Monday, September 08, 2008

The Customer is Seldom Right

Maybe I should stop posting these things.... but, here is yet another article about the declining intelligence level of higher education. I like it though because I have come to agree with two things that Thomas Benton is saying here: 1. that the internet might be a symptom, but it's not a cause of the general "dummying up" of the populace, and 2. that it's time for academics to start rebelling against the customer service mentality in higher ed. In other words, we- students and educators- need to be learning to live in each other's worlds.

Also interesting: the author, an English prof offers these examples of widespread problems that he encounters among students, all of which I can vouch for.

Benton: "I see too many students who are:
  • Primarily focused on their own emotions — on the primacy of their "feelings" — rather than on analysis supported by evidence.
  • Uncertain what constitutes reliable evidence, thus tending to use the most easily found sources uncritically.
  • Convinced that no opinion is worth more than another: All views are equal.
  • Uncertain about academic honesty and what constitutes plagiarism. (I recently had a student defend herself by claiming that her paper was more than 50 percent original, so she should receive that much credit, at least.)
  • Unable to follow or make a sustained argument.
  • Uncertain about spelling and punctuation (and skeptical that such skills matter).
  • Hostile to anything that is not directly relevant to their career goals, which are vaguely understood.
  • Increasingly interested in the social and athletic above the academic, while "needing" to receive very high grades.
  • Not really embarrassed at their lack of knowledge and skills.
  • Certain that any academic failure is the fault of the professor rather than the student.

Obviously, some of these fall into the 'twas ever thus category. And some are specific to the job- an English professor can easily establish that plagiarism is unacceptable. But it's interesting how many will need a sustained effort from the larger culture to ameliorate them.


gregvw said...

But could one not also build a bridge out of stone?

Rufus said...

So... we could build a bridge out of her?

Brian Dunbar said...

I can see some validity to one point, for people attending school later in life.

Hostile to anything that is not directly relevant to their career goals, which are vaguely understood.

Look - some organizations place a premium on 'school'. Getting a degree gains you promotion points. It opens doors. People think you're a smart guy and a swell fella.

Actually learning something is not a goal.

These guys and gals are not spending money, and more importantly, time, to learn to appreciate fine literature or why Wittgenstein is such a cool guy - they want a promotion at work, more money. They want a return on that time spent.

Rufus said...

Right, but I don't think he's saying that it's a terrible thing that some people take courses to advance in their careers and don't really care that much about a liberal arts education. We expect that! At least, I don't *think* he's saying that.

What he's saying- I think- is that it's really hard to teach students who show up to class actively hostile to the idea of learning anything that doesn't apply to their job. And I can attest to that. It's a drag.

Because, honestly, spending the money and the time on a course still doesn't entitle you to any particular grade, or to be mad that the professor has a different idea than you do of what a "Western Civ" class, for example, should consist of. Most of us are open to suggestions, and also complaints. But, I think he's talking about hostility, which is a different thing altogether. It's really counterproductive.

And I totally know what he's talking about. My one shitty recitation this year is that way because a handful of the students are super pissed off that the professor is making them read stuff like sections of the Illiad, which they object to on the grounds that they think it's boring. They think that, since we all know that nobody in the real world cares about Homer, a professor shouldn't assign the Illiad in the Intro to Western Civ course. And, you know, that's great. But, ultimately, we're not a trade school, and honestly, I don't care that much about everyone's personal happiness.

I understand that the general population thinks that the things we study are pedantic, insignificant, and can't make the trains run on time. My $10K per year attests to this! And I don't think any of us expect the average undergrad to be cheerful or pleasant. But, there comes a point in which you feel like you're watching people come out for a softball team only to complain that they really didn't think they would have to run, or use a bat, or catch things. It gets ridiculous.

Actually, I think he's talking about something funny that I've seen myself- undergrads who take the required composition course and complain that they plan to work in the business world, so why should they have to learn how to write a paragraph or read a report?

But, yes, most of us are okay with people not liking Wittgenstein. As long as they're not hostile about it.

Brian Dunbar said...

. . . undergrads who take the required composition course and complain that they plan to work in the business world, so why should they have to learn how to write a paragraph or read a report?

I think we had some of those guys up here advising us on how to implement SOX standards a few years ago.

The boss knew what he was up to. His underlings, who fanned out got to deal with the rest of us .. not so much.

Rufus said...

Yeah, when I meet people in corporate management, the first thing they usually ask me is, "Seriously, what are you teaching these people before they come to apply for jobs with us?!"

I will say though that the people who are a bit older and coming back to take classes tend to be much easier to deal with.