Category Archives: Student culture

Student failure and student humanity

A mathematics lecture, apparently about linear...

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Alice Fenton (a pseudonym) set off a minor firestorm recently with this post to the Chronicle of Higher Education website, titled “The Pleasure of Seeing the Deserving Fail”. The title explains the content; the article is about different kinds of students who bring failure upon themselves in some way or another, and the pleasure the instructor can take in failing them.

Today, “Alice” has published a sequel, called “How to Inspire a Backlash”, to serve as a counterpoint to the negative reactions to her first article. At the close, she says:

Anger, dislike, weariness, schadenfreude: Those are all, for me, parts of human experience. That does not mean those emotions rule people, but it does mean they are there sometimes. Acknowledging those feelings may improve the chances that they won’t affect how I behave, since acknowledgment leads to awareness, which, in turn, can lead to clarity and caution (if not the kind of caution that keeps one from writing an article for The Chronicle).

So I did not write my original article because I was burned out, or filled with rage, or even—delightful as it might be—a harpy. I wrote it, in part, out of a sense of ironic fun that I assumed (naïvely I now see) would be shared, and, in part, as a description of occasional and ephemeral angers that I saw no harm in sharing.

But equally I wrote it because I feel it is part of my job, as a teacher as well as a person, to acknowledge my negatives as well as my positives—not because that makes me superior, or inferior, but because it makes me human.

I used to think, and teach, this way. In fact, if you go back far enough in the archives of this blog, you will find numerous posts that have a kindred spirit with Alice’s two articles. I called out torpid students and took pleasure in their mistakes and failures out of a sense of “ironic fun”, a sense of needing to vent “ephemeral angers”, a sense that doing so affirms my humanity. I would celebrate the successes of my students and vilify their failures with equal relish. And whatever I restrained myself from blogging about, I would keep active in my thoughts and gab about with colleagues in the hallway. After all, those emotions are there, and acknowledging them makes me more human, and therefore failing to do so would be dehumanizing.

Then I realized something: Professors aren’t the only people around here who are human. Students are human beings, too.

My students are human beings with all the accoutrements other human beings possess. They have intelligence, prior knowledge, nonempty cognitive frameworks, morals, creativity, and nontrivial accomplishments in life. They have people in their lives who love them dearly, whose hearts would break at my schadenfreude at their expense, no matter how much “ironic fun” it is. They are capable of doing amazing things, and they have their own successful K-12 education to prove it. There is no reason to believe they cannot go on to even more amazing things, and any educator who doesn’t feel this possibility when teaching is not paying attention.

Yes: On the flip side of this, students can also be astoundingly lazy, rude, ill-mannered, slow, foolish, and downright unpleasant to be around. Many of them think they are still children. Many of them do not have the first idea how to manage themselves; some of them willfully mismanage themselves because they figure this is what college is all about. For us faculty, students through their behaviors can drive us to insanity, to rage, to tears of frustration.

And yes: Many students deserve to fail as the logical outcome of a litany of irresponsible behaviors and bad choices. In a just, well-constructed academic environment where learning and academic rigor matter, these students will fail — they must fail. It is not wrong to find a kind of satisfaction in a system that works in this way. There is pleasure, in a way, to be found here as well: a pleasure one gets from first dividing the educational world in to two parts — us and them — and then lumping the students who frustrate us the most into the them category and watching them get what they deserve.

So I don’t deny that there is pleasure to be had in student failure when they “deserve” it. But it’s one thing to apprehend the pleasure and quite another to take it. Anybody who is serious about becoming more human will begin by acknowledging the humanity in other people. And I defy any educator worthy of the title to take pleasure in student failure, “deserved” or otherwise, without ignoring one or more key elements of student humanity. You cannot take pleasure in student failure without dehumanizing the student — and yourself. If you do, you are not an educator, no matter what your title may say. You may not even be as human as you think.

The way forward to humanity — and sanity — as an educator, as I was somehow blessed to find out, is to treat students as human beings with complex sets of values and assumptions. These values and assumptions all play into their behaviors, and it is way too easy to dismiss the student based on behavior without considering the cause. That guy in the second row preferred Facebook to your lectures all year. Why? That young lady in your 9:00 AM class has missed five class meetings and falls asleep when she shows up. Why? That fraternity dude in your 12:20 class would rather party than study. Why? All of these behaviors are linked to student’s values and assumptions — that is, to their humanity — as well as to our own values and assumptions about student learning. We make progress when we start answering these Why? questions seriously, taking student values and assumptions — that is, their humanity — into account as well as our own assumptions about student learning and how it takes place.

