Tuesday, August 21, 2012
Success or Failure in Higher Education: A Case Study
New student orientation began yesterday at the GSAS... I hope it is all going well! New students, share your thoughts on the blog about how it is going and what your thoughts/ first impressions are!
So, I just sat down to read the latest digital issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education (ooh, note to self, I actually have to renew that subscription... I think it was my last one!) and I was struck by the Point of View article entitled "The Struggle to Make Sure Learning Takes Place," by Katherine Gekker. (It's on the last page of the issue -- check it out!) It's an anecdotal tale about one of Gekker's experiences as an adjunct professor teaching a Composition class in a large community college. Gekker explains that the course takes place at 6:30 AM and that it is a lab course in which "individualized tutorial" is built into the class. She also explains that many of her students are not native English speakers and that students get placed in this course because of a "deficien[cy] in writing" as deemed by the college.
FIRST OF ALL, can we discuss briefly (and then more in depth later) the fact that this course is offered at 6:30 am. in the morning?? I almost cried when I read that, imagining the type of grit and determination and maybe even desperation it must take for these students to need a 6:30 am class. They are probably going to work after class, full-time, and then having to come home from that full day of work to do homework. Now, I know I am a graduate student writing her dissertation and also working at another day-job unaffiliated with my program, and also teaching one course a semester -- so yeah, pretty fully loaded myself -- but I still got emotional when I thought about the 6:30 show-up time for College Comp I. I really respect and admire these students.
Gekker's article wants to ask the question, how can a professor ensure learning takes place? To do this, she tells the story of Helen, a student who hands in a paper that seems way beyond the skills she has shown in the classroom. Gekker confronts Helen about this paper; Helen finally admits she had help from a friend. Gekker fails her, and then Helen attempts to lay down the law, saying Gekker is way too strict, and to threaten Gekker with the prospect of bad ratings on Rate-my-professor.com, which will lead to no one signing up for her class, which will lead to no job in the future...
WHAT IS THIS??? It seems like something made up on The Daily Show or something... "You'll never get a hot pepper from ME or ANYONE!!!!!!!!"
The dean recognized this as a threat, and gave Gekker the go-ahead to reprimand Helen, and the threats stopped...
So, what is the real moral of this anecdote? I mean, what is the take-away, for graduate student teachers or anyone teaching as a professor in a college setting? I am still trying to figure it out. To me, it is a highly frustrating story by all accounts... It almost seems like everyone failed.
First, it is frustrating that this course took place at 6:30am. I'm sorry; I can't get over that. I already feel like that is too much to ask of students AND the professor. I know some people are early birds but I just can't imagine the expectation that everyone shows up at each class ready to go and ready to learn. It is already a losing battle, to me. Maybe it is the only option for some people who are choosing to get an education, but that is exactly what is sad and frustrating to me. What has America become?? Why is life here such a desperate struggle for some people? Do you think this kind of schedule exists in Europe?? They would go out of their minds to learn that some people enroll in 6:30 am classes out of necessity here. It is bonkers to me that life has gotten this way here. I KNOW students are doing that because they want to get ahead and have to go to great extremes to do so, and that saddens me. My income and work situation isn't the greatest either, and so I empathize with and admire these students and this professor who are working with what they are given and have made these choices in order to better themselves.
Second -- and I guess this point is really at the heart of why I think this whole story amounts to one big frustrating failure -- is that how is giving an F to someone who got help from a friend a good educational move? I have helped friends before on papers, and I'm SURE that friend has learned something while I was helping them. Why is getting help with something an automatic F? I understand that college is supposed to develop your skills and critical thinking, but why can't that include learning that is generated by peers and not strictly by the professor? It seems to me that the professor thinking that she is the only one who can guide Helen in her essay writing is self-defeating and not efficient. I am not saying that students should buy their papers or let other people do their homework FOR them, but if a student gets outside help with a paper, is that automatically cheating? Is the only path to success getting help from your professor? What if the person had a tutor and the tutor helped them? Why is that bad? Isn't that learning, too?
What are your thoughts about this article and these issues? Please help me sort this out -- I'd love a discussion here about teaching methods, ethics, and the philosophy behind learning in a college setting. Thanks to all the readers who have been checking in this summer. Please share your thoughts! Until next time, Liza Z.