The University Industry Insults My Intelligence

I was lucky.  One year after I finished my undergraduate degree in Subject With Declining Enrollments, Professor X had his career chopped off.  He didn’t even make it to a tenure review hearing; several years separated his departure and what he hoped might have been.  When I visited campus shortly after his firing, Dr. Y recalled with horror that he hadn’t published a word during his several years at the university.

Fair enough.  If your contract requires you to publish, you need to publish or face the consequences.  Pesky little legal issue, I know…

She also told me that Professor X was “scaring away students.”  Being a naive early-20-something, I couldn’t comprehend what she meant.  Dr. X was the friendliest member of the department, a fact that even Dr. Y recognized.  On the other hand, lots of students considered Dr. Y to be profoundly disturbing to their psychological health.  (I liked Dr. Y, but my regular readers already know how weird I am.)  How was he scaring away students while she wasn’t?

I should note that Dr. X’s job description also contained one unusual detail.  He provided pedagogical training to the new graduate students who staffed the introductory and mid-level courses.  He mentored them, observed their teaching, and designed the curriculum.  The homework load didn’t block my social life while the textbook, though being of a halloweenish orange color, could hardly count as ferocious unless the teacher decided to throw a copy at your head.  Damn hardbacks.

So how could this friendly little fellow scare away students?

I eventually went to graduate school and had the pleasure of partaking in an initial teacher preparation seminar; in that course, I learned that Dr. X’s instructional methods had become outdated.  Big time.  That’s not to say I didn’t learn from them.  I consider myself fortunate to have gone through the undergraduate system while he was in charge, before the department was overhauled to teach Rocksforjocks instead.

I hope this picture of "Rocks for Jocks" won't offend the distinguished geologists among you.  (Photo credit: somewheregladlybeyond at http://www.flickr.com/photos/ecb/136287275/)

I hope this picture of “Rocks for Jocks” won’t offend the distinguished geologists among you. (Photo credit: somewheregladlybeyond at http://www.flickr.com/photos/ecb/136287275/)

Are the new methods worse?  Not necessarily.

However…

Let the words of Dr. Y echo through your head: “He was scaring away the students.”  The new methods entertain the students much more (which, in itself, is not a bad thing) and that encourages students to take more courses in the subject.  That also helps the professors keep their jobs.  Few methods exist for firing a tenured professor, but eliminating a department is one of them.  So of course it didn’t seem to matter so much to Dr. Y that Dr. X’s syllabi didn’t meet departmental or university expectations for maintaining up-to-date instructional practices.  Suffice it to say that his classes probably inspired much gratitude from local espresso merchants but it’s the academic merchants who are trying to sell their wares.

So, out with the old!

The new methods, despite some legitimate educational advantages and antidepressant side effects, have also helped permit the major to become significantly more fluffy.  People graduating with that major today do not possess sufficient skills to tell a prospective employer that they can be of use in the workforce.  However, an easy A will attract students to any course and that’s why families sacrifice so much to pay for college.  That, and beer pong.

And then you’ll discover a few nefarious aspects.  (Yeah… I started with the kid-friendly version.)  In a major publication of the American Association for Rocksforjocks Education, a prominent teaching specialist encouraged college Rocksforjocks faculty to make convenient use of placement exams.  “Convenient” means letting students skip over as many of the boring introductory courses as possible so that they can get to the interesting stuff, making them more likely to select Rocksforjocks as a major which in turn maintains desirable levels of Rocksforjocks funding as well as (once again) the faculty’s jobs.

And make no mistake about it: students don’t complain about this arrangement.  If you inflate their grades in the advanced courses, they’ll never know how unprepared they were.  At least while they’re still at the university plunking down all those tuition dollars…

Similarly, the faculty would judge teaching methods based on students’ enjoyment and appreciation of them, not on whether learning actually transpires.  Some of the new methods created astoundingly positive effects but they were chosen for the wrong reasons.

But let’s fast forward a little, shall we?

Now that I have finished my education and have been unemployed for a while, I can only growl at what education in my former field has become.  Although my skills are up to snuff, employers surely look at my resume and assume the opposite.  The new grads can’t cut it, so why would I be able to?

And then I apply for teaching jobs at the high school level.  I’m competent to teach more than that one subject but I’m constantly asked about the one I majored in.  Even if a school isn’t seeking a teacher for that subject.  Today, a job applicant is believed to only be capable of doing what he majored in… even if the resume indicates otherwise.  But in my old field, applicants are now assumed to be incapable of performing within the major, for obvious reasons.

Needless to say, I am never going back to teaching Rocksforjocks.  Some people get desperate when they’re unemployed and they take any available position.  I’m desperate to not inflict the same fate I’ve experienced on any future students.  A few would surely benefit from the legitimate information that Rocksforjocks provides but it’s not worth the collateral damage.

Let’s leave the jock’s rocks at the docks.  They’re a crock.

I also know from observation that Rocksforjocks teachers in high school and college spend considerable effort recruiting students into their courses.  To anyone preparing for college entrance, I’d suggest never enrolling in a course that the faculty is actively advertising.  Professors have their own agendas and the associated needs do not always coincide with what will benefit you most as a student.  You don’t get to see the behind-the-scenes pressures that school administrations place on your teachers.  You should not assume that they are your benevolent advisers, although you will find some who will behave honestly and honorably towards you.