Just as we faculty — and entire institutions — can and should find happiness, satisfaction, and joy in student successes, let us be frustrated, perplexed, and saddened by student failures. There’s no point in denying those feelings. But indulging them? Finding pleasure in student failure? Never, under any circumstance.

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Want a job? Major in what you enjoy.

The Seven liberal arts. Grammatic and Priscianus.

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Excellent blog post in the NY Times website this morning telling us that the choice of college major is not as important as we think. The author shares this research finding:

A University of Texas at Austin professor, Daniel Hamermesh, researched career earnings data sorted by choice of major and concluded that:

“Perceptions of the variations in economic success among graduates in different majors are exaggerated. Our results imply that given a student’s ability, achievement and effort, his or her earnings do not vary all that greatly with the choice of undergraduate major.”

A study conducted by PayScale Inc. found that history majors who pursued careers in business ended up earning, on average, just as much as business majors.

The author goes on to cite four reasons why a liberal arts major would be a fine choice for career-minded college students, including the development of transferable skills and the value — both personal and professional — of majoring in something you truly enjoy rather than something you don’t enjoy but think might be useful someday.

I’m reminded of this great post over at Cal Newport’s blog from last year in which he advises prospective business majors not to major in business but rather to choose a classical liberal arts major and then take 4-6 math courses on the side. That amounts to majoring in something like economics or history and then getting a math minor. The liberal arts major will show employers that you are broadly educated and have those transferable skills, such as the ability to do research and communicate clearly in oral and written forms. Then the math minor adds a significant amount of training to show that you can handle quantitative information — a skill sorely lacking among a huge portion of new job marketeers today — and that you’re not in the liberal arts major to avoid hard work, which is unfortunately a common public perception of liberal arts programs. (That perception is something that we who work in the liberal arts colleges are partially responsible for perpetuating by not communicating the value of the liberal arts clearly enough.)

This combination doesn’t always work — engineering, for instance, really does require a degree in engineering at some point — and the student who goes this route takes on a double responsibility for making sure his or her liberal arts degree is really academically rigorous and for being ready to explain to hard-headed employers that they have the skills that will make them viable in the long term as employees. But I think it’s right to tell students to first study what they love, and then worry about the career part a little later. I’m certainly advising my own students to that effect. And given that most jobs are going to require new employees to learn on the fly the things they need to know anyway, it makes sense to develop students’ passions for learning and abilities to learn on their own, which is IMO one of the major things a liberal arts education is good for.

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Pushing back

Seth Godin has a lot of good things to say in this short blog post, such as:

When a professor assigns you to send a blogger a list of vague and inane interview questions (“1. How did you get started in this field? 2. What type of training (education) does this field require? 3. What do you like best about your job? 4. what do you like least about your job?”) I think you have an obligation to say, “Sir, I’m going to be in debt for ten years because of this degree. Perhaps you could give us an assignment that actually pushes us to solve interesting problems, overcome our fear or learn something that I could learn in no other way…”

When a professor spends hours in class going over concepts that are clearly covered in the textbook, I think you have an obligation to repeat the part about the debt and say, “perhaps you could assign this as homework and we could have an actual conversation in class…”

As a professor, I love it when students make such demands of me. It’s how I want to teach anyway, and it makes it a lot easier when I know students are not only on board with but insisting that I not simply lecture from the book, repeat problems that are in the book, and expect them to learn only the things that are printed in the book.

So I would add one thing to Seth’s injunction: Students, if you feel this way about your professors, take a look at your peers who don’t feel this way. Do you have classmates who just want the professor to read from the book, give tests that are just like the book’s examples, and not expect more from them? Then push back there, as well. Demand from your peers that they not leave you out on an island demanding academic excellence and getting your money’s worth.

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A school for grown-ups

My 6-year old is in kindergarten and fascinated by school and schoolteachers. Last week she asked me: “Daddy, are you a teacher?” I told her I was. “What’s your school?” I told her I teach at a college. “What’s a college?” I told her: “A college is a school for grown-ups.” And in that off-the-cuff answer, we have an economical way of describing the difference between college and pre-college education, and of encapsulating the hopes and goals of higher education.

