01 August, 2009

My anti-Midas touch

It's the end of the summer term, which means it's time to award grades, which in turns means that it's time to crush a few dreams.

When I was a grad student, I joked that I would be every freshman's first encounter with reality, and I would relish every crushed dream. Yeah, right! It's immensely depressing; I feel as if I start the term with bright, eager young minds, and spend the time turning them into mush-brained morons. I'm the anti-Midas: I take gold, and turn it into dross!

You think I'm kidding, but when a student asks me at the end of the term, What button do I push to cube a number? all I want to do is run screaming into the woods and stand between a bear cub and its mother. At moments like that, I don't see how even the sunniest of optimists can hope for the future of the country. I am not the sunniest of optimists, so I answer, Multiply it three times,* and bury my dreams of death by mauling deep, deep inside.

A week before, a student asked me, Oh, so f(5) means to substitute 5 in place of x? I'd sympathize with the question if I hadn't been doing that during every class meeting for an entire month in a Calculus class!!!** And this guy's attendance was spotless; he even asked a lot of questions. How did he make it to the end of the semester without noticing that I was saying that in each class period? Did my mind manufacture all these memories of saying it?

Another student turned in his final exam and asked, So do you think I'll pass? I made a face to show that it was really iffy. He looked genuinely surprised. Is it that bad? You failed every test! I exclaimed, adding, Even your test corrections didn't bring the scores up to passing!

Don't get the wrong idea: I bear no ill will toward these students. Academic ability and moral character are two very, very different things. Some of these guys strike me as really good guys, probably of sterner moral fiber than mine. I hate recording the grades I'm about to record, knowing that it means some will postpone graduation, perhaps even give up on it. Many of them are not freshmen, and I don't relish it at all. I got into teaching because I wanted to save the world, not condemn it.

I have to hope that it means that they take it again, and make a genuine effort to learn the material next time. Many of them think they did make a genuine effort, which shows how far a college professor has to go these days to wake students—seniors!!!—from their soporific intellectual slumber.

Teaching is, in some ways, harder than research. With research, you study a problem without any kind of timeline, and if you're lucky you solve it, then move on to the next problem, which is often an extension of the one you solved. Either way, at least it's a new problem.

Teaching is different: you study the problem of educating a set of students, work at it under a set timeline, rarely solve it, then move on to the same problem the next term—only starting with a new set of students, so starting from scratch.

In the end, the student has to educate himself, and too many students haven't learned how to do that—even as they approach the conclusion of their university careers.

Of course, it could be that I suck. A couple of students wrote on their exams and evaluations last year that I was an intimidating professor. ME! Man, have I changed over the last ten years…

*Multiply it three times: Yes, I know there's a button to push, but I'm not going to tell anyone that during a Calculus final.

** …in a Calculus class! The point being that this is precalc material, so he should have known that before he stepped into the classroom. It isn't one of those nice sights that you see once in precalc and then forget, either. Unless, I suppose, his precalc teacher was as incompetent as I am…


Brandon said...

I think you're right that part of the reason it always seems depressing is that we get students for a short period of time, and that's generally it. We can't say, "OK, you six need a month or two longer than the ordinary term to get where you need to be, so let's have you wait that extra month or two." If they don't make it by deadline, they don't make it. There are circumstances under which I could guarantee that everyone in my class reaches almost any decent proficiency one could wish. I can't guarantee anything of the sort if I'm expected to do so in a pre-set period of time determined on principles that have nothing whatsoever to do with the subject I'm teaching. There are always students who are only just starting to get it when term ends and they go on to other things.

And then afterward that's usually all we know about the students. Did they get better? Did we do something in class that they didn't get at the time but clicked somehow a year or two later, or at least made something easier down the road? We just don't know. It could be that we're doing a lot of good work that's just on a time delay, seeds that only sprout later. It could be that almost everything we are doing is completely futile in the long run. We just don't know; all we do know is that there are a lot of cases where we can't see that we did much good.

But I think part of the problem is that we tend to think we have all that much to do with it. There can be good or bad teachers, yes, but they aren't measured by how many students listen or fail to listen to them, just as the work of the sower in the parable of the sower isn't measured by how much good soil there is around. Most of the things that are key to a student's education are things we have no control over. That can't be an excuse to rest on our laurels rather than trying to find ways that work better, but it is a plain fact that we (and our students) are trained to ignore.

jack perry said...

All your points are good (the part about deadlines is particularly on target) but I especially like this one: I think part of the problem is that we tend to think we have all that much to do with it. It really isn't about us in the end. If we are qualified and competent and don't do anything well, a highly motivated student succeeds. Unfortunately, the vast majority of my students don't seem motivated at all, let alone highly motivated.