Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Summer of Their Discontent – Part II

Amidst the sea of negativity I received in my Summer B evaluations (the tenor of which my chair described as “hysterical”) was this comment: “Professor’s lack of respect for his students was outrageous.” It’s a comment that stings given the general fondness I feel for most of my students, a trait that is repeatedly reflected in the evaluations of my real live courses. But, in all fairness, I think this student was on target. By the end of a summer which had featured a mutiny and a non-stop whine session, I really didn’t have much respect for those students.

But was respect due them? The same student who lamented my lack of respect for her complained that the stripped down, bare minimum course with three tests and four Gordon Rule Papers “placed unrealistic expectations” on students. She complained that the tests did not allow students to skip questions and return to them later (which makes it difficult to look up the answers in the text the student hasn’t read). She complained that 24 hours was insufficient time to write a Gordon Rule Paper even though the prep materials needed for the paper were provided well in advance of the 24 hour window.

Comments from other students included complaints about “the enormous amount of reading” and “an unreasonable expectation of study time.” Another complained because I did not give an “open note test” while another asserted that the tests were “weird. They required comprehension and critical analysis of the reading.” Imagine that! Yet another complained because the class was so fast paced the student “did not have enough time to learn the material” (this from a student who specifically chose to take the course in the abbreviated six week summer format). And then there was the complaint that requiring submission of papers to, the plagiarism site, was “too much of a hassle. I think we should be trusted because we are college students now, not high school students any more to plagierize (sic).”

Some of the comments were ironic in their embodiment of the very concerns to which I often direct my comments:

· “Technical errors.u”
· “This is not an english class so assume we know how to use english properly…”
· “This is the first time I’ve taking a class online so at first the test as overwhelming some answers were there, but trying to complete the test before the time was up, lead me to overlook some of the right answers sadly.”

So, perhaps I did not show a lot of respect for this substandard writing and the constant whining. But, again, what respect is due this kind of performance?

A number of students reported taking personal affront to some of the comments made to them. Admittedly, my frustration with the onslaught of posts, many of them asking questions that were already answered by posted materials they clearly had not read, did begin to show by the end of the term. Moreover, I was having to completely revamp the website given its changeover from WebCT to Blackboard with all the accompanying technical problems that went with that shift. As some students rightfully complained, many of the links no longer worked and had to be relinked. In reality, I spent hours recreating the documents and links. No doubt my frustration was palpable by the end of the term.

What was particularly troubling in all this hysteria was the personal nature of some of the comments. One of the great weaknesses (among the many) of online courses is that the human beings involved never get to know each other. They don’t get to see the human face of the other. They make comments they would never say to a person’s face. And so perhaps it is not surprising when a frustration-filled semester ends with comments like this: “Your picture hanging in some building does not make you a good teacher.” This from a person who has never met me.

My chair is willing to write this off as simply a bad term which we all suffer through occasionally. But in all honesty, my experience last summer caused me to seriously question how long I can remain in college instruction. For the first time in my life, I found myself dreading the beginning of school this fall, a time that has always been one of great excitement and anticipation for me. I found myself wondering what other work could I possibly do and whether I could simply survive to retirement in 10 years, this from a man who had once believed he’d teach until he dropped over dead.

Fortunately, this fall has gone a long way toward redeeming my vocation as teacher. My three sections of honors students are unusually good, generally respectful and hardworking with the occasional attitude-laden narcissist thrown in for good measure. My large Encountering the Humanities class has produced some good discussions and is composed mostly of decent, good natured students. I’m actually enjoying this rather frantic fall where I am teaching four different courses including a new course team taught with another instructor. Indeed, I had almost laid this troubled past summer to rest when I received the summer’s evaluations yesterday.

Ironically, a couple of my summer students seemed to think I see myself “to be above 2000 level courses.” In actuality, I believe the Humanistic Traditions courses we teach are perhaps the most important courses the university offers. Where else will students be required to actually consider what it means to be human, what legacy they have inherited from those who have gone before and what obligations to the world they have as a result of their privilege? My graduating senior (and who knows more than them?) ended her diatribe with the comment “If you feel above basic humanities, please stop teaching it!”

The problem is not that I feel above teaching basic humanities. The problem is that the online summer format of Humanistic Traditions simply isn’t about teaching. And it’s even less about learning.

What it is about is the procurement of credit hours and crossing off of graduation requirements in as short a period as possible with as little work as is necessary. It’s about relieving overcrowded classrooms and guaranteeing tuition moneys (not to mention additional online fees) for the university’s ever shrinking budget. It’s about teachers being required to spend more and more of their own time playing technical games with substandard computer systems and being the middle man with little technological expertise between that system and its users. And it's about the difference between a $43,000/year income and $51,000/year income (this for a professional with three graduate degrees and 25 years of college teaching experience) guaranteed only by the willingness to endure online teaching in six week summer terms.

Finally, it’s about those who ostensibly came to college to be students but who instead have come to confuse themselves for consumers with inordinate senses of entitlement. That sense of entitlement includes a perceived right to make demands on everything from pedagogy to course content to assessment from those they see as obligated to provide goods and services to their specifications. One only has to read my summer courses’ evaluations to see that.

In reality, I stopped actually teaching the basic humanities a long time ago, not because it was beneath me but rather because that was no longer the job I was paid to do. Sadly, that will prove to be a major loss to all parties involved.

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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