kitchen table math, the sequel: In the Basement of the Ivory Tower

Friday, May 9, 2008

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower

The June edition of The Atlantic magazine came today, and I was immediately drawn to a piece called In the Basement of the Ivory Tower that had this description, “The idea that a university education is for everyone is a destructive myth. An instructor at a “college of last resort” explains why.

Professor X teaches English 101 and English 102; classes that all students are required to pass. Here are some excerpts of what he (she?) has to say:

Remarkably few of my students can do well in these classes. Students routinely fail; some fail multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence.

I wonder, sometimes, at the conclusion of a course, when I fail nine out of 15 students, whether the college will send me a note either (1) informing me of a serious bottleneck in the march toward commencement and demanding that I pass more students, or (2) commending me on my fiscal ingenuity –– my high failure rate forces students to pay for classes two or three times over. … No one is thinking about the larger implications, let alone the morality, of admitting so many students to classes they cannot possibly pass. The college and the students and I are bobbing up and down in a great wave of societal forces –– social optimism on a large scale, the sense of college as both a universal right and a need, financial necessity on the part of the colleges and the students alike, the desire to maintain high academic standards while admitting marginal students –– that have coalesced into a mini-tsunami of difficulty. No one has drawn up the flow-chart and seen that, although more-widespread college admission is a bonanza for the colleges and nice for the students and makes the entire United States of America feel rather pleased with itself, there is one point of irreconcilable conflict in the system, and that is the moment when the adjunct instructor, who by the nature of his job teaches the worst students, must ink the F on that first writing assignment.

I gave Ms. L. the F and slept poorly that night. Some of the failing grades I issue gnaw at me more than others. … Ms. L. had done everything that American culture asked of her. She had gone back to school to better herself, and she expected to be rewarded for it, not slapped down. She had failed not, as some students do, by being absent too often or by blowing off assignments. She simply was not qualified for college. What exactly, I wondered, was I grading?

For I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college.


Paul B said...

Bravo! Well said and true. I started my teaching career as an adjunct at a community college. I taught "Math 101". Actually I don't remember the name of the course. It was intended as a 'first' course in college mathematics.

I was dumbfounded to discover, that "Math 101" was, in fact, a fifth grade arithmetic course with adult words and pictures. Instead of Sponge Bob Square Pants the vignettes were built around "Bob the Carpenter".

It wasn't too far into the 'teaching' when I further discovered that these young adults were struggling mightily with the material.

Long story short, that drove me to teaching in middle school. There I've discovered that most of my kids can't add. Sighhhhh

Middle schools are at B3 of the Ivory Tower.

Anonymous said...

Wrapping up the semester at a community college now, teaching a remedial algebra class - finals are next week. Out of 22 students still officially registered: six have not bothered showing up at all for the past 5 weeks and will fail; of the remaining, eight currently stand at < 60% (F), seven are 60 - 69.9% (D), and one is doing C work (75%). One of the Fs stands a good chance of pulling it up to a D, and five of the Ds could conceivably pull their grades up to a C, C being the minimum grade needed to take subsequent math classes.

I could be more generous in my grading scale, but doing so would only exacerbate the situation of those who are just barely getting by as it is. Instead of perpetuating the lie that everyone is college material, we ought to maintain high standards, and encourage those with subpar abilities to pursue a vocation that is more in line with their interests and abilities. Failure in this regard will result in colleges and universities becoming little more than glorified high schools, if they aren't to that point already.

And don't think that this phenomenon is limited to community colleges - we are the canary in the mine shaft.

K9Sasha said...

I could be more generous in my grading scale, but doing so would only exacerbate the situation of those who are just barely getting by as it is

That is the same conclusion that Professor X came to. Those of you who teach at this level may be interested in finding the article and reading the whole thing. ( I tried to find the article online so I could link to it, but The Atlantic website still has last month's content posted.) On the other hand, if you live it every day, you may not need to read about it.

Allison said...

But it's true at the state colleges, too. Many of the students are woefully underprepared, and will never be prepared enough to graduate with a bachelor's.

In CA, the state college boards and admins decided the solution was to push those kids into the community college system in the first place. In part that was from overcrowding--but why is there overcrowding? Because they are taking so many who are unqualified. A brilliant move, as they could then say "and if you complete all of your General Ed requirements, you're automatically allowed into the state college system.