College students, even the wide-eyed freshmen who show up every fall, are not kids. They are emerging adults, having worked 12 years for a high school education and who now enter a 4-5 year buffer zone before entering into the world with nothing more than the things they know, the experiences they’ve had, and the people around them. Therefore we college professors aren’t serving students if we treat them like kids, refer to them as “kids”, or in any way give them a reason to conceive of themselves as children. If we do any of these, students will simply model what we do and stay children. Indeed, I hear my own students talk much more frequently about “the other kids in my class” than “the other students” or even “the other people“.

What we hope to do in higher education is not so much to convey academic subject matter but rather, when you boil it all down, we are trying to teach people how to think like grown-ups. Of course we want our students to retain the best aspects of childhood — curiosity, energy, and so on — but we also want them to temper their child-likeness with adult sensibilities. We want them to think about other people besides themselves; to be self-motivating and responsible; to judge information objectively; to trust but verify what they see; to draw freely from a depth and breadth of experiences to make sense of what they encounter; to be able to think and act for themselves.

Since this is what higher education aims for, I’d like to give a good-natured challenge to my colleagues in higher ed, and by extension all those high school teachers who teach “college preparatory” courses. Very simply: From now until the end of classes this spring, don’t refer to your students as “kids”. Think of them instead as adults, “emerging adults” if you like, and refer to them accordingly. And take a look at your course policies and the ways you make decisions about how to deal with and treat students. If these are set up in a way that places grown-up behavior as the basic assumption, or at the very least provides a road map for younger students to ramp up into grown-up behavior, then I’d say that’s on the right track; otherwise think about ways to change.

I did this recently. I was visiting a high school class I had been working with as part of a dual-enrollment course. During my visit, the teacher allowed the students to have some open Q&A time with me, and several of the students asked me about the differences between high school and college. After spelling out some specifics, I told them, “At my college, we’re going to treat you like men and women when you come in. Not like kids. You won’t be kids and you shouldn’t be treated like kids.” Those young men and women got the message immediately — they straightened up in their chairs and more than a few got smiles on their faces. If we college profs all agree to treat students like men and women — daring students to believe in their own adulthood — I think we’ll see the same positive effect.

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On not paying for your kids’ college

Meagan Francis has this “bad parent” column today in which she confesses that she has no plans whatsoever to pay her five kids’ ways through college. Snippet:

Our plan is to assist each of our children with lots of support (including living at home if necessary), encouragement, and information; and as much financial support as we are able to — and that it makes sense to — give. […] Paying our kids’ ways through school has become such an integral part of “good” parenting that we feel pressured to do it even if footing the bill means mortgaging our own futures. Yet even Suze Orman warns that it doesn’t make sense to tap into our retirement funds or put our own finances at risk in order to subsidize the education of young, able-bodied people with lots of time ahead of them. By doing so, couldn’t we in effect punish those adult children when they have to, one day, support our broke and aging butts?

My wife and I are pretty much of the same mind as Francis here. I made it all the way through four years of undergrad (including two summers) and five years of graduate school with my mom and dad paying only for my utility bills during my final two years of undergrad (because I had moved out of the dorms), textbooks that my scholarships didn’t pay for, and some “allowance” money. Their total financial investment in the nine years between high school and finishing my Ph.D. (at super-expensive Vanderbilt, no less) was probably about $5000 and certainly less than $10,000. The rest was paid for through scholarships, assistantships, work-study, and part-time jobs. I never applied for a student loan, so I finished up my PhD with no debt. Plus, I gained some valuable life- and work-related skills through my work-study and part-time jobs that added a lot of value to my education. Having to work while in a rigorous major at an academically-focused university forced me to come to grips with time management and making good choices about my priorities, and I would like for my kids to get that kind of “education within an education” too.

So my wife and I are firm believers that socking away a fully-funded college fund for each kid is just not necessary. We plan on saving up enough to be able to help our kids through college but not to pay for it. Actually our plan is to instill an excellent work ethic and a love of learning in our kids on the front end, right now even before they start school, so that they’ll do extremely well in K-12 and end up getting a full ride somewhere. And believe me, if you’re a good high school student, you can get a full ride somewhere. It may not be at an Ivy League school or MIT, but it will very likely be at a number of really good schools that aren’t especially well-known but where you can get just as good of an education, if not better, than at the big-name places.

