University Student Behavior

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A crowd of college students at the 2007 Pittsb...

A crowd of college students at the 2007 Pittsburgh University Commencement. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As late as the early 1960s, the professor had a near absolute authority to discipline a class in whatever way the professor saw fit. Some professors would even slap students who made foolish comments. Very few people would want to return to those days–a university student should not be afraid of a professor. However, student behavior since the early 1960s has worsened in the college and university setting.

The problem began in 1964 with the student revolutions. Beginning with the “Free Speech Movement” at the University of California at Berkeley, which originally allowed anyone, no matter what the person’s ideology, to speak, the student movement degenerated into an orgy of radical leftism. Students took over administration buildings, and in the case of the University of California, the entire campus. It took then Governor Ronald Reagan calling out the California National Guard to restore order. Such protests continued, though with less radical effects, from the 1970s until the present. Today, however, at the classroom level the problem is with students who talk in class out of turn, walk out early if they feel bored with class, use cellphones and other electronic equipment in class, or smart off at the professor in class or in an e-mail. I suppose in some colleges and universities there has been much more serious disrespect than what I have experienced, but even the relatively “minor” problems in my classes point to some fundamental problems in American society.

“Respect” can mean the respect due any human being for being human, respect for a person’s position (for example, respect for the president of the U.S.), or the respect that is earned when someone lives a good moral life or does a job well. All three forms of respect play a role in the classroom.

Students should respect the professor’s position. The professor worked hard to gain degrees in his field and is in a position of authority over students–not arbitrary or overbearing authority, but authority as someone who teaches, guides, and helps maintain decorum in the classroom. Too many students think they know more than the professor, even in the professor’s own field of study. This is highly unlikely to be the case and is most often evidence of a student’s immaturity. Pampered, spoiled students whose parents have protected them from the harsh realities of life tend to remain at the developmental level befitting someone younger than they. They still hold on to the attitude that they know everything and that older people are ignorant fogies who accept only outmoded ideas. Some students will mature out of this immaturity (especially women), but many do not. I can have a sense of humor about that form of disrespect in class, but if students do not grow out of such arrogance, it will harm them in the future. Other students rebel against any authority figure, no matter how benign. Their misbehavior is not as much personal as it is about a hatred of authority in general.

Students lack respect for human beings qua human beings when they talk in class about non-class related subjects when the teacher is giving a lecture. They are also disrespecting other class members and exhibiting a “me, me, me” attitude that damages the American social framework more than any other attitude. It has become practically difficult to discipline students for such behavior, especially for large classes. Except for test days, I do not fight over phones–if students do not listen in class, they will not do well on exams, and that will be their punishment.  It is the “I don’t care; I’ll do what I want” attitude that so exacerbates me and other professors. Of course if students talk out loud in class about last night’s ball game or about other topics having nothing to do with the lesson for the day they reveal their disrespect for not only the professor, but also for their fellow students. One of the worst behaviors I have seen is when a student walks out of school due to being bored or due to disagreement with the professor. This behavior shows disrespect for both the professor and for the educational process in general.

Then there is the respect that a professor earns for doing a conscientious and thorough job in teaching, who carefully integrates research and teaching, and who helps students to excel. Despite the fact that a conscientious professor does a good job, bad apples in the class who disrespect the professor’s work (usually out of sheer spite) can make trouble for the class and encourage otherwise good teachers to receive poor evaluations by stirring up trouble in the class. Such agitators are dangerous, and if the professor detects their handiwork, the professor can take steps to confront and discipline them.

Being a college or university professor is a tougher job than in the past–the behavior of high school students in the 1970s has become mainstream behavior on college and university campuses). I fear what the future holds for college and university professors without a restoration of the traditional family, parental discipline, and a commitment from college and university staff to affirm the importance of classroom discipline.

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The Plight of the Ph.D.

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English: A display of the academic regalia of ...

English: A display of the academic regalia of Harvard University. Top left: Harvard Law School professional doctorate; bottom left: Harvard Divinity School masters degree; right: Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Ph.D. degree (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At http://dollarcollapse.com/welcome-to-the-third-world/welcome-to-the-third-world-part-8-a-phd-is-now-a-path-to-poverty/ is a fine article by John Rubino on the Ph.D. as a “path to poverty.” In this article, he notes that 67% of American professors are adjuncts, part-time professors who receive a set stipend per course and no benefits. American colleges and universities continue to pour out Ph.D.s. They find graduate students valuable because they teach courses themselves and do not cost the university much money. For all its alleged ideals, the contemporary college or university enjoys its pool of cheap labor, whether from graduate students or adjunct professors. In any other profession, such a situation would be criminal.

