Monday, March 9, 2009

College, End of Quarter/Semester Evaluation Season Potpourri--Welcome to a World where Feelings Trump Empiricism, Critical Thinking, and Fact Finding

I am working on (what I think is shaping up to be) a "classic" ghetto nerds review of the Watchmen.

Until then, I have been sitting on these links about the state of higher education, undergraduate teaching, and the depressing state of the academic job market. If anyone wants to commiserate, by all means chime in. We haven't directly broached these topics before on the site, but they seemed timely given some of the conversations I have had with friends and colleagues these last few days.

My personal entry point into this conversation--or the straw that broke the camel's back--has been the following situation: have you ever had a student who is utterly impervious to critical engagement? In fact, so difficult that they make you--and all the other students around them--feel like you, the professor/teacher are in fact the crazy one? That is so incapable of critical or reflective thinking, all you can do is look at your watch to pass the time while they struggle to give voice to their muddled thoughts?

For those of us who teach classes that are rooted in issues of identity (sexuality; race; gender; class...) this can be even more vexing and challenging as some students are looking for self-validation and therapy through their coursework, when you the teacher are not equipped to, nor will allow, class to become an "I feel X so it must be true" party.

Don't be mistaken, I have some really good students, students that really want to grapple with and think about these difficult issues. But, the others are wearing a brother out.

Final thought, for those of you in the academy, as a respectable negro I am still taken aback when it seems that the students most resistant to critical engagement, especially on matters of race and racial inequality, are students of color--black students in particular. There I said it. And it felt good.

Am I just having a respectable negro moment of exhaustion? Or is there something to my instinct that this generation of young "race men and race women" do not see their education as a political act? Thus, not having a sense of being in "the struggle?" By extension, these young black and brown students do not have a sense of obligation to, nor are they happy to see someone who looks like them (and is invested in their success) in front of the seminar room?

Maybe I am getting old, but I was grateful for my professors who really demanded the best out of me and held me to a higher standard.

They say the Irish are impervious to psychoanalysis. Could it be that this generation of coddled, helicopter parented, "I'm unique and special," undergraduates are impervious to critical thinking?

To the articles--

1. From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Horowitz at Emory

David Horowitz gave a speech at Emory this week, and he lived up to the advance billing posted here. It was a provocative, in-your-face lecture, and he railed against Islamic radicalism, Jimmy Carter, liberal professors, and Arab anti-Semitism.

There were no disruptions this time, no protests. But the evening turned out to be an utter disappointment. While Horowitz was pointed and passionate, the audience response was feeble and flat. Nearly every questioner opposed the speaker, but their opposition came down to one repeated phrase: “I’m offended.” They felt that Horowitz insulted their religion, their politics, their ethnicity, and they told him so — earnestly and courageously.

But they didn’t say much more...the article continues here.

2. I am affixing this article to my syllabi next quarter. From the NY Times:

Student Expectations Seen as Causing Grade Disputes

Prof. Marshall Grossman has come to expect complaints whenever he returns graded papers in his English classes at the University of Maryland.

“Many students come in with the conviction that they’ve worked hard and deserve a higher mark,” Professor Grossman said. “Some assert that they have never gotten a grade as low as this before.”

He attributes those complaints to his students’ sense of entitlement.

“I tell my classes that if they just do what they are supposed to do and meet the standard requirements, that they will earn a C,” he said. “That is the default grade. They see the default grade as an A.”

The piece continues here.

3. You all know my feelings on this one. Also from the NY Times:

Doctoral Candidates Anticipate Hard Times

Chris Pieper began looking for an academic job in sociology about six months ago, sending off about two dozen application packets. The results so far? Two telephone interviews, and no employment offers.

“About half of all the rejection letters I’ve received mentioned the poor economy as contributing to their decision,” said Mr. Pieper, 34, who is getting his doctorate from the University of Texas, Austin. “Some simply canceled the search because they found the funding for the position didn’t come through. Others changed their tenure-track jobs to adjunct or instructor positions.”

“Many of the universities I applied to received more than 300 applications,” he added.

Mr. Pieper is not alone. Fulltime faculty jobs have not been easy to come by in recent decades, but this year the new crop of Ph.D. candidates is finding the prospects worse than ever. Public universities are bracing for severe cuts as state legislatures grapple with yawning deficits. At the same time, even the wealthiest private colleges have seen their endowments sink and donations slacken since the financial crisis. So a chill has set in at many higher education institutions, where partial or full-fledge hiring freezes have been imposed.

