Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

You can lead a horse to water...

Longtime readers of this blog know that I enjoy teaching undergraduates. This isn't to say that I want to spend most of my time teaching, or that I have some sort of obsession with it, it's just that it's an interesting challenge that counterbalances my research endeavors. Over the years I've had a lot of different students and, for the most part, have liked them. I've had smart students and not so smart students, motivated students and unmotivated students, and I've had friendly students and quite unfriendly students. It's been an exciting ride.

Recently I have encountered my most challenging student yet: a young woman who seems to not simply be unmotivated, but to actually be the anti-motivation. In the same sense that when you combine matter with anti-matter they mutually annihilate, I believe that when you combine this woman's anti-motivation properties with my own drive to work, they destroy each other. This student drives me absolutely crazy not because she's stupid* or because she isn't really interested in the material** but because she is actually spending energy to avoid learning the information. I'm serious. She asks a question, I begin answering it, and I can see the wheels of frustration turning in her head. I can see her thinking, "Why is he explaining all this to me? I just want quick fill-in-the-blank answers. I don't want to think!" And I know that sounds arrogant but, as my officemates could attest, I am being extremely honest here. I have a student who absolutely does not want to learn and it is frustrating the hell out of me.

This is an issue, however, not simply because I get frustrated but because it's provoking me. The other day she was in my office for a considerable length of time before class getting help.*** After attempting to fight my way- yet again- through her dense cloud of anti-motivation I told her that I needed to finish preparing for class and we could pick this back up afterwards. As I went to leave my office for a few moments to refill my water bottle and collect myself, she exclaimed in a half-angry/half-plaintive voice, "I don't get it, I'm going to fail, and it's NOT FAIR!" I stopped and turned around but managed not to say anything as, given my mood right then, I'm fairly sure I would have made her cry.

The real problem, however, as my Sainted Fiancee so astutely pointed out, is that this student has been coddled. She is sitting in my office essentially saying, "This is hard and that's not fair," because she's been allowed to get by without working. I don't know a solution to that problem and, unfortunately, I can't simply conclude that it is a problem limited to this student. I have run into more than a few students who seem to think that a "B" is theirs so long as they come to 60% of class meetings and continue breathing. When they discover otherwise, I usually have to weather a storm of bitterness. I am not the only one who has this experience either. I can only assume that other teachers have responded to this by caving in and lowering their standards- and I can't really blame them for that too much. Putting up with this shit day in and day out is almost more than I can stand. After another five or ten years worth, who knows? Maybe I'll cave too rather than continue battling against rampant sloth.

What happens in the end, however, is that we graduate students who can't think and don't know anything. Worse, they expect that everything will come easily and, as we all know, anything truly worth having doesn't often come easy. Am I exaggerating the problem? Maybe. Then again, we have some signs that I'm not. I refer in particular to recent problems over at Verizon. As is discussed extensively on the blog VerizonMath, it is increasingly apparent that many of those who work for the telecommunications company cannot do math. Well, that's not exactly true. They can apparently do math well enough to run a calculator, but are unfamiliar with the basic concepts of "counting" and "units." It sounds like I jest but, as this transcript makes clear, they don't seem to grasp the difference between "0.02 dollars" and "0.02 cents." As in, "2/100ths of a dollar" versus "2/100ths of a cent." Read it if you don't believe me, and then feel free to weep for the future.

On the one hand, this issue has sparked some great humor, including the rather playful entry below:

On the other hand it just highlights a very real problem. We need to find some way to keep standards high while still offering students opportunity. We need to emphasize teaching a little more. We need to make sure we're graduating students who genuinely know how to think at least a little. If we don't... well... I'd like to say we'll all suffer but, frankly, the suffering should be in the present tense.

As scientists we usually think of our job as discovering fact. This is true, as far as it goes, but we have to recognize that if we cannot, or do not, communicate those facts then we may as well never have learned them in the first place.

If we can harness the atom and map the genome we can certainly do this. So let's get off of our asses and actually do it.

Otherwise, in all honesty, I don't know that we're any different from our worst students- too lazy to do what is hard and complaining when it is asked of us.

* I honestly can't tell- the motivation problem is too severe.

** As it so happens she isn't interested in the material, which I know without question because she's told me so.

*** Outside my office hours no less.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

As one of those officemates I have to say that, if anything, Drek has understated the problems with this particular student. The best illustration of this was her inability to understand summation. It was painful on so many levels.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007 10:59:00 AM  

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