Students and teachers in crisis; or, information age, my butt.

26 October 2013

I have spent the last week feeling rage at both my students and the current system of higher education.

It springs from the assignment. I asked my students to use online sources for their research — library catalogues, databases — to locate scholarly information and learn how to create a bibliography. One aspect of the assignment asked them to show that they understood the difference between how to cite a book in a footnote, and how to cite it in a bibliography or “works cited” page. In anticipation of the assignment, I showed them essentially how to find the answers to every question.

Everything went wrong. Only about 20% used the right online sources to answer questions. No one understands how to cite anything, despite all the information I provided. Some of them cited radically incorrect material, like novels or advertisements. After grading 15 of these, the highest grade was a 67.

To be fair, many of them use the term novel to describe everything — scholarly books, journal articles, memoirs — even though I’ve told them this is incorrect. I tried to teach them the word monograph to describe focused scholarly books, so 50% of my students now refer to them as monograms.

This is so frustrating for me, perhaps because I want to believe my students might actually be better at locating online information than I am. “Are they just stupid?” I spluttered at my colleague on Thursday, using a term I strongly dislike and almost never use except when referring to members of Congress.

But of course the true reason I’m so frustrated is because they didn’t pay attention while I tried to teach them to fish, and because I’m so goddamn tired.

My frustration is unfounded, because even if my students might be good at this kind of quest, they’re just goddamn exhausted. Many of them work at least 40 hours a week at the same time that they take 5 or more classes. One student — a highly capable guy in his 30s who has returned to complete his degree because he has discovered that his true calling is to become a high school teacher — got teary-eyed in my office this week telling me that he can’t handle the pressures of work and school, plus the family crises that have plagued the past few months.

Another woman told me that her boss has decided to stop allowing full-time student employees to adjust their schedules around their school schedules. So unless she wants to lose her job (and not pay her rent), my student has to skip classes to show up to be a hostess at a restaurant.

This is a crisis, folks. And it’s a direct parallel to what is now facing our government. My students have high tuition rates and extremely low financial aid of any kind, which necessitates all the part-time jobs. They cannot succeed in college if they work that much. Which means that they are being starved of a respectable education, only to receive the halfhearted one they can fit in between work schedules.

And meanwhile us college professors are left wondering what this means for us. Do we lower our expectations? We get told all the time to liven up our teaching, to make it more interactive and more dynamic, but the problem is not that we are tedious bores.

The problem is that our students are starving, and that we are being asked to ignore it — or to adjust our expectations, given the fact that they’re starving. At the same time, our universities ask us to do more with less — faculty is getting starved, too. And I’m one of the lucky ones, with a secure, tenure-line job, benefits, retirement program, etc.

I’m so goddamn tired.

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5 Responses to “Students and teachers in crisis; or, information age, my butt.”

  1. Marissa Says:

    Your post just made me feel loads better. I teach 9th grade English and just got done teaching my students how create a works cited page. Except that most of them did not listen when I walked them through *exactly* how to do it–twice–complete with projecting it on the board as I typed it up and giving them handouts detailing the step-by-step process as well as loads of examples. So most of them failed the assignment. Sigh.

    • Didion Says:

      And what does it say about us that we feel relieved to learn that other students are just as spaced out? I guess we know it’s not us.

      I have some thoughts about how to do this next time — i.e., take them to one of the computer labs on campus and have them do exercises in class, and then follow up with showing them how to find the right answers. Of course, then they might simply dick around online….

    • eteokretan Says:

      Your comment (which I didn’t see until I’d made my comment below) made me rethink what I’d written. I didn’t mean to put so much of the blame on teachers. I didn’t think it though thoroughly. I had the image in my mind of Didion’s well-meaning mature student who is utterly overwhelmed–and didn’t think farther than the possibility of a good student who is lost. And I think partly it’s because I just hate to even think about lazy students who refuse to learn anything. It’s just too depressing. But I teach part-time, so I know how much students can ignore or simply refuse to follow the most basic instructions. One student once told me that for an assignment in one of his high school English classes he was supposed to submit 3×5 notecards with the details of every source he cited. He thought this was a waste of time, so he didn’t. And he got an F. I couldn’t tell if he was bragging or complaining or expressing a lesson learned. Either way, his expression told me he still thought it was a waste of time.

      Sigh.

  2. eteokretan Says:

    I second your exhaustion, though mine does not have the intensity of teaching exhaustion (which is an exhaustion beyond exhaustion).

    Your poor students, and you. It seems most of them have been screwed by the system on multiple levels. They should have been taught a lot of this stuff before, but it’s likely their earlier teachers/professors were also so exhausted they just couldn’t do it properly (or they were just bad teachers). So it’s been dumped on you to fix everything, and your students are left realizing they ought to know a bunch of stuff they don’t (a horrible feeling).

    And then there’s the money. I keep reading reports about how poverty and money struggles affect you. Beyond the exhaustion of constantly working just to keep your head above water, the stress of financial worries just eats into you.

    • Didion Says:

      The situation is dire.

      And of course I do have a few of those upper-middle class students whose parents are covering most of the gap between tuition and financial aid — students who always buy the books and stay on top of things. It’s a situation that again rewards the wealthy and punishes the poor with increased stress.

      That’s another thing my mature student told me last week: that he hadn’t bought the book for our class, so he was too ashamed to come to class and reveal his ignorance. Ahhh! vicious circle.


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