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Sunday, April 10, 2011

One of the perks, if you care to call it that, of being adjunct faculty, is that I'm on the mailing list of the Director of the Teaching & Learning Center. There are a number of interesting looking workshops and lectures and programs that I would go to if being a faculty member were my actual job, and sometimes he passes along a link to an interesting article. The other day we got a piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education by Thomas H. Benton about "why students (and, to a lesser extent, their parents) are not making choices that support educational success." I've been thinking about this very thing because I am vexed by about half of my undergrads this term. Half are a challenge to engage, but are getting there. The other half have not engaged at all, and at this point I do not expect them to. Benton sees the problem as having several parts.

-- "[I]n the past few generations, the imagery and rhetoric of academic marketing have cultivated a belief that college will be, if not decadent, at least primarily recreational: social activities, sporting events, and travel. Along the way, there may be some elective cultural enrichment and surely some preprofessional training and internships, the result of which will be access to middle-class careers."

I am not so sure I am seeing this in my students, but I have certainly seen it in the children of people I know. There's a guy who has just written a book which validates this. "Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course on Getting His Kid Into College", by Andrew Ferguson has been getting a lot of play. In a key anecdote Ferguson reports approvingly that his son told his guidance counselor, "I want to go to a school where I can go to a football game, take off my shirt, paint my chest in the school colors and major in beer." Dude, that's not helpful.

-- "A generational shift is taking place in which longer forms of writing are being replaced with shorter ones, and sustained thought with shallower forms of multitasking. Those skills have value, but a growing percentage of students are arriving at college without ever having written a research paper, read a novel, or taken an essay examination."

I think this is true, and I think it is part of my responsibility to work with my students on writing. I think they find this intimidating (see below).

-- "Students increasingly are pressured to go to college not because they want to learn (much less become prepared for the duties of citizenship), but because they and their parents believe—perhaps rightly—that not going will exclude them from middle-class jobs. At the same time, much of the academic program, particularly general education, seems disconnected from the practical skills needed to secure those jobs. In order to maintain that Potemkin Village, faculty members and students have entered into a 'disengagement compact,' in which they place fewer demands on each other so that other interests—research for the professor and social activities for the students—can be pursued with fewer distractions."

This is part of what the program through which my undergrad class is offered is supposed to address. It would be nice if it works, but I'll never know.

-- "Many students cannot imagine going to speak with a professor in his or her office. At most universities, a student is likely to be unknown to the professor and would expect to feel like a nuisance, a distraction from more important work."

I can understand this, because it was something I had a hard time with too. I have a standing offer with my students: if you would like to submit a draft of your paper, I will review it and make suggestions, without prejudice to your ultimate grade. I had professors who would do this, and I never once took them up on it. This term I think I have one or two students who will, and if they do that will be my chief accomplishment with this group.

-- "As academic expectations have decreased, social programming and extracurricular activities have expanded to fill more than the available time. That is particularly the case for residential students, for whom the possibility of social isolation is a source of great anxiety."

I dunno about this, but I can understand it.

-- "In order to reduce borrowing, more and more students leave class early or arrive late or neglect assignments, because they are working to provide money for tuition or living expenses. It is also true that many students are working longer hours in order to afford social activities, cars, and consumer goods, and shortchanging their education as a result. Whatever the reason, more students are coming to classes exhausted and distracted by concerns about money, coupled with greater anxiety about whether their future earnings will compensate for the cost of their education."

I think this is probably very true at some schools. I don't know if it is at mine.

-- "[I]t is hard for a young person to understand that higher-order thinking skills—those most needed in a turbulent job market—can come from courses that are not obviously job-related: Shakespeare can be more useful, in the long term, than a course about last year's software. Students may be receptive to that possibility—and to the chance of studying something that truly interests them—but uncertainties about the future have ushered in an era of grim pragmatism and short-term planning."

I doubt that this is anything new.

-- "A lot of students have worked extraordinarily hard to get into the "right" kind of college, only to wonder what all the hype was about. The common experience is that getting admitted is the most exhausting part. After that, the struggle mainly is financial. But at the major universities, most professors are too busy to care about individual students, and it is easy to become lost amid a sea of equally disenchanted undergraduates looking for some kind of purpose—and not finding it."

I'm sure this is true, just based on my own kids and their friends. Notwithstanding the fact that it is the flagship institution of the State University of New York, for some of my students UB was a letdown, and they come to class with a chip on their shoulders as a result. I'm not sure there is much I can do about that.

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