Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Professor of the Millennials

I have been writing a lot about my students but I have not mentioned how I have grown in the last 20 years.

I started as a typical professor teaching in a small liberal arts university. I was prepared for my classes. I taught from text books that I thought were quality books and challenged my students.  I gave routine homework as I knew from my education that feedback is very important. I did not have any feedback on any of my work for more than 6 years and I could never tell what I had done wrong. I did not want my students to feel that way. Exam should not be the only way to evaluate. So I routinely tested them with quizzes and in class questions.

This is how it went on for 10 years.  I changed some text books. My exams were still all written out and hand graded by me. I felt good about the quality of product coming out of my classes.

Then I changed my job for another university.  This was a similar university to my previous one with one major difference. The fees was too high. The students attending this university were generally the privileged ones.  I had hardly any diversity in my class. Within one year I could see the problem. These students were ready to blame anyone for not succeeding in my course. Even a hint that they were going to get a B was not good enough for them, so they lashed out.  For the first time in my life I was forced to give multiple choice exams because my students were accusing me of unfair grading. This had never happened to me before. I had only two grade challenges in my life, even now,  after 20 yrs.  All this really bummed me out.  So I looked for another job.

I found one in a nice college that had a lot of diversity in student and faculty.  Great I thought! Well....not so fast!

It turns out there is a great difference between a Masters and PhD professor. And from what I saw in my department, the MS graduated professors did not challenge the students as much as I would. It turned out to be a popularity contest. Anyone demanding quality product would not be popular. But students also don't demand quality, they demand good grades.

The other problem I faced was the type of students I was getting: there is no quality control, there was no prerequisite and there was also not a great demand on the student to do well in the courses. It became a catch-22 for me. I was required to teach at a lower level, give easy grades and not worry about the product or the long term learning consequence for the student! This was a big eye opener for me.

I also saw that most students just did not have the time to study, they are working, taking care of family or commuting so much that they miss class. That inspired me to make power points so students would have some notes to refer to.  That was not enough....I eventually recorded my lectures, so they could understand what I was trying to teach. That as not enough because they still don't know how to solve then I started making notes of me teaching them how to solve problems (pencasts). So it seemed to me that I was working more than they were.

Do I see the results of my hard work? I don't know. The information is out there. I don't track the usage of that info because I know that students can pass my classes without all that information - they used to - 10 years ago!! Now they cannot concentrate in class, they cannot give time to study and what is bothersome, they don't even try. They just give up. Why? Who teaches them that giving up is okay? How can you keep wasting time and money in college. Be done with it and start working and do other things in life. College is not is one step in the journey of life.

I have adapted a lot over the last 10 years but there are things I will never understand because I have not been through it myself so I can only sympathize with them - not empathize. I am very grateful I never had to pay for my education; my parents supported me. Getting my PhD in USA showed my how expensive education could be.  Thank god my subject was chemistry so I could get teaching assistant job otherwise I would never have been able to afford PhD.

I sympathize with my students that they have to go through such hardship in such young age. But not all are like that. The ones who have financial aid and have some support should have no excuse for not being better in their studies. But then .... it takes all kinds........

As time goes on - I know I will adapt. Sadly chemistry has not changed - it has not become easier. It still requires time and hard work.  There is no question to what hard work can do for a person. I don't have to do half the things I do for my students, but I do, so they understand that it is not just their struggle to do well, it's mine too.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Hating the Government and the Whiteness in USA

I was thinking about why some people in USA hate the US government so much.  Then I thought about how this country came into being. There were no rules, regulations or impositions. One could go wherever anyone wanted, shoot and kill whoever they thought was trespassing on their land or for whatever reason and no one would question them.  And Maybe people would fear them for it and they could easily rule that place.  That is what all the western movies are about which are so popular?

Of course what all those initial immigrants were not counting on was that there would be more immigrants.  This all then leads to having a social structure, law and order that they would have to abide by.  Slavery in the early days was a result of unchecked morals and greed.  Even slavery took a long time to be abolished because the initial government was from the same initial white immigrants. In my opinion there is no moral high ground for slavery in any era.

With the election of Obama, the first black president (and this is when he is only half black!!), nomination of Trump as a presidential candidate now the acquittal of the Oregon wildlife occupiers that “western” mentality is coming back.  One just wants to do whatever they want and government should just butt out of it.  Well…they don’t believe in government when they need to obey rules and pay taxes but they will believe in government when they want their medicare and medicaid!! How does this work??

Why is it that these “militia” was let off without any verdict whereas the Native Indians who are fighting for their natural resources, water, are being treated like criminals.  Double standards are everywhere all the time in USA. If Obama had been even 1% of what Trump is as a candidate he would have been vilified. Even Hillary, despite being white, would have been vilified! But Trump is excused all behaviour and people actually defend it. How?? It really is great to be white in America and that’s what all these white supremacy groups want….their white America back!  It’s a scary thought.

Any country that excludes because of religion will not survive.  Any country that is formed on the basis of religion or class or color will not survive. Diversity is a natural phenomenon.  Anyone who does not embrace it will become extinct.  I think humanity is getting there…..

