Interesting piece in the Times:
One student skipped class and then sent the professor an e-mail message asking for copies of her teaching notes. Another did not like her grade, and wrote a petulant message to the professor. Another explained that she was late for a Monday class because she was recovering from drinking too much at a wild weekend party.
Jennifer Schultens, an associate professor of mathematics at the University of California, Davis, received this e-mail message last September from a student in her calculus course: “Should I buy a binder or a subject notebook? Since I’m a freshman, I’m not sure how to shop for school supplies. Would you let me know your recommendations? Thank you!”
At colleges and universities nationwide, e-mail has made professors much more approachable. But many say it has made them too accessible, erasing boundaries that traditionally kept students at a healthy distance.
These days, they say, students seem to view them as available around the clock, sending a steady stream of e-mail messages — from 10 a week to 10 after every class — that are too informal or downright inappropriate.
I get a steady stream of questions that are downright stupid- I recently sent out a review sheet to everyone that had a summary of what we had discussed in class in paragraph form followed bya series of items to pay attention to, and a student emailed me to ask whether they should pay attention to the summary or the list of items when studying for the test. Usually, I just send a short, polite (for me) response, such as in this case: “Both.”
On the whole, though, email has been great, because it gives students an extra avenue to get in touch with me. I even give my students my office instant messenger, which more and more students use.
Bruce in Alta California
Fred Reed wrote a wonderful article on the breakdown of the education system in America. His opinions are not only interesting and witty, but are also sadly very close to the truth.
I feel like an old fogey because all we had when I was in school were office hours. My friend is a high school teacher and I must admit, it completely disconcerts me when he talks about getting emails from his students. It’s just not the “normal” teacher-student relationship I grew up with.
I’m not opposed, mind you, just saying that it’s kind of hard to wrap my head around. If it helps people learn, great.
I hear you. I went through college and grauated in ’95. Of course the internet existed, but it was extremely rare for a student (outside of the Comp. Sci. dept.) to even have an email address. If they did, it was almost certainly an account administered through the school. Of everyone I knew in college, I can only think of 2 people who actually talked about their emails. And to talk to a professor, you either caught up with them after class, or you met during their office hours…
So it is a kind of mind-bending concept to think that for some students, the best thing they can use email for at college is to ask the professor what supplies to buy.
It’s a complete blessing. Between AIM, e-mail, and class webpages I almost don’t have to go to class. Hunting down homework problems takes all of seventeen seconds. Getting into closed classes is quick and easy – at the very least, I don’t have to spend the entire winter break waiting for a yes/no answer. It’s beautiful.
I’m plugging away at my degree one course at a time. And 99.9% of them are online courses from my local college. Being able to contact my instructor outside of “normal office hours” is a blessing.
No, that doesn’t mean I expect an answer right away, but it usually arrives some time within 24-48 hours. Being able to email my question saves ME the time of schlepping off to the school to try to find my teacher during her office hours.
I’m also old enough to not waste my instructor’s time with “do I have to buy ALL the recommended course manuals?” I know the answer is “No, you don’t, but don’t whine to me if you don’t get a good grade.”
My dog ate my post for this item.
I hate when people talk about the break down of the educational system in America. I like my students and even if they ask me dumb questions sometimes via email, they’re hard-working and honest for the most part. There’s nothing I hate more than hearing about how they’re all a bunch of dope-smoking losers because of our “crappy” high schools. It’s all a bunch of garbage perpetuated by people who might as well live in caves for all the contact they have with reality.
Bruce in Alta California
Hey DougJ, I never insinuated that college students are “all a bunch of dope smoking losers . . ” My point was that many college students today are, quite frankly, uneducated. I have quoted a portion of Fred Reed’s column hoping it will entice you to read the entire article. Not that I agree with all or even most of his opinions but on occasion he is dead right on.
Out of curiosity, where do you work, and what do you teach?
(as general or specific as you choose, I don’t mean to pry).
Reason I ask, I’m a graduate student in CompSci. I’ve been in Engineering programs in two different university systems now, and I’ve had a lot of contact with undergraduates both as being one of them, and now as a TA. I don’t have any patience with the analyses of the system that put the blame for the students’ purported shortcomings at the feet of the students; to me that’s blaming the victims. As you say, most students I’ve met come in willing to work. But I’ve seen a lot of US resident students come in very underprepared to work at the university level, and I do tend to wonder what’s going on with the high schools.
Foreign students, on the other hand, seem to come in much better prepared, in math and sciences at least, which counts for a lot in Engineering.
Sure they are, but they’re no worse than they were before.
Since I’m a mathematician, I’ll give you the following paradox: every generation believes that the following generation is more poorly educated than they were, yet we all agree that people are better educated now than they were 300 years ago (when most people couldn’t read). So you have an increasing function where the derivative is always negative.
I’m a math professor at a smallish private university, vidaloca.