Adjunct professors have been around for many years, but in the past they were primarily used to teach evening college courses that full-time faculty did not want to teach. In those days, adjuncts were usually either retired professors or people with graduate degrees working outside a university setting who wanted to teach. The motives were either to make a little extra money or a strong desire to teach. People in those categories still work as adjuncts, especially in the evening college (and sometimes in summer school). I am proud to say that at my university, adjuncts are used primarily in the evening sessions and are used in day classes only when there is a temporary need due to, for example, a faculty member going on sabbatical. The university has also made efforts to make sure that more courses, including some outside the fall and spring semester day classes, are taught by full-time faculty.

Other colleges and universities do not necessarily have that level of integrity concerning adjuncts. State universities, increasingly strapped for cash when states are going broke, are hiring more adjuncts to teach day classes. Private schools whose endowments have dropped due to the current economic downturn have, in some cases, hired more adjuncts to save money. However, there are also schools who are doing fine financially who hire adjuncts as the most efficient economic way to teach courses. Economic efficiency and saving money rises above finding the best qualified candidate for a full time job. Now many adjuncts are as good as some full-time faculty. I was at a meeting at the American Philosophical Association in which I heard stories of candidates for full time positions who had four or five academic books published as well as multiple articles in peer-reviewed journals. Often these candidates did not find full time work and either had to remain as adjuncts or leave teaching all together. When a school can afford full-time faculty and hires adjuncts in the name of economic efficiency, this is when economic exploitation takes place. The adjuncts are treated as means to an end and not as ends in themselves, as tools to a businesslike, economically lean, “mean” college or university. This is a grossly unethical way to treat workers–and this in a world that gives lip service to helping people in need. As Rubino points out, much of contemporary academia is run like a medieval feudal system in which adjunct faculty serve as serfs and overpaid administrators function as nobles.

What can be done? First, colleges and universities who can afford to hire full-time faculty should not hire adjuncts in order to be “efficient.” Second, accreditation agencies could demand that a condition for accreditation or re-accreditation is a 90+% rate of full-time faculty during the day school. Third, schools who are financially strapped need to stop “biting off more than they can chew” economically. Fourth, adjuncts need to organize and call for an end to exploitative wages. They should demand higher stipends per course and at least the opportunity to consider health insurance plans through the university. Graduate schools should limit the number of students accepted to reflect the actual need for people with graduate degrees in a particular discipline. More full-time faculty should teach introductory courses on their own to lessen the need for more graduate teaching assistants. Schools should avoid building facilities that will significantly increase the school’s expenses.

Most people in the humanities, the area I know best, go into university teaching because of a fascination with their chosen field. They are driven to get a Ph.D. for the learning experience. I know of few Ph.D.s who would take back that experience of learning, even if they are unemployed. With the new emphasis on efficiency, potential graduate students may focus on a field that helps them to get an academic job rather than focusing on the field they love the most. That is a sad and unjust situation. A Ph.D. costs a great deal of money and time. It is a shame that some Ph.D.s in the United States are below the poverty level and receive food stamps and other welfare assistance. This unjust system must be reformed.

Arrogance and Academics

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English: This image shows an academic gown as ...

English: This image shows an academic gown as worn by someone of the degree of doctor of philosophy. The design follows that set forth by the Intercollegiate Code of Academic Costume which is the dominant style used in the United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

 

I am lucky at the institution where I teach. The faculty members I know take their teaching seriously and genuinely care about the students. Although some do a great deal of research, those faculty are missing the kind of arrogance one sees sometimes among academics at larger institutions.

