Friday, January 04, 2013

Field of Broken Dreams – Part II

Declining Moral Rewards

Of course, few of us in education are here strictly for the money. It is true that concern for money has become more pointed recently as universities have increasingly been defunded by state legislatures, reducing them to grant-grubbing institutional prostitutes selling their very souls for corporate (especially the self-proclaimed “defense industry”) moneys. The name of the research office at my own university is quite telling: Research and Commercialization. Apparently research without the end goal of profit-making is now unworthy of the academy. But for the rank and file teacher, our motivations rarely can be reduced to dollars and cents.

I returned to Florida in 1995 with the stated goal of serving the people of Florida, to give  back to the state that had raised me and largely educated me the gifts I had been given. My sense of obligation to my home state and its people arose out of my own largely positive experience in Florida’s educational system as well as what I saw as a crying need for dedicated teachers at all levels.

But lately, I have begun to wonder when that debt can be considered paid. With all vocations, there is a calling, a response to that calling, an affirmation by a community, the willingness to grow and change to meet the calling and an opportunity to live out the vocation once the respondent is ready. That last part, the opportunity to live out the vocation, is more often than not the key to its success. And as conditions continue to degenerate at the university, more and more I wonder if it is still possible to live out my vocation under these circumstances.

Where the selfless, service-driven aspects of education break down is when they begin to be taken for granted and thus devalued. From there it is only a short distance down a slippery slope to outright exploitation. In a culture that largely reduces itself to superficial values measured in economic terms, respect afforded human beings often mirrors the amount of money that society is willing to pay them for their professional services. Professional service-providers who are consistently underpaid and overworked are clearly not respected by the society they serve and their service is not valued.

Doris Santaro, an associate professor of education at Bowdoin College, recently published an article in the American Journal of Education. Its subtitle is telling: Demoralization in the Pursuit of Good Work. Santaro begins her article with this statement:

What happens when experienced teachers who are fueled by the moral dimension of teaching find that they can no longer access the moral rewards of the work? Consistent and persistent frustrations in accessing the moral rewards of teaching requires a new concept to describe teachers who feel they no longer can do good work or teach “right.” Too often, this phenomenon of frustration in the pursuit of good teaching is described as burnout. Although the terms “burnout” and “demoralization” have been used synonymously, it is better to consider the two phenomena as related but conceptually distinct.

Burnout may be an appropriate diagnosis in some cases where individual teachers’ personal resources cannot meet the challenge of the difficulties presented by the work. However, the burnout explanation fails to account for situations where the conditions of teaching change so dramatically that moral rewards, previously available in ever-challenging work, are now inaccessible. In this instance, the phenomenon is better termed demoralization.

The moral rewards of teaching have always been the joys of helping people achieve their potentials as human beings. A bumper sticker long popular among educators states it well: “I touch the future. I teach.” And in years past, that may well have been true. Increasingly, it seems that is less and less true.

The Whine Cellar

My philosophy of teaching has always been based on the notion of engaged education. The idea of going to college to “receive an education” commonly used in our society is oxymoronic on a good day.

A passive approach to college may result in a number of things but becoming an educated human being is unlikely to be among them. Colleges can offer only the opportunity to become educated. Students who take that opportunity seriously stand a good chance of actually becoming educated, i.e., capable of thinking critically, creative problem solving, effective communication and ethically responsible citizenship, all of this in addition to being basically trained in a given vocation.

Those who become bottom liners, merely seeking credits in individual classes and a degree to show for them at the end, can certainly attain that bottom line and do so all the time. Indeed, they may well represent the majority of graduates from academia today. But they will have little to show for their minimal efforts at the end of the five years when the average currently required work skills become obsolete. And they will have little by which to commend themselves as human beings because they have failed to engage in the hard work required to fully develop their own potentials.

After years of resisting, about three years ago I finally began to respond to the chorus arising from the student whine cellar about my courses’ workloads by strategically reducing the same. In a day of consumerist online rating sites that increasingly play a role in determining whether one’s classes actually get enough enrollment to make, such a strategy is less a response of laziness or cowardice than a pragmatism born of desperation. But, sadly, what I have realized is that one can never reduce the workload enough. The whining will continue regardless. Indeed, in some cases it has actually increased in those classes where workload was reduced.

Survey says….

About the same time I began cutting back course requirements, I also began surveying students about their study habits and their attitudes toward the same using the online webcourses sites to conduct the surveys. The webcourses technology allows students to respond to surveys in complete anonymity. Students were asked to take the survey to provide feedback to be considered in the revision of the general education program. No extra credit was provided for participation nor were grades affected in any way. Student participation was about 70%. And the responses were troubling.

