Breaking kayfabe once more. For folks in academia summer is a time to catch up on one's own work that has been neglected throughout the prior nine months. I have a major project to finish (THE major project for those in the know...30ish more pages, please send me luck). Yet for reasons both financial and practical, I decided to teach a 4 week intensive summer course. For the most part the students are a good, likeable lot. As is common to summer courses some are there because they are especially motivated. Others are enrolled because they guessed that the summer version of a given course will be easier than its traditional quarter/semester/trimester companion.
I am a reasonable guy and thus split the difference. In four weeks I cannot assign the same amount of work as I would in a traditional class. But, I can hold you accountable for what you do read and will hopefully find a way to present it in an interesting way that will hold your attention--thus discussion, mixed with documentaries, small group work and simulations. As the cherry on top of this delightful dish, I even offered a take home, open book midterm that was due 48 hours after it was assigned...a proverbial gift presented on a gold infused platter.
Pray tell you ask, "how many students passed the exam? Most must have surely gotten an A!" You would be mistaken my friends. Out of some twenty students the average grade was a low C or D with a few F's for good measure. The good students did great and "knicked it out of the box." The other students floundered. In keeping with my being some sort of empiricist, when I see the unpredictable I try to do a little research and make sense of the world. Here, I decided to use these Internets for something productive: What do educational journals, The Chronicle, and the like say about student performance and take home exams?
Unfortunately, the conclusions were scattered and unconvincing. But, I then stumbled upon this gem of an essay by Thomas Reeves on the History News Network. Although it does not directly address the mysteries of how and why students fail a comparatively easy task, the piece does give us some context for how college and university life is changing at the nadir of the American empire. While the author's lamentations are from the hinterlands of academic Siberia (his words, not mine), my gut tells me that his observations about anti-intellectualism in American life rings true across the land...and not just in higher ed.
Some choice excerpts from My Experience Teaching Apathetic Students at a School with Open Admissions:
What I have seen going on in the world of open admissions education I call "The Classroom Game." Since I teach two introductory survey courses every semester in American history, let me begin there.
One quickly learns that the young people signed up for 101 and 102 (the chronological break between the courses at Parkside is 1877) know virtually nothing about the history of their own nation. They have no grasp of colonial America (I've been asked, "Is the seventeenth century the 1700s?") or the nation's constitutional machinery. All religion baffles them (no doubt a tribute to the secularism dominant in modern public schools), all intellectual history eludes them, and politics bores them. Even after instruction, they often confuse World War I and World War II. All the presidents before Clinton are a blur; Franklin D. Roosevelt sometimes shows up on exams in the Gilded Age and U.S. Grant in the twentieth century. Almost all of the students simply refuse to memorize the Chief Executives in their proper chronological order. In fact, they choose to ignore dates of any kind; written exams rarely contain any. More than one student has told me frankly, "I don't do dates."
This proud ignorance rests on a seemingly invincible anti-intellectualism. The blue collar families from which the Parkside students normally come do not stress reading, and the students are generally first generation college. (I can empathize, as I was the first in my family's history to graduate from high school.) These amiable, polite, almost invariably likeable young people read little or nothing. In a class of 50, not more than one or two read a newspaper daily; what tiny grasp they have of current events comes from television news. Reading books and magazines outside the classroom is not something they would even consider doing. In short, they have no intellectual life and see no need for one. They can talk about several things, including their jobs, television, sports, and Rock, but they are often baffled and sometimes irritated to hear from their professor that there is more to life. If that "more" requires reading, they aren't interested.
On the first day of class, you learn that only a minority of the students has purchased the textbook. The others have either not gotten around to it (a few never do) or are waiting until they size up the professor. If he or she seems demanding, some make a hasty exit...