 

Academics have had educational opportunities that most people in the world have not experienced. There may be a glut of Ph.D.s in the academic job market, but even in the United States, Ph.D.s make up a miniscule part of the population. It becomes an easy step for some academics to jump from “I’m better at biology [or history or philosophy, etc.] than most people; therefore, I am better than most people.” The latter does not follow from the former. There are ordinary farmers with a high school education I’d rather be around than some big name academics I have seen at large conferences. Yet there are well known academics who are down to earth, humble, and who help someone asking for advice on a project or advice on how to get an academic job. Other academics, unfortunately, allow their degrees to get to their head. I once heard of an academic who asked his wife to refer to him as “Doctor.” I do not know whether or not she obliged him, but she should have replied, “Doctor,, my a..!” I would be dishonest to deny that I am proud of earning a Ph.D.–but I tell my students they can call me “Dr. Potts,” “Prof. Potts,” or “Mr. Potts,” and after they have graduated they can call me anything, including S.O.B. if that is what they think. I require respect, but “Mr.” is an honorable title, and I would rather not insist on being called “Dr.” I’m reminded of the joke I read in Reader’s Digest a number of years ago–I think it was based on a true event. A man has just received his Ph.D. The phone rings. His eight-year-old son answers the phone, and someone asks for “Dr. John Doe.” The boy replies, “Yeah, my dad’s a doctor, but he’s not the kind who can do you any good.” Humility is one virtue that would help s man not be hurt by his son’s statement.

 

How many professors today will write works that will be remembered one hundred years from now? I expect that most or all of my works will be like the millions of other works in journals sitting on library shelves–not because they’re bad works–I am proud of my scholarly work and of my creative writing–but because I am not an Aristotle, an Aquinas, a Wittgenstein, or a Heidegger. Fulfillment comes from continuing a tradition of scholarly research in philosophy and in knowing that some people find things of value in my work. But I am a man, a human being, with the same bodily needs, limitations, temptations, and sinfulness as all other human beings. Academics who consider letting their degrees and/or accomplishments get to their heads should remember what a Catholic priest says when he crosses the ash on one’s forehead on Ash Wednesday: “Remember, O man, that dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.”

 

Academics and Closed-Mindedness

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There is a thin line between open-mindedness and giving up reason, but closed-mindedness is always a threat to reason. College and university education should be the ideal place where open-minded but rational professors help students to think. This implies that professors love truth above professional success, fame, and other temptations. There are many professors who do place truth above finite goods–thank God for their presence in the academy. From my experience, other professors are locked into their world views and refuse to think outside the box, placing acceptance by their colleagues above seeking the truth.

One area in which such narrowness is found is politics. The vast majority of humanities professors are liberal Democrats; some are Marxists. Although some of these professors are “true liberals,” allowing students to express contrary opinions, others are intolerant of difference. Those who oppose liberals position on entitlement programs, for example, are labeled as “racist” by these professors, who obviously have no idea what the term “racist” really means. The situation is worse concerning moral issues: opposition to abortion can get a student labeled as a “pro-life nutcase.” Opposing practicing homosexuality automatically gets a student labeled as a bigot, and the student may be punished. Some faculty members have been fired for even bringing up arguments opposing homosexuality, although one such case was overturned by a court and the professor was rehired. Professors who count themselves as “trendy” are really the most conformist people of all. They are more predictable than religious Fundamentalists, and emotionally they have the same mindset.

Speaking of religion, there is a bias among many academics against traditional religious beliefs. Academics may have no problem with a watered-down liberal Protestantism or liberal Roman Catholicism, but may detest traditional Christian beliefs and morality. And even though Muslims hold traditional moral values, the academic left is not as critical of them because they are non-Christians. Religion is considered to be a crutch, an opiate (to use Karl Marx’s term), an excuse for persecuting the poor,  a denial of reality, and an enemy to society in general. What religious expression there is is relegated to the private realm–woe be to the faculty member who mentions his Christianity in class, and the same often applies to students, especially to traditional Evangelicals and to traditional Roman Catholics.

Some professors are guilty of other kinds of prejudice. Psi phenomena, such as telepathy, clairvoyance, and psychokinesis are well-documented to the point that parapsychologists mainly do process studies to show how psi works rather than proving that psi exists. Yet many professors dismiss a student or colleague who accepts the reality of psi as a “new-aged nut.” “I don’t know what happened to him, but somewhere along the line he went nuts.” Such conclusions are reached without an open and honest examination of the evidence for and against psi phenomena. The sciences have been the most closed-minded disciplines concerning psi. And although there was a period in the 1970s in which the humanities were more open to psi, today the situation has reverted to the same kinds of prejudice found in the sciences. Papers that accept the existence of psi  are usually only accepted by psi journals and at psi conferences, although recently there have been a few exceptions among psychology journals. Opinions contrary to the establishment are silenced by lack of publication, a death-knell to any instructor seeking tenure.

