Monday, July 23, 2007

What does it mean to teach?

I enjoy teaching people things, but I can't explain why.

I'm not really a people person. I don't teach out of a desire to make the world a better place outside of a desire for the general reduction in ignorance or stupidity (the former being fairly easy, the latter being profoundly difficult). I teach for the money insofar as its pretty decent money for part-time work. Any altruism I might have had toward teaching is long since scrubbed away by the brutal realities of teaching.

I suppose I do it for that one student you get that really attaches themselves to the material. The student with whom you share in the joy of their success and the heartache of their failure. The handful of students who you really seem to connect with. The ones who really understand you and seem hungry to learn anything you can teach them.

Regardless of the reason, teaching is a difficult, soul-wearying task. For every one student you get from the above paragraph, you get dozens who try your patience, your self-control, and your sanity. You get the students for whom college is largely a formality and who treat your course with brutal indifference. You get the students for whom college is an inconvenience to their social life, their work life, or their family life. You get the students who you realize, tragically, simply don't belong in a college classroom. Finally, you get the students who struggle mightily for mediocrity and view their college experience as an entitlement.

I've been puzzling for months now just what it means to be a teacher. I have a pretty distinct vision of what it means to teach in my head. The reality I'm facing is that my vision of what a teacher is and what modern academia believes a teacher to be is growing more and more divergent.

To me, a teacher is responsible solely for conveying the knowledge and wisdom the teacher possesses to the minds of their students. This process of conveying knowledge and wisdom has many facets. There is the conveying of personal relevance and examination of examples through verbal conversation or monologue. There is the evaluation of student retention, both in the short term (through homework) and the long term (through examination), for the purposes of modification of the class' scope and sequence to better convey the knowledge and wisdom to the student. Finally, there is a aspect of mentoring.

What I'm finding at the college level is that more and more business practices and social liberalism are oozing their way into modern academia.

Teachers at nearly all levels now are not being encouraged to drive their students to excellence. More and more instructors worry about what their students think of them. The brutal "prove you're worthy" attitudes of professors are being replaced by seminars on customer service within the classroom. We post rubrics to show students exactly how we're grading a particular assignment so they can determine how hard to work instead of insisting that a student put their best into every assignment. At the school I teach for, we're even expected to alert the student's adviser when the student doesn't show up or doesn't hand in assignments. We're encouraged to post generous late work policies. We're viewed with skepticism by our colleagues regarding our commitment to student success when we flatly refuse to accept work late.

College used to be reserved for the best and the brightest. Now it is almost like extended high school. Falling expectations are only serving to exasperate the high achieving students, and filling underachievers with a sense of entitlement. I am routinely treated to emails I would never have dreamed to sending my professors (I finished my undergrad education 10 years ago). I get assignments and responses from students that, even in the text-only world of online education, fairly screams the students boredom. I see students wholly unprepared to take classes, not because they didn't have the opportunity to be prepared, because they had no interest in being prepared. I see students who don't have the slightest interest in learning how to learn, students who can't formulate concrete understanding from abstract concepts, and students who simply think that because they paid their bill it is the instructor's responsibility to deliver the A.

Part of the problem is the concept of the student as a customer. Students are not customers. Students share a single trait with a customer, they both pay money. Yet, what do they pay money for? What do they get for their tuition dollars? I respectfully submit that they really don't actually pay for much. However, that does not mean that they aren't getting value for the money they pay.

A student who pays their tuition is paying for the right to be labeled as a student. Our government and society extends certain considerations to people we label as students. They get tax breaks, protection from certain creditors, and (if the student is the right age) special consideration for their parents. The legal designation of "student" carries with it a great many protections that people without that designation do not receive.

A student who pays their tuition is paying for the privilege of being a part of the student body. They get certain discounts and have better access to the facilities of their school than the general public. They have opportunities for certain activities (e.g. study abroad) that the general public does not receive.

A student who pays tuition has the right to attend and participate in the classes they have registered to participate in. This participation means several things. They have the right to be (either physically or virtually) in the classroom for instruction. They have access to the instructor for the purposes of clarification of matters pertaining to the course of study. They have the right to submit their work for objective evaluation by the instructor. They have the benefit of learning from the criticism of their instructor as part of the evaluation of their classroom participation, homework, and exams.

A student who pays tuition and successfully completes their course of study has the right to join that school's community of alumni. That graduate also has the right to have the University's faculty attest to that graduate's ability to potential employers and other institutions of higher learning.

I will proudly stand for the students who have completed my courses and attest to their degree of proficiency with the course material covered. I do not take pleasure in failing a student. I get no satisfaction from seeing a student drop because the workload is too difficult. Both of those situations leave me wondering if I could have done more.

What I will not do is pass a student who receives 59% of the material in the course. I will not boost a student's grade because they "worked really really hard" or other reason not directly related to the material for the course. Likewise, I don't post my grading rubrics, despite being asked to. I want the best from my student's on every assignment. College is supposed to be difficult. College is supposed to stretch you both in terms of determining your priorities and in terms of dealing with the material. College is the crucible in which those wanting to be considered professionals by our society must be tested.

In the end, I almost wish for the days before learning became a business. When eager learners would gather around a wise elder and listen to them expound. When wise elders felt their obligation to their society to be such that they needed to sit in the town center and help those younger than they are learn the lessons they learned. It was the way society moved ahead.


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