In looking over the titles to my last few entries, I see that I had a few things to write about the start of the academic year. Suffice it to say that it hasn't been a particularly inspiring one since then. On the positive side, however, I have two independent studies plus a group of four students who are doing "honors conversions," i.e. limited activities beyond the general course requirements, in order for the course to qualify as a component in their honors program. This makes it possible to have a bit more intellectual stimulation than is typical in the general course offerings.
In general, I have experienced less obnoxious behavior from students in the last two years than I remember having had in previous years. I think that the group two years ago was probably among the worst I have ever had. To my partial satisfaction, I heard reports of horrible showdowns between some of them and at least one instructor of sophomore-level classes last year. There were accusations and counter-accusations, and foul language in the dean's office. I'm glad that things did not degenerate to that level when these were my students, and perhaps it's an indication of my diplomatic skills in dealing with difficult people. Nonetheless, it wasn't always fun. As one student remarked in comments on the course evaluation form, I needn't be as obvious about my contempt for my situation. In retrospect, I'm glad that contempt communicated as clearly as it did, and there's more where that came from.
I'm no fan of the administration's obsession with U.S. News & World Report rankings. This year the "great" news is that we are now #19 among public universities. Popping the cherry of the top 20 had long been a wet dream of the admins, and this year we've gone one step beyond that, or so it seems. Earlier this week, while I was trying to contextualize some of the persistent frustration that my colleagues and I face, I did a little rankings research of my own. The categories that come up most readily on the U.S. News rankings site show no distinction between public and private national universities. According to this broader categorization, there are two national universities in this state, Yale and the one where I teach. Yale is ranked #3 and mine is ranked #57. There are three other undergraduate institutions that are ranked in the national category, but they are liberal arts colleges, ranked #17, #36, and #45, respectively. All of the other ranked institutions in the state are regional rather than national. On the one hand, this categorization speaks to the importance of my institution (one of two national universities in the state), while on the other it speaks to its lethargy: it is the least selective of the five institutions mentioned, accepting about 45% of applicants versus 7% (Yale) or between 21-36% (the national liberal arts colleges), and it has by far the largest undergraduate population (17.5K as opposed to between 2K and 5.4K). There are some bright students in my classes, a few of whom might be able to function at Yale, and several of whom would most likely function well at the state's national liberal arts colleges. There is, however, definitely a middle and low end of the student population that probably belongs at one of the regional colleges or universities, or at a community college or trade school.
I'm not exactly a stupid person, and I'm not autistically insensitive to what's going on in my environment. Therefore I have been in a constant search for ways to adapt to the needs of students at lesser institutions than the one that I attended as an undergrad or graduate student. I am certainly not alone in facing this challenge. A number of my colleagues have gone to distinguished institutions such as Oxford, UC Berkeley, Columbia, Juilliard, Eastman, etc. We know what is possible for young people to achieve, because we have achieved it, and we have been surrounded by students and faculty who have also achieved. Granted, we understand that we have to lower our expectations in the face of the demographic realities of our current institution, but it seems that there is a persistent pressure to continually lower the bar in order to accommodate the students while yet joining with the admins in a chorus of declaring ourselves excellent. War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.
I've learned that I cannot assign reading and anticipate an intelligent class discussion of it. I have to be prepared to summarize the reading verbally (possibly with the additional reinforcement of PowerPoint), just in case people decided to blow it off, without making it obvious that I'm covering the student's asses for them. Then, when work is due, I have to be prepared to repeat verbally and through online reinforcement (course calendar, email) precisely what the assignment is, where to look in the textbook for relevant examples, and possibly to send PDFs of work done is class as email attachments, and maybe get a 75% return of work that is approximately what it is supposed to be. I suppose, at this point in our ailing empire, I'm expected to be grateful that the rate of return is what it is. But I'm not.
To be continued ....