From Frying Pan To Fire?

A brief meditation on teaching in the era of Trump. From a comparative perspective. In more ways than one.

As someone whose income is in the world’s top one percent, I have the luxury of partaking in long-distance travel on a purely voluntary basis. Soon I’ll be vacationing outside the USA, a country where corrupt, narcissistic xenophobes are doing their best to undermine the rule of law, with the full approval of their supporters. My destination? A country where corrupt, narcissistic xenophobes are doing their best to undermine the rule of law, with the full approval of their supporters.

So yes, I see parallels, despite the geographic and cultural differences. The tribalistic nationalism. The sexism. The religious justifications. The cronyism. Most of all, the constant attempts to de-legitimize the very institutions that originally put these people into positions of power.

I know that I’m a bit more sensitive to the symbiotic relationship between popular prejudices and abusive government than many people, in part because my wife, as a Muslim and an immigrant, is classified as both a terrorist and a rapist in Trumpspeak. But history demonstrates that those who engage in idol worship and willful ignorance as a means to an end rarely see their expectations met.

And here is the connection to my teaching: the basic principle that I try to convey to students is that one benefits by comparing, as open-mindedly as possible, the familiar and the unfamiliar. Curiosity-driven analysis leads to unexpected insights, sounder judgments, and more satisfying outcomes in life. And it is quite acceptable to make mistakes along the way as long as one takes the time to try to figure out why things went wrong.

Unfortunately I am seeing an increasing resistance to this message among U.S. undergraduates. Far too many expect to be intellectually and morally validated solely on the basis of personal opinion. Far too few exhibit a willingness to consider the possibility that perspectives which differ from their own might have merit. If some students perceive my teaching as a threat to the comfortable psychological environment that they have constructed for themselves, I get labeled authoritarian, racist, sexist, or otherwise unprofessional — revenge for being told that their academic performance is not of the quality that they believe it to be. Who am I to tell them that they are not perfect?

This probably makes me sound like a disgruntled, insufferable elitist. But I wonder if we folks in the USA are in the midst of a disaster of our own making. Unstructured and unsupervised play during childhood has become the exception rather than the rule. Reality TV, online personae, and the War on Terror have been background noise for as long as today’s teenagers have been alive. Anxiety and depression are epidemic on college campuses. And now government by distortion, outrage, and caprice has been normalized. It’s probably only natural that many undergraduates think everyone has the right to their own immutable set of alternative facts.

The Perfect Storm

I’ve been working on my paper for the upcoming APSA Teaching and Learning Conference, where I will be presenting research on students who were in different sections of my university’s fall semester first-year seminar. The survey was an attempt to compare levels of student academic engagement across sections, in the hope of showing that game design projects in my sections were associated with higher survey scores. As usually happens with my research on this kind of topic, there are no easily-recognizable patterns in the survey data. Aware of the looming conference paper deadline, I began thinking about possible alternative explanations for the data. This led me to look at the student evaluations for my seminar sections, and I was surprised to find that average evaluation scores had sharply decreased from the previous year, despite nearly identical course content. Odd.

So I starting asking colleagues what had happened in their seminar sections. I received reports of students’ problematic classroom behavior, lack of motivation, and declining academic performance. There also seems to have been an uptick in diagnosed or in-need-of-diagnosis psychological disorders among last fall’s incoming class of undergraduates.

While there is some solace in knowing that many of us had similar experiences, this could be the thin edge of a very problematic wedge. In the United States, academic ability and college preparedness correlate with socioeconomic status — unfortunate, but true. And at my university, as at others, more incoming students are being granted larger tuition discounts than in the past, which reduces net tuition revenue per student. In sum, in order to fill seats the university recruits a greater proportion of academically-marginal students by offering them greater amounts of financial aid.

To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you teach the students you have, or more accurately, the students that the university brings to you. If declining aptitude is a long term trend, what practical steps can I — on the front line, so to speak — take in an attempt to adjust to what might be the new normal? Continue reading

The Risk Averse Generation

http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com/Kitten-Pet-Couch-Scaredy-Cat-Animal-Paws-2558459Fall semester is again drawing to a close — final exams are later this week — and as I have done in the past, I will review some teaching successes and failures by loosely applying Simon’s ABC method to myself.

But I will start with a general impression about a changing teaching environment, based on my own experiences this semester and discussions with some of my colleagues. We are seeing incoming college students who increasingly exhibit psychological traits that hinder academic success: an inability to plan, a reluctance to take risks, a lack of coping skills and emotional resiliency, and a fragile sense of self-worth. Learned helplessness is just one manifestation of this phenomenon.

While these students might have the same innate intellectual ability as students have had in the past, they are far less confident about themselves and fear uncertainty to a much greater extent. And so they try to avoid situations they perceive as challenging, refuse to test themselves on what they might not know, and their academic performance suffers as a result. In my case, I have seen the overall grade distribution in my first-year seminar shift markedly to the left — more D’s and F’s and fewer A’s. Maybe this is a one-time occurrence, but I doubt it.

