Thursday, April 03, 2008

Day 57 "In the trenches" ("Grow-the-hell-up" edition)

Good example of a growing syndrome and the right--and wrong--ways to react to it. Professor gets fed up with students text-messaging, surfing the web, or otherwise ignoring what he has to offer in the classroom, and comes up with a good solution--and a poor frame:

If the philosopher at Syracuse University catches a student sending text messages or reading a newspaper in class, he’ll end the class on the spot and walk out. It doesn’t matter if there is but one texter in a large lecture of hundreds of students. If you text, he will leave.

Last week, when a student in a large lecture — in the front row no less — sent a text message, Thomas followed through on his threat (as he had done just a few days earlier). And he then sent the university’s chancellor, his dean, and all of the students an e-mail message explaining his actions and his frustration at the “brazen” disrespect he had received in class.....

Thomas followed up with a second e-mail, noting that at least one parent of a student had complained about two classes being called off. “Everyone has to understand that respect is a two-way street. I respect you, as I endeavor to do and you respect me. My experience has been that confronting students directly and asking them to stop has virtually no effect. I walk out to underscore the importance of what this means to me,” he wrote.
That's smart, and appropriate. By the time students are of college age, it is ridiculous to expect a professor to behalf like a 4th-grade homeroom teacher, or to put up with this kind of infantile behavior. I've done it myself: here and there, and once or twice, when I was really sufficiently fed-up--not usually with disrespectful behavior, as that shit doesn't fly in my classes, but more typically because I was fed-up with lack of preparation or simply lack of effort/engagement--I've walked.

But as my friend Steve, a veteran of the job-sites as I am myself, says "you can go always 'go to' going global on somebody; that option is never off the table. But once you've used it, you've backed both parties into a corner." From that wise advice I've concluded that it's almost always better to defer going global, knowing that you can, but refraining from doing so.
The e-mail went on: “Now, I do not know how this will unfold. But I will either not teach the course PHI 191 in the future or I will simply resign from Syracuse University. But what I will not do is tolerate such brazen disrespect for me. I am an old fashion individual in that I believe in principles of right and wrong that transcend every race/ethnicity and sexual identity....The respect that I demand of you stems not from arrogance or any sense of self-importance but from my unfailing commitment to your excellence.”
This is where he starts going wrong, I'd offer. You don't consign shit like this to an email. You might be pissed-off. You might be so pissed-off that you have blast out a lengthy screed articulating just how angry you are. But what you don't fuckin' do, is hit "Send" while you're still angry. It's pretty clear that the prof over-reacted--not in walking out, but in committing his long screed to email. That's just stupid. The purpose of email is communicate information and provide a "paper" trail. If you're just venting, you write offline, cool off overnight, and then edit/review/round-file in the morning. Basic rule of the post-paper office: anything consigned to an email will be forwarded--and the less you'd want it forwarded, the more likely it is to happen. DON'T DO IT.

On the other hand, I share the Philosophy prof's sense of fury: the distraction and sense of entitlement that accompanies the kids presuming they're "allowed" to text-message or play tic-tac-toe in the classroom is a real problem.

A few years back, PBS ran a great 4-part documentary called "Declining by Degrees" in which they followed faculty and students at four differently-profiled college programs across the country, and the disconnect between (some) faculty members' presumptions about students' responsibility to engage, put forth effort, keep up their end of the bargain, etc, and those of students who, like the little bastard in the IHE article, say things like the following:
"We the students are the customers, the consumers, the ones who make the choice every day to pay attention or not. I pay approximately $30,000 to go here, whether I text in class or not. Laurence Thomas gets paid whether his students text in class or not. Does he think that this is the first time this has happened on any college campus? Had he acted like nearly 100 percent of the other college professors in this country, he would have shrugged it off and continued with his lecture, which he is getting paid to do."
To which I would respond, "you little bastard--if you yourself (e.g., "I") are 'paying $30,000 to go here,' I'll eat my hat. Somebody else is paying that $30K, so that you can act like an overgrown infant and avoid the work force for another 4 years. The best thing you can fuckin' do right now is walk out of this class, call your mommy on the umbilical cell phone, and say 'Mom, I've decided to move home and into the basement now, so that you can start doing my laundry now, so that I don't have to put up with these jerky old professors who expect me to like, know stuff' [cue Happy, Texas's "Wayne Wayne Wayne"]. The quicker drones like you are out of my classroom, the quicker I can give your vacated seat to somebody with a pulse and some human value."

