Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Teacher's Pet: My Teaching Life in the Academy

I have taught off and on in academia since the 1990s. While I have not found that old joke with more than a hint of seriousness that teaching would be great if it wasn't for the students entirely true over my teaching life, I have, looking back, found it to be partially true.

Before I talk about my favourite and least favourite teaching experiences, I should point out that I am not an academic. I am an intellectual. I should also note that I hate bureaucracy. One of the joys of adjuncting at colleges and universities until recently has been that adjuncts have generally not had to do those petty bureaucratic tasks that take up so much of the time of full-time tenured or full-time tenured wanna be faculty at most American colleges and universities these days. That is changing, however. One last point, while I have a doctorate in History, I am not a historian. I use history to fill out my social theoretic intellectual interests. Given this I have usually been the odd man out in most history departments in which I have taught over the years. I can live with that, however. I am not sure they can though.

Now back to the putative subject of this blog post, my teaching experiences in academia. If I had to name the best place I ever taught, Brigham Young University would be at the top of my list. I ended up at BYU somewhat by accident. In the early 1990s I became interested in Mormonism. My interest in Mormonism wasn't an interest in Mormonism per se though. I was interested in Mormonism for what it told us about the processes of identity construction and community construction in new social movements. The Y seemed, at the time at least, to be the best place for me to explore my new interest in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since it was a Mormon university. So off I went to Provo. Little did I know then what I know now, that the Y takes its antiquated 1950ish style honour code with strictures on the length of men's hair and women's skirts and dresses seriously. While at the Y I taught a Social Stratification class in the new Joseph Smith Building of all places. In this class and in others I sat in on, I found BYU's students to be of two broad types, fundamentalists who thought that anything the prophet said was divine and more "liberal" Mormons who thought that the divine messages of the prophet were only those which were signed by the First Presidency. Regardless of whether BYU students were literalist or more circumscribed in their notions of prophetic revelation, I found the vast majority of BYU students I met, undergraduate and graduate, to be intellectually engaged and, respectful and appreciative of those who taught them. This should not have been a surprise to me in retrospect given the nature of Mormon culture and given that students don't go to BYU to party. They go their to get an education and to get married.

Another college at which I quite enjoyed teaching was SUNY IT. My enjoyment was due to the fact that I was fortunate enough to teach mature students, most of them mature nursing students who were taking classes to turn their associates degrees into bachelor's degree at SUNY IT. Like my students at the Y, the SUNY IT students I taught at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, New York were intellectually engaged, weren't in school to booze and wench, and were respectful and appreciative of those who taught them. Unfortunately, in this age of higher educational cost cutting these classes are now, or so I understand, done entirely online rather than in the classroom. While there is something to be said for online classes--one can do these at anytime and in anyplace--you inevitably lose the personal relationship between teacher and students when you are teaching solely by your fingertips.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute would be in the middle of my list of most favourite and least favourite places in which I taught over the years. RPI, a national science oriented institute, has some great and gifted students. Given the scientific emphasis of RPI, however, RPI's students tend to major in the hard and practical I want a job in the future sciences. As such RPI students, while very intellectually capable, tend to be very narrow in their academic focus and that academic focus was rarely is on the humanities and social sciences. Add to this the fact that the liberal arts at RPI are extremely anemic--there are no humanities and social science departments at RPI unlike at MIT, Cal Tech, and Worcester Polytechnic--and you have a college that has little place for the liberal arts in its curriculum. While RPI, thanks to a new Humanities dean who wants to make a mark for herself presumably in the name of furthering her academic bureaucratic advancement career, has tried to get around the anemia in its liberal arts and its anemic funding of the liberal arts by initiating interdisciplinary classes. These interdisciplinary classes, since they are not built on the solid sand of humanities and social sciences disciplines of which RPI has none, however, seem a losing proposition to me. First, since the only background in humanities and social sciences disciplines RPI students have comes from high school courses they have taken they really do not have a solid academic disciplinary base on which to enter interdisciplinary classes. Second, what RPI's new interdisciplinary classes will do and are doing is to make Humanities and Social Science classes at RPI substantially larger than they had previously been and need to be.

If I had to choose the place I enjoyed teaching least it would have to be SUNY Albany. SUNY Albany is a weird and ugly place. SUNYA is a product of the creation and expansion of the SUNY academic system under Governor Nelson Rockefeller in the 1960s and 1970s. SUNYA's new campus was built on the outskirts of a deindustrialising and decaying Albany, a fact that gives the SUNY Albany campus a palpable suburban and commuter feel. While SUNYA, along with SUNY Buffalo, SUNY Stony Brook, and SUNY Binghamton (all three of which were built in more suburban confines) were founded as the four research centres of the SUNY system, the state monies that funded state university and college expansion in New York during the economic high times of the 1960s and early 1970s dried up in the wake of the oil crisis leaving the SUNY system and its research centres, in particular, in precarious financial positions, precarious financial positions they have been saddled with ever since. With the latest bust in the American economy SUNY Albany has had to downsize yet again and has done so by eliminating several of its liberal arts programmes. SUNYA's loss of the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering late last year, a college which brought substantial amounts of state monies into SUNYA's coffers and which effectively subsidised SUNYA's liberal arts programmes for the few years it was part of SUNY Albany, will likely exacerbate the further decline of SUNYA as a liberal arts research university. Speaking of research universities, it should be noted that SUNYA was never in the top tier of great research university research universities in the US in the first place. Only Buffalo and Stony Brook are members of the Association of American Universities, the elite club of and for America's elite major research universities. SUNY Albany has always seemed to me more akin to the Ball State's, Kent State's, and Bowling Green's of the American second or third tier research university universe than of the first tier of the Indiana's, Berkeley's, Madison's, and Ann Arbor's.

