Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Dilemma

Increasingly I find the process of teaching to be overtly - and uncomfortably - political. The question that increasingly confronts me as an instructor is not what is the right thing to do, indeed, not even what is most likely to lead to education, but rather how must I respond to the context in which I am spending my last working years before retirement. It is a context in which students see themselves as consumers in an academy which more and more confuses itself for a provider of consumer goods and services. Walt Disney World, one of my former employers, had a very Disney way of putting it: “The guest may not always be right but the guest is always the guest.”

What that means in real terms in today’s academy – at least at the mega-factory version on whose degree assembly line I labor – is that every aspect of your work is now subject to consumerist review, a review which increasingly has real-life consequences in universities which have come to understand themselves as once academic versions of the Disney corporation. Assign too much work –“too much” always defined by the demands of student-consumers – your student “evaluations” fall, online surveys which begin with the questions “What did you like best about this class?” Or you might get comments on the online sites designed to help slacker students avoid anything but easy As about the outrageousness of your work load even when it falls well short of the Carnegie Unit two hours prep for each class hour. Grade with any rigor – translation: everyone doesn’t get an A – and you get urgent exhortations on those sites from honors students to avoid the class at all costs because it’s impossible to make an A, even as those who write such messages almost to the student actually received one in the class in question.

Draw attention to inappropriate student behaviors and failures to live into responsibilities to their classmates and the class itself and you may find yourself reported to administrators in an increasingly bloated bureaucracy desperate to coddle cash cows and insure their own survival. The guest may not always be right but they are always the guest and thus, at the academic theme park, entitled to set the conditions upon which any encounter between employees and guests occur.

Such are the conditions in which real life dilemmas arise, such as the one I encountered two weeks ago in one of my classes.

One of the skills I have historically tried to develop in my students is the ability to make presentations to classmates. These presentations are designed to encourage actual development of ideas only cursorily touched upon in their introductory texts. They require students to think a little more deeply about the subjects and then relate those understandings to their classmates. Presentations allow for the development of technical skills in the use of power point and the selection of art and video clips. My assignments also require the development of handouts to accompany the presentation, an aspect designed to help students determine the critical points of the information presented and to allow students in their audience to follow the presentation and make notes without having to write down everything on the screen as a handful of them always feel compelled to do. Because the classes are generally small, the public presentation of the power point provides a generally friendly, non-threatening audience with which to gain some experience and confidence in public speaking and answering questions. Finally, presentations require students to learn to work with others, for honors students in particular to break out of the hypercompetitive and often highly narcissistic bubbles in which they live to learn skills of cooperative productivity.

When the presentations are completed, students are required to evaluate their own performance and that of their group members, complete with a grade from 0-10 and a reason for that grade, as well as to serve as an audience for other groups, again grading them and providing reasons for that grade which are then used for feedback to the group presenting. The final components of the grade are the instructor’s evaluation of the presentation and the instructor’s assessment of the student evaluations to insure students don’t just blow them off (e.g., We were great! 10/10).

Two weeks ago, a student group came to the front to set up their final presentation (in this honors section, each group has two PPT presentations plus one brochure presentation per semester). It was immediately apparent that the whole group was not present. When I asked the students who were present if they had heard anything from the two missing students, they said no. Knowing one of the missing students to be habitually late for class, I stalled, using the time to pass out papers I had planned to return at the end of the class and to make comments on where I saw areas for improvement in their papers. Now 15 minutes into the class, I finally decided that with only 35 minutes remaining, we would have to start the group presentation without the AWOL members. I began by asking the present group members what it felt like to be abandoned by their classmates upon whom they had relied. “It sucks” was the articulate response from the first. The other, a demure Asian woman, merely blushed and nodded in agreement. And so the presentations began with the students presenting their own assigned parts and noting the parts they were covering for other students.

About 25 minutes into the class (the classes are only 50 minutes total), one of the remaining group members burst through the door. With a wave of commotion of books and papers in the back of the class, the student stalked to the front of the classroom, passing in front of the student’s group member who was actively presenting at that moment. No apologies. No explanation. No consideration for the interruption caused. Later, when the student was asked during the presentation about a particular part to be covered, the student responded by saying “I sent that to you last night.” No sense of group responsibilities, no consideration for the audience. Remember, it’s all about me.

For the record, the other student never showed.

To date, neither student has even explained their behaviors – much less apologized – to the class or their instructor. When I asked the group members if they had received an apology, they said the no-show student had apologized for “spacing out and missing the class” (this from a student who previously had a virtually perfect attendance record) but the other had neither apologized nor explained their late arrival.

This point was hardly lost on their classmates. One of them noted in their reasons for giving the group a less than stellar grade that “There overall powerpoint was good but because the whole group didn't show up it was sort of a mess. The two speakers that came on time and presented knew their parts and individually I would give them 10s but part of being a group is working as a team and having everyone participate.” The grammar and usage may not be stellar but the observation is pretty solid: these students failed to be responsible to their group and the class as a whole and their presentation - and thus their grade - suffered as a consequence.

While that's easy for a consumer/student to say, remembering that the guest is always right, it poses a dilemma for the instructor. What does an instructor in an self-described academic institution do with such performances? How does the instructor respond to such inconsiderate and immature behaviors? How does the instructor grade such non-performance?

In years past, I would have had no question about my responses. The students in question would have failed the exercise. I would have pulled them aside individually and spoken to them about their inconsideration and suggested that they should first apologize to their group members for the untenable position in which their lack of performance had placed them. And I would have ended by suggesting that they probably owed their classmates an apology as well. Such a procedure could prove a valuable learning experience for all the parties involved, albeit painful. Indeed, without any kind of negative response in the face of such behavior, does it not encourage more of the same in the future?

But in a world where universities have become corporate theme parks and where students have become entertainment seeking guests who are always right, at what cost to the employee does such a direct confrontation come? And in the cost/benefit analysis that non-tenured personnel such as myself – a status I share with more and more colleagues these days - are inevitably required to make for every one of our actions these days, do the benefits of doing the right thing exceed the potential costs? Does the ethical instructor do anyone any good in the unemployment line?

What would Socrates do?

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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