Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Such a Pity!

I snuck onto campus last weekend under the cover of darkness to pick up my new textbooks (one for each of the four different classes I am teaching this fall) and check my mailbox. It’s taken me most of this week to recover from my six weeks in South America, much of it trying to overcome a nasty respiratory infection I battled off and on the last three weeks of the trip. And it’ll certainly take me the next two weeks to get my classes ready to roll for the fall. I’m trying to be as scarce as possible for as long as possible just to catch my breath and prepare myself for the mad dash this fall promises to be.

In my mailbox were the student evaluations for the spring term. Of my 13 upper division Philosophy of Law students, 11 managed to find the online site to complete their evaluations, 89% of whom gave their instructor an overall assessment of excellent. That really doesn’t surprise me much. That group of students was one of my favorite classes of all times, I love teaching the philosophy of law and my evaluations are consistently good from philosophy of law sections, many of which are loaded with would-be attorneys happy to be taught by a recovering lawyer.

And then there was the section of world religions taught at the honors college. Of the 15 students in the course, only 9 of them found their way to the online site. Not surprisingly, the ratings were not nearly as good. I had inherited that class from another instructor whose reputation for being relatively undemanding is fairly widespread. And I found out less than 24 hours before the first class meeting that I would be taking it instead. After a night of frantic planning, I showed up the next day to the shock of a class expecting someone else. Perhaps it’s an understatement to say we got off to a rocky start and it never really got any better.

I suppose if I really took the opinions of undergrad honors college students seriously, my ego might be a bit dented by their low ratings. Only 11% of the honors class rated my teaching excellent, the same as those rating it poor. But it was the comments which were truly mean spirited, quite in keeping with the maturity level I observed in that class. I was particularly struck by the response to the question which inquired as to “your reaction to the method of evaluating your mastery of the course.” One student responded: “Instructor lacked the skills essential to teach.”

Gee, what a pity. What a real shame that this student had to endure an instructor who has attained an outstanding evaluation from his department and college each of the last eight years. What a major downer to be taught by one of only 10 winners of the Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award campus wide last year, the highest award the university confers on its teaching staff. And what an absolute pity that this poor student had to endure a Fulbright scholar teaching this class! What was the Honors College thinking?

That the comments say much more about the student than the instructor largely goes without saying. I mean seriously, what the hell does a college sophomore actually know about collegiate level pedagogy worth hearing to begin with? It’s also hardly surprising that this is the tenor of commentary when the university’s evaluations of teaching have devolved to the mindless consumer satisfaction questions posed these students: What did you like most about this course? What did you like least? And, would you like to add a flavor to that double mocha soy latte? What a joke!

What’s an even greater pity is that the students in the Honors College who clearly failed to take advantage of an excellent teacher with a life experience unmatched by most instructors they’ll ever encounter have no idea that it’s their loss. Worse yet, they have no idea how poorly they are seen by many of the faculty who teach them. The common perceptions of honors students among the Fulbright scholars with whom I spent the past summer were pretty uncomplimentary: inordinately entitled, constant whining, pain in the ass to teach, avoid at all costs. For many of my colleagues on the trip this summer, teaching honors students is seen as a hardship post, not a perk.

My experience with students at the honors college has caused me to question the value, perhaps even the validity, of honors colleges generally. This is not to say that they are doing nothing right. The students I have most enjoyed working with have been students in the Honors in the Major program, students outside the honors college, with none of the perks and little of the attitude that goes with them. These are kids, often from working class backgrounds, who are genuinely seeking to engage in some serious scholarship and fight their way up the paths to recognition and reward that students in honors programs find already greased for them and take for granted. They are as rewarding to teach as the majority of the students in the honors program are insufferable. And to the credit of the honors program, it makes it possible for these outsiders to earn their day in the sun.

Sadly, what I experience more often than not with students actually enrolled in the honors program is largely a group of strategic learners obsessed with grades but just as determined to avoid real learning at all costs. Clearly there are some exceptions, students I have known and loved and would go to the end of the earth to help them on their way. These are true scholars I have come to cherish as friends and future colleagues. But, sadly, the average student in honors classes is lazy, prone to whining and operates out of a sense of inordinate entitlement that is completely inexplicable.

What makes it most frustrating is that it is precisely the students who in theory are the most capable of thinking and producing good quality work who often turn out to be the most resistant to doing so. They are more prone to use their intellect for quibbling over points on quizzes and complaining about work load than seriously engaging the ideas presented them. And when their lackluster efforts fail to produce the As they see as their birthright, they quickly blame their teachers, as the half-witted comments above evidence.

I’d like to think that perhaps this fall will be better. I am structuring my grading such that students can see what will be expected of them for an A, B or C and they can choose up front which they’ll seek knowing how much work each will entail. I’m hoping this strategy will appeal to their professional middle class fetish for choice and their overachiever obsessions with grades. At the same time I hope to make them responsible for their own choices and accountable for their performances. In all honesty, I’m not terribly optimistic. But, then, hope springs eternal, even for us poor instructors assigned to honors programs whose undergraduate experts in higher education pedagogy have authoritatively determined to lack the skills essential to teach.

Socrates wept.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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