Get that A grade you paid for!
December 8, 2004 9:03 AM   Subscribe

People talk about how universities have almost turned into diploma mills, churning out degrees to almost anyone that breathes. So what do students think about the current situation? According to this student, it doesn't go far enough: "I have come to the conclusion that the University system makes absolutely no sense. Students pay teachers to educate us, yet they are then allowed to tell us how much we're learning...I'll be the one to tell the receiver of my hard-earned money exactly how well they did. Shouldn't it be the same with education?" That's right, students want, nay, demand an A, since they paid for it.
posted by mathowie (73 comments total)
I've been pissed about this for years. You don't earn a degree anymore, you pay for it. Yeah, minus a lot of help, I shucked out a lot of cash for school, but I always felt I was earning it. When I worked for the University, you wouldn't believe the entitlement some students seemed to feel.

If you're an utter mongoloid with money, you're still an utter mongoloid.
posted by Captaintripps at 9:09 AM on December 8, 2004

You know, it's not every day that somebody draws an analogy between their own mind and a dirty toilet.
posted by Mark Doner at 9:13 AM on December 8, 2004

I had my first teaching job last year at a major state university. I completely lost my shit during the fourth week when a student emailed contesting a grade and began the email: "As a consumer, I expect...".

Days were, higher education was a meritocracy. Now, I'm earning a PhD to be the functional equivalent of a fry jockey.
posted by felix betachat at 9:13 AM on December 8, 2004

When education is treated as just another commodity, it's the vendor's quality that's graded, not the consumer's quality, after all.

Next up: educational warning labels, to prevent lawsuits from those who hurt themselves by misusing the information they obtained.


The "student" missed the point of education. The educational institution pays the instructors. The students pay the educational institution for the opportunity to work with the instructors to become educated, with an implicit "contract" - you're paying for a seat, so don't waste the time in it. How do they determine this? Well, the instructor grades the student. If the instructor thinks the student isn't wasting the time in the seat, they can continue with their education. That way, all three parties (there are three, not two) are satisfied.

This isn't a theater, where you pay to get in, do whatever you want for two or more hours, then get the privilege of complaining about the movie you did or didn't watch. This twit thinks that an "education" is a product, something you get through the drive-thru window. Smacks a little too much of "How dare you tell me I failed? I pay your salary!" for me to empathize with her.
posted by FormlessOne at 9:17 AM on December 8, 2004

I judged the quality of my university education by how hard the professors were on me. The harder they graded, the more effort I had to put forth to meet their requirements. The upshot was that by striving to meet their standards I fostered a mind focused on academic inquiry and exceeded my own expectations.

Professors are like personal trainers for the mind, they get paid to help make a student stronger, they aren't paid to authenticate and affirm a student's ego.
posted by sciurus at 9:25 AM on December 8, 2004

Paul Goodman--alas lost to many of the younger folks today--said it all: if you don't like the grade system, give everyone an A on the Marxist notion that Quantity drives out quality...
I know of a local community college where teacheers are told that giving out low grades is "bad for self esteem," and teachers should not makr papers in red because ilt is a "threatening color."
posted by Postroad at 9:26 AM on December 8, 2004

Universities have beceome so incredibly expensive that the costs simply must be justified. In other words, for $25-40 thousand dollars students better be getting something.

And FormlessOne, students do pay the instructor's salary. How is this not the case?

To combat this problem universities will probably have to "diversify their options." Those who pay more will be challenged with tougher courses--and end up with better grades. Those who pay less will end up with the "average" classes and average grades. I look forward to the Harvard "Gold" package, personally.
posted by nixerman at 9:26 AM on December 8, 2004

Ailee Slater is a sophomore English major at the University. She is embarking on her first year as columnist for the Oregon Daily Emerald. She wishes to become an author of poetry as well as fictional novels some day; interests besides reading and writing include ballroom dancing, knitting, and spinning poi that will eventually be lit on fire.

try engineering ailee. one semester studying the mechanics of deformable bodies will correct any illusions you have about being handed out high marks for no effort.
posted by three blind mice at 9:26 AM on December 8, 2004

err, diversify their offerings. I hate when I do that.
posted by nixerman at 9:27 AM on December 8, 2004

The article hinges entirely upon the fallacy that one "buys" an education. Tuition doesn't buy education, it buys access to instruction and learning materials (labs, computers, libraries). Grade doesn't reflect your effort or knowledge? Join the club. It's comprised of anyone who ever went to college. And the pendulum swings both ways.

I can kind of see where this is coming from but it is totally misdirected. Bottom line, though, is that people choose their schools and their courses of study, and ultimately there has to be some proof that your warm body in a seat absorbed some of what was being taught, hence, assignments and grades. It blows, but what other way is there?