I agree that students aren’t being challenged in high schools. But I think, on the other hand, a lot of them know that high school wasn’t challenging, so they’re ready mentally to be asked to do things that are much harder than what they’re used to doing. My impression in general from others that I’ve spoken to is that Americans don’t work as hard as people from other countries in high school. It’s cultural, though, I think: Americans are very anti-intellectual. Somehow getting the kids away from home and onto a college campus seems to mitigate that somewhat.
Bruce: it’s very easy to design questions people can’t answer. It’s a mistake to judge too much on the basis of multiple choice tests. I could tell you a story about this, but it’s too long and I don’t have time.
As a history professor I can sort of echo DougJ’s point. We’ve always been despairing of the degeneracy of our students “today” and yearning for a mythical past where they were better prepared. Read what the Progressives were saying about American education a hundred years ago and you’ll weep.
On the other hand, it is also undeniably true that many of the freshmen I teach are woefully unprepared in surprising ways. Modern secondary education seems to have abandoned boring old fact-based exercises. Too many kids really don’t know when the US entered WWII. Some (honest!) don’t even know for sure who we fought, or who won. Three (out of 40) students on a quiz a few weeks ago thought Lincoln won the election of 1872.
When, on top of this, you add the immediacy of e-mail, the laziness of human 18-year-olds, and general cluelessness, you can get some hair-tearing experiences.
I think the problem isn’t that kids today are dumber than they used to be, or that they’re worse-educated. But their education seems to have shifted toward emotional intelligence, or something, and away from basic fact-based narratives. YMMV, LOL. Etc.
Now we know where you get all that time.
You know, in a few years they’ll be writing about how Google destroyed the American mind. Google really will replace history as we know it.
Well, it is possible that more people go to college these days, some of whom might not have been considered up to the task in prior decades, and thus the standard of the average student is dragged down. Whereas in a bygone age when only the most gifted students enjoyed the privilege of higher education, it sure seemed like the whole student body was comprised of smart cookies. It’s one theory, anyway.
Another possibility is that the sum total of human knowledge is increasing so rapidly from generation to generation that even if we do a crappier job of educating each successive generation, they can’t help but end up more knowledgable than prior generations because there’s simply much more to know.
You mean Wikipedia, actually.
Totally OT, but does anyone have a good suggestion for a text to learn U.S. history from? Long story but I know European and Japanese history far better. Am looking for a good even-handed look by a good historian who isn’t afraid of good writing–any suggestions? (A.J.P. Taylor is my idea of a good historian–pity he didn’t write anything about the U.S. I loved his comment in one of his essays “there must be something in the Mideast that renders men insane.”)
No he’s not. He’s a student pretending to be a math professor, asking the other students why they don’t ever hear the GOOD news about limit theory for functionals on random bipartite sets?
Bruce in Alta California
This is a very enlightening thread. I am most intrigued by DougJ’s paradox:
Steve gave a clue
Which gives rise to another question. How do we define “education?” Is it quality or quantity. As example, my nephew has acquired volumes of information about a multitude of subjects but his use of the English language is deplorable.
I guess I just don’t know nothing. ;)
Heh. You raise an interesting point — but you’re interpolating two data points that are 300 years apart…
I’d be curious to know what you (and not just you, DougJ, but the other folks here who are tied into the education system) think about the local behavior of the curve over the last, say, 30 years or so. My hypothesis is that the general level of education in the country may in fact be going down from the period after WWII when a lot of people went through college on the GI bill, and when financial aid was a lot more available than it is now. I see two things that concern me:
1. The overall quality of the education system is driven by employers’ workforce needs — and whereas in the past there was a need for a solid educational background in the workforce, today the workforce happens to live overseas. The ones that remain don’t need a master’s degree to supersize it for you.
2. Our glorious forward march into the Middle Ages — the whole idea of Intelligent Design, for example, is that the world is so complicated that we have to invent an Imaginary Friend in the Sky to explain it. Why bother with scientific inquiry if that’s the point that it leads back to? Why develop mathematical tools to model realiity, you’re just going to throw up your hands in the end and say that your Imaginary Friend set it up that way?
A lot of what might be called social infrastructure is falling apart in an era of disinvestment. Why should schools be any different?
I think that students are probably as good or better at math than ever before. Math education in high school never functioned very well. I think we’re still waiting for that educational break through in math — something like what phonics did for reading. But I think that computers and so on have made kids more interested in math, so all in all I think that students’ ability to do math when they reach college is probably as good as it has ever been, if not better.
I agree that students don’t write very well and don’t know any history. But I blame that on Ken Burns.
VidaLoca ignores the other important data point for the last forty years: far greater opportunities for women.
Time was, one of the few decent-paying jobs women could get was to become a teacher. So lots of intellectually overqualified (so to speak) women went into teaching.
Now, there are far better opportunities available — but primary and secondary education are still hobbled by the artifically low salary structure and lack of social prestige that used to accompany all kinds of “women’s work.” Lots of talk about overpaid teachers is mostly just that: talk. Starting salaries are laughably low in urban areas with high costs of living.