But many will never complete their General Ed requirements--they don't have the skills. Instead, the students flail and waste their and our money as well as their time being in "college" when they would be better off working their way up in any business in the world. Still, the marginal students do manage to get in and back to the state college system, where they are still incapable.

It isn't going to get better because there is ZERO incentive for the college to stop taking these students, and almost zero incentive for these students not to use federal and state aid to attempt it. Short of forcing them to all pay their own way, we have yet to convince the appropriate high school students that they have an incentive to learn a trade, go to work, or otherwise, become learned without a "colllege education."

Dawn said...

// Instead of perpetuating the lie that everyone is college material, we ought to maintain high standards, and encourage those with subpar abilities to pursue a vocation that is more in line with their interests and abilities.//

If they can't manage a rededial math or english course then I'm quite sure a lot of trades or vocations that some might imagine those with 'subpar abilities' are better suited for won't want them.

Of course college isn't for everyone but what seem to be going on here seems to be less about kids unsuited for college and more about kids who have not only been failed by 13 years of school but possibly harmed by it.

palisadesk said...

For more on the crisis at the college level, see:
Ivory Tower Blues

The authors are from the University of Western Ontario, but their work encompasses a number of colleges and universities in both Canada and the USA. Grade inflation, academic disengagement, and students' sense of entitlement are recurring themes, disturbingly and vividly presented.

It's a must-read.

Here's a link to a Power Point presentation the authors gave at McMaster University: McMaster ppt -- interesting

SteveH said...

Twenty-five years ago I taught math and computer science at a (not so prominent) college. We had faculty development discussions about raising the level of teaching and expectations. They wanted to compete with a well-known school with the same sort of mission or philosophy. Unfortunately, our average SAT scores were quite a bit lower. I distinctly remember the president of the college holding her hand over her head and telling us to "teach up here" and bring the kids up with you.

Right. How many kids do you want me to flunk? I was the one who saw the painful correlation of the two. I could never teach the same level of course I had at Michigan. This is nothing new.

What is relatively new is the greatly increased demand for everyone to go to college. Supply will meet demand and many low-ranking colleges will not turn away anyone if they have the money. When I taught, you couldn't flunk many students. There was an assumption that you calibrate your courses to the abilities of the students. I still pushed and flunked kids, but there were definite limits.

Although there are too many students trying to get college degrees, I still like the philosophy of our state's community college system. They exist to provide opportunities. Some kids (and adults) finally figure it all out and the CC provides their only chance. They have some programs that lead to a proper engineering degree at the state university. From what I'm told, many of these courses are bimodal: those who can or are able, and those who can't or won't.

Unfortunately, the CC has lots of other (almost) worthless degrees. That's why many kids head to vocational schools that now provide optional degrees. There is much more rigor at many of these schools. One school has the motto: "Be a (our technical school) graduate, or compete with one."

Mia said...

Response to the June 2008 Atlantic Monthly essay, “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” by Professor X

Disclaimer! The following is a VERY rough draft of thinking on the topic.

I have just finished reading Professor X's 'Basement' essay in the June Atlantic Monthly. His criticisms are spot on, so far as my experience, and that of many of my colleagues, is concerned. Nevertheless, and though I realize he's trying to make a very specific point, it strikes me there's something missing — or at least something Prof. X could analyze further — namely, the value gained by exposure to new or more sophisticated intellectual concepts and techniques.

After four years of adjunct teaching at 4-year colleges, universities, and community colleges, I landed a full-time position at a community college. I knew what I was getting into, but I also knew that any full time job in my discipline, Philosophy, was not to be rejected. There were many colleagues equally, if not more, qualified for the job.

Given my experience, I know well the experience of teaching a "college level" course that is populated by those who are virtually illiterate, or who should at least be in remedial English. Yet I also know that part of the tradition of a liberal arts education is to work toward transforming oneself. (And, I would argue, even occupational programs should have some ‘tincture of philosophy.’) In this way, Philosophy is particularly fortunate; it has obvious therapeutic, as well as purely intellectual worth. But so also does every other discipline. To borrow a phrase from Bertrand Russell, the 'enlarging of the self' that occurs with studying philosophy is part and parcel of education itself.

Take, for example, the woman in Professor X's essay who, X knew, would fail the course. To say the woman was naive is to be polite. She hadn't a clue how bereft she was of the requisite skills for academic success. But, hopefully, she came to learn the VALUE of the instruction she received, and she began to get an inkling of the sort of work required. Community college tuition is, thankfully, fairly reasonable. If she was a student in one of Prof. X's community college classes (and, I'd argue, even if she weren't), she didn't waste her money.