Just like banks and credit card companies, colleges are businesses and you are their customer.  If they make you feel happy with their product, they have achieved their goal.  Just be sure to maintain that idiotic grin as you’re being ripped off.

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26 thoughts on “The University Industry Insults My Intelligence

  1. Ahhh you are only looking at the tip of the ice berg. Beneath all this is a failing public education system that does not prepare students for work (or anything) but does impress upon them the need for college and university and probably even grad school if they want to compete in the “real” world. More than anything this makes sure that one of the largest industries (and exports!) in the US remains financially healthy.

    If high schools trained their graduates for actual jobs, it would seriously damage the industry of higher education. SO — it’s great that teachers are not well-trained, academic or intellectual, well read or anything teacherly (as far as I can see). It’s OK that the agenda of the public school classroom is standardized by a bunch of gubmint people who hated school when they went and think teachers are mean (or whatever twisted thing they think). It all works well to keep the industry of higher education rumbling along with mandatory union dues, part-time instructors teaching double full-time loads for 1/2 the pay of tenured instructors, students demanding the grades they want and on and on and on. I’ve even had students complain to me that I did not give them — the CLIENT — what the paid for and if they failed my class it was because I did not fulfill my contract to teach them. Happy, happy joy joy.

    • Your comments remind me of my own experiences in the college classroom except for one detail. I taught at one of the elite private universities where the students did have the academic preparation for higher-level work. I also based my post on knowledge I’ve gained about other programs that are considered among the best.

      My undergrad program (the one that featured Prof X and Prof Y) was a well-regarded public flagship and the author of the article in the Rocksforjocks journal was tenured at an elite private university.

      So, your points have obvious merit but, as you say, you only looked at the tip of the iceberg. 😉

      (One day I will write my planned NCLB post that explains how ridiculous the standards for “highly qualified” status are. I like to lambast that very much.)

      • What I meant by tip of the iceberg is where you are. The bottom is HUGE. It’s thousands of kids who enter college unable to read or write. Most of them never reach the surface of the water, let alone an elite anything. I’m way down under there wearing a diving suit and tanks trying to show them the way OUT. That’s what I meant. I had a pretty literal image in mind. 😉

  2. OH and it supports the text book industry. I have a 700 page how-to-write text book. I forgot to look up the relevant chapter for my class Monday, taught it by typing it on the computer in the classroom and projected it as I worked, pasted it into Blackboard, told them to write an outline (their first one EVER). Today I discovered what the BOOK says (in 70 overwritten and overly complex pages). That’s just wrong. Complicate something beyond all recognition and then teach it? So, in the space of two classes most of the students in a so-called “remedial” English class have written flawless outlines for original topics. But yeah, let’s obfuscate the crap out of something so that instead of making them take 2 English classes, they have to take 4 or 5. And let’s make sure when they’re done they won’t be able to pass an exit test so we can require 1 more class before they graduate.

    Sorry for co-opting your post. 😦

    • No apology necessary. I’m glad to have those thoughts printed here.

      One semester, I even started writing alternate explanations and distributing them to students for use in lieu of their textbook. It worked better.

      A TA should not be able to rewrite the textbook more effectively than the original.

      • It depends on the goal. A TA still has this idea that they are there to teach others something that they, themselves, love. That’s really the point, in my opinion. I still teach that way. Perhaps why I never got a tenured position.

  3. I came by via Susie’s party, bumble, and I sure am glad that I graduated from college 35 years ago. And that I did not attend your college (I don’t think). I taught as an adjunct a few years ago, journalism related, and my students were eager to please and hard-working. So anecdotes are are just that, right?

  4. This is so interesting! We just put two kids through college. I just read this to my daughter who is home with a tonsillectomy. She says she has classes in both old and new ways of teaching. She thinks it’s true of some majors and not others. She’s graduating with a business major. Sometimes there are two teachers teaching the same subject and one is all fluff while the other is tough as nails!
    Great subject!
    Thanks for bringing it to the party! Have fun clicking on links and mingling with the guests!

  5. came over from Susie’s place – she’s a great gal and throws a great party.. I read your post and then skimmed some other posts – especially the Common Core math post… I teach 7th grade English and so much has changed since I was a kid… some teachers were good – some easy, some hard, but the classes I got the most from were the ones that I made a connection to the content. today, I’m always learning and always trying to find a way to help my kids get it – it’s like summer in my classroom every day. Some get, some don’t, some work hard, some don’t, but if there’s one thing that drives me nuts (and believe me – it’s a short drive) is kids who don’t try, kids who don’t care, and kids who think it doesn’t matter – because it does… have a great day and I’ll be back for some more…. life today insults my intelligence, too.

  6. I came over from Susie’s party and headed straight to the serious room. Having been married to an academic for (well, for a REALLY long time), I’ve heard a lot of your complaints over the years. But it really does seem as though the issues of combining publish-or-perish with the need to make sure your students give great recommendations can only mean that students are the ones who ultimately suffer. I know of teachers who play the guitar, dumb down the course, or blatantly pander to the evaluations. As a parent making tuition payments (for the fourth child), I’m furious that so much of what’s out there is pure fluff. Just not sure what the answer is. Anyway, it was great to read your post. Thanks for sharing it with the party.

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