we were as undergrads. They're not; we were nerds. We were the 1% of undergraduates who care about the material enough to consider graduate school and a life in academia. The other 99% are somewhere on the continuum between ambivalent and totally uninterested. We expect that the students read the assigned readings (They don't). We expect that they learned certain things in high school (They didn't). We expect that when we tell them something in a lecture, often multiple times, they will remember it (They won't). We expect that they will study for exams and spend more than a few hours on a research paper (Probably not). The preceding may not be true if you are lucky enough to teach at some elite institution. For the vast majority of us, though, the early teaching experiences shock us to accept the reality that many undergraduates had a woeful K-12 education and/or they have very little interest in excelling academically.

So we adjust. We reduce the amount of material we attempt to cover and vary what we do in the classroom until we find what appears to work for the students. We concoct ways to force the students to keep up with the reading. We account for the fact that some freshmen wander into an American government course without knowing that "legislative branch" refers to Congress and that Democrats are more liberal than Republicans. We analyze data on our own exams and assignments and make adjustments where the students haven't done well. We like to think that we improve as teachers and make the class better, and certainly most of us do continually improve. But let us not kid ourselves: compared to our initial teach experiences, we make the classes easier. This is both practical – We don't want to explain why our class of 40 had 33 F's – and necessary, as students deserve a class that is at the appropriate level, which varies greatly by type of school and student population.

Eventually we reach a point at which we can't make the class any easier. More accurately, we won't. As one of my colleagues is fond of saying, "The only way I could assign any less reading would be to assign none." Eventually you have to struggle with the question of what is the minimum necessary for something to be called a college course at an institution that attempts to maintain academic standards. You look at the topics covered and decide that nothing else can be pared away while still doing the intended scope of the course justice. You look at the exam questions and assignments and decide that you simply can't make them any easier, simpler, or less time consuming. You look at what you present in class and come to the conclusion that this is as basic as it's going to get.

It's an unpleasant moment when you reach that point and find that the students' performance is still not where you would like it to be. The remaining explanations are that the students simply cannot succeed in a true college-level course or that you are a very poor teacher. Personally, I never wanted to find myself rooting for either of those options. And the tendency of the system is to either make excuses for the students and blame everything on the teacher or vice-versa with little middle ground.

This post is not one where the story is resolved at the end. These are questions we never stop asking – what can I do to be better, and if I'm not the problem then what can I do to fix it?

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GUTENBERG DIPLOMA

Posted in Rants on August 19th, 2014 by Ed

A recent report suggests that having a degree from a for-profit college is as good as having no degree at all on the job market. These schools usually offer most or all of their instruction online. This convenience, combined with their reputation for a lack of academic rigor, have made for-profits very popular with working adults seeking career advancement.

I'm on record as being stridently anti-online education and highly skeptical of for-profit colleges in general. Nonetheless I think they have entered the educational arena to serve a valid purpose. I think online degrees are great for anyone who needs an M.A. – any M.A., from anywhere – for career advancement. Cops, military, government bureaucrats, teachers…often they need to show a credential to move up the payscale. So if you want to get a pay-and-print Master's from Strayer University because you can't get bumped up to G-11 without it, great. It's a practical solution to a practical problem.

These degrees understandably lack prestige, though. That is irrelevant if you're only concerned with fulfilling a credential requirement at your workplace. However, online schools have grown rapidly and roped in a lot of working adults (and more traditional college-aged students too) with the pretense of getting a degree for the purpose of being more attractive on the open job market. This is patently silly – everyone knows that a degree from a college that advertises how quickly and cheaply they can sell you one is worth its weight in paper. As the data in this new report show, employers do not think terribly highly of Kaplan University Online when they see it on a resume. Nor should they.

If you actually need or want to learn anything, it goes without saying that an online degree program is going to do about as much for you as reading up on your favorite subjects online in your spare time.

For-profit colleges are the free market response to creeping credentialism. Employers demand degrees for jobs that do not actually require a college degree to do. They make completing post-graduate coursework a requirement for advancement or pay raises (K-12 education is really big on this, hence grade school teachers are a booming market for online schools) even if that coursework is of low quality and does little to improve one's ability to do the job. The new economy is a buyer's market and employers use college degrees as a way to quickly whittle down mountains of applications into manageable piles. And for the un- or under-employed, paying for more school and more degrees is pitched as the obvious solution to their predicament by universities, employers, and the political system alike.

