Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Luxury of Caring

In the past two weeks, three events have brought into sharp focus the realities of my dwindling career in a rapidly changing academy. As ever, it is a bewildering pastiche of realities that many of us encounter in our daily lives as teachers, mentors and scholars.

AWOL at Exam Time

Last week was the first round of exams for two of my four online classes. I tend to break course material into thirds for any kind of assessment. While I do use midterms and finals in one of my classes, I generally find that about five weeks of material is as much as most students can process at a given point.

The first exam is often the point that students who have been struggling give up the ghost and withdraw. Unlike many university instructors, I make an effort to reach out to such students early on. After a couple of weeks of assignments (quizzes and/or discussions) I will send students who are failing a note, letting them know I am concerned about their progress and offering to help in any way I can.

I realize I don’t have to do this and I also know that many, perhaps most, instructors won’t bother. Most students do not respond at all though a handful will take this as a wakeup call. If nothing else,  the lawyer in me feels the need to provide notice to students who are facing failure in the class if for no other reason than to cover my own backside. In a day when students readily blame instructors for their own failures on end-of-term consumer ratings and send letters to everyone from G-d down to your department chair to grieve any perceived slight, it’s always best to err on the side of caution.

First exams often expose online students’ lack of engagement. In analysis after analysis I’ve conducted and provided my classes, there is a direct relationship between attendance, either in person in face-to-face classes or at the website of online courses, and performance on the first exam. This is hardly rocket science. If you’re not engaging the class, the chances are you will perform poorly on exams. While that’s not universally true (strategic learners are occasionally adept at pulling of last minute grade saves in classes they have neglected) it’s true in the vast majority of cases.

While I was prepared for poor performance among my AWOL students, I was not prepared for what actually happened this time – non-performance. In my World Religions course, of the 69 students still enrolled, a full 20 (29%) simply failed to submit their first exam at all. Without that exam, the student could not pass the course.

At some level, that might be a bit more expectable among underclassmen. World Religions is one of our General Education Program courses, the curriculum that has replaced the traditional liberal arts foundation that all students were once presumed to need prior to entering their majors. But this pattern was hardly confined to my underclassmen.

In the Contemporary Humanities course, an upper division course which meets a graduation requirement for our majors, of the 21 students in the course, 10 of them failed to submit their first exam. Again, that’s tantamount to failure in the class. And that’s nearly half the class.

Horses That Just Won’t Drink

If these were demanding courses, I might be a little less disturbed by this kind of irresponsibility. The problem is, they really aren’t. I realize that in the context of other classes students might have taken, they may well be seen as demanding. And students regularly tell me mine are the most demanding classes they face.

But when I examine the time commitments of the classes themselves, a factor I regularly consider when creating my syllabi and schedules, the evidence simply isn’t there. The fact that students are not required to do much in other classes hardly means that these classes, considered on their own terms, are particularly demanding.

The World Religions course requires students to read on the average of 40 pages a week from their textbook and related supplemental readings. At an extremely slow reading pace (high school average) of 2 minutes/page, that’s about an hour and a half per week of reading. The quizzes which are designed to insure students actually do the reading require 20 minutes maximum. If students are taking an average 1.5 quizzes a week, that’s an additional 30 minutes.

Using the Carnegie Unit of two hours prep for every hour in class, a three hour course could reasonably demand up to nine hours a week from each student. This course’s two hour/week demands come nowhere close.  And yet, when it comes time for the exam, nearly three in 10 students fail to submit an exam.

The Contemporary Humanities course is a bit more demanding, not surprising for an upper division course. The readings average about 50 pages per week, or about two hours total. Students are required to then submit one original post answering questions designed to digest and develop the readings and then respond to two classmates’ posts. While the quality of the posts I am grading hardly reflect much time actually being spent, in theory this activity could take up to an hour and a half.

That’s just three and a half hours total, again, in the context of a Carnegie Unit total of nine hours/week which could be reasonably demanded. This is the class in which nearly half of the students failed to submit their first exam.