The important thing for students and their parents to keep in mind is balance. Francis’ advice taken to its extreme would have some students trying to manage 18-hour credit loads while working 40+ hours per week to pay for it, and that will lead to failures both at work and at school. If your financial situation is going to require this kind of insane schedule, it’s probably better to wait 3-4 years before starting college and get a job to save up money; or plan out a 5- or 6-year path through college taking about 12 hours a semester; or both.

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A prayer for those taking final exams (bumped)

We’ve finally made it to final exams week in the second semester of what seemed like the longest academic year ever. I thought I would bump this old post from December 11, 2005 (original with comments here) to give props and encouragement to all the students out there who are getting ready for their exams.

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(Inspired by seeing so many students on AIM tonight studying for finals, which for us start tomorrow.)

Dear Lord:
Let those who are filling the library right now with their bodies and their thoughts
Study hard, but also eventually rest.
Let them realize that success on their exams comes
Not from pulling allnighters
Not from cramming
Not from losing sleep
But as the sweet fruits of a long semester
Of diligence, patience, humility, and sweat
Of losing themselves in the laborious doing
That comes when a long-held dream is finally pursued.
Let them know that their final exams not only measure their knowledge
But also, in the ending of the term, show how faithful You have been to them.
They know more now than they did in August.
They are better students, better stewards, of Your blessing of intellect.
Their thoughts are more like Your thoughts.
And no matter what happens, this cannot be taken away.
In that, let them rest
And tomorrow, Tuesday, and Wednesday, let them learn and be satisfied.
In Your Name: Amen.

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“Maths as Latin Mass” in Australia

Title page to Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning...
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Down under, the Australians are going through many of the same arguments about mathematics education that we are here in the US. In this column from The Age, Marty Ross — who holds a PhD in mathematics from Stanford — lambastes the Australian mathematics education community in ways that might seem eerily familiar to those who follow the similar issues in America. Quote:

[H]ere is an exercise from a current Victorian year 9 maths text: a farmer has 2C cows and 3H horses. The exercise is to find the square of the sum of the farmer’s animals.

The Victorian texts are not uniformly that pointless or that bad. But not much is good. Definitions are clumsy, problems are contrived, natural connections and beautiful insights are overlooked. The texts do not reflect a mathematical culture.

It is not just the textbooks. Teachers are poorly trained; the curriculum is moribund, rife with silly, contrived applications; and everywhere there is pointless calculation. And calculators – the cane toads of education.

Is there still proof? Proof is the source of the power of mathematics, the reasoning and the understanding: it’s what holds the discipline together. But it is practically dead. The very little proof that remains is meaningless and ritualised: maths as Latin Mass.

How did it get this bad? Primarily, it results from the failure to involve mathematicians, the people for whom mathematics is their life’s blood. The simple fact is, many of those responsible for mathematics education do not know sufficient mathematics to do the job.

There are lots more “ouch” moments in the article. Ross concludes by saying:

What do I want from a national curriculum? I want a dodecahedron in every classroom, and beautiful diagrams to ponder. I want students to know why there are infinitely many prime numbers, and for them to realise no one knows about twin-primes. I want them to know what the golden mean is, and why it is irrational, and why we care. I want pattern and play and beauty. And I want the times tables.

Is teaching any of the above useful? It is exactly as useful as teaching Harry Potter and Shakespeare.

Mathematicians do mathematics because it is fun and it is beautiful. If the curriculum is not written in that spirit, and if teachers are not trained in that spirit, then we are doomed. We will have yet another generation devoted to gradgrinding students into hating mathematics.

I’ll agree on many of these points — especially why mathematicians are motivated to do mathematics, the criticism about the lack of proof in the math curriculum, and to some extent Ross’ critiques of the mathematical background of mathematics education people. But what do you think — is Ross’ assertion that fun and beauty form the proper basis for a mathematics curriculum really sound? I mean, I’d like all my students to know about the infinitude of primes too, but does that sort of thing make a reasonable organizing principle for an entire curriculum?

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