Monday, May 19, 2014

A sorry state of academic affairs

If you want to know why US undergraduate (and even some graduate) degrees are increasingly regarded with scorn by overseas universities, look no further than this article in Slate by a professor who's simply given up on 'grade inflation'.

Each course I teach has a meticulous assessment breakdown, taking into account participation, homework, quizzes, and essays—and for the latter, I grade with a rubric, which both minimizes griping and allows me to be slightly fair. But even with all of these “hard-ass” measures, the ugly truth is that to get below a B+ in my class, you have to be a total screw-up. I’m still strict with my scale—it’s just that said scale now goes from “great” to “awesome.” It’s pathetic, I know. But when you see what professors today are up against, maybe you’ll understand.

If I graded truly fairly—as in, a C means actual average work—the “customers” would do their level best to ruin my life.

. . .

Where did students get the gumption to treat a grade as the opening move in a set of negotiations? As a professor, there is little worse than spending an entire semester attempting to connect about a subject you find both interesting and important, only to have them ignore everything you do until the moment their GPA is affected. And then, of course, it’s war.

. . .

But it doesn’t start in college. Thanks to American K-12’s relentless culture of assessment and testing, everything our students have done since the age of 5 has been graded—but almost all of those grades have been “exceptional,” so the exception is now the norm. Now we’ve got high schools with 34 co-valedictorians—hell, why not just make everyone valedictorian, just for being alive?—et voila, students enter college having never gotten anything but an A for their entire lives.

. . .

Although exceptions exist, the trend in U.S. higher ed at the moment is precarious faculty, hired semester to semester or at best year to year, and rehired based almost solely on student evaluations—which, alas, are themselves often based on how “well” the student is doing in class. Adjuncts like me regularly admit to grade inflating, simply as a survival measure, but the consistency of nationwide trends means that even tenured and tenure-track faculty must be inflating grades, too. After all, a pissed-off student who goes all the way to the dean can impact their careers as well.

There's more at the link.

Frankly, I find this not only incomprehensible, but disgusting.  Of course, I come out of a very different academic background.  I did my university qualifications (two undergraduate and two post-graduate) in South Africa, under a much more rigorous grading system.  I graduated my last degree cum laude, having achieved an average score of over 75% in the final examinations - and that was considered so exceptional that fewer than 5% of graduates received that accolade.  Here in the USA, 75% would be considered a pretty poor grade.  I wonder what mark my papers would have received from a US professor?  Probably close to 100%, if the article is anything to go by . . .

I've known for a long time that many US degrees are regarded with skepticism by overseas universities.  Some of my former colleagues in the ministry were a bit incensed (you should pardon the expression) to learn that I would be admitted to a Licentiate (post-graduate) degree in Europe on the strength of my South African Bachelor's qualification, while they needed a US Master's degree to be admitted to the same course of study.  It's a graphic illustration of how US tertiary education standards have slipped - and the same applies in many (although not all) fields.

The question is, what can be done about it?  I suspect that only the rise of online education, where the Internet levels the playing-field and exposes everyone, student and professor alike, to a uniform standard of excellence to which they must aspire, will finally destroy many of the 'old guard' bastions and let fresh air into the stultifying halls of academia.



CenTexTim said...

I'm a retired U.S. college professor. One of the reasons I'm retired is that faculty evaluations are based in part on student evaluations of the instructor, along with 'performance measures' such as percentage of students that pass the course.

In other words, if I want to get high marks on my performance appraisals I should make the course as 'student-friendly' as possible, and ensure that a large percentage of students do well in the course - regardless of whether or not they learn anything.

I weep for the future...

Keads said...

That is the reason I left part time adjunct teaching at the community college several years ago. It was not worth it to me anymore to fight that fight.

trailbee said...

I was a miserable HS student, an arrogant, know-nothing creature. I passed HS one point above failing. I spent more time out of school than in. But I knew that I liked to learn.
I retired in '96, moved to NoCA and went straight into JC, then Cal State system. I loved it. In all, I spent ten years getting a BA, putting a Masters Thesis on the back burner, and took two years of art and math. I could live at school. My sympathies go to so many of the unappreciated profs and TAs. But, there are many tenure hounds out there, and some are not worth the money they're getting. Just saying.

Sherm said...

My daughter is a college professor. She's being reeducated because she had some negative student evaluations (9). The school's philosophy is get them in, cash their checks, get them out with a smile on their face. If they fail then, it's not our problem. Hers is prepare them to be a success and grade accordingly. Not very compatible. She desperately wants to move on. We'll see if she bids education good-bye.

Joe in PNG said...

Meanwhile, in what has to be one of the worst articles ever at, David Wong basically blames the job market for not being willing to hire the above products of the current higher education system. Not because a lot of the grads are entitled little poops with no actual skills. No, it because of some strawman he makes up for the article, keeping all the youngins down, man!

Shrimp said...

Hmm, I see the solution. It won't happen, but it is the solution.

A new very exclusive college, one at which the students actually want to learn, and are there for the express purpose of learning. Special snowflakes and students who simply want to pass and get a degree and move out of (or back into) mom and dad's basement need not apply.

Yes, they may receive bad grades, even failing grades, but their professors have free reign to grade as they wish (grading correctly, I call it). If the students make it out and graduate, they will be the cream of their particular crop.

The school would necessarily be expensive, have absolutely no athletic department or other distractions. The students are there to learn in their desired field, and everything else is their problem.

No liberal arts, no underwater basket weaving, no women's studies, no useless degrees. This would be a STEM school. If you graduate from this school, you are ready for the real world and whatever job is available in your field.

In order to really mess things up, there would be no college credits system. You want to earn a degree in Applied Physics? Fine, that is all you are required to take.

I'm sure that the school would never get off the ground, but hey, it's a neat dream.

CenTexTim said...

Shrimp - there is a version of that education model already out there. It's not identical to your proposal, but it's close. Take a look at edX and MOOCs.

STxRynn said...

I went to Texas Tech 3 semesters, got 40 plus hours by extension at a Bible College, then finished up at a private Christian engineering university.

I had a doofus in Electronics at TT. He didn't teach much, I didn't learn much and got a 40 that semester. Wound up with a Bell curve B. Useless. I had to retake that class with someone who knew what they were doing.

The private school was tough. My welding prof graded on the 8 point scale. 92-100 was an A. I had to re-take every welding lab project to get an A. Took all my free time for a week.

No curves, no blow off classes. Camping just about kicked my tail! You worked for every tenth of the GPA. I loved it. Felt good to EARN a good grade. 3.23 out of an honest 4. Finished in 1990.