I realize that my classes demand that students not only read assigned materials and write responses to those readings and to each other’s comments but also require them to actually think about what they’re reading and writing about. My guess is that when they say these classes are “hard,” they mean they are not terribly inclined to do the critical thinking I’m asking them to do. Their discussion posts and exam answers generally bear that out.

In all honesty, that’s pretty depressing. As the instructor of the course, I’ve spent a lot of time reading and selecting materials, constructing provocative questions for discussion and the formats for the students to use in writing them. I’ve worked hard to arrange the schedule so that readings and assignments do not bunch up and become burdensome. The Schedule tells the students from Day One when the exams are coming and for all of my exams, which are open-book essay format, they get a week to complete them.
In short, I’ve done everything I can to insure student success in my courses. But the horses do have to eventually decide to take that drink.

“Oh, you actually care.”

At times like this I find myself wondering aloud to anyone who will listen what in the hell I am doing all this for. It’s demoralizing to work as hard as I do, to try my damndest to engage students, only to have so many simply fail to even submit exams.

This is where the second jolt came last week. As I lamented my woes to a couple of colleagues at a local pub, I found myself encountering blank stares in response. “So what?” one of them said. I sputtered to find a response when the light of recognition came to my colleagues face:

“Oh, you actually care.”


Of course, perhaps I shouldn’t. While I’ve long realized that the old maxim about college students being adults was at best wishful thinking, at worst a pernicious myth giving rise to rarely met expectations, I’ve never felt that concern for their success was an option. I’ve always felt that part of my job was to care that my students not only succeeded in my class but actually learned something in the process. As I sat at that table looking across my beer at my colleagues last week, it became very clear to me that I may well be among a small minority who hold such views.

Later that night as I laid out that story to my gentle-spirited husband, who himself works for a state college (in an IT department), over dinner, he softly responded with his usual common sense observation: “Harry, they don’t have the luxury of caring. They are not in an institution which values that. They’re not being paid to care.”

Of course, he is right. At a mega-university with bottom lines of status, numbers and dollars and an army of technocrats to insure those bottom lines come rolling in, caring about student success is clearly not an institutional value. Indeed, it may well be seen as a liability to those things which truly are valued.

In this context, faculty concern about half of their class not submitting exams and thus heading toward failure is indeed a luxury. But if the rewards of teaching are primarily moral, where does one find reward when one’s students don’t care, when one’s colleagues don’t have the luxury of caring and when one’s employer’s values are in conflict with your own?

A Surprise Party

The third event in this pathos mashup came yesterday. As is true with most faculty, I have always had a coterie of students who have sought me out to talk. Some come to ask questions about their classes they are currently taking with me. Some seek advice on their academic careers and their plans beyond undergraduate. But most come to just chat about whatever is on their minds.

At one point yesterday during my office hours I found myself with a full house – one graduate, two former students nearing graduation and two students who have taken classes with me previously and now are finishing up graduation requirements in an online section with me. We quickly ran out of chairs and the two current students stood in the doorway. The conversation was widely ranging and raucous punctuated with a lot of laughter. No doubt there were faculty members down the hall who felt the need to shut their doors.

These are among the few joys that true teachers like me still find in our work in higher education these days. These students remind us that the nearly 50% of students who end up AWOL on exam day are not the whole story. They remind us that the institution with its shallow corporate values and the oppressive technocratic culture in which we struggle to do our jobs at least ostensibly still has as its goal the concerns of thoughtful human beings like these. And they remind us that when we actually do indulge the luxury to care, there are human beings deserving of that care and more than willing to reciprocate.

For those random moments of affirmation of my lifelong vocation to being a caring teacher, I am deeply grateful.

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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


Bob said...

My sister teaches at the college level in Boston. I forwarded this blog to her, FYI.

Anonymous said...

Glad you still recognize the joy that comes from being appreciated by the other 50%. I would have LOVED to have had you for a professor. It is unfathomable how much effort you put in into estimating the amount of time a studious student would have to spend in completing class assignments.