When There’s No There There

Earlier in the semester, a student became hostile in class. I told the student to stop and that I wasn’t going to engage in an argument. The student became increasingly belligerent, so I responded by ordering him to leave the room. By this point the student was out of his chair and indicated that he would not leave willingly, so I pulled out my cell phone to call university police. The student said a few more things, using profanity in the process, and left the room. After getting the class back to business, I emailed the appropriate academic dean, the dean of student affairs, and the director of campus security.

What then transpired was enlightening, but not in a good way. I thought I had acted responsibly: de-escalating the situation by convincing the student to leave the room before he became violent. But according to university administrators, the student’s behavior did not constitute a reasonable — in legal terms — threat to anyone’s safety. Per university policy, as long as a student approaches that standard of reasonableness but doesn’t cross it, the student can say or do anything in class. Even if the student is removed from the classroom, the student can come back the very next day and engage in the same behavior all over again.

If, on the other hand, I had acted irresponsibly and deliberately provoked the student to commit a violent act or threaten harm to someone in the room, then the student could have been suspended or expelled.

In essence, I discovered that there is no middle ground where I work. Maintaining an environment that is conducive to learning for all students is not as much of a priority as I thought it was.

First Impressions

Having wrapped up the first month of another fall semester, here are some reflections on this year’s incoming undergraduates as compared to those from previous years — based on a completely unscientific sample composed of the forty-four 17-18 year olds whom I’m teaching in two sections of a first-year seminar.

  1. Ignorance of basic technical processes continues to increase. This ranges from not understanding that electronic files have different formats to being unable to upload to a server any file, regardless of type. Or, in some cases, students recognizing the need to click on a “submit” button, but then not verifying that what they submitted was what they actually wanted to submit. (Resulting in a grade of zero each and every time.)
  2. When confronted by these technical challenges, students are more likely to react with learned helplessness, making my standard response of “figure it out”  even less endearing than it was previously. (Student evaluations for these seminars average a full point lower on a five-point scale than for other courses.)
  3. The immediate post-high school attitude that learning is a pro forma exercise in “tell me what I need to know” is just as common, if not more so, than it has been in the past. Few of the students start college exhibiting genuine curiosity about a world that is external to themselves.
  4. Male students demonstrate learned helplessness and lack of curiosity much more frequently than female students. It seems we are raising a generation of men who are at risk of living life as unskilled, low-paid, socially-maladjusted drones.
  5. Undergraduates are getting poorer,  more ethnically diverse, and less well-prepared. Although they perceive a college education as the ticket to a middle class existence, they have less understanding of what they have to do to obtain this ticket, and they are more frequently entering college with characteristics that make this objective much harder to achieve. For example, the more hours they expend on financially-necessary part-time employment, the less time and energy they have available for developing the habits and skills that would allow them to overcome pre-existing academic deficits. From the supply side of the equation, these students require greater amounts of financial aid and support services, making them more expensive to educate.
  6. Compensating for all of the negatives listed above is the fact that I am rarely faced with the sense of entitlement that can develop among the wealthiest and best-prepared students. They go to places like Harvard instead.

The Change All Around, Part 3

Here is my third post about environmental factors that are affecting my teaching this semester. My previous posts on the subject are here and here. This time I thought I would explore my situation from the standpoint of student behavior.

First item is this screenshot of the Canvas LMS gradebook. I use a grading system in which each assignment is worth a certain number of points, and a student’s final course grade is a function of the total points he or she has earned by the end of the semester. Individual assignments do not receive letter grades and are not graded on a percentage basis with a 0-100 scale.

I inform students — both verbally in the classroom and via text in the syllabus — that the percentage columns in the gradebook are absolutely meaningless in terms of their course grade. Yet they still fixate on these figures, and get dejected whenever they see a number that they perceive as conflicting with their self-image. (I attribute the innumeracy and the construction of a fragile self-identity to parenting and the K-12 education system.) Continue reading

Rethinking my digital ban

I’ve long been a diehard “laptop ban” advocate. Basing this decision first on intuition and later Startup Stock Photoson empirical evidence, it was rarely an issue beyond the initial student grumbling. Among hundreds of student evaluations, a very small handful (less than 5) mentioned it as an issue. Although I included the caveat of “if this is problem for you, please talk to me,” no one ever did. Case closed, or so I thought.

As I’m getting ready for a new term, I read with interest this piece in the Chronicle on starting the semester. Basically, I read the whole piece, nodding along until he got to his critique of the laptop ban. I didn’t think too much of it at first; I have always stated that I’m willing to make accommodations, just no student ever asked. But then I read the piece from Digital Pedagogy Lab he linked to and I’m already singing a different tune.
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Talking at cross-purposes

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Muddy hell

One of the most frustrating things in teaching environments is when people end up talking at cross-purposes. Often, this ends up as two people strongly disagreeing with other each, even though it looks – to an external observer – like they’re agreeing, but are coming to it from different directions.

I had a mild example of this at a recent event, where I was challenged because of the terms/language I was using. “Why do you keep on calling it ‘democracy’ when it’s not?”, was the basic thrust. I countered that the issue wasn’t the terms, but what one might do with the situation. The person suggested what one might do was… change the terms. Et cetera.

Fun.

I mention this a) because it’s strangely annoying, b) because it was odd, in this case, that one of the parties was aware it was happening and c) because when it happens in a class, you need to deal with it.

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