Wednesday, June 05, 2013

A Professor as a Student

Rebekah Nathan's "My Freshman Year" should be required reading for all college professors. This is an account of a middle-aged college professor who decided to spend a year at a large public university in 2002-2003, living in the dorms and experiencing everything a first-year student would. As a trained anthropologist, she gives an exceptionally insightful and vivid account of American undergraduate culture.

What I found most original about the book is it offers an account that undergraduates themselves could not articulate so well. For it is hard to critically examine one's own culture, or recognize the ways in which it may appear peculiar to outsiders. And although all of us who are professors now were students once, we did not observe so keenly the various aspects of student culture, or synthesize them as she does in this book. Also, the perspective of faculty members, who were often (almost by definition) among the more academically-inclined students in their classes as undergrads is biased, and not representative of the experience of the majority of students going to college. (Hence the routine lamentations heard in the halls outside faculty offices: "What is wrong with these students? Why don't they study as hard as I used to? Why don't they seem to care about what I'm teaching?")

Rebekah Nathan (which turns out to have been the pen-name used by Cathy Small, from Northern Arizona University) offers us a more nuanced, balanced view, of how college appears from the students' perspective. Based on her observations as well as interviews with her fellow students, she draws a number of insights:

1. For many students, "the most compelling reason for staying in college was 'the college experience' --- the joys and benefits of living within the college culture rather than in the real world." Classes and learning and immersion in the intellectual life were a secondary objective for many. "Classes, in fact, were described in multiple instances as the 'price one has to pay' to participate in college culture, a domain that students portrayed in terms such as 'fun,' 'friendships,' 'partying,' 'life experiences,' and 'late night talks.' "

2. One of the barriers to learning in many traditional classes is the perception of their formality and disconnectedness from the everyday experiences of students. In contrast, what makes a course popular to a majority of students, is if it can subsume "formal academic content within an informal, largely, social world characterized by equality, informality, intimacy, and reciprocity, while at the same time [providing] a context for learning that [is] 'fun,' irreverent, and separated, both geographically and ideologically, from the formal aspects and authority of campus."

3.  She writes that time-management is a huge and very challenging part of the college experience for undergraduates. She writes, "Going to school, I found, was a time-management nightmare; ... in a single semester, there were eight different people who made rules or created structures that I had to respond to as a student. Each wanted us to access readings, or prepare papers, or communicate with him or her according to a different protocol. As is typical in a large state university, none of the instructors coordinated assignments or schedules with one another or even with a master university schedule." She writes that the most successful students figured out that the way to manage time was not merely to make to-do lists and be efficient in their use of time, but also by making smart choices about which courses to take. "The key to managing time was not, as college officials suggested, avoiding wasted minutes by turning yourself into an agent of your day planner. Neither was it severely curtailing your leisure or quitting your paying job. Rather, it was controlling college by shaping schedules, taming professors, and limiting workload."

4. Shaping schedules: In particular, she writes that even mature students do want to take a few "easy A" / "low workload" courses to balance out the "harder" courses, which they knew to be necessary. And sometimes, they just take courses because they are offered at the right time so that they can fit it into their schedule. She describes this moment of epiphany: "It suddenly became clear to me why, as a professor, I had had a number of students enrolled in my basic cultural anthropology course who had no idea what anthropology was. My course was likely the last piece in their scheduling puzzle, and frankly, they didn't care what anthropology was."

5. Taming professors: Mature students also learn to play the college game in ways that don't promote independent learning. She describes a university-sponsored presentation in which a section of the talk was devoted to "figuring out your Profs." "What do profs want? The speaker told us: 'They think the world revolves around their subject, so they want you to get it. They want to see effort, and they want you to voice an opinion. So give them what they want and you'll get what you want too!" There is something instrumental and transactional about this student-teacher relationship that is far from the ideal learning-centered relationship that faculty crave. She asks a mature and competent senior for tips on success and gets this response: "I take the information I need from the professor --- how they're going to grade you and what they think is important --- and I use it. If you write what you want to that prof, you're gonna end up with a bad grade. Whereas, if you write to them, you win --- you can still have your own mindset and say, hell, I know this isn't the way I feel, but I'll give them what they want."