Sadly, it's endemic: many undergraduates, anymore, think of college not as a course of study and work to get through, or even as a set of skills to mechanically acquire and regurgitate, but rather simply as a kind of "time-served" exile; e.g., "I've been walking around this campus like a zombie for four years, putting forth no effort, only resentfully and occasionally showing up for classes, text-messaging when I was in class, posting nasty reviews to ratemyprofessors any time some faculty member told me I was wasting his (and my own) time and my parents' money--but you I've been here four years and now you're 'obligated' to give me a degree. With A's!"

But the prof was dumb to ever put that stuff in an email to superiors--because it obviously got forwarded everywhere in creation. In the (very bad, very formulaic, but interestingly-charactered) Robert B. Parker "Spenser" novel Double Deuce, Spenser responds to some trivial vandalism by saying "you ever notice those junior high school vice principals who spend all their time checking passes and policing the hallways for chewing-gum wrappers? They make themselves look like assholes, right?"

Coping with childish and selfish behavior by conveying "I am above this trivial bullshit" is wise. Even wiser is finding a way to articulate--even explicitly and in these very words--"The three people who are text-messaging or surfing the web in this class are taking something away from the 67 people who are paying attention and working hard. Those three worthless drones need to either shape up or get out. Or I will."

That's how you change the frame.

[h/t to Big Brother for passing along the IHE story]

1 comment:

maskedridersean said...

Dr. Smith my old adversary, I have just been reading your blog. Mostly because I am very bored, but also because our mutual friend/colleague said I might find it interesting. And she was right

You respect the man whom most of us undergrad students liken to Harry Potter's Professor Binns and you live up to your fanatic ally liberal reputation.

All that is well and good but I would very much like to challenge you on this point right here. But first let me say, you are one of the few professors I’ve had the fortune, or misfortune, to have that I would even try to draw into a debate. That’s a sign of respect, even if its twisted. And while I personally don’t like your methods, I respect your intellect.

Now I take my gloves off.

We, the students of the universities are feed up with professors pretending they are the absolute masters of their fields and classrooms and hide behind things like tenure. The fact is that half your SOM faculty need to realize they are so out of step with reality and their field they needed to retire a decade ago, but instead act like a leach on the university system.

Since I entered college four years ago, the price has gone up about 30%, yet the quality has barely remained static, if not lowered some. I am being taught by the few teachers who actually teach and the many who hide behind things like TA's and "recording studios".

We students ARE the consumers of the university. Our tuition pays your salary. And yes, a lot of us actually are paying for it ourselves, sooner or later. We chose to attend TTU with promises of great teachers and a cost-effective education. I feel like I've been robbed.

Without us, you have no job. And lets drop the pretense. Your class is interesting, but its not helping to change the world.

I get that the university is not about education. To pretend otherwise is ignorant. The university is there for people who have educated themselves out of their job market. Let’s be real, few of the professors who sit with Thursday afternoon could make a living outside of academia. Getting a doctorate is to make sure the real world sees you as over qualified. So the universities exist as a safe haven for you to do the only thing for you...research in your field. How do you get money for this, luckily our advancing world sees the college degree as the new high school diploma. Here is the business model. Offer a license to hold a white-collar job i.e. the undergraduate degree and have kids pay for it funding research. If it were any other way, why refer to the degree this way? “UNDER grad”

Texas Tech is a “research institution.” So most professors are required to do research. Assuming that more universities are “research institutions” than not, there is an incredible amount of research going on. Yet the cure for cancer still evades us, AIDS too. Not to mention the common cold. We have not discovered a replacement for petroleum. If all this research is going on, why aren’t our lives getting better?

I am paying Texas Tech to have decent musicians but bad teachers who have D.M.A’s (and sometimes not even then) but no teaching, let alone plain job experience decide the magic number on my license, a.k.a. the G.P.A. I am funding yours and everyone else’s at the university’s research. Which usually means a new version of their own textbook that conveniently comes out every time they have a tenure review. Let’s not kid ourselves. I got through the musicology sequence with the old yellow book, even though the new green book came out and therefore mandated by you, who helped write it. Coincidence? What was the difference between the two books? The cover color and a chapter we didn’t even cover.

