Tuesday, November 29, 2011

"pent 'mid cloisters dim"

Grumbling about students who don't prepare for class is nothing new.  Whenever one of my colleagues complains about it, I always think to myself  "Why are you surprised by this?"  Indeed, a few years back the National Study of Student Engagement (NSSE) surveyed 380,000 randomly selected freshmen and senior students about their class preparation habits.  The results?  A quarter of all freshmen and 20 percent of seniors say they frequently come to class without having completed the readings.

This particular study didn't probe the reasons for poor preparation, but I don't buy the facile notion that today's students are lazier than those in the past or that their attention spans have been warped by video games, text-messaging and Facebook.  I do think some of it results from the hectic nature of their lives.  Just this semester, for example, I've had five students give birth, three go through messy divorces, two who missed class due to court dates, one whose child ran away, another whose boyfriend was arrested, and still another whose fiancee has been in a coma.   This is to say nothing of the half dozen who each semester lose a grandmother.  College has always been hard on grandmother mortality rates.

So, yeah, they're busy.  I get that.

Even so, I suspect the main reasons students don't do the reading is that it's not necessary to pass the class.  In fact, the NSSE study found that 36 percent of those who routinely didn't do the reading earned mostly As.  I've tried to combat under-preparation by moving a lot of work inside the classroom.  It's the only way I can assure that they will actually engage the ideas in the texts we read.  Sometimes I give them analysis tasks that they write on individually in class and sometimes as a team, but they have to read, write and discuss the material in class. 

For a while this approach seemed to be working.  Our discussions were deeper and the students said they appreciated the quiet time in class to wrestle with the texts.  This semester, however, my scheme has come undone.  I am really struggling to get my students to engage meaningfully with the ideas in the readings.  They show up to class without the text (despite knowing it's an expectation), show no guilt over not having done any reading beforehand, and express a kind of vague resentment that I expect them to read.  More than one had not bought a text by midterm despite my reminding them several times. 

I know I shouldn't be surprised by this, but I am--not by the behavior, but by the lack of shame in the behavior.  The same thing seems to be true with texting in class.  They simply can't stop doing it no matter how many times I remind them to put that Satanic device away.  One study conducted by the University of New Hampshire found that 80 percent of students said they send at least one text message in each of their classes.  On the bright side, a majority of those did say they felt guilty about it.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Callias' boys

Among the charges leveled at Socrates during his trial in 399 BC was that he taught for money.   He actually went to some lengths in the Apology to refute this idea and recounted a conversation he had with a father named Callias who had paid a considerable amount to have his sons educated by Sophists.

Socrates suggests that Callias would have no difficulty locating a teacher who could improve his sons if they were foals or calves.  Any farmer could do the job.  As they are human beings, he wonders if teachers exist who really understand human and political virtue well enough to instruct them.

By "human and political virtue,"  of course, Socrates means teachers who can turn out excellent citizens who have realized their uniquely human potential for moral goodness and, by doing so, strengthen the polis.  Teachers who can provide this service are worth paying, he argues.  The rest are simply taking your money.

The odd thing about this passage isn't that it raises the hoary question of whether education should help us to achieve material success or cultivate our potential for virtue.  No, what's odd is that there was--at least for Socrates' accusers--a taint attached to teaching for money. That's a sentiment almost completely absent from contemporary debates about education.  Indeed, a 'for profit' educational system is admired in many wonky and well-funded think tanks.  It's touted as a panacea for our underachieving non-profit system.  No matter that the facts say otherwise.  A recent article in The Nation sums up the dismal results of the for-profits:
A recent study of virtual schools in Pennsylvania conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University revealed that students in online schools performed significantly worse than their traditional counterparts. Another study, from the University of Colorado in December 2010, found that only 30 percent of virtual schools run by for-profit organizations met the minimum progress standards outlined by No Child Left Behind, compared with 54.9 percent of brick-and-mortar schools. For White Hat Management, the politically connected Ohio for-profit operating both traditional and virtual charter schools, the success rate under NCLB was a mere 2 percent, while for schools run by K12 Inc., it was 25 percent. A major review by the Education Department found that policy reforms embracing online courses “lack scientific evidence” of their effectiveness.
Okay, so why the rush to ship today's sons of Callias off to for-profit education ventures?  It's not hard to figure out.  As the ancient Sophists realized, there's money to be made in education:
The frenzy to privatize America’s K-12 education system, under the banner of high-tech progress and cost-saving efficiency, speaks to the stunning success of a public relations and lobbying campaign by industry, particularly tech companies. Because of their campaign spending, education-tech interests are major players in elections. In 2010, K12 Inc. spent lavishly in key races across the country, including a last-minute donation of $25,000 to Idahoans for Choice in Education, a political action committee supporting Tom Luna, a self-styled Tea Party school superintendent running for re-election. Since 2004, K12 Inc. alone has spent nearly $500,000 in state-level direct campaign contributions, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. David Brennan, Chairman of White Hat Management, became the second-biggest Ohio GOP donor, with more than $4.2 million in contributions in the past decade.
A number of years ago, a colleague of mine remarked that one day somebody would do to higher education what Ray Kroc did to the french fry.  And you can't argue with the success of the french fry.  Just look at the average American's waistline.   

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Rearranging the Stack

It's generally a good idea to put one or two of the brighter students' papers at the bottom of your stack when grading, but that's not always your first instinct.  Sometimes you pick up a paper, read the opening sentence  and begin groaning with despair.  There--right in the first sentence--is a howler of a mistake.  You quickly glance down the page and see many more awaiting you.  It's  just too much and you're strongly tempted to make the paper go away, to put it at the bottom of your stack and pretend you didn't see it. 

Here's what I mean: I just picked up an assignment in which the writer refers to Saint Augustine as "St. Alexander" throughout the paper, cites neither primary or secondary sources (something I've harped on for 13 weeks) and it's riddled with sentence fragments.  Aaargh.  So I reach for the next one, but it's no better: tortured grammar,  mangled ideas and sloppy spellcheck errors (defiantly for definitely, from for form).  I would like to put it back in the stack as well, but this particular section has a paucity of good writers.  Indeed, only three of the 20 students in the class are capable of writing at anything approaching a college-level standard  (and I already put them at the bottom before I started reading).

Admittedly this is an especially weak group of writers and it's always dangerous to generalize, but the problem does seem like it's getting worse.  I do what I can with tips, encouragement and a generous revision policy, but I feel increasingly overwhelmed by the lack of basic academic skills in a disturbing number of my students.  Far too many can't distinguish between independent and dependent clauses, and they are utterly baffled by any mention of things like pronouns, conjunctions, tenses or in some cases proper nouns.   It isn't just the writing.  Many can't state the main idea of a paragraph they just read (let alone draw an inference from it).

The problem is worse in first-year students than seniors, but there have been a few times this semester when I've had to tell senior students that the quality of their work was unacceptable for a 400-level course.  I can't begin to imagine what they are thinking to hand in work like this.  They look at me, however, as if I were the problem.  I mean what's going on?   Is it too much to ask that a college student can write a clear English sentence by the time he or she leaves college?  Am I being unreasonable?

Okay, rant over.  Back to the stack...

Not fighting, but joining...

I've spent the past two semesters trying to get my first-year students to measure their success by something other than their grades.  ...