(This passage made me burn at a memory I had long suppressed, from my own Junior/Senior year. It was a humanities course, which I particularly loved as the readings were provocative and thought-inspiring. I spent hours thinking about and writing up an essay for the first paper in that class, which I was really proud of. It came back with a B-, to my utter shock and disappointment. My friend seated next to me got an A+. I asked to see his essay, and gasped when I read it. "But, but..." I stammered out to him, "you are pretty much just rephrasing here whatever he said in class!" "Of course!" he said, and smiled, knowingly.)

6. Limiting workload: In the face of their heavy workloads and scheduling nightmare, students have every incentive to do the bare minimum they can, while still doing well in the courses in terms of grades. "On several levels, students assess what is needed to get by. Depending on the course and the instructor, they decide whether to buy the book, whether to go to class, whether to do the readings in a given week, and how much effort to put into assignments." On absenteeism, she writes, "in classes where attendance is expected but not required, the frequency of absenteeism rises with each of the following characteristics: the class is large, the class is boring, tests are based on readings rather than lectures, grades depend on papers rather than tests, the class is early in the morning, the class is on friday." She writes that cutting class is actively encouraged by peers, who value it as an act of rebellion against authority. She also writes that it is in the students' interests to minimize any additional reading or learning-oriented activity that does not directly correlate to the course grade, or that does not seem essential for their career; such activities are seen as "busy-work", to be avoided.

7. Students rarely speak up in class to discuss and debate ideas. Time pressure is one contributing factor in low class participation. Others, she determined through a survey, were "peer pressure, power of the teacher, and lack of personal interest or purpose." She writes that "I was struck by the realization that, despite official assertions about the university as a free marketplace of ideas, the classroom doesn't often work that way in practice. Ideas are rarely debated, and even more rarely evaluated. Most classroom discussion, when it does occur, could be described as a sequential expression of opinion, spurred directly by a question or scenario devised by the teacher, which is subject to little or no commentary." Even if there were conversations about ideas in class, "the moment we walked out of class... the subject at hand was abruptly dropped, as if the debate had only been part of a classroom performance." Indeed, outside of class, she found that there was little discussion about learning or ideas. Most conversation centered around due-dates, complaints about the progress of the course, work-load, and grades. She speaks of her disillusionment: "Taken together, the discourse of academe, both in and out of classes, led me to one of the most sobering insights I had as a professor-turned-student: How little intellectual life seemed to matter in college."

8. On why student time for learning and classwork is limited and steadily decreasing over time, Rebekah Nathan hypothesizes that this is primarily due to the rising costs of college, forcing students to take on more part-time work than they used to in the past. "A 2004 government report found that increases in tuition and fees during the preceding decade had outpaced both inflation and growth of the median family income. The result has been debt --- a huge amount of debt that college students are incurring for the sake of their education --- and a sharp rise in the percentage of borrowers among full-time undergraduates." I found this very interesting; it answered in part a question I have had on my mind and discussed in a recent blog post: why do students study less these days on average compared to 40 years ago? There is no doubt that this is the single biggest challenge facing higher education these days.

9.  The rising costs of college and student debts is also resulting in a rising tide of career-mindedness that undermines academic traditions. She recalls a popular talk given by a speaker to entering freshman from a nonprofit division of a for-profit company, which she says embodied key features of the student culture and attitudes. "There was the 'fun-party-independence-youth' veneer, which is long-standing in student culture, but the more dominant statement of the presentation was one of pragmatism and careerism. Hard work, forethought and organization were part of this career message to students, but so too was the idea that grades have primacy, that you should join groups with resume building in mind, that a smart student should 'figure out your profs' (the title of one presentation segment), that students are in individual competition with one another for grades and recommendations, and that, above all, college is about positioning yourself for a good job and an affluent future."

10. She warns that as universities become more market-driven, and students become more career-driven, in response to the rising college costs and student debts, new dangers lurk. "Degree programs tightly geared to the marketplace become products themselves, and are likely to bust and boom with the fickleness of the times." She writes that "in the long run, we would not want a university to become so immersed in the world as it is that it can neither critique that world nor proffer an ideal vision of how else it might be. These are purposes of universities that none of us should surrender."


1 comment:

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