If a student has problems outside the music building, say, his fiancée drove up to Lubbock, tossed him the ring he bought and hit the road and has trouble convincing himself why he should get out of bed in the morning, professors don’t care. They have strict attendance policies that leave no room for “oh shits” or “real life problems” But this same professor who wakes up with a running nose can cancel his class by having his TA put a note on the door, or whatever. When that professor needs to satisfy his “research” obligations, he cancels class without thinking about it twice. But how dare any of these punks try to pull a fast one on me “I blew out my tire” or “gosh I spent the day wondering packing because my mother is deadly ill and I might need to go back home.” No note, no mercy. If education were the reason for universities, research would never interfere with class.

If you want our “oligarchs” in the Bush administration to take responsibility for their actions, take responsibility for yours. Instead of treating your students like juvenile delinquents, realize they your are completely supported by them. Your students are tax payers too. If high school seniors really understood the dysfunctional nature of the music building and especially our university, your freshman “Research style’s class” would be smaller than the bassoon studio. Not to digress, but I paid about $500 to sit in a class that could have just as easily been integrated into the other 3 semesters. Some people may not know how to write, but I do. You may think otherwise, but some of your colleagues disagree. My writing has been used in two other tenured professors’ presentations in the field of Music Education.

Professors need the students. The process you read all our papers is a joke and your defense it here only proves that you don’t even think it works. I wrote 4 papers in musicology myself and helped another student with hers almost to the point where you should have been suspicious of a violation of academic integrity. What did I get, an F and a C+ from you, but the student who cannot write her way out of a paper bag that I helped a B and the student who B.Sed his paper the night before an A. If you and your sad group of teaching assistants actually read our papers, this wouldn’t happen.

Unfortunately, we are at your mercy. We want to get our license and go out into the world, which most professors never have. Yet we are lectured about the outside world and professionalism. A lecture in professionalism from a professor wearing jeans is the definition of ironic. Most of us have to dress better for our minimum wage jobs at One Guy’s.

You make people with laptops sit in the front row so you can make sure they aren’t on myspace, yet I watched one of your TA’s shop for stiletto’s during your lecture. She had a say in my grade yet her decorum was more of a street walker than a person trying to become a professional. Really nice.

Professors clamor that their students’ minds are closed, and that Lubbock is one of the worst places for a university ever imagined because its inhabitants are so down right opposed to change or thought it is oppressive. But I must confess, while I agree the nature of Lubbock is difficult to endure, the professors that rail against it are just as close minded as the people they rail against. If fact, they are even worse, not because they are hypocrites, but because their highly educated intellects should be more open than those of the mass populace.

Being a university professor is the best gig I can think of besides being independently wealthy. You are only required to teach 9 hours a week plus maintain office hours meaning in a week you actually work less than some people work in a day. You also have to do “research”, which for some people is surfing the vast collections of other people’s research and drawing your own conclusions, and the university pays you to do it. You get all the holidays off and you don’t have to teach summer sessions if you don’t want to. Some don’t even have to teach, that’s what a TA is for right? So you have an assistant to do all your dirty work. And you make a decent living off of it, plus the perks that come with a university (free concerts and movies, discount tickets to athletic events, a gym, an office). You also get a semester of paid time off every seven years. My father has worked for the same company for 22 years and gets a measly 5 weeks of vacation.

So professors have it very good. Why? Because the university system is as corrupt and dysfunctional and money grubbing as the federal government which you revile. It claims it is doing a world of good, while it actually really serves its own crony network. Sound familiar? There are faculty members at the School of Music who do not have the education required, nor the experience to teach at this claimed “major music school” yet the are married to a buddy so why not hire them? Once you have tenure, unless you commit a felony, you cannot be fired. Job security like that exists nowhere in the business world today.

So, Dr. Smith, feel free to blast away at my logic and call me an opinionated punk with his head up his ass, which I’m pretty sure you have before. You may be right, but like so many of your posts indicate, the winds of change are blowin’. And there are a lot more fed up college students than there are professors. And this university stockholder can’t wait to cash in his bonds for that pathetic scrap of parchment.