A survey by the American Historical Association, for example, found that the number of history departments recruiting new professors this year is down 15 percent, while the American Mathematical Association’s largest list of job postings has dropped more than 25 percent from last year...

The piece continues here.


Anonymous said...

I am a professor, graduate level. I can tell you that it isn't you; it's THEM. How do I know? Because I'm so TIRED of leaving classes where I cannot even BEGIN teaching because of lack of preparation, self-indulgent/reverential emotionalism, and utter dearth of critical thinking. I am starting to look away from this profession, as it doesn't look promising. Of my peers? No one wants to speak of it the way I'd like to; everyone I know is so attached to the summer breaks, schedule flexibility, and lower level energy required. But, I don't like laziness; I LOATHE it. And too, too many of my students are LAZY. Their laziness is making me loathe THEM. There, I said it! 10 years ago, I had the best student ever; 7 years ago, I had a delightful little cluster. One year ago, I had 1. Just like "good cops," the bad apples are spoiling the whole bunch for this prof. I want out more and more each day. Thanks for reminding me that I have a cover letter to write and send.

Anonymous said...

Their education a political act??! HA! Their education is their right and they see no reason to be anything other than utterly ungrateful re: it. Only my students from the continent of Africa and some of the more impoverished south Asian parts of the world seem to regard their education as a political act. They come to the States, get schooled, and return to improve their countries. Some of my European bloc students work incredibly hard; however, their education is about their excellence. NOT a bad alternative to the political act motivation, I might add. The homegrown USAs of all stripes (including the mythologized model minority Asians, two of whom I had to flunk last semester in LAW SCHOOL)? Increasingly the laziest, superior-without-justification group of assholes I've ever encountered. It's them; not you. It's them; not us. I even cringe at this statement, as I don't brook excuses in my personal life or finger-pointing. But, sorry; sometimes it's just TRUE.

MultiTodd said...

Is this the place to commiserate?

I'm a history doctoral candidate who was planning to go on the market next year. This year, job interviews at the American Historical Association conference were down 40%. Next year will likely be worse.

I'm extremely lucky that I have some virtually-guaranteed funding for the next year, but after that...

Al From Bay Shore said...

My friends in the hallowed halls of academia, here is a voice from the other side: middle school and high school. Listen up! You have to change the educational system, in fact we have to go back. Right now, public education is a muddled soup of feel good curricula (self esteem garbage), psychobabble (ie. cooperative learning), and a prevailing perception that all students need to do is show up and get their "A". We need to truly get back to basics. For starters, trim back the curriculum to include only a few subjects to encourage the ability to think deeply about a subject. Stop this madness about giving 3 hrs of homework every night - this only makes it difficult for teachers to accurately grade homework assignments. What ends up happening is that students get an A (full credit) for merely turning in an assignment. As a result, inferior work recieves the same grade as superior work.

Now for the curriculum: The principle is quite simple - KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). I am a huge proponent of a literacy based curriculum that stresses the ability to think critically - a classical education (Latin & Greek, Logic, Rhetoric, and the study of classical civilizations - Greece and Rome). In doing this, they will improve their command of English grammar, English vocabulary, learn the steps needed to draw conclusions and formulate arguments, and identify basic concepts and practices expressed throughout world history.

The public school system has become a cesspool of flavor of the month instructional methodologies. The reason for this is the prevalence of unsuccessful and frustrated artists, college professor wannabes, and classroom teachers who could not hack it in the classroom who have risen to the ranks of public school administrators and policy makers. They seem to believe that school is the place to re-engineer society rather than to teach people how to be disciplined, speak properly, and be rational.

Isaac said...

<--(echoing al from the bay)

Our public school system is outdated. The world has changed and our knowledge about how learning happens has changed and yet our educational system hasnt changed since the little rock 9.

in addition we (as black people)have push education as a priority. And begin to challege our young ones early and often.

Al From Bay Shore said...


I wouldn't describe education as outdated. I would describe its problems as being caused by a lack of focus that results from indulging in the latest instructional fads. The educational model I described in my first post is roughly 500 years old, if not older. I like this model because it teaches people how to reason, cultivates mental discipline, and builds basic literacy skills (grammar, vocabulary, and persuasive speaking).