Without pre-1965 sex discrimination and repression of women in the workforce, you really “get what you pay for.” And we ain’t paying all that much. The result shouldn’t surprise anyone.
stickler — I hadn’t thought of that. Point taken. Agreed that primary/secondary education is not much of a career from a money point of view, and the nature of the system can beat the idealism out of people starting into it, pretty quickly.
DougJ — I think that location and local economics play a part. For example, I started out in Milwaukee, a city with a school system that’s in rough shape. The students that I saw coming into the computing program at the U of W there had some casual knowledge about computers as users — but hadn’t had much exposure to what’s inside the box, hardware or software. Not much skill at abstract thinking. Perhaps they were stronger at math, but I’d be surprised.
I’m currently in Salt Lake City. More of a tech center here, stronger economy than Milwaukee. From what I’ve seen the students are somewhat better prepared.
Um, might there be any other differences in the student body in SLC vs. Milwaukee? Like, say, race/class/family income? I presume here that Milwaukee is no longer a predominantly German, manufacturing-intensive city with a vibrant middle class. Whereas SLC, I’m given to understand, has a far superior average income and better employment prospects for its much whiter population. Yes?
Those things tend to have an effect on “preparation” too.
Yup. Manufacturing is for all intents and purposes a thing of the past, it’s moved to the Pacific Rim. In its place: retail, tourism, and casinos. The wages you can make in those service-sector jobs do not go very far. For working-class people then, a general Wal-Martization and the disinvestment that goes along with that. What you see as far as economic growth is in what I’d call, for lack of a better word, the “parasite sector”: banking/finance, insurance, legal services — people making money on other people’s money. So you have this contradictory phenomenon going on of a huge boom in construction of high-end condos for these folks — but they’re mostly educated elsewhere, and either because they’re too old or too young have no kids in the school system and therefore no stake in it. There’s no aligned employer interest in the schools coming from that sector either.
Well, at least for the whiter members of its much whiter population I’d say that’s true.
I don’t see the hollowing out of the economy here that I see in Milwaukee. But “better employment prospects” is just another way of saying “employers willing to hire”: they do so with an expectation that the product they’re buying (the employees) will be delivered by the school system in ready-to-use condition. If the school system could’t meet that expectation I have to assume that pressure would be brought (by the employers, by the parents) to change that fact. My hypothesis though is that if (or when) the hollowing-out of the economy starts here, the end effect on the schools will be the same as in Milwaukee, because I don’t see anything that will fundamentally keep it from being any different.
What I’d really like to hear would be models from systems where the disinvestment pattern has been turned around — for example, cities in the rust belt that were hit earlier and harder than Milwaukee was. I’m thinking, for example, of the end of steel production (middle ’80s?) and the consequences of that in Ohio, PA, etc. Back then, Milwaukee was in a lot better shape economically than it is today. But I’m not sure those models exist.
Well, you’d think so, wouldn’t you. Here in Oregon, we have a pretty decent economy — and we’ve had ten years of cuts in the school budget. Portland is looking at another 25% (!) cut for next year. Business screams and howls about unprepared students. But business just never quite seems to pony up tax money to rectify the situation. Thus, the portion of the state budget paid by business taxes has dropped precipitously in the last ten years.
Business wants well-prepared students, all right. They just don’t want to have to pay for them.
Cutting 25% of the school budget? How can that work?
It’s the same old idea: privatization of the profits, socialization of the costs. There was a time in Milwaukee when you heard some screaming and howling about unprepared students; now that’s quieted down (or at least it had as of 2 years ago when I left there). Now, they dont’t give a rip.
Upthread, tzs asked, Totally OT, but does anyone have a good suggestion for a text to learn U.S. history from?
I can’t suggest one text, but I can suggest two:
A History of the American People, by Paul Johnson
A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present, by Howard Zinn
Between those two books you pretty much get the whole spectrum.
Who knows. They’ll probably figure out a stop-gap solution that only results in a 10% cut in staff and another three days lost from the end of the school year. Or maybe they’ll try to privatize something (they privatized the maintenance people a couple years back). They’ve already cut music and many sports, classroom sizes are huge, and they’re talking about closing more school buildings.
Three years ago the county voters approved a three-year special tax levy to make up the difference. It expired this year. The premise was that the state Legislature would fix the funding problem by now. They didn’t, largely because the Republicans from downstate always win office by demonizing Portland. So here we sit; the shortest school year in the nation already and headed for worse.
Kind of like that liar MICHEAL BELLSILES who wrote a book ARMIMG AMERICA in which he claimed that guns were not a factor in early america and as usial the liberals including SLICK WILLIE and CHAPAQUEDIC TED praised the book and claimed to proevd that the NRA was wrong he was given the BANCROFT PRIZE but it later turend out he had lied about the whole thing and the so called records he had used were destroyed in the SNA FRANCISCO erathquake and fire of 1906 sounds like he was claiming that the dog ate his homework he was forsed to return the prize money and the BANCROFT prize as well and was forced to resign CHEATERS NEVER PROSFER