Monday, September 22, 2014

Guest Post: Educator Speaks

Today's regular programming is interrupted by a pop-up post from a guest author. While you may read this and think "that's my kid they're dissin'" we assure you that any resemblance to any child, genius or idiot, is purely coincidental. Without further ado... 

I'm in the middle of a culture shock.

My previous institution was a very large public state school. 40,000-45,000 students. It was a decent school despite a decent party reputation. You'd have the gamut of students: jocks trying to stay academically eligible (which was sometimes a challenge…for them and for their instructors), Greeks bearing zero gifts, first-generation college students, and the brainiacs trying to save money going to the in-state school for undergrad (knowing full well their grad school would leave them up to their eyeballs in debt).

My current institution is less than 5% of the size of the last place. Private. "Highly selective". It has graduated dozens (in the plural) of Rhodes scholars. At the first faculty meeting, I learned the lower quartile of incoming freshmen "only" scored around a 1300 on the SAT math+verbal. One year of tuition, board and room is 20% more than my pre-tax annual salary. The student union has two grand pianos, but only one TV.

Which university, do you think, would create a more enjoyable teaching experience for a professor?

I was surprised by the answer.

There are a few problems in teaching students who lie in the intersection of "highly intelligent" and "very wealthy". In no particular order:
  • These students would not have been offered entrance if they weren't "complete packages". They are very sharp and very hard-working; they've traveled the world, speak multiple languages, play musical instruments or "sports" (the quotation mark is to indicate the athletes are more in the golf and lacrosse leagues than baseball and football). They were--without having to do more work than they were trained to do--the best at everything they ever attempted. And--by sheer numbers alone--that can no longer be the case. Put 2000 people used to being in the top five on one campus, and the nuts are off the buggy.

  • Some kids take this really well. By some, I mean about 20%. They adjust, learn to take constructive criticism, and have a cheery attitude. And given their natural intelligence and work ethic, that makes them ideal students. Seriously, you couldn't ask for more, and they are the students you rarely see at larger schools (again, just by sheer numbers). But then there are those who internalize every point deducted. They've been perfect their whole lives and now they aren't; they become depressed, stressed, and hyperactive. They are the reasons why every stall in every women's restroom on campus has a flier about bulimia. As an instructor, you feel guilty because you know that it's your assessment of their understanding that is making them "lose it" (for lack of a better term); however, you know that your assessment is correct and so you really just feel sad for these kids. I'm guessing about 30-35% of the student body's in this category. The last category, and also the majority, are those who interpret "I didn't get an A" as "it's not me, it's them." They're the combative ones. The ones that say "Just so you know, I'm an 'A' student" like it's a threat.  The ones that speak to you in ways that--if it were reciprocated--would get you fired in a heartbeat. The ones that make you pray their first spouse takes them to the cleaner because you don't know how to make a voodoo doll.

    At the larger schools, this problem isn't as pronounced. Perhaps it's because not all the students are type-A, A-students to begin with. But they seem more understanding of the fact that "Some of these classes will be hard. And I will not always be the top dog." This doesn't mean that the students don't want to do well. But it means they are more "realistic"; if they see they're performing at the class average, they recognize that that just means they are average. They may not like it, and they frequently will work their butts off to get a "B" or "B+", but they don't take it personally. And they don't take it out on the instructor. They realize, "Hey. I'm just not as good as some of the others at this."
  • Office hours. At the big state school, there may have been a University-approved minimum number of weekly office hours; however, I can guarantee you it wasn't enforced. Many professors were "by appointment only" and they never checked their emails. Or, they'd post office hours, but only show up if you had made an appointment prior. Consequently, if you actually were there, with your door open, during the times you said you'd be there, your students were like kids at Christmas. They would come whether they had just a quick question about one particular section, or major and fundamental questions about the entire course. They WANTED to see their instructor outside class. They were appreciative of ANY time--and they all would mark office hours of the professors they had in their calendars and/or their phones so they knew when to show up.

  • At the current institution, it doesn't matter how many office hours you have. But now, the reason is different. It doesn't matter because first it's significantly harder to get students to come at all. This again probably comes from the fact they're not used to needing help or asking for help, and they're embarrassed because they're clearly a disappointment to the whole world or because they're angry this school with all its money can't hire someone who realizes just how awesome they are. The other reason why the number of office hours doesn't matter is because the students who do come have zero respect for the schedules of their instructors. They will send emails "informing" their instructors that they are "on the way"--whether it's during office hour time or not. They will ask if it's OK to meet right before class, or right after class, or right after THEIR last class (no surprise, they never want to meet BEFORE their first class). And, of course, the INSTRUCTOR'S first/last class is never mentioned or suggested. And the institution recognizes this; my teaching mentor told me the best way to ensure my students respected my time was to work from home as much as possible. 

    The reasons for this again are many. First, the students again probably aren't used to needing help, so they don't realize that help is not always available. Next, they are probably used to instructors bending over backwards to spend any time with them BECAUSE they were the top students (and who wouldn't want to spend more time with their top students?). Again, as an instructor, you feel bad and want to accommodate; ANY academian has had a moment where she realizes she's not the top dog, that she's struggling. And it's a hard pill to swallow. You want to be available to your students; but you cannot pander to them. And letting them trample over your life and dictate your schedule is pandering.
  • Parents. In seven years of teaching at the large state school, you want to guess how many parents contacted me? Zero. In seven years. Hundreds to thousands of students and I heard from zero parents. My department head would probably hear from about a dozen a semester--which at the time I thought was insane. But again…24 a year out of 40-something thousand students? That's practically nothing.

  • The new faculty orientation at the current institution scared the crap out of me. Multiple talks were given on ways to deal with parents. We were told to expect to hear from about 10 parents a year. Maybe more or less, depending on your grade distribution. You would think, thanks to FERPA, this wouldn't be a discussion (or at least it would be short). Even if biologically and emotionally and financially we are talking about their child, legally we are talking about an 18+ year-old and therefore a legal adult. It is against the law for me to discuss the grades and specific academic performances of any of my students with their parents. There are no exceptions. It is the law. There are certain schools that offer a form students can sign so parents can call the REGISTRAR and get access to grade reports; however, as an instructor, you still can't really tell the parents much of anything.

    But try telling THEM that.

    To some extent (and to as much extent as someone who is childless and makes less than a year's tuition can have), I get it. You're paying a lot of money and you want to know why you're not seeing the "results" you'd like. But that's something you need to take up with your KID. If you really believe the school is worth the above-average cost, and if you think the school itself is above-average in academic rigor, then you should believe the school is capable of making above-average decisions in hiring. You shouldn't feel the need to question the intellectual authority of the faculty. And when you challenge a professor's assessment of your child's performance, that is exactly what you're doing. The professor has the PhD, not you. The professor has the published work and the years of college teaching experience, not you. You're 100% correct that you know your kid better as a human being; however, the professor's job is to judge your child's competency in ONE subject, not their worth as a human being. Go to the bathroom and read a flyer. This is like paying $60,000 for your child's wedding, and blaming the caterer for any ensuing marital problems. The money went to the child and was effectively a "gift". The child's the one you should be speaking to harshly, not the instructor.