Wednesday, November 4, 2015

That $200,000 Degree Comes Without a Warranty

            Even with 25 years of teaching experience, I have to undergo an audition of sorts with my undergraduate students.  Increasingly, I fail in the sense that I cannot motivate many to uphold their end of the bargain by showing up, staying on task, preparing for class and mastering basic concepts.

            I face a major personal and career quandary probably solved only if I can find an alternative to teaching undergrads.  Little makes sense these days.  I remain enthusiastic, young for my age and eager to share my research, insights and experience with students who have declared telecommunications as their undergraduate major.  Topics like an Internet of Things, 5G wireless, IPTV, Internet 2.0, television everywhere, etc. keep me engaged and intellectually curious.
            Most of my students don’t have a clue.  They operate under the mistaken assumption that professors should entertain in the mode of a talk show with little expectations and demands.  Instructors lose in the court of student opinion if they are too demanding, their courses too hard and their exams too tough.  Deviate from happy talk and students perceive professorial messages as both condescending and yelling.

            How did it get so bad?  For my part, I have seen a significant and accelerating decline in students’ command of the spoken and written word, even as they have quite high opinions of themselves and an elevated sense of what entry level job is appropriate. 

            Set out below are the top ten disconnects in my world.

1)         Professors are human.  I don’t think many students appreciate how much it hurts when they don’t attend classes, fall asleep, decide not to take any notes and spend most of their time texting and interacting with the Internet cloud via their smartphones.  Most professors—apparently until their reach my age—could have generated higher earnings in the so-called real world.  They consciously chose to teach.
            On a good day, I consider student distraction, if not disinterest, as part of the gig which requires regular servings of humble pie.  On a bad day, I feel humiliation and dismay.  The educational process requires work on both sides.  I try to make my courses engaging and helpful, but I cannot make them an entertainment vehicle.

2)         We know how to teach.  Student regularly blame instructors for any performance shortcoming, but realistically most teachers have ascended the learning curve and achieved competency after 5 or so years.  The promotion and tenure process, as well as regular teaching evaluations by peers confirms that poor teachers either wash out, or understand the lack of fit in the classroom.
3)         We want students to succeed.  While I like the band Pink Floyd, I don’t see much “dark sarcasm in the classroom.”  I am self-effacing, over the top with enthusiasm and keenly aware of the trust in me placed by tuition underwriters.  I teach in a College of Communications where most students do not pursue graduate school.  I understand and embrace the mission of preparing students for immediate employment.

4)         Students cannot multi-task.  I will never convince any student that multi-tasking results in poor performance of the two or more activities attempted at the same time.  If students think they can text and drive at the same time, they surely think they can text and learn at the same time. 
5)         Few understand the unconditional need to take notes, preferably by hand.  In the last few years, many students have given up taking notes in class. They consider instructor power point slides sufficient, or they think they can do without any record.  As innervating as it can be, note taking requires students to synthesize and process the conversation.  Studies confirm note taking by hand improves student comprehension far better than typing into a laptop.

6)         Student performance follows a curve.  Students have grown to expect high grades and a curve to make their performance better than any raw test score.  We have a toxic combination of grade inflation and inflated student grade expectations.  With every Millennial student getting a medal for showing up at any competition, they expect similar accolades in class, despite the fact that performance falls along a curve.
7)         When students’ performance lags, they attribute it to external factors.  Some of the worst student performances on tests I prepare range close to random selection, i.e., 25% on a multiple choice test with four answer options.  When confronted with an absolutely awful test score, many simply attribute it to a test, or class that is “too hard.”  How then could anyone score an uncurved A in my classes?  At Penn State, where I teach, the range of student caliber ranges from kids who could not afford to go to Harvard, but got admitted, to folks simply here to pickle their livers.

8)         90% of life is showing up.  Parents and other tuition underwriters do not know how often students blow off classes.  I try to qualify the mistake in practical terms: every hour of in-class instruction at Penn State costs about 8 cases of beer.  I also offer this baseball analogy: “Life is like baseball.  You win some; you lose some; some get rained out.  But you have to dress for every game.”
9)         Professors hate it when students whine and grade grub.  Professors have had to dumb down courses and lower their expectations.  Despite these adjustments, students regularly complain when they don’t receive the grade they expected.  Gen Xers pretty much accepted a C when they didn’t make an effort in class, but today’s students often expect an A with little effort.  Should a professor impose demands and rigor, she will trigger negative comments in student evaluations which administrators may use as evidence of inferior teaching.

