Sunday, May 10, 2015
Some Random Thoughts About Education
It's almost the end of the semester, and time for my seniors to graduate. And that made me think of how things were when I got my own undergraduate degree, back in 1969. College was very different back then-- and at the risk of seeming to miss the "good old days" (believe me, I do not miss them), I have to say the courses were more difficult, and there was much more reading of books and journal articles. That was partly because it was still the pre-internet era, before so much material was digitized. There was no easy or instant way to get the information needed to pass the course, so students actually went to the library to study and do research. Although the culture was changing throughout the 60s, the educational experience remained somewhat formal. Some schools still had a dress code, and coming to class looking like you were heading for the beach was frowned upon. Students were rarely on a first-name basis with professors; and if I disagreed with a grade my professor gave me, I could not imagine arguing about it (or demanding a better grade because of how hard I had tried). And rightly or wrongly, most courses still centered around the professor's lectures: there were some discussions now and then, but the common wisdom was that the professor was the expert, so we were expected to listen and benefit from his or her knowledge. And speaking of professors, most of the ones I had were core faculty: there were a few part-time or adjunct professors, but the majority were full-time educators.
So much has changed since 1969. Some of it is positive: I used to be frustrated sitting in endless classes where the professor lectured and students sat silently taking notes. I'm glad that today, I can engage my students in discussion and debate. Yes, I still give class lectures, and I hope my students believe I have some expertise. But learning is no longer just a top-down exercise, with the teacher as authority and the students as note-takers. Today, students can participate, rather than sitting passively. And I'm also okay about the classroom being less formal. Yes, I still expect courtesy and I like students to arrive on time. But I'm not troubled by being called Donna ("Auntie Donna" is more common), although those who want to call me Professor can do that too. (Interestingly, it's often the students from other countries who still prefer to use the formal title.) And unlike when I went to school, a time when current events were rarely discussed in class and there were many taboo subjects, I am able to engage my students in a wide range of topics, and various perspectives are welcome. (Contrary to what my conservative friends seem to believe, not every student is a liberal, nor would I expect them to be.)
But some of the changes have been negative, or somewhat mixed. I've mentioned before that the internet falls into the "mixed blessing" category: it does make doing research faster, but many students prefer the quick answer rather than taking the time to find the best answer. Many students seem to have shorter and shorter attention spans; they expect education to be entertaining (kind of like a grown up version of Sesame Street), and they really dislike having to read an article that is densely written or one that requires thorough analysis. (Critics like Nicholas Carr have pointed out that many students don't read articles all the way through-- because they mainly read online, they become easily distracted, especially when an article has links to other articles-- they click on the link and never return to the original piece.) And from observing them trying to surreptitiously send text messages or or check email during class (yes I do notice), I must say that many of today's students seem addicted to their smartphones.
In the negative category, more and more universities rely on part-time or adjunct instructors, who are paid less and often have to work at three or four colleges to make enough money to pay their bills. Also a pet peeve of mine is the outrageously high costs of textbooks. As consolidation has affected the textbook industry, with fewer companies dominating the market, the prices have gone up dramatically (and no, those of us who write them are not paid any more money, even though writing a textbook is very time-consuming). Some required texts sell for as much as $100 each, making them difficult for many students to afford. I am also troubled by the number of students who truly believe they should get an "A" and are very upset when they don't.
But one thing hasn't changed: every year around this time, students who started college four or five years ago are ready to graduate and go out into the world. My hope as a professor is that I've given them useful information and made them think. (Judging from their term papers, that seems to be the case for most of them, and that makes me feel good.) This is not an easy time to be an educator-- a subject I will discuss some other day. But truth be told, it's probably not an easy time to be a student either. Yet, somehow my seniors got through it, and so did their professors, myself among them. And even though college is very different now from how it was when I attended in the 60s, it's still an amazing feeling to finally get that diploma. So, congratulations to all my seniors: I'm proud of what you accomplished, and I hope this will only be the beginning of what you achieve in your life!