Thursday, February 10, 2011

At C

I'm approaching the end of a term. Just one more week, and I have many students in my upper-level classes who have not turned in work. Major assignments, minor assignments. Some are brilliant when they participate in discussion, but it seems they can't get around to the written comments which make up 35% of the grade. When the students in question are math majors, engineering majors, physics majors...failing to understand numerically how that will affect their grade is not possible.

One of the classes I'm teaching now I haven't taught since 2005. Some reading materials which students found a reasonable challenge 6 years ago now completely stump a significant portion of the class. They don't even attempt the reading. Not to mention that more than one can't read cursive, so how are they getting the notes I write on the board?

Have standards at my university changed in only 6 years?
Is there something unusual about how or why students enrolled in this particular class?
Is there a larger pattern?

The book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roska has been getting some attention and does point to a larger, even national, pattern.

From an interview with Salon:
Fifty percent of the kids in a typical semester say they haven't taken a single course where they've been asked to write 20 pages over the course of the semester. And 32 percent have not taken a single class the prior semester for which they've been asked to read more than 40 pages per week on average, and in terms of homework, 35 percent of them say they do five or fewer hours per week studying alone.
OK, guilty as charged. In one class I'm requiring students to write over 20 pages but most are coming in far below the expectations I expressed--both in terms of quality and quantity. In the other class, I'm only requiring about 15 pages of writing. Both classes have over 30 students. I think I spend too much time on grading. My students tell me I require more writing than many of my colleagues--particularly those in other liberal arts disciplines. I believe them. Because if they were practicing writing regularly they'd be better at it than they are.

So here's the bind. My colleagues are requiring less work. My students are expecting to do less work. I want to set them tasks which are challenging but possible. And the bar for what is possible falls a little every year. We are stuck in a pattern of decline, and it seems to be a problem of collective action. No one is positioned to make a change without paying a cost.

More from the Salon interview:
There's a longstanding tradition of some students going through college with little asked of them and little learned. Nothing is new about that. However, there is significant evidence out there that something has changed in terms of the academic rigor and student workload.... Full-time college students spend 50 percent less time studying than they did several decades ago. We also know that in terms of grades, students expect to receive higher grades and do receive higher grades in spite of less effort.
Philosophers are surely as much a part of this drift as other disciplines. The book reports that 45% of the students followed in the study (at a wide variety of campuses) failed to progress in developing critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills in their first two years. That's our department, no? Not just us, but we surely play a central role.

It's possible that one of the things to blame is something I love dearly: academic freedom. No one tells me what or how to teach, and I take the responsibility to teach well seriously. But with no one looking, it is all too easy for some of us to slide a lot and all of us to slide a little.


Noumena said...

Do you know Janet Stemwedel? I suspect academic freedom is less to blame -- at least, throughout academia in the US -- than something she's been blogging about quite a bit over the last couple years: the increasing teaching demands placed on faculty and the limited increases (or, in some cases, decreases) in the resources given them/us to meet those demands. Less abstractly, she has to teach many more students now than even just a few years ago, but doesn't have the benefit of a grader. As a result, she spends crushing amounts of time working through piles of grading. Obviously there's immense temptation to just assign less work and give the students just a grade rather than comments.

While Janet's been writing about this sort of thing in the wake of funding cuts to the Cal State University system over the last few years, I'd suggest it's been happening gradually over the last few decades: there are massively more undergraduates now than 20 or 40 years ago, and they are much more likely to be taught by harried graduate students and adjuncts. In addition, I understand that there's been a cultural shift among academics over the same period of time: where, 40 years ago, (tenured!) teachers at liberal arts and state colleges might have published just a handful of papers over their entire careers, today, grad students are encouraged to get a couple publications before their dissertation is finished and usually several publications (in good-to-excellent journals) are required for granting tenure. Teaching has become something we have to fit into our schedules, not our primary occupation.

Evelyn Brister said...

Absolutely, you hit the nail on the head.

"Academic freedom" means lots of things, and I use it here in its most broad meaning to indicate that there seems to be a tacit agreement that we as individuals are the ones who decide how to distribute our personal resources, even as the demands grow higher. Folks are checking to make sure I publish a paper every year, but no one has ever asked me how many pages of writing or reading I require of my students, what texts I use, the content of my courses, or accountability for what or how well they learn. (And 5-question numerical evaluations along the lines of "Did you like this professor?" certainly don't capture quality of education!)

Indeed, it's well known that a number of professors in my college-not only adjuncts and visitors-assign only grades of A. That's certainly ONE way of simplifying one's work.

I think these increasing pressures must work differently at different institutions, and the way they work at mine is that the number of students in our classes goes up and the expectations for research go up and the expectations for service go up, too (at least temporarily as we convert from quarters to semesters) but without the assistance of graders, TA's, course releases, or even secretarial assistance.

The tenured--at least the ones who don't enjoy research--can relieve the pressure by not writing. The untenured find other ways, and there is a tacit understanding--because our supervisors are academics and humans, too--that there will be less attention to teaching. A gradual loosening of standards serves everyone's interests, at least right now.

Janet has done a marvelous job of continuing to examine the implications of increasing workloads with no increase in support or resources. It makes me sad when she has to drop her blogging as a result--so-called 'non-academic' writing is one of those valuable contributions which gets too little recognition.