Monday, February 7, 2011

Have We Become Too Nice?

I have often said that I would feel better about college education when students start being more demanding of teachers and administrators by asking pointed questions about the quality of the process. After all, this is likely to be each student’s one shot at a college education -- an experience that will in most cases have an immeasurable impact on the rest of their lives. A well-educated person has an entirely different set of future prospects than a poorly educated person. We all know that, so why don’t students rise up and challenge schools to do a better job? Plus, either the students or their parents (or someone) must pay for this education, the amounts of which can quickly rise to the level of a small fortune and leave students in debt for years.

Most importantly, if we really do believe that the college experience should stimulate critical thinking skills (which virtually every college proudly proclaims as a primary goal), shouldn’t we start by expecting our students to look critically at the quality of the education that is being provided to them. I’ll cheer the day when students stand in front of the administration building yelling “we demand better teachers who will challenge us to think deeply and push us to do the difficult work necessary to make wise use of our talents.”

Consequently, when the opinion editor of the weekly newspaper here at my university started raising questions last week about her education, I paid attention. The starting point for her concerns was the tendency of some professors to give credit for class participation. As we all know, class participation grades are awarded in hopes of pushing students who are often reticent to be more interactive and, therefore, engaged in class.

Here are a few of the points the opinion editor made (in “Silence is precious if you don’t know what you’re talking about” by Liz Monahan in the February 3, 2011, edition of The Collegian).

“I can’t even count the times when a professor has asked for the meaning, theme, plot, scope, format, content or ethical dilemma of a piece of writing, only for a student, who you KNOW hasn’t read the book/article/essay, to raise his or her hand and say something useless.”

“Try calling on your students.”

“Mandating participation doesn’t prepare students for the big bad world. Yes, in the real world, when you have a job and a boss, you will have to do thing you don’t want to, like talk in meetings and give pitches. This is because in the real cruel, cruel world you’ll get fired for saying something that wastes two minutes of your boss’ ‘precious’ time.”

“Mandatory student participation fosters an environment in which students begin to talk without even thinking.”

Okay, I have taught for 40 years but have given participation grades in only one semester and found it did not work for me and dropped it. If you have read this blog for long, you know that I go in and question the student from the start of class to the closing bell. I don’t request participation; I demand participation. But, that is just my style. What works for me won’t work for everyone.

The one part of her essay that concerned me was her contention (which she made over and over) that students could just say anything, regardless of how dumb, and be accepted by the teacher. I find that very troubling (especially at my own school). What is the purpose of college if it is not to show students how to differentiate between bogus arguments and valid arguments? Her assertion that the boss will be upset if his or her time is wasted is legitimate. Why shouldn’t a college professor be just as upset by shallow, unprepared responses? Why can’t a college professor stop a student with a simple question: “Is there any point that you are really trying to make with these ramblings?” Or, as I asked a student recently “are you simply going to keep talking in hopes of stumbling upon a real idea as you go along?”

No one likes confrontation (especially in front of an entire class). No one enjoys making students feel uncomfortable. But, isn’t that a very essential part of our job? As college professors, have we simply become too accepting? And, if we have, are we doing the students a disfavor? Are we allowing our students to avoid doing any serious critical thinking if we accept every spoken thought? If a student says “the world is flat” (which, of course, was often said not too long ago) are we not harming that student’s development by not calling into question the statement as soon as it is made? And, won’t the student be more likely to have a better response the next time if it is obvious that the teacher is not going to allow faulty reasoning to slip through unchallenged?

What is the ultimate result of accepting bad reasoning or unprepared blathering?

I don’t believe the opinion editor actually meant to do this but I think she questioned the very core purpose of a college education. Our role is not to simply convey information to be memorized. Instead, we should be trying to develop a strong thinking process that will allow each student to reason things out for themselves throughout life.

To me, school should be about the development of ideas, the testing of those ideas, and the reshaping of those ideas as more is learned and the basis of the thinking process is challenged. None of that works, though, if the professor is unwilling to say “prove to me that there is a reasonable basis for your assertion or we are going to dismiss it until you can do better.”

I don’t give a participation grade but I have no problem if someone wants to give one. What I have a huge problem with is that we allow our students to get by in class with statements that don’t stand up to rigorous scrutiny. In fact, I think we do our students a major disservice if we don’t call them out for making statements in class that show a lack of preparation or a sloppiness of thinking.

Maybe we are just getting to be too nice.

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