A third area in which there is closed-mindedness in academia is medical ethics. It is more and more difficult to find an article in a mainstream bioethics journal from a traditional moral perspective. One major exception is the UK-based Journal of Medical Ethics which has published articles from many different points of view, including morally conservative ones. Looking over issues of the Hastings Center Report, the premier bioethics journal in the United States, the articles in the 1070s reflected far more balance between traditionalists and nontraditionalists in ethics than the articles today. There was a greater role for theological ethicists, such as the late Paul Ramsey, to have their say. On the issue of health care allocation, The New England Journal of Medicine has served more as an apologetics journal for Mr. Obama’s health care program rather than a journal that presents a balanced point of view. From the point of view of the university professor, it is easier to get articles published in mainstream journals if one is in favor of abortion rights, embryonic stem cell research, physician assisted suicide, and even, as Jonathan Hardwig, in favor of a “duty to die,” including a duty to commit suicide if one’s illness is financially and emotionally harming one’s family. Would a pro-life professor have any chance to become department head at a major state university? I doubt it. Traditionalists are forced to take jobs at the few Roman Catholic institutions that affirm traditional morality or at an Evangelical Protestant school, and even the latter are moving to the left on moral issues. I am not opposed to a moral liberal, a religious liberal, and/or a political liberal being in academia. But there are other positions out there that need to be heard so that students have a more balanced perspective. Maybe one day the legacy of the 1960s closed-minded radicals who ruined much of academia may change–the sooner the better.

Teaching vs. Research among College and University Professors

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This topic may not be as exciting as the topic of full body scanners, but it is a hot topic in academia and among critics of higher education in the U. S. The criticism runs something like this: “College and University professors spend so much time in research that they teach very few classes. In large universities, teaching assistants teach most of the introductory classes. Just because a professor is good at research does not mean he is good at teaching. Higher education should focus more on teaching than research.”

There is some truth to that criticism. After the influx of federal money into the university system, especially in reaction to the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, science programs emphasized research, and eventually the humanities followed the model of the sciences. There was competition for research grants, and at some research-oriented universities, a tenure-track assistant professor without enough grants will not receive tenure. Besides getting grants, there is an expectation of publication in one’s field, the extent of which varies from university to university. In science, that expectation usually focuses on articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals. In philosophy, my field, articles in peer-reviewed journals are good, but some places require a book (not a textbook, but a scholarly monograph). Some departments only count publications in specific philosophical journals, such as the Journal of Philosophy or The Monist. Other departments are not as picky. At my school, which is considered a teaching school, scholarly work is expected, but it is up to the individual departments to determine the amount of expected work. When I was department chair, I told new faculty that I expected, by the sixth year when application for tenure usually takes place, at least two peer-reviewed articles and a few conference presentations. A monograph, of course, would suffice. That is a very modest publication requirement, but given a 4-4 load with frequent overloads required, it is a fair one.

In my opinion, research is a good thing–and some researchers ought to confine themselves to that aspect of scholarly endeavor. Excellent researchers are sometimes given research positions, which I think is fine. But for most college and university professors in the major schools, it would be good for them to balance teaching and research. Both, I believe, are needed–I have found research to be of great value in my own teaching. Teaching and research should be in a symbiotic relationship, with teaching fueling ideas for research and research contributing to a teacher’s knowledge of his field and to his teaching. I refer to my own research when it is relevant, and if I believe one of my articles is relevant to a class, I will sometimes require students to read it. Professors who do not write in their fields ought to at least read key journals to keep up with what is going on in their fields. When they can, they should apply their research to the content of their teaching. And teaching assistants, while necessary, should not teach all introductory courses; even full professors can learn something by teaching freshman courses. My school does not have TAs, so I teach introductory as well as upper-division courses, and I learn something new from my students almost every day (both positive and negative!). Now my preference is research–I love the process of research and writing–but teaching forces me to deal with real people in the real world with their own struggles and take on the issues of philosophy. That is a good thing–and more professors ought to be learning in a similar way by focusing more on their teaching.

What is an ideal situation? Probably a 3-3 or 3-2 load with funds for research and travel–and a more modest publication requirement than many large universities have. This provides a good balance between teaching and research so that the professor has time for both.