Monday, August 15, 2011

66. “Why are you studying that?”

When dealing with the “What are you going to do with that?” question, you at least know in your own mind what you hope to do, even if that is hard to articulate (see Reason 36). Unfortunately, the simple question of why you’re studying what you’re studying can be much harder to handle, because you often can’t answer the question to your own satisfaction, much less to anyone else’s. Why are you studying depictions of gender norms in Hungarian television commercials? Is it worth years of your life to be an expert on the “performative aspects” of anything? Does the world need its hundred thousandth dissertation on Shakespeare or the Civil War? Does it need its first dissertation on your arcane topic?

It is natural to find yourself asking these questions after devoting a long time to a dissertation. There is a reason that you’re asking them. All knowledge is valuable, but it is not all of equal value. Graduate school is terribly costly in terms of time (see Reason 4), a reality made worse when you harbor doubts about whether your work serves any useful purpose (to you or anyone else). Even in the sciences, this is not an uncommon concern, as this humorous parody suggests. If you are writing a dissertation for no other reason than to qualify for a job in academe, the effort may be in vain in any case (see Reason 8). So, why are you studying that? It is bad enough when you begin to suspect that you’re wasting your time in graduate school, but it’s worse when others begin to suspect it, too. For every person who wonders aloud about your studies, there are likely many more who wonder silently.

Monday, August 1, 2011

65. Teaching is less and less rewarding.

Anyone who has been at the back of a college lecture hall recently is familiar with the sight of row upon row of glowing screens. Some students are taking notes, but others are perusing Facebook, touching up their vacation photos, and playing games. From a student’s point of view, this can be distracting. From the teacher’s point of view, it is disheartening. Every day, you speak to a room full of people looking at computer screens without any idea of who is actually listening. Not long ago, it was easy for an instructor to tell if someone in her class was not paying attention, and she was not afraid to say something to students who fell asleep or leafed through newspapers in class. But with the proliferation of laptops and smart phones, the will to enforce attentiveness in the classroom has largely evaporated.

Students are spending a substantial portion of their (or their parents') life earnings to pay for the privilege of sitting in your classroom. As University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds has pointed out, they are, in fact, grossly overpaying for the privilege, which is inflating the higher education bubble (see Reason 27). As tuition rates skyrocket, it is perhaps understandable why students increasingly behave like customers to whom you should cater. They have, after all, purchased your services. Of course, in their minds, the important service that you provide is not imparting knowledge, but awarding credit. And they increasingly behave as if they believe that they should be allowed to spend their very expensive time in your classroom in any way they choose. As a graduate-student instructor or teaching assistant, the challenge of cultivating respect in the classroom is made all the more difficult by your junior status, of which your students are very much aware (see Reason 53). Meanwhile, standing at the front of the classroom, you are daily faced with their indifference.

With teaching comes the extraordinarily time-consuming and miserably thankless task of grading (see Reason 56). In fact, the first inkling you may have that a student cares about what is happening in your class is when you give him a grade with which he is not happy. This is when the behavior of a dissatisfied customer is most likely to present itself, and when you realize the sense of entitlement that now pervades the college campus. It usually begins with an email and escalates from there. In any case, it is unpleasant. That students expect high grades is not surprising when you consider that fully 43% of all grades awarded by colleges are now As. The New York Times has charted the extent of grade inflation over the past few decades in a revealing graph. This trend toward a situation in which everyone earns high grades (while sitting through lectures playing solitaire) makes grading all the more exasperating because it feels so pointless.

And whose work are you grading? You don’t really know. After Professor Panagiotis Ipeirotis of New York University decided to look for plagiarism in the work submitted by his students in an introductory course, 22 of the 108 students ultimately admitted to cheating. For his efforts to ensure integrity (and a subsequent blog post about the experience), the professor felt punished by students and administrators alike. (The episode, after all, did not reflect well upon NYU.) It seems that there are undergraduates willing to pay $19,903 per term for an education, while copying the work of others and submitting it as their own. Given experiences like that of Professor Ipeirotis, you may feel little incentive to concern yourself with student plagiarism, but at least it is detectable. Some students simply pay others to write their papers for them. A popular article appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education last fall revealed the fact that whole companies exist to provide this service. The author of the piece—a man who writes students’ papers for a living—was quite blunt: “Of course, I know you are aware that cheating occurs. But you have no idea how deeply this kind of cheating penetrates the academic system, much less how to stop it.”

While you spend hours and hours assigning increasingly meaningless grades to work of increasingly dubious origin, your students are also grading you. How would you like a job in which you are subjected to 50 (or 100 or 200) performance evaluations every ten or fifteen weeks? If you teach at an American college or university, that is exactly what you can expect. Student evaluations have turned the tables on college instructors. If you are a graduate-student instructor, an adjunct instructor, or a junior faculty member, your continued employment depends upon favorable student evaluations. As a classroom teacher, how do you satisfy your students in an age of unprecedented distraction? To one degree or another, you have to entertain them. You know that your job depends on it, and you also know that your students will post anonymous evaluations of your performance on the Internet. (In how many jobs does that happen?) The causes of grade inflation are not hard to figure out.

More and more teaching and grading are required of graduate students (see Reason 7). These obligations greatly reduce the time that you have to complete your own academic work (see Reason 41) and thus prolong your time-to-degree (see Reason 4). Of course, teaching at the college level is the career aim of most people in graduate school, even if they had other plans when they began their programs (see Reason 29). Whether you are lucky enough to secure a tenure-track appointment, or if you find yourself working as an adjunct (see Reason 14), this is what you have to look forward to in the modern college classroom. Before you go to graduate school, sit in the back of a lecture hall and think it over.