The Carnegie Unit was established a century ago to provide a common means of assessing the credit hours – and thus the credibility - awarded to college courses. Built into its calculations is a prescribed study time to class time equivalent of two hours of preparation prior to class for every hour spent in class. Without this preparation, seen as the average any given student might need to engage, the credit hours awarded alone would themselves be meaningless. But to the average student in my classes, expectations that students spend that prep time are more often than not seen as excessive.

From the survey results of an online GEP Humanistic Traditions section of 55 students last summer, students offered the following responses:

Q. The Carnegie Unit established a century ago for the means of counting college credit hours allots one hour of college credit per hour spent in class and presumes that students will spend an average of two hours of preparation outside of class for each classroom hour. I think this expectation is

A. Less than Necessary 4.8%, About right  71.4%, More than Necessary 28.6%, Much more than Necessary  4.8% (All More than Necessary, 33.4%) 
(NOTE: Students could select more than one response)

In the following open-ended question which asked students to explain their response, most offered responses suggesting the Carnegie Unit’s two for one requirement was what was necessary to actually learn the material and “not just temporarily memorizing and forgetting” as one student put it. For students who saw the Carnegie prep time requirement as excessive, the common explanation was to compare it to how much time students have typically been required to spend elsewhere. To wit:

Q. My opinion of the Carnegie Unit prep time requirement is based upon:

·         The time I actuall (sic) find myself working on college assignments
·         Honestly, the classes I have taken thus far do not require two extra hours per class hour for adequate test preparation.
·         experience and in comparison to the demands put upon students nowadays.
·         my personal experience taking college courses.
·         I don't think that any student spends 2 hours per 1 hour spent in the classroom.

Perhaps more importantly, while a substantial majority of these students admit that the Carnegie Unit 2 hour prep requirement is a reasonable expectation, about right or perhaps not enough prep time, few of these students report actually meeting that requirement in their classes.

When asked “On the average, I have prepared for each class meeting of all the classes I have taken for…”  the responses were decidedly on the low side of the Carnegie requirement:

1. at least 15 minutes but not more than 30 minutes per hour of class - (0%)
2. at least 30 minutes but not more than 1 hour per hour of class - (19%)
3. at least 1 hour but not more than 1.5 hours per hour of class - (19%)
4. at least 1 hour 1.5 but not more than 2 hours per hour of class - (42.9%)
5. at least 2 hours per hour of class - (19%)
6. More than two hours per hour of class - (0%)

Moreover, when asked what they see as fair to require of them, the results are very similar. To wit:

Q. “I think that in the average college course I should be required to spend how much time in preparation for that class “

1. at least 15 minutes but not more than 30 minutes per hour of class - (0%)
2. at least 30 minutes but not more than 1 hour per hour of class - (14.3%)
3. at least 1 hour but not more than 1.5 hours per hour of class - (28.6%)
4. at least 1 hour 1.5 but not more than 2 hours per hour of class - (42.9%)
5. at least 2 hours per hour of class -  (14.3%)
6. More than two hours per hour of class - (0%)

Not only are students not spending the time preparing for classes they recognize as reasonable, 86% of students do not think the Carnegie Unit’s 2 hour prep requirement should be required of them.

But here’s the kicker. When asked what grade these students thought they should make in the class where they were surveyed, the results were overwhelmingly on the high side:

Q. “Coming into this course, the grade I thought I should be able to make was…” 

1. A  (42.9%)
 2. A- (38.1%) - All As (81%)          

3. B-, B or B+  (23.8%) – A or B (95%)

 4. C-, C or C+  (0%)
 5. Below C-(0%)
 6. I didn’t know what grade I would make (4.8%)
(NOTE: Students could select more than one answer)

So while better than 8 out of 10 of these students are not spending at least the required Carnegie Unit 2 hour prep time and an even greater number think they should not be required to do so, about the same number came into this college course presuming they should depart from it with at least an A-. 

Clearly, this limited glimpse should not be generalized too widely. This small of a sample may or may not reflect all UCF students generally. And it is even more tenuous to extrapolate these findings to American college students as a whole. However, these findings are fairly consistent with a number of studies of student attitudes and behaviors over the past decade, most notably the work of Arum and Roska in Academically Adrift. And they are consistent with both attitudes and behaviors observed by this instructor as well as some less than flattering rankings of the university which I discuss below. Sadly, I fear this may well be an accurate snapshot of the phenomenon of entitlement among entering college students which is increasingly documented in the scholarship of teaching and learning today

Of course, if students are not actually spending the time required by the Carnegie Unit and still attaining As, in all honesty, why should they? We human beings tend to seek the path of least resistance to our goals. But assuming that it’s true that less work can still result in high grades, that raises two troubling questions about the integrity of higher education:

One, what do such grades actually mean? and,
Two, what can we assume that students actually learn in such courses?

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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