Academia as a whole should do a better job of being upfront and honest with potential students; for-profits are especially deceptive, though. It will be interesting to see in the next decade if this bubble bursts as potential students figure out just how little such degrees are worth on the job market. We already tacitly accept that an online degree program doesn't actually teach you anything, and this fact does not limit their appeal in some circles as long as they continue to be cheap, easy, and convenient. But if we add "worthless" to that equation, even a cheap online degree doesn't make much sense.

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BEDSIDE MANNERS

Posted in Rants on May 5th, 2014 by Ed

As a rule, if it gets published on a moderately popular website and has anything to do with academia I will see it a dozen times before 9 AM. This is a logical consequence of having so many teachers and academics in my social circle. Monday's have-you-seen-this piece appeared in Slate and asks whether academics need to be nicer to students. Well, the author puts it a bit differently – stressing "empathy" – but the bottom line is that we are talking about students getting less from college than they should because they find professors unapproachable, rude, or just so lacking in interpersonal skills that they are ineffective in the classroom.

My first reaction, as it is so often when I see these mass media "The problem with those damn ivory tower academics" pieces, was disdain. Students endlessly make excuses and showing empathy is a sign of weakness that they identify, target, and attack relentlessly. By far the least appealing part of the job, in my opinion, is dealing with the constant excuse-making. I try being empathetic, I really do, but unless I want to double my workload in any given semester it is necessary to be "mean." From the students' perspective, being mean refers to doing things like insisting that they show up to class, take the exams, and hand in un-plagiarized work on the assigned dates. I know, I know. I'm history's greatest monster.

Upon reflection, though, the article is not entirely misguided. A frank look at my colleagues past and present was enough to convince me that being approachable and having basic interpersonal skills are not essential preconditions to having a long career in academia. Lots of us are jerks. In fact there are so many jerks – and they are so prolific at jerkitude – that if we put every academic on a spectrum from Nice to Total Jerk, I would be closer to Nice. In other words, I'm surly and kind of a dick and I don't even count as a surly dick by academic standards. Rather than rejecting the argument out of hand, then, here are a few comments on the relevant points.

1. It is absolutely correct to state that academics are never taught how to teach. I began teaching – not as an assistant, but as a flying-solo fake professor – my third semester of grad school. The department's position was essentially, "You're tall and have a loud voice. Go do it. Good luck." The "training" consisted of a blow-off seminar taught by the tenured pariah of the department during the first year. This experience is not unique or exceptional; the next person I meet who says that they were well prepared for teaching will be the first. So yes, it might help if grad programs did something other than say, "There's the water, jump in and thrash around until you figure it out." But of course that won't happen, because…

2. There is almost no incentive whatsoever in the profession to maximize one's skills and performance as a teacher. Hiring is based on research, grant money, and publications. Promotion, tenure, and raises are based on research, grant money, and publications. Teaching, especially at research intensive universities, is essentially a giant distraction. The dominant strategy for anyone attempting to get tenure or move up in the profession is…well, to do what many of our students do: put in C+ effort and hopefully get B results. This conversation can't take place without admitting that the entire profession is set up to encourage us to do everything but spend more time on teaching.

3. Professors with tenure who consistently get awful evaluations from students should face some kind of consequences. Pile on the committee work until their jobs become miserable enough that they'll retire. God knows we have enough 70 year old deadwood preventing younger, better faculty from entering the profession.

4. A lot of us try. We really do. Some of us don't. It is problematic to proceed from the assumption that the students are all trying. Some of them are, some of them aren't. In the college setting, the students are adults and the onus is on them to be motivated and take initiative. If they want the professor's help, they need to ask the professor for help. If they ignore the professor's advice because it is not what they want to hear or it involves doing work, that is not our problem. Believe me, a lot of them don't get this no matter how obvious it seems to you.

5. If a professor is so personality deficient that he or she is unable to, and does not already, make simple calming small talk like "Oh I remember finals, they were the worst!" then I really do not think there is any hope for that person. They should be declared legally dead and transferred immediately to an administrative post. Something in the Provost's or Registrar's office would be ideal for their skill set.