But back to teaching at SUNY. I found the SUNYA campus, given its architecture and its suburban and commuter feel, little conducive to the intellectual life. It felt and looked more like a state bureaucracy (complete with panopticon) than an academic institution. As such there was little in the way of intellectual life on the SUNY Albany campus even on the graduate level. Since SUNYA has the reputation as a party school, an impression SUNYA's administration has tried to counter with limited success, many students came to SUNYA to booze and wench and to take business degrees so they can get a well paying job, presumably on Wall Street, after they graduate, not to take advantage of its liberal arts. I found many SUNY students to be not only non-intellectual but also unprofessional. Many did not turn assignments in on time making me wonder if they could ever hold a professional job after they leave their sheltered lives behind the walls of the ivory tower. I found many SUNY students disrespectful. I routinely observed many of them trolling around the World Wide Web, playing computer games, looking at Facebook, trawling through their cell phone messages, talking not about the class but about their personal lives, and even reading magazines in class. I found some SUNY students rude. I have, for instance, had students yell at me because they did not read the syllabus. I had SUNY students who did not know how to write an academic paper. I had SUNY students who didn't really know how to find their way around a computer. I had SUNY students who couldn't calculate 20% of 100. I had SUNY students who didn't know how to write a scholarly paper. I had SUNY students who didn't know how to discern the point of view of a non-fiction book. I had SUNY students tell me they hated television programmes they had never seen and who hated the films of directors they had never watched and who all the while expected respect for such absurd and obscene opinions. I had SUNY students who thought that a historical background was unnecessary for understanding current events and who mistook tweeter writebites for in depth journalistic excellence. I had SUNY students plagiarise including one who lifted his entire response from an article on the TV show South Park because he apparently couldn't write about a show he regularly watched in his own words. I had SUNY students who apparently didn't realise that Web search engines make finding those who are plagiarising easy. I had SUNY students who wanted to know the questions that were going to be on the exam before they took the exam. I had SUNY students who wanted me to tell them what to write about in their blog journals. I had SUNY students who forgot the password to the blogs on which they were required to put their blog assignments. I found SUNY students to be filled to the brim with that sense of entitlement attitude that seems to be so common among college age youth these days. I had SUNY students who, in a classic I am shocked, shocked Casablanca moment, condemned me for not paying attention to students who showed me by their attitudes and actions that they were not interested in my classes for paying attention to students who were interested in my classes. Well duh! And some of you wonder why I am a grumpy old cynic. Add this all up and it seems to equal the high schoolisation with its teach for the test mentality of the liberal arts college general education class.

Now don't get me wrong, there were a handful of students at SUNY who really were intellectually engaged and who were very capable. In this respect SUNY is much like other American academic institutions these days. There are only a handful of students really interested, really energised by, and really dedicated to a liberal arts education. It is, of course, to these handful of students that we teachers we aim our teaching lessons. It is these handful of students who we hope to reach through our teaching.

Needless to say the fact that I have unfortunately spent most of my teaching life in universities and colleges that aren't BYU's has meant that my teaching experiences have not been among the most joyful and stimulating experiences of my life and I need stimulating environments in order to flower. There has been joy in having benefits including health care in a bah humbug nation where millions, including significant numbers of part-time faculty members at colleges and universities, have none. There has been joy in teaching those handful of students who really care about learning and a liberal arts education. Frankly speaking, however, I have gotten a hell of a lot more joy and a hell of a lot more intellectual stimulation working at Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany, a job which thankfully isn't a 12/7 gig for a meagre pittance of pay as adjuncting is. My kingdom for a job in a college or university full of students like those I had at BYU...

Appendix
Here is a question I got from one of my SUNY students in the past:
"Dr. Helfrich, I was looking at the syllabus again and I could not find the answer to how we are supposed to cite the information we received from each source. Since there is no format, page count, word count, I am quite confused. I am also confused on what you meant in the syllabus about writing in our blogs our comments about the discussion in class to receive participation points. Can you clarify? Thanks".
I post it here because I find questions like these so indicative of what today's student is like and how it has become a royal pain in the arse to teach. Note the need the student has for a word count. Apparently this student cannot even conceive of writing enough to answer specific questions posed to him/her without an indication of the number of words he or she must write. Note the question about format. This student appears to have forgotten the standard rules of formatting or needs to hear the standard answer about format, typed, double spaced. Note that though I said this in my syllabus, "As always in my class there is an option to speaking in class. You can put your responses on your blog in a blog post...this student doesn't seem to understand what to do" I don't know why this student needs more than this clear statement since it seems straightforward to me. It tells students that if they want to talk more about what was said in class, what they read, or what they heard they can post it on their blog. Note that the student needs guidance on how to cite properly. I assume that students are taught how to write a paper in high school, a paper with an introduction, a body, a conclusion, and proper citation, or apparently they have forgotten about how to do it. This is why I put a handy, dandy guide to writing a paper in my syllabus. By the way, I chalk all of this craziness up to the teaching for the test mentality that dominates junior high and high schools these days. This "educational strategy" does only one thing as far as I can tell. It creates a servile mentality in students in which they can't think for themselves. As such it undermines everything a liberal arts education should be about.

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