I've never been a fan of "computers in the classroom". This is essentially another instructional fad. There is something to be said for using an old fashioned card catalog rather than a search engine that takes you to wikipedia in hopes that wikipedia will lead you to a more credible source. Also, word processing programs are inferior to writing in longhand. Writing in longhand allows one to brainstorm. Word processing programs encourge editing while writing and that is poisonous to the creative process.

I once heard the following: If I had a choice between Hippocrates, the ancient physician or a doctor of today with his latest advances and techniques, I'll take the latter. If faced with a choice between Socrates or a teacher with all the latest advances and instructional methods, I'd take Socrates.

Anonymous said...

i, too, see education as a political act.

i agree whole-heartedly with the merits of a literacy-based education that encourages critical thinking, though i think that limiting such education to the "classics" (latin and greek based) can be problematic. i'm not suggesting that we should throw out the old dead white guys, but i am quite sure that there are many other places to draw knowledge from.

also, math education needs a real overhaul. too few people possess a sense of efficacy regarding math. too few teachers are adept at teaching math in ways that students can understand. which is not to say that some students aren't lazy, but that ineffective, unclear teaching has a dampening effect on students' ability to learn. i know; i did terrible in math during middle and high school. not only because my teachers were shitty--i was dealing with lots of issues--but because only two teachers in all my years of public school education were able to explain the concepts and ideas in ways that i could understand. now, as an adult, i realize i'm actually really good at math, and i love it--i'm even going to be a math teacher. but i spent most of my life sure that i couldn't learn math, because the methods used didn't make sense. the overabundance of technology in the classroom is something i see with math alot, too, and it inhibits folx' ability to do mental calculations and operations, which negatively affects their math understanding.

i think the right balance of the foregoing (strong focus on math and literacy skills) and how to be a human being (which involves emotions, inter- and intrapersonal relationships, music, art, and the like) is ideal.

i agree that the state of our public school system is definitely a contributing factor. but, in order to look at this, i think it's important to remember that, from it's inception, the objective of the free public education system was not to train leaders and thinkers, but workers and drones. thomas jefferson and woodrow wilson, two estimable figures that folx like to trot out to show how long the u.s. has been committed to public education, both state pretty clearly that education is to prepare some to rule, and some to be ruled.

critical thinking skills don't necessarily make good consumers, and the u.s. social climate really values good consumers.

i have always been a critical thinker, and my public school experience did not encourage it. i asked too many too-pointed questions, raised too many concerns. and let me assure you, in virginia where i grew up, there wasn't any 'cooperative learning' or 'feel-good garbage'.

as a future public schoool teacher, i have some serious critiques of both public schools, and public school teachers. why should students be expected to use what friere called the banking system of education? why should they be told that knowledge is something that you acquire, not something that you have or help to create? does acknowledging that all students have value, and encouraging them to understand that, and use their values and passions and lives to be agents in their world= self-esteem garbage?
and don't even get me started on what kinds of intelligence the us privileges and how that negatively impacts our utilization of human resources.....

long story short: garbage in, garbage out. as a socity, we don't value critical thinking in all people, we don't prepare our kids to be critical thinkers, and then we wonder why they don't think critically.


Jenjuli Art said...

Chauncey, I'm sorry. Collectively as classes we could see it happening but refuse to change because it's easier to not. I know I for one refuse to engage in classroom settings. It's not that I don't want to have those types of conversations, it's simply that I want to have them with people of my choosing and on my own time.

Its often expected of us at school that we'll engage in conversations where we'll discuss sensitive topics, hear different view points and take away life lessons. Consequently, classes and presentations all seem to try and create that conducive conversational atmosphere ad nauseam. What then happens is that the "diversity" is prodded for commentary and left exhausted. As a result we've learned to stay quiet for as long as possible, I generally don't speak in class unless I have something I feel needs to be addressed that hasn't been.

As for you being invested in our success; I can say I appreciate it, but it's not always the case. My first year in college I had a Hispanic professor who refused to acknowledge the good work done by Hispanic students, myself included, because he didn't want it to seem he was favoring us for being Hispanic. What resulted were feelings of alienation because we were basically ignored. On the other end, trying to force students of color to speak their minds when they don't want to results in feeling picked on because we're different. Maybe it's the ratio of white students to students of color, but it really seems to be a no win situation. Sorry for being so difficult.