Ever since I was a 4-year-old, hooked on dinosaurs, I knew that I wanted to study paleontology for the rest of my life. By the time I was in fourth grade, I was the only kid in my school who knew anything about dinosaurs (this was in the early 60s, before dinosaurs became cool for kids). I was asked to lecture about them to the sixth graders, and so I knew I liked to teach. Once I got into college and followed the normal route to a career in paleontology through my Ph.D. at Columbia University and the American Museum in Natural History in New York, I was committed to becoming a college professor. Starting with teaching at Columbia and Vassar, then at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and then 27 years at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and at Caltech in Pasadena, I’ve been extremely fortunate in teaching at elite institutions with outstanding students every place I’ve worked. Most of my time has been spent in small private liberal arts colleges (Vassar, Knox, and Occidental), where the classes are small and full of dedicated, bright students who mostly want to learn and generally work very hard. I got to know every student in nearly every class very quickly, and got to be good at reading their faces to make sure they understand. I always challenged them without pushing them past their breaking point. I was very proud of the mature, thoughtful scholarship our senior geology majors would produce after four years of the best teaching and opportunities. I’ve been nominated for teaching awards many times and won a few times, and I always have alumni and alumnae coming back and telling me how important my class was in opening their eyes or changing their lives. At small private colleges where the tuition is high, we give them their money’s worth with highly intensive, personalized education (I have involved hundreds of students in my research over the years, and about 45 students have more than 50 published scientific papers co-authored with me). We know immediately if a student is missing from class (it’s hard to hide in a class of eight, but even in a class of 32, I kept track). The college practically flipped out if a student missed 2-3 meetings in a row without contacting us—we were instructed to notify the Dean of Students for any student doing poorly on a test, or showing signs of slipping, since they don’t want anyone to drop out if they can help it. And we were proud of our high retention rate, and virtually all our students graduated in four years.
After 35 years of teaching, I was prepared for a change, so I left Occidental when I reached the minimum retirement age of 58 to focus on my research and my writing. From the time my sabbatical began in May 2011 through fall of 2012, I was writing non-stop, and five different books finally came out this year, delayed by more than 1-2 years beyond what I expected. I had hoped that the books would be published 2 years earlier, so I would be able to replace most of my old salary with royalties this year and next. Unfortunately the unnecessary and sometimes stupid delays by my publishers meant I won’t be seeing real royalties on most of these books until 2015. To supplement my income until the royalties are enough to remain fully retired, I chose to return to teaching part-time. The only place where someone of my rank and experience can teach part-time these days is at junior colleges, so I’ve now been teaching at three different colleges: Pierce in Woodland Hills, Mt. San Antonio College near Pomona, and Glendale College, near where I live. All three are considered among the best of the junior colleges in California, so these students are supposedly better than those in the lower-ranked junior colleges. I expected there to be a drop in the caliber of most students compared to the elite private colleges where I’ve always taught, but I was teaching Intro Physical Geology and other subjects that I’ve done dozens of times, so at least I didn’t need to do much class prep—I know that material cold. I was told not to dumb down the course material in any way, because my course content was supposed to be transferable and the equivalent in rigor of the same course in a four-year college—so that’s the way I taught it.
What caught me by surprise, however, was not the caliber of the students. In every class, I’d have a least 10 out of 35 who were as good as my Oxy students, showed up every class meeting, worked hard, and got the good grades they deserved. The biggest difference lies in the motivation and attitude of the rest of the students at all three J.C.’s where I’ve taught, and I’m told this is the norm everywhere. Unlike students in private liberal arts colleges, who are there full-time, paying high tuitions, and living on campus, the average J.C. student is very different. Many were not college material when they left high school, and cannot really handle college-level instruction and writing and comprehension yet, and may have poor study skills. To be fair, many were working full-time jobs and had families and other demands on their lives, but generally the good students who were in that bind still made their best effort to attend, and contacted me if they had to miss something. Consequently, in every class I’ve taught at the J.C. level, we have this strange pattern. In the first three weeks, there is this stampede to fill every seat in the class, because most other classes are full and students will often sign up for anything that has an open slot. Then, after the week 3 “census” (when we tell the college who is officially in the class at that point), attendance drops drastically. By mid-semester, less than half of the original 30-35 students continue to attend, and it’s only a core of about 10-15 students who show up each day motivated that I see through the rest of the semester.
Believe me, I do everything I can to encourage attendance! I stress many times in the first weeks and in my syllabus that attendance is required to pass the course, throw pop quizzes often in the early part of the semester, have assignments almost every meeting that helps me track who’s still trying, and base my exams heavily on lecture, so they cannot pass them if they were not here. They get this reinforced loud and clear nearly every class meeting, but still the attendance lags. By mid-semester, about half the class has so few points that they cannot do any better than an “F”—but many of them do not bother to drop or take a “W” (Withdrawn), but stay on the class list and get their inevitable “F.” Some never even show up for the final exam at all; others show up at the final after weeks of no attendance and somehow think they can pass the final without having a clue what we did. During one semester, I gave a quiz or test on every lecture, which was overkill and became pointless when they still don’t show up. No matter how I taught the course, at least half of the class flunks each semester.
