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.