My Complicity in Civilization’s Decline

I like to think my teaching makes a small positive difference in the world. That my students learn new things they deem meaningful, that they become a bit more curious about the world, and incrementally more caring towards others. Most enjoy my decidedly informal approach towards teaching which has been shaped by Quaker education principles and Ira Shor’s teaching (Critical Teaching and Every Day Life and When Students Have Power).

That aside, Molly Worthen, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, has me rethinking my three decades as an educator. In a New York Times essay titled “U Can’t Talk to UR Professor Like This” she argues that the teacher-student relationship depends on a

“special kind of inequality” and that insisting on traditional etiquette is . . . simply good pedagogy.”

In the end, she impugns professors like me for being on a first-name basis with students who are all adults.

Worthen:

“The facile egalitarianism of the first-name basis can impede good teaching and mentoring, but it also presents a more insidious threat. It undermines the message that academic titles are meant to convey: esteem for learning.”

Worthen leans on a math professor friend who argues,

“More and more, students view the process of going to college as a business transaction.”

The suggestion being my type of classroom informality is the reason students. . .

“see themselves as customers, and they view knowledge as a physical thing where they pay money and I hand them the knowledge, so if they don’t do well on a test, they think I haven’t kept up my side of the business agreement.”

A pretty heavy trip to lay at the foot of classrooms like mine.

“Values of higher education,” Worthen explains, “are not the values of the commercial, capitalist paradigm.”

So faculty like me are to blame for the corporatization of higher education, but that’s not the worst of my offenses. Worthen also states that professors should take the time to teach students how to relate to authority figures not just as preparation for a job.

“The real point,” she explains, “is to stand up for the values that have made our universities the guardians of civilization.”

I never realized it, but ultimately I guess, by encouraging my students to use my first name, I’m complicit in civilization’s decline.

I don’t begrudge Worthen her formality, but I don’t understand her stridency. Who knows why she can’t accept the fact that teaching excellence takes many forms. Tucked in the middle of her essay is one paragraph that resonated with me:

“Alexis Delgado, a sophomore at the University of Rochester, is skeptical of professors who make a point of insisting on their title. ‘I always think it’s a power move,’ she told me. ‘Just because someone gave you a piece of paper that says you’re smart doesn’t mean you can communicate those ideas to me. I reserve the right to judge if you’re a good professor.’”

Worthen writes about “esteem for learning” without acknowledging what most undermines that, unrelenting grade grubbing. I believe the more formal faculty are, the more likely students are to “give them what they want”. Passivity is so engrained in students by college, any hope for a genuine questioning of authority, especially the professor’s, requires an intentional informality. Forget the guardian of civilization bullshit, I just want students to speak and write more authentically. Passing on using my formal title is a means towards that end. It isn’t a panacea for heightened student authenticity, but it’s not the root of all problems in higher education or Western Civilization either.

The Difficulty of Evaluating Teachers

Colorado case study.

“It’s tough to measure the success of the law objectively, though no one seems to be claiming it had the dramatic effect that many hoped for back in 2010. Naturally, different stakeholders have different prescriptions for how to improve it. Dallman wants to reduce the role of testing; Stein says the rubric is too cumbersome; Boasberg argues there needs to be more room for subjectivity and professional judgment.”

Meanwhile, more Colorado high school graduates need remedial classes.

“The number of Colorado high school graduates who needed to take remedial classes in college . . .  increased slightly in 2015-16 over the previous year from 35.4 percent to 36.1 percent.”

 

Weekend Reading

There will be a quiz on Monday.

  1. The chaos of urban school reform.
  2. Life-long learners versus life-long test takers.
  3. Grade anxiety and felony burglary at the University of Kentucky. What do you propose as punishment?
  4. Can science help marathoners break the 2-hour limit? Truly excellent breakdown. Fav sentence, “Basically, in the marathon, there are a lot more pipes that can burst than, say, in a mile or a 5K.” The attempt is in Italy Saturday morning at 5:45a, tonight at 8:45p PDT, 11:45p, EDT. I do not expect to see a sub two hour marathon in my lifetime; however, I do hope to break two hours in my first stand-alone 10k in ages tomorrow morn.
  5. The real reason Clinton lost. Prediction: Alison will disagree. Vehemently.

Paragraphs to Ponder—Educator’s Edition

My grades are due December 23rd. Maybe you have grades due soon too or someone close to you. From The End of Average by Todd Rose. Recommended.

“There are two related problems with relying on grades for measuring performance. The first, and most important, is they are one-dimensional. The jaggedness principle, of course, tells us that any one-dimensional ranking cannot give an accurate picture of an individual’s true ability, skill, or talent—or as psychologist Thomas R. Guskey wrote. . . ‘If someone proposed combing measures of height, weight, diet, and exercise into a single number or mark to represent a person’s physical condition, we would consider it laughable. . . Yet every day, teachers combine aspects of students’ achievement, attitude, responsibility, effort, and behavior into a single grade that’s recorded on a report card and no one questions it.’

The other problem posed by grades is that they require employers to perform a complex interpretation of what a particular graduate’s diploma actually means. A transcript gives employers very little direct knowledge of a student’s skills, abilities, or master of a topic. All they have to go on is the rank of a university and the graduate’s GPA.”

Back in the day, when my colleagues and I submitted hard copies of our grades to the Registrar, she provided large candy bars as an incentive to be on time. Damn the Digital Age.

The Lure of Technology

Last week at the U, two adherents of The Maker Movement tried convincing an audience that letting young students create tech-based products is a panacea for improved schooling. Students are making small robots that can bowl they enthused and ties that light up when a room darkens. And someday, they intimated, they’ll build a frig that will notify you or the grocery store when you’re almost out of milk.

Like tele-evangelists, the two speakers said they weren’t advocating for technology for technology’s sake, but that’s exactly what I took away from their altogether uninspiring examples.

Seventy-five percent of what young and old technologists produce is unadulterated gimmickry. Another 24 percent makes life a tad more convenient, which shouldn’t necessarily be mistaken with “better”. When I opened my refrigerator this morning, I saw that I was out of milk. We sold our previous house without photos from overhead.

One percent of technological innovation fundamentally improves the quality of people’s lives. My friend who makes educational apps for autistic children is a one-percenter.

No one has made an app or device that helps me communicate better with my wife. Despite the Maker Movement and related Technological Revolution, I still say and do stupid things that upset her. More generally, where’s the technology that ameliorates gender, racial, political, economic, religious differences? The technology that creates improved interpersonal relationships, and kinder, more caring communities?

I’m not holding my breath.