Friday, August 15, 2014

Finally a Chance to Respond – Part I

A former student has offered a response to my most recent blog post in which I expressed my gratitude for the opportunity to mentor students. I will gladly publish it. My only criteria for publishing responses on my blog site is that such posts are thoughtful. While some aren’t necessarily very thoughtful, this one evidences a certain degree of insight.

At some level I am in the debt of this student. I don’t know who s/he is because s/he offered the response anonymously. But what is important to me is that by placing his/her comments on this forum, I am actually able to offer what I hope will be my own thoughtful response to these comments.  

An Exercise in Consumerism

Such is never the case with either the overtly consumerist Ratemyprofessor sites one finds online or its thinly veiled consumerist progeny, the student ratings conducted by the university each term.  Last school year, a mere 39% of the students I taught actually went to the site to offer their ratings. If students are given an option of engaging the ratings process, by definition only those who feel motivated for whatever reason, whether to offer praise that borders on sycophantism or with axes to grind, will actually do so.   

Sadly, the questions posed at the university’s site are unlikely to produce useful information for an instructor. “What did you like best/least...” are consumerist questions better suited for Baskin-Robbins and its many flavors of ice cream than feedback on an academic process. Whether a student liked or hated any given aspect of a course is a largely unrelated question as to whether it provided an opportunity to learn. Unlike the former question, the latter has the possibility of actually producing useful feedback to an instructor. Sadly, such approaches also signal to students that they should behave like consumers entitled to have it their way. That has all kinds of pathological ramifications for higher education.

Worse yet, student comments produced by these ratings are offered in a contextual vacuum. The litany on my ratings is the same each term:  too much reading, grading too rigorous, feedback too harsh. But without any context, what do such comments mean? Too much reading for whom? Under what circumstances? Too rigorous in comparison to what? Too harsh given what presumed criteria? In short, what were the expectations upon which these comments were based and were they reasonable given the circumstances?

Not surprisingly, such questions are never posed and thus a context for the responses to questions which actually are asked is never established. The result is that much of the commentary generated at these sites by definition has limited utility to instructors as feedback on their teaching. And as in many cases online, the anonymity of cyberspace sometimes seems to bring out the worst in contributors. 

The insult added to the injury of being subject to this simplistic, counterproductive process is that universities actually use these acontextual consumerist responses to reward and punish their faculty. This fact has hardly escaped the attention of their consumer/students who readily recognize their power to dictate work load, grading and the tenor of feedback through this process.

So I thank the student for making these comments at my blogspot which in turn affords me an opportunity to actually respond. Moreover, the comments themselves frame the concerns of the class s/he took with me very well.

I will comment inter-textually below. The text of the student’s comments are boldfaced italicized.

A Passion Flickering Out

I think you are a talented teacher with a passion to teach,….

First, I thank you for recognizing my capacities as a teacher. I work very hard at being a good teacher. I have attended countless continuing education programs at the university and elsewhere to stay atop of changes in technology and pedagogy. I regularly engage in classes abroad and here in the US, mostly on my own nickel, to stay on top of my fields and expand my content knowledge. I take my work seriously and I have won several awards during my nearly 30 years of teaching in higher education.

So, thank you for noticing. Increasingly that is the rare exception and not the rule.

As for my passion to teach, for most of my life it has flowed from the teacher at the core of my being. Historically, teaching has never been just a job for me. Rather it has been an expression of who I am as a human being. If I knew my primary needs in Maslow’s hierarchy (food, clothing, shelter, security) would be met, I would readily teach for free.

But, in all honesty, my passion for teaching has decidedly cooled over the past few years. Truth is, I abhor the direction I see universities taking as they have devolved into a deadly combination of corporate business values, practices and organization executed by an ever growing army of administrators and technocrats.  Lost in the shuffle of marketing Club Med dorms and tail gate parties and a highly reductionist and superficial demand for “accountability” which largely reduces the art of teaching and learning to meaningless data is any real concern for higher education.

Worse yet, I bewail the loss of students interested in (or at least not adverse to) actually learning.  Today I largely encounter strategic grade seekers and entitled consumers. Sadly, I sense that this decline has been accentuated by the rise of online courses like the one this student took. Once you begin down the slippery slope of excusing students from having to invest their time and energy in actually attending class all that’s really left is a process of negotiation of the bottom line.

It’s important to note that I do not blame the army of adolescents who arrive at our gates these days in a largely unconscious state for these attitudes and behaviors. I have watched with increasing levels of horror as the products of a generation of No Child Left Behind “reforms” have come to the university. They have been suckled in the toxic formula of multiple choice tests and the construction of education strictly in instrumental terms, as means to jobs and little else. In years to come, I fear my Boomer generation is going to be seen as not only falling short of our promise to change the world for the better, we will be blamed for ruining our successor generations.

During my recent month away to study in Boston and Israel, I went through a rather dark night of the soul on my vocation as a teacher. As I heard professors talking about the exciting classes they were going to create as a result of our institute and the challenging students they anticipated teaching, I found myself nearly despondent.

The chances are that I would never have the chance to teach classes like these. There is little room in a factory process degree assembly line for classes that would seriously wrestle with the complex, existential questions that the reality of Israel raises.  Even if the class was offered, the chances it would draw sufficient enrollment to avoid being cancelled are pretty limited. In a day of and social media, the ability of student/consumers to avoid classes requiring significant reading, writing and critical thinking is virtually unlimited.

In all honesty, it is difficult to remain passionate about teaching in the face of this reality.

This post continues in Part II.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div. Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee

 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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