Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Academically adrift, or a dash of apathy?

I saw this article, "The Economic Price of Colleges' Failures" and chose to move on rather than read, yet again, about the alleged indifference of college faculty and administrators.

But then a friend of mine, Vicki Davis (@coolcatteacher), posted about the article and expressed her concern and so, with a sigh, I read it.

In 2010, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa published Academically Adrift. An excerpt from the promotional copy on the web site reads:
According to their analysis of more than 2,300 undergraduates at twenty-four institutions, 45 percent of these students demonstrate no significant improvement in a range of skills—including critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing—during their first two years of college.
I know just enough about statistics to wager the numbers provide some statistical weight, but I have questions, lots of questions, about this study. But the questions aren't really relevant because, quite honestly, I'm not surprised.

I've taught at a few different institutions of higher learning, some more selective than others, some larger than others. This is what I know: college kids tend to have no clue that they don't know what they don't know and they are often too overwhelmed by college, by work, by a freedom they'd never before experienced, by all sorts of things to pay attention to learn.

I taught freshman English for a number of years. It's a course I loved to teach and would teach again in a heartbeat. Somewhere fairly early in my teaching experience I stopped co-editing and I stopped putting grades on papers. Why? Because kids wouldn't read my questions and notes in the margins, and because I wanted them to learn to think about their choices and their reasoning and to become better writers because of it.

This "problem" of being academically adrift, and/or apathetic, doesn't start in college. It continues in college.

I coasted through high school. I was bored out of my ever-lovin' mind. I could have graduated early except back in the dark ages when I was in high school, such was not permitted, especially for a girl. I loaded up on English classes and student assistantships to pad my schedule after I completed the required one-half credit course I needed to graduate. I was never much of a student anyway. I did homework, but mostly in a desultory fashion.

Anyway, I graduated (yawn!) and went off to college. I was working three part-time jobs, commuting, and carrying a full-time load. And really enjoying being in college! At the end of my freshman year, I was on academic probation with a 1.7 or 1.9 GPA. So I transferred to a different school and was able to reboot. Being away from home created its own challenges. I was not a disciplined student and way too interested in everything else that was going on. But I managed to pull a 3.5 my first semester, which told me I could do it, so then I relaxed. I realized I could do well enough without working too hard, so I had time for my part-time job, for my sorority, and for whatever other nonsense I was getting into.

The difference for me might be that I was already reasonably adept at critical thinking, problem solving, and complex reasoning, although for many wrong reasons. And I was already good at writing. But the classroom teachers and professors who kept me on my toes and probably enabled me to be a marginally successful student were those who saw through the masquerade and didn't put up with my feigned insouciance (if I flunked out of school, my mother would have flayed me alive). For them I worked harder; for them, I tried. For everyone else, meh.

So I don't blame the faculty nor their administrators for their students' lack of success. Not entirely.

I understand the fatigue that makes them wonder if it's worth it to try to care about those who don't seem to care themselves. I understand the weariness and the wariness that accompanies a decision to allow a bit of grade inflation. Oh, I have stories. The pressure from a coach to make sure a really valuable player remains eligible. The real and perceived threats from parents, from students, from administrators. That doesn't start in college either.

Higher education is a business. Actually, higher education is a collection of businesses, often with conflicting mission statements and core competencies. One of the many questions is whether or not those missions and competencies are for the benefit of the students. Who is the institution's customer? The alumni association? Its donors? Or maybe, just maybe, it's the students.

Some students will work hard to learn no matter what, some will game the system, and others will go through the motions of learning because that's what they've learned education is all about. And that doesn't start in college.

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