Award Winning Blog

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!