It seems to me that, setting aside the insidious ways programs like No Child Left Behind works to create unthinking widget-makers instead of citizen widget-makers, and setting aside the disingenuous college administrators who admit unprepared students (at least at the 4-year institutions, since I believe all public community colleges are open enrollment), we instructors have an opportunity and a responsibility to change the way our students think about their education. If that includes an F in English or Philosophy, so be it. But, I hope, the F is the beginning, not the end.

I have one soapbox topic in all my courses: the intangible value of education. (Students generally don't know my views on anything else.) They do know that I think education has little to do with a better job or another sort of material reward for all their sacrifices. They know I think education is about becoming a better, more careful and thorough thinker. This is their chance to conceive their world anew. In the process, they may begin to conceive themselves anew, as well.

K9Sasha said...

Your comments are interesting, Mia. If I understand right, you believe all students, of whatever level, should have access to community college classes. You believe that there is good in being exposed to topics larger, deeper, and broader than those one has so far encountered. Is my understanding correct?

I agree with you that learning for learning's sake is good in and of itself. The more you learn, the more "hooks" you have to scaffold future learning. But, if the hooks aren't there in the first place, if you can't understand the content of the class because you don't have the required background knowledge, then I don't think any favors are being done. The useful construct of "zones of proximal development" applies here. A student needs material at the right level, or little to no learning takes place. If the material being presented to the student is too low, the student isn't learning because he already knows it. On the other hand, if the material being presented is too high, the student is unable to to truly understand and "own" that material. There simply aren't the "hooks" in his mind on which to hang it.

For example, you could put me in a class in nuclear physics, or fourier transforms, and I could sit there in a stupor understanding well less than 10 % of what was being talked about. While it exposes me to new ideas and new knowledge, and opens my mind to new possibilities, it doesn't really help me. What would help far, far more is for me to take the foundational physics and math classes that would allow me to fully understand the material and apply it to novel problems. In the first situation, without foundational knowledge, I'm going to be frustrated in those high level classes, and probably drop out. With the appropriate foundational knowledge I can be challenged and learn.

Higher level knowledge needs to build upon lower level foundational skills. In his essay, Professor X was saying that the lady under discussion didn't have the foundational skills to learn, understand, and use what he was teaching her. It was a waste of her time and money to be in a class that was too difficult for her. The saddest part though, is that she thought she was ready for that class. No one had given her an honest assessment of where she stood academically.

Myrtle Hocklemeier said...

"No one had given her an honest assessment of where she stood academically."

That's surprising to me.

ACT, SAT, as well as placement tests are useful tools for universities.

I have zero patience for students and their self-reports of how hard they tried and yet failed. Students mindlessly do assignments without really thinking about what they are doing and why they are doing it. They won't even blink when they tell you about how hard they tried.

K9Sasha said...

I said: "No one had given her an honest assessment of where she stood academically."

Myrtle Hocklemeier said: "That's surprising to me."

The woman in question was in her 40's and had gone back to school to further her career. The article didn't say that no one had given her an honest assessment of her abililties, that was my inference given that she was in enrolled in a class well above her ability. Professor X said he knew from the first day of class that she didn't belong there and he offered her extra help, but she turned it down.

Before my son was allowed to enroll in classes at our local CC he had to take placement tests and prove "ability to benefit." Ability to benefit means that your foundational skills are high enough so you won't be wasting your time in the classes you want to take. Given what Professor X said in his article, I'd be surprised if the lady in question had tested into his class in the same way my son had to test into his classes.

The lack of honest assessment was an inference on my part to explain how this poor lady ended up in a class so far above her head.

SusanJ said...

Thanks so much for posting this very interesting article and also to the commenters.

I noticed the word illiterate several times. I wonder if there is any reliable way to discover whether someone is functionally illiterate and to address that problem directly? Otherwise it does seem that the attempt at further education is doomed to failure.

My guess is that in some cases a person has gone as far as they are capable of going but that there may be other functionally illiterate persons who are capable of becoming literate with the right instruction.

Parentalcation said...

To quote myself

"I do feel sorry for Mrs L., the poor middle aged woman in the article who has never operated a computer and can't string together even a decent paragraph. It's heartbreaking when she receives her "F", but at least she had a chance... and if she had a chance, so did the 37 year old enlisted guy who works full time, raises 5 kids, blogs semi-regularly, and just completed 18 credit hours with a 3.83 GPA."