Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Riddle Me This: How is it Possible to Fail a Take Home Open Book Exam?

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...

Are things really this bad? And if so, what then of this country's future?


blaqbird said...

I wish I could give you a clear prediction of the future of this country, but I can tell you that one reason why students don't value education is because our government doesn't value education. Teachers are paid such a staggering low salary that many of them have to take up second jobs just to get by. When funds are cut, it's usually within the academic institutions. Then Arizona with their ridiculous ban of ethinic studies and Texas rewriting textbooks to make Americans appear "nicer" and more reader friendly (to non-people of color); it's just gotten out of control. What is to be done? The American people need to know that education is a top priority, and funds need to be directed into our education system.

Unknown said...

I'm come from open admissions land, and this article really annoyed me. Reeves is typical of many of my former colleagues. He doesn't understand why his students don't appreciate him. For Reeves, teaching is about him and his work, first, his students' work, second, and his students themselves, last.

I made a promise to myself long ago that I'd do anything to prevent my work and my self-worth to mess up my ability to work with students in classrooms. I've been teaching for ten years now. I left the states two years ago and am teaching public high school in Seoul, Korea. (I do miss the uni environment.) I can assure you that Korean students are just as irresponsible as American students. In fact, I teach in a poor district in Seoul. Many of my students will not even attempt to register for university. It's close to impossible to get these kids to want to work. You wouldn't likely blame me for disliking my task and being pessimistic about the future my students are likely to face. You might not get too mad at me for being frustrated and from time to time blaming my students and their families for their states of being.

However, teachers must learn to love their students regardless of how we feel about their work and lives. And Thomas Reeves hates his students. He refers to "proud ignorance" and uses it synonymously with anti-intellectual in a neat rhetorical move that blames the students.

Using the term "Proud Ignorance" is antithetical to being a good teacher. It does, on the other hand, fit rather well into the American tradition of crapping on the poor.

He writes, "Recently I offered extra credit for meaningful classroom discussion of the assigned material. Nothing happened. The students simply sat there, generally irritated by having to be there at all."

This is a rather profound confession. Reeves leaves everything up to the students. If we look at it objectively, who's to say that Reeves hasn't simply given up?

The intellectual quality of students is directly proportional to the quality of their discourse community. Who'd want to participate in this guy's class? It's obvious he doesn't understand his students.

He talks about them as if he's studied them. Check out his nonsense about an Internet requirement that he added because he surmised "young people spend a great deal of time at the computer." How's that for research! And, how old is this guy? What a crank.

I could go on. We do have a problem with anti-intellectualism in the US. But this is a cultural problem that extends back to Colonial times. It's a consistent (and, yes, worrisome) thread throughout American history. Reeves' alarmism is not surprising at all, I guess, if only because a quick search of scholarship about this problem illustrates just how many people write about it in a similar fashion.

The anti-intellectualism is his and it rests in his inability to innovate in his classroom. To rest the responsibility of class work and intellectual vigor on his young students' shoulders, is his mistake not theirs. On the other hand, this vision of teaching is rather Randian, as in Ayn Rand. It's rather Capitalistic. It's individualistic. It's the kind of gift a wealthy white teacher in a Horatio Alger story would give to a poor white student who was hungry and looking for knowledge. Conservatives used to call this self-reliance. Now they call it personal responsibility. And that is the source of the anti-intellectualism.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

My first semester teaching full time I assigned way too much reading and writing, a common rookie mistake. In the years since, however, I've realized that my high expectations pushed the students to try harder. I've decided to up my expectations next semester simply because I'm tired of letting the lowest common denominator decide everything.

Marianne said...

My 2 cents are that American students are very coddled when it comes to performance. At least that's what comes off through the media, and what I have noticed from my interactions with Americans.
I do agree partially with what Gary Norris said in the comment above, some teachers/professors do have a huge ego and don't make efforts to communicate better with their students. On the other hand, I don't think students should be allowed to negotiate too much what they will or will not learn based on whether things are interesting to them or not. A lot of the stuff people need to learn in order to get into a professional field is not interesting, is not engaging, is not glamorous. It's just stuff you need to learn because you need to. Some of my best teachers were tyrannic assholes who looked at us like we were worms. But if you call me now at 3am, after many years since I finished school, to ask me what I learned in their class, I can still tell you. We weren't that self-reliant or more responsible than today's generation of kids; but when you know that asshole fails 70% of his students regularly and won't let you get into your finals, you get off your ass and hit the books. The teachers who loved us were very popular, each class of graduates chose their "dean of heart", as we called it, but they weren't always the most efficient teachers. The most efficient were the ones who scared the shit out of us. This is just my experience, I know it may not apply to everyone. But we didn't have the choice to whine about it, it was work or fail.

Big Man said...

I hate dates too, and I probably lacked some of the knowledge he was looking for because I was one of those folks who only learned stuff to pass tests, not to retain knowledge for the longhaul. that is unless I was truly interested.
But, I think the biggest problem is good old-fashioned laziness. Of course, the laziness of today is coupled with a large sense of entitlement, which means people don't want to do any work, but want all the benefits.
This has gradually become the dominant mindset in our country, and it's sad.