Thursday, May 15, 2008

What is to be done?

Two recent stories, one at The Atlantic and the other at Inside Higher Ed, raise an uncomfortable issue: what happens when the official policies of a college or university rub up against an instructor's standards?

The story at Inside Higher Ed is of the professor at Norfolk State who was denied tenure for failing too many of his students. Now, there may be issues here that aren't covered in the article--issues about expectations, for example--but this part is especially pertinent: Although school policy is that students must attend 80% of class sessions, many do not and receive passing grades anyway, since "there is a clear expectation from administrators — in particular from Dean Sandra J. DeLoatch, the dean whose recommendation turned the tide against Aird’s tenure bid — that 70 percent of students should pass."

The Atlantic story, "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower," is Professor X's meditation on the spot--between his shoulder blades, to be exact--where the good ideal that everyone deserves a college education meets his underprepared student, Ms. L:
By passing Ms. L., I would be eroding the standards of the school for which I worked. Besides, I nurse a healthy ration of paranoia. What if she were a plant from The New York Times doing a story on the declining standards of the nation’s colleges? In my mind’s eye, the front page of a newspaper spun madly, as in old movies, coming to rest to reveal a damning headline:


Illiterate Mess Garners ‘Average’ Grade

Adjunct Says Student ‘Needed’ to Pass, ‘Tried Hard’

No, I would adhere to academic standards, and keep myself off the front page.

I'm troubled by both of these articles, so let's apply a little Lenin to the subject: what is to be done?
  • Institute more remedial preparatory courses at the college level? But in times of cutbacks, state legislatures and students taking out loans are both disinclined to lengthen the time it takes to get a degree.
  • Stop admitting "underprepared" students to college? This is troubling on a whole lot of levels, especially given this country's history of class, race, and gender prejudice.
  • Hire a lot more people to work one-on-one with people like Professor X's Ms. L? See the first point: who's going to pay for this?
  • Slide along and adapt grading standards so that the students who work hard can get the "gentlewoman's C-"? Isn't this what's happening, though, in the high schools where parents bully administrators to admit their kids into AP classes and then immediately start a campaign to water down the content since the classes are "too hard"?
  • Decide that college isn't for everyone? Professor X suggests this, but until there's equality of income and status for those who pursue alternate career tracks, it's not likely to fly.

    What are your thoughts?

    Anonymous said...

    "Decide that college isn't for everyone? Professor X suggests this, but until there's equality of income and status for those who pursue alternate career tracks, it's not likely to fly."

    But a college degree does not mean higher income any more. It can mean raises of sorts, but many schools are getting negative feedback about the poor quality of its grads now.

    It's really just become about the paper [aka the diploma]. And if you don't have the right paper, you're still SOL.

    For instance, I have an MA from an Ivy, doctoral training and a lengthy list of teaching experience. But in my state, I can't even teach high school because I lack the Ed credits to get certified. My grad schooling is meaningless; I've been unemployed since July!

    I just started applying for adjunct positions, but I am now wondering if my MA will even matter...seems all the colleges want people with PhDs to adjunct [for chump change too!].

    I'm really just left thinking Higher Ed is a just a big scam on everyone...

    Sisyphus said...

    Something about the tone of the Atlantic article skeeved me out, but I couldn't exactly articulate what.

    I mean, there _are_ different standards of what is considered "college quality" and "adequate preparation" right now, and I don't think we get the same quality of work at different institutions. It felt like he was maybe assigning some sort of standards or assumptions only applicable to the 18-year-old elite liberal arts students to courses that were being used for very different goals.

    I dunno --- I think there is a difference between holding standards and gatekeeping. And I felt like something odd was going on in that article.

    undine said...

    You're right, anon--it doesn't necessarily mean higher income unless you're a Wall Street type. In some states, you can get "emergency" certification with your credentials, but that doesn't negate the problems of the job market.

    Sisyphus, I had the same problem with that article. I think it clicked for me when he said that he knew she couldn't pass as soon as she showed up, or something like that. How did he know? Maybe she was a diamond in the rough.

    Anonymous said...

    The Atlantic Monthly piece said somesuch "knew as soon as she didn't know how to use a mouse that her research paper would fail."

    I kinda think that's a semi-legit assumption, considering how computer-based a library is these days, although in general I thought the AM piece was rather long and wasn't so enthused by it.

    Of course the answer is more remedial courses. Longer time to degree does not compromise any ethical or philosophical approaches, as the other possibilities do. People will just need to deal with it.

    Re remedial courses and one-on-one tutoring, which are basically the same approach of forcing people to get up to speed---note that the AM prof tried to direct Mrs L to resources and she didn't seem to go.

    Anonymous said...

    Sorry, my memory is no better than yours. It goes:

    From the beginning of our association vis-à-vis the research paper, I knew that there would be trouble with Ms. L.

    When I give out this assignment, I usually bring the class to the college library for a lesson on Internet-based research. ...

    Ms. L., it was clear to me, had never been on the Internet.

    Anonymous said...

    i just read that AM article and was wondering abotoo. i didnt know what to make of it exactly, there are problems on all sides. i think more remedial classes are important, but also, reevaluating the point of some requirements and individual career/education paths.

    undine said...

    dance, I'd forgotten that Ms. L declined to pursue the tutoring option. I don't think he saw her "I'll figure it out" for what it probably was, however--an attempt to salvage some pride when confronted with a situation that seems to have confused her deeply.

    justme, more remedial classes would be the answer, as dance says as well, but paying for them is still a problem.

    undine said...

    justme, reevaluating those career paths would be a great idea. There are a lot of careers that pay much better than college teaching, for example, and employers are lined up to hire people with A.A. degrees and the right training, but our culture is too focused on "college" as an abstraction to see them sufficiently.

    dance said...

    I don't think re-evaluating career paths is the right answer to this type of question. In general, I agree that the default "BA/BS as ticket to anything else" is a bad idea---but I'd like to know what career requires an AA but it's no problem that you are unable to write a coherent sentence. But coherent sentence-writing is something that should have been handled in high school.

    That is, "re-evaluate the need for college for everyone" and "more remedial courses" are not solutions to the same problem.