Right now I am just blown away by the racism that is so alive in this day and age in America.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Nature of Student - 2016

I have been thinking a lot about what is going on with the students in this day and age. I have been teaching for over 20 years and it does not use to be like this. I had students who would come to class, do the assignments, study for exams and take the grade they got.  I did have some classes where the whole class did not do well but that was predictable because of the material. They had their text books to study from, they would come to office hours or form their own study groups. 

There are so many things that have changed in the past few years that I don’t know where to begin.  I don’t know if this is a national issue or just in my college (a two year college). 

I have seen that students don’t buy text books, they cannot “afford” them.  To counter this problem I have offered students a free text book from my office – but they don’t want to take it. So it means – they don’t want to use the text book. It is possible that a number of instructors are using their power points as guidelines. They are printing and giving those so students don’t see the need for buying text books.  I don’t think these instructors realize the damage they are doing.  Students are not learning how to read and understand material on their own. They rely on the instructor now to explain everything.

Students don’t have note taking skills. Their writing speed is so slow that it slows me down.  It may come from all those power point notes they have been getting from instructors. No need to take notes – just add pointers.  But when I tell them to print out specific power points slides for class they don’t! I am at a loss!

Not taking charge of their own education.  Why do they think that they can come to the lecture for three hours per week and be able to do well on the exam? For something like chemistry or any subject for that matter, one would need to spend so much time outside the class to study.  They don’t remember anything from class so even if they ask questions I have to go over the entire topic. 

They don't think remembering any information is good for them. They are so used to looking at their phones for info that they have forgotten how to memorize.  It is also a result of a lot of instructors now giving open book exams. No pressure on students to remember anything.

Respect and attitude.  These two things are of course character and not about studying. But I feel that both these will affect a person’s learning in the long run. If one has no respect for the professor or the subject then how can you expect to learn anything. If the student thinks they are smart already….well then! And attitude! Oh God! This is big one. There is no humility in their behavior and there is no shame. Both of these qualities are required for one to realize that they have put some effort in their learning rather than blaming someone else or being okay with a "C". They have been asked to challenge everyone around them but not themselves.
I will admit that not all students are a gone case but a lot of them could be so much more if they could only push themselves a little more.

The saddest I feel is for those who know are performing poorly in a class but still don’t get help. They have so many other distractions in their life that they are not able to focus.

One last thing I would say about the American education system that bothers me a lot is “W” on a transcript. The ability of a student to withdraw from a class. Why? It’s a commitment – for only 15 weeks. Students should have to go through hoops to withdraw from a class. But here it is so easy.  I think it is more of a monetary thing than anything else. At least the college got the money – what do they care if the student withdraws? If they did, I think their graduation rates would be a lot higher.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Compromising in Education

It has been a really weird week for me. First the Trump tape came out which really struck a nerve with me, then the debate where Trump lurking behind Clinton, then I gave the exams in my two classes. Both classes pretty much bombed it even though they had 5 days to study for barely two chapters. I just wanted to go in a cave and not show my face. I felt terrible as a professor, as a woman and in general as a human being.

I thought deep and hard for two days before I had to face my students to give their exams back. What would I say? How would they feel? Could I control my temper? I did not want to give a pep talk. I feel the pep talks are over rated. Students know what they are doing - they just don't think about the consequences of their actions.

Then I kept thinking of my evaluation.  All the administration wants to see is student success from me. I am the sole person responsible. No one wants to see the quality of the students or the burdens they have while going to school.  No one asks them to be responsible for their learning.  The employers want the people they hire to be ready to work, the administrators want student success, the students want to pass the class without really studying ..... so the only person with any moral dilemma is me! I am the one holding everyone back from their goals - except the employers. They will never get a "job" ready employee because the whole system of making that employee is broken.

As I said, this last week was really hard. I had this discussion with myself on quality vs student success. And then I thought why am I being so hard on myself? If both the students and administration want the same thing then who am I to stand in the middle? These students have so much pressure outside school - work, family, time issues.  I never had to study under these circumstances. I will never understand how the richest country in the world cannot provide cheaper education.  And the can they not pay for their children? Its too much burden on a 20 year old, to go to school and pay for their own education.

So then I decided to change my style. I decided to change my exams from what "I" thought the students should know to what the "students" think they should know.  After so many years I decided to give a second chance on an exam to my students.  I know of so many instructors who don't cover all the material, so many who give open book exams...why am I busting my behind to make life hard for my students? Why should they have to suffer just because they have me as their professor? They can do better on the exams and feel better about themselves and I will feel good that they are doing good. So what if I don't cover all the chapters? So what if they don't all become as ready as a chemistry undergraduate will be...these are not chemistry majors. Most are going on for other professions, so most don't even care about chemistry as I would want them to.

Somewhere inside a small part of me will probably die. I already feel like I am cheating my students by not challenging them more. I want them to become more competitive in the world....but they don't see it this way. Ultimately the compromise is everyone's: mine - for not teaching to the level I think I should; the student's - for not challenging themselves to reach their potential; the administrator's - for making a poor product; and finally the biggest loser is America itself - for thinking it's investing so much in education but not getting the quality worker it needs.