Must be me…

The Globe and Mail has a story about an “experiment” (I use quote-unquote because I personally see nothing new about it, but I come back to this below) carried out by a college teacher who has broken down her 200-student class into small groups, to work through their latest assignment.

The idea is that, in this way, the professor and her teaching assistants can spend time with each group, thereby giving every student in the class a chance of interacting with the instructors individually. “Face time”, so to speak, is something that most first-year students “crave but struggle to receive”. “It’s an oft-heard complaint”, reads the article, “Students say they don’t interact with their professors enough in large classes and professors feel pressured to give a higher priority to their research in the race for promotion and tenure.”

That sounds very much like “party line”, and indeed the article has a strongly ideological slant, like most articles dealing with higher education published in this paper. The premise is stated as if it were self-evident, and the problem is quickly diagnosed as yet another manifestation of a supposed, unresolvable dichotomy between research and teaching.
The facts, the empirical data which should constitute the foundation of the story, are, to put it kindly, hastily sketched (to put it more accurately, they are not there at all).

For one thing, there is hardly anything new in the practice of breaking down a large class in small groups, for the purpose of working on assignments and/or to carry out laboratory experiments [0]. Describing anything like that as an attempt to “experiment”, to break new ground, or even plainly to do anything unusual or different, seems incredibly naive and ill-informed — or, more likely, disingenuous.
But more importantly, is it really true that students “crave” face time with the instructor, and are routinely turned away by self-absorbed academics, whose only interest is advancing their own research program ?
The article states that as though it were a truism, but nothing factual is provided (e.g., a survey conducted among college students) to substantiate that assertion. “Students say they don’t interact with their professors enough in large classes” implies, among other things, that professors are generally unavailable to meet with the students outside class time, but is that a fair and accurate assessment of the current state of affairs in university campuses ?
I wish to offer my perspective, because I have been teaching freshman physics classes over the past fifteen years, and my experience does not support anything even close to what the article claims or implies. In fact, the exact opposite is true — students have ostensibly no interest in talking to the instructor.

Is it me ?

Am I the only one who:

  • spends office hours waiting for students, any students, to show up.
  • constantly receives requests from students to post online as much course material as possible — class notes, solutions to homework problems, etc.
  • in a given term will receive the visit of at the very most 5% of all students enrolled in the course, either during regular office hours or on appointment.
  • very seldom will be requested, by those few students who come to office hours, to re-explain a specific concept with which they are struggling — almost invariably they will instead seek hints on how to solve homework problems, or argue over a grade.
  • after replying to an e-mail message from a student seeking help, with the offer to meet with the student at his/her convenience, will either receive no further message, or the student will insist that the answer to his/her question be sketched in an e-mail message.
  • If the above is very different from what most other college instructors out there observe, well, then I clearly have a problem with how I relate to students. Who knows, maybe I come across as stern, intimidating, maybe it’s my accent, maybe it’s the title of my blog… (surely not my awesome looks). If that were the case, though, I would expect that it would be mentioned in the comments that students leave on their evaluation forms.
    But, out of all criticisms that I have received (and there are many, to be sure), being “unapproachable” or “unavailable” has never been one of them. Now, why would students not take advantage of formal, anonymous course evaluation to voice their “oft-heard complaint” ? Nor have they been expressing, at least over the last ten years, any appreciation for my availability, even when I almost made a point, went out of my way to make myself accessible — it is as if that part simply did not register with them at all.

    I am curious because, if instead it should turn out that my experience mirrors that of most, or many of my colleagues [1], if it be resolved that the whole premise of the article is bogus, that a nebulous solution is offered to a largely non-existent problem, then we may have to ask ourselves a very different question, and set an entirely different agenda for ourselves as educators (whether in the classroom or in the laboratory), namely, how do we get students to talk to us ?


    [0] For example, in the sciences large classes (e.g., freshman mathematics and physics courses) are routinely broken down in small sections for recitation). This was standard practice already in the early 80s, when I started college.

    [1] According to a lot of my colleagues (as well as judging from the on-line comments to the article in the Globe and Mail), what I see in my courses is not at all unusual. But of course, this is no statistically reliable sample.

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    6 Responses to “Must be me…”

    1. GMP Says:

      My experience is very similar to yours. Most students don’t particularly care to interact face-to-face and most don’t utilize office hours at all. On the other hand, email communication and posting materials online are very popular.

      Wait… Students, just like profs, like do to things at their own pace, in their own time, and preferably at a coffee shop or on a couch?! No, it could not possibly be…

      • Massimo Says:

        Students, just like profs, like do to things at their own pace, in their own time, and preferably at a coffee shop or on a couch?! No, it could not possibly be…

        Well, sure, but, my question then is: where does that end ? How long until we are asked to record ourselves teaching and post online the video of our classes, so that students can comfortably watch it (yeah, right….) in bed, and/or at their own leisure, without having to bother to come to class ? And at that point, what is the difference between an online university and a traditional one, based on human contact ? Why come to school at all, then ?

        The whole premise for you and I to exist as college professors, is that the education that one receives on a campus, in a lecture hall, which includes some degree of human interaction, with an instructor and with fellow students, is superior to that which one can give oneself at home by watching videos and reading material on the web. The day one proves that there is not much difference between the two, or in any case the day society no longer buys the notion that there is any difference, you and I are finished.
        As long as people still believe that there is a difference, should we not try and avoid all those things that blur the line between campus-based and online education ?

    2. Scientistmother Says:

      The globe and mails quality of reporting has gone down in the 5+ years I have been reading & subscribing. Perhaps that is why I’ve stopped my subscription.

      • Massimo Says:

        SM, I am not even sure if you can call this “reporting”, I think they just used that non-story as a pretext to rehash their favourite narrative about college education — one in which shrewd, selfish, privileged professors, turn their collective back on the sons and daughters of those very taxpayers who pay their salary, preferring instead to devote all of their time to research of dubious value and no benefit to society, only to stroke their ego.
        Now, does that have anything to do with reality ? Of course not, but who cares ? Heck, it makes for a nice ideological platform to wage a war against academic freedom and public higher education, two things that right-wing papers like the G&M loathe.

    3. Pika Says:

      For me, all of the above is also true. Followed by panicky emails 1hr before project submission deadline or at 11pm on the night before the exam. And I am on the other side of the Atlantic (Ireland).

      Also significant is that students in this country (as opposed to two other European countries where I taught before) never ever show up after the exam to check how their exams were marked. Not for exams, not even for project reports (big projects that could serve as platform to learn research methods and writing for their MSc theses). This is completely opposite from my other two countries (in southern Europe and Scandinavia) where were required to hold office hours for students just to come and check the exams/reports and everyone in fact did it, so I have memories both as a student and as an instructor of huge queues waiting to see the marked exam.

      So, I’m thinking, maybe it’s a cultural anglo-saxon thing or something? I actually asked my colleagues and students why this is so here (i.e. the indifference for results) and they looked at me as if I was from Mars to even expect anyone to show up. Because they have apparently been “raised” so that exam is the last thing you do for a course. Why would you bother with anything else afterwards, it’s now all over.

    4. Transient Reporter Says:

      If we didn’t have office hours, when would I have time to catch up on Massimo’s blog posts?

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