In short, while personality is not overflowing in academia there is a danger in infantilizing our students even more than they already are. They are adults and they need to learn how to deal with, among other things, people in positions of authority who have shitty personalities. That's one skill they need to master before they start their first full time job.

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LEAST RESISTANCE

Posted in Rants on January 21st, 2014 by Ed

Like most universities, my campus was quite dead over the winter break. One of the few academic programs active between the semesters is a graduate program in computer science. It's not a huge program, as we are not a huge institution, but I saw its 20-25 students regularly. I'm not sure how to put this without sounding awkward, so I'll just say it: every student in the class appears to be south Asian (Indian, Pakistani, etc). English is clearly a second language for most or all.

Don't worry, I'm going somewhere with this.

Obviously there is no rule applied to the program that says "No American students allowed" or "White kids need not apply." The reason the program is composed differently than the student body as a whole is, in my opinion, simple: these classes are hard, and most students really don't like doing things that are difficult. This is, again in my opinion, one of the most persuasive explanations for why science, engineering, and technology programs are often made up largely of foreign students at U.S. universities. American and non-American students are both capable of doing the work; the question is who is willing to do the hard, time-consuming work of mastering really difficult subjects. American students as a whole are more interested in getting A's than in learning the most useful skill or picking the most lucrative major.

At a previous institution, we had a joke in the political science department whenever we would lose a major – "And another Marketing major is born!" Students leaving our major were inevitably transferring to Business, Marketing, Criminal Justice, or something with "Administration" in the name. They were choosing those majors not because they have a burning desire to learn about them. They chose them because those majors are easier. To clarify two things: First, there are students who take those majors very seriously and go on to great careers. Second, there are American students who work like sled dogs in college. But my own anecdata have convinced me that there's more to the popularity of these newer majors than legitimate interest.

The numbers don't lie: majors like business and CJ have increased in popularity four- and five-fold since 1970. Math and science majors have held steady, while humanities and social sciences have lost the most popularity. Part of this is no doubt due to the decline of liberal arts education in favor of a more "vocational" approach to higher ed. Majors like Business are perceived as more practical and useful. But students are very strategic when it comes to their grades; all they need to do is spend a few minutes online (or listening to the grapevine) to find out where the Easy A's are. At most universities you're not going to find them in Engineering.

I'll be the first to admit that a major like English or Poli Sci is objectively less difficult than mastering quantum physics, although the comparison is difficult because the skills involved are so different. However, English and Poli Sci both still involve a lot of work – lots of reading, lots of paper writing, and (usually) classes you need to attend to pass the course. Students have complained about their workload for as long as schools have existed, but I am continually amazed at how put off they are by the most basic course requirements these days. We have to read one chapter per week from the textbook? We have to write a ten page paper? No matter how little we ask, it always seems to be too much for some of them.

Everyone teacher has a pet theory about What's Wrong With Education and in most cases we're all too happy to share it. Many of them sound persuasive. But for all the complaints about No Child Left Behind and teacher's unions and standardized testing and whatnot, I can honestly say that I haven't encountered a student who was incapable of doing what was necessary to pass my course more than two or three times in nine years. And that's out of thousands of students. The problem in 99.9% of cases is the lack of willingness to work the amount necessary to get an A or B. There aren't many problems in college that can't be solved by spending more time reading, studying, and working with one's professors.

The prevailing attitude, increasingly, is "Screw it, I'll find some easier classes." Maybe this is the real consequence of NCLB, that it has made students outcome-obsessed to the point that they'd rather get a 3.7 GPA in Basketweaving than a 2.7 GPA in a six-figure major like Electrical Engineering. They seek out (and too easily find) courses that require little reading, post lecture materials online to make attendance all but unnecessary, and replace paper writing with various "projects" slapped together 12 hours before the due date. I don't mean to impugn the intellectual skills of anyone who majors in fields like Business; the issue is that students increasingly look toward majors like that because of the perceived level of difficulty in getting A/B grades, not because they want to learn anything or gain salable skills.

For all the talk among undergraduates about making good money and having a stable career, they certainly aren't flocking to the highest-paid and most employable majors. That is a symptom of the underlying issue – there is much more to it than a lack of interest in the subjects involved.

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