10)       Professors lose enthusiasm and hope when students don’t uphold their end of the bargain.  Instructors do not want to bore students, or themselves.  When a majority of the class has their heads down in rapt smartphone attention, professors wonder if teaching is nothing more than a job, as opposed to a career, or calling.
             My 25 year teaching career has arrived at a point where I wonder whether I am wasting my limited time on earth.  Dear reader, please offer advice and alternative career/job leads!


Andy said...

Thanks. You are touching on the underlying role that an education plays. To paraphrase what an economist might say, each transaction needs a willing buyer and a willing seller, but without both nothing happens. In the learning process the student and the teacher take on both roles.

As someone who’s been in the sector for over 35 years and has worked all over the world, let me add to your truisms, which are realistically painful.
- As a student, if you think the university is difficult or unfair, the world after is more of both by many a quantum.
- In the communications sector, be it telecoms, broadcasting or information, your reading & comprehending load is huge, and one needs to learn how to manage time; best to start understanding how now. Absorbing these roots of change will be your only way to keep up; otherwise you fall away. [a point: 90% of the world’s information has been created in the last two years.]
- Much has been written that, while the US holds great opportunity, the rest of the world has caught up and is well past us; we just haven’t figured it out yet – part of our insular culture. Look no further than various countries in Asia. Learning while you have the opportunity and time may be your last chance.
- Studying at University will be the most selfish period of a student’s life – you only have to be concerned about one person. Period. Make the most of it – you will NEVER, please trust me, NEVER get that chance again.
- Grades mean squat in your life after the Univ.; results mean everything. Grades are a small measure to determine if you know how to get results.
- There is no such thing as too much education.

Ben Cramer said...

I've been doing this for a lot less time than you guys, but even I have noticed this stuff on the increase. I have had a student say "I studied so I should have gotten an A." Another threatened to report me to the Dean because a test was "unfair" (a.k.a. "difficult"). That threat would have gone nowhere with the Dean but it still illustrates the attitude of students who have an unhealthy outlook on working for results.

Depending on how long you'll still be around, you could possibly wait for this generational effect to fizzle out. The current generation of students have been protected from every possible challenge by their parents, because challenges hurt their feelings. For the 100+ students in my big telecom regulation class, not a single one of them has to pay their own phone bill. And I bet few of them have to pay their own rent either. Parents protect them from the horrors of actually earning money and paying for stuff that you can afford.

And thanks to modern technology, their method of resolving conflicts is to yell about it online where there are no repercussions, and then you can say the problem is solved when you get some Likes on your post. You can see this in the current "safe space" controversy at certain campuses. But I believe that this is a generational process that will shift... EVENTUALLY.

I have a friend who recently retired from about 30 years of teaching in Arts & Architecture at PSU. He says that at a public university like ours, the top 20% of students are equal to the best that you will see at the top universities. Focusing on them can help you experience the rewards of teaching, though we do have the disadvantage of needing to manage mediocrity.

chris said...

It's not much better in the UK - but I do insist that students switch off their phones in lectures and classes. That said, they can browse Facebook etc. on their tablets/laptops so not much better.
I have yet to solve the problem that they won't take handwritten notes (and nor do I so I feel little moral case to insist).
But Rob, you are an excellent lecturer and teacher - I should know, you've been teaching me at TPRC for nigh on twenty years!

Unknown said...

Andy -- grades are the results in Universities. Grades are a signal that distinguish otherwise indistinguishable degree recipients for an employer.

Ben -- this generation of students will be burdened with the debt of college their entire lives if we do not change something. Massive administrative overhead and spiraling athletic salaries give the students a sense of entitlement. They are paying through the nose. Coddled? Entitled? What about the men in college pre-1970 when they were protected from the voices and competition of women, men of color, and religion was subject to quotes.

Rob - on taking notes. I could not agree more. I loath power point as a primary teaching medium. To the extent that it allows more content, yes it is great. I have that complaint every single class, Use power point! Give us your slides!". I ask them if they think their boss will use power point when assigning them a task. When have they ever seen power point in a real world situation?