After a while, I began to realize what was going on here. This last semester, I warned them that if they missed two class meetings in a row without contacting me, I’d exclude them from the class. When I did this, I got protests from students I hadn’t seen in weeks! It turns out that many of the students are just parked in classes for which they have no interest just to keep parents off their backs (or the parole officer, in some cases). They are forced to enroll in classes to get their tuition checks, but once the first three weeks pass, they have no further interest in learning or attending, yet they want to keep their name on the list so the parents (or parole officer) doesn’t know they’re blowing off school. There is almost no real penalty to them to take an “F”, since they can take a course three times without passing before they’re prevented from trying again, and the tuition is so low that flunking costs very little. Most of these students have no real interest in a four-year college so their GPA is not really a motivator. Thanks to FERPA rules, we’re not allowed to discuss student performance with anyone without the student’s permission. Thus, they can be enrolled but not attending all semester, and no one will know until the final grades arrive—at which point, it’s too late for the parents or anyone else to undo the mess. All of my faculty colleagues knew this implicitly, but they were all resigned to the fact that it’s the way the system works. Junior colleges take almost anyone, even if they do not have college-level writing or study skills, and lets them sink or swim due to their own effort (or lack thereof). A few students are really motivated and using the J.C. as a cheap way to get the basic courses out of the way at low cost before transferring to an expensive four-year school. Others are “returning students” (older, more mature students who have already been in the work force), and they’re really hard-working and dedicated, because their life experience has told them how valuable time in college really is. They’re the ones at the top of the grade curve every semester. But the majority simply have no idea what to do with their lives, and waste everyone’s time and money signed up for classes they don’t attend as a substitute for unemployment or for dead-end jobs. It’s not a great system—but that’s what it has become.
Another thing that struck me was the huge difference in learning styles and what is demanded of students. In an elite private liberal arts college, students are expected to be articulate and be able to master and understand complex ideas, and to write about them fluently. We reinforced this emphasis with lots of writing and critical thinking in practically every course. Since classes were small, they rarely took multiple choice or true-false tests, but were expected to understand and write clearly about whatever topic we had taught them. Consequently, my exams are all essay questions that require understanding the subject and explaining the crucial point of the question clearly in your own words. I’d often frame the question in a realistic scenario, such as “A creationist comes up to you and says [something ridiculous they know how to debunk]” or “You hear the announcer on TV say [something wrong that they can clarify]“. These are practical examples of why it was important to deeply understand the topic, and be able to use it in real life, which is a real skill that makes the course worthwhile. In my entire 35-year career, I prided myself in never once giving a multiple choice test, even when I had a class of 80 students early in my career, and each had taken a 5-page essay test that I had to grade by myself. (I never once had grad student teaching assistants to help me, since I’ve always taught at liberal arts college with no grad program).
When I started teaching at J.C., I explained my pedagogical style to the department chairs who hired me, and they were all encouragement. But then I began to notice a big difference in the results on my tests. The students who worked hard generally were able to answer the questions in a correct and articulate fashion, just as my Oxy students could. The rest could barely put down one irrelevant sentence! Most of the tests given at a J.C. are multiple-choice and true-false, where you can guess your way to passing if you study just enough to associate a concept with a possible answer. Clearly, these students had been tested in this fashion all through grades K-12, and were still being tested this way in J.C. But what does it prove about your mastery of a subject if 25% of the time in a four-choice question, you will get the answer by random guessing? Does it really measure whether you have mastered a topic, and can think about it and articulate your ideas? NO! By contrast to my realistic essay questions based on real-life scenarios, no one ever comes up to you in the street and asks you a question, then gives you multiple choices! This even further reinforces my contempt for what multiple-choice tests do to pedagogy, and what kind of student they produce at the other end. Of course, I realize that in a big university with gigantic classes of 100 or more, no other system is practical, even with teaching assistants doing the grading. But I’m not sure what kind of “education” this produces. What I do know is that when our liberal arts seniors graduated, employers were eager to snap them up and asked for more of them, especially in preference to students taught in the big universities. They knew that students with a Vassar or Knox or Occidental education could be counted on to be able to write well, think independently, solve problems, do their own research with limited supervision, and show up and do their work on time.
Thus endeth my rant. After 35 years in the trenches of college education, and authoring five leading geology textbooks (two more in the works), I thought I’d seen everything. But now I better understand how my colleagues in huge universities with hundreds of students, in lower-ranked institutions, and in junior colleges, view the daily struggle with students over their education. I’d have burned out long ago if I’d had nothing but classes where more than half of the students didn’t give a shit. I now really appreciate how lucky I was to be at elite colleges for most of my teaching career.
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