Um, also on preview, what FormlessOne said
posted by contessa at 9:27 AM on December 8, 2004

The problem is that (in the UK) at least, a degree is seen as a threshold for employment. So many companies have 'graduate schemes' it had the effect of making more young people want to go to University purely to improve their employment chances three years down the line.

Very few, if any of the people I knew at university were there just for the sake of learning - if it wasn't to improve their chances then it was because they didn't know what else to do (including me). It is now the case that it's the people that do postgraduate study that are the people who are doing it for the pursuit of knowledge. Everyone else is off chasing jobs.

With that kind of situation; and with universities marketing themselves as being ' for jobs!' (my old uni, natch) is it any surprise when students take on a consumer mentality when it comes to getting "what they paid for"?
posted by gi_wrighty at 9:33 AM on December 8, 2004

Isn't this just a few steps away from, "I paid for medical school, I don't care if my patients keep dying, give me an A."? Frightening that professionals could end up being able to control their own grades.

College isn't for everyone, and not everyone who doesn't go to college is stupid. But to go to college and demand grades, its more over privileged crap.
posted by benjh at 9:36 AM on December 8, 2004

And FormlessOne, students do pay the instructor's salary. How is this not the case?

nixerman: As I told Ailee in the feedback portion of that site, tuition doesn't really pay salary. You might be able to control what shoelaces your professor buys with your contributions.

Private universities subsist on alumni donations and large endowments to pay the way, set up buildings and pay good faculty.

State institutions get their money from the state and tax dollars as well as their own alumni donations and endowments.

One could speciously make the argument that your neighbors at a state institute help you get an education, so they should have a say in what you do and what grades you get.
posted by Captaintripps at 9:38 AM on December 8, 2004


While I will not say that education can or should be summed up as being a consumer product, I do have some gripes with the university system (and I work on the granting side for a major state university as well as having 2 BAs and a minor. I will be finishing my MA early next year. I have also taught at the college level).

The first is best summed up by the attitude I heard while studying in Britain, which no offense, Brits, has a really poor model for education in that it's waaaay over specialized. I kept hearing this phrase: "Well I don't expect them to spoon feed me." Ok - fine by me. However, I am paying for a service, and that service is to make my learning easier. That is the point of teaching. If I wanted to go read literature and figure everything out on my own, I could save a lot of money and not hire anyone's help. The whole point of having a teacher is that they are supposed to facilitate (that means make easier) learning. Frankly, I have had more and more teachers who do not do that.

Teachers today are hired for one reason and one reason only: how many research dollars they can bring in. This has been an increasing problem for years, but it just continues to get worse. Do you know why the rule is publish or perish? Well I will tell you: When a professor gets an outside grant to do research, a good portion of that grant gets used to pay the professor's salary. That means that the department who employs that professor (and ultimately the university) doesn't have to pay them nearly as much, meaning the department can hire more professors. So no one gives a shit how well you teach - they only care how many dollars you bring in.

Who suffers because of this? Students. You see, students are a captive audience. A University gets its reputation by its research - not by its teaching. That means that the administration couldn't give a fuck about the quality of education the students are getting because:

1. They already have the students' money.
2. The students don't determine the ranking of the university - their research does.

As a student, I want my faculty's job to be teaching me to the best of their ability. Frankly, I could give fuck all about their research abilities (well, there are obvious limits to this, but you get my meaning). However, as a business, the University doesn't need to take my wants into account. I am most likely to complain, not if I am poorly educated, but if I get a bad grade - so good grades are encouraged rather than teachers doing their jobs and making it easier for me to learn.

Meanwhile, everyone keeps getting grants and the University continues to grow fat and athletic departments continue to get more money.

Now, while I think the student in the above example is a nightmare, and doesn't have the right idea about how college works, at the same time I have to say: if the administration is going to run a university like a business, why should we be surprised if students start acting like consumers?
posted by Yellowbeard at 9:41 AM on December 8, 2004

I definitely studied "deformable bodies" in my initial four years.

Indeed, one might say that college essentially functions as a great middle class bio-diversity blender, much like those ancient springtime fertility holidays when everyone in the village got to boink in the bushes, sans restriction.

Grades, all that, are just a excuse to keep the gene pool fresh!

I jest, but still.
posted by Haruspex at 9:41 AM on December 8, 2004

Why not create an educational system in which material does not need to be learned in a given period of time, but rather give the student a certain criteria to meet, eliminating the term length. Let them be continually graded upon until the educator deems they have succeeded in learning the prerequisites and not request of them to restart, from the beginning, the course in a later term if they currently are not passing.

This way, students who are plagued with the many 'social ails' of college life, are not necessarily ruined by them (like lack of finances to pay for the course again). Eventually, they will either drop out because they tire of the material or they will succeed in their original goal of learning the material.

It seems like this would be a compromise to the students demanding (as 'consumers') value for their dollar. Students are given a limitless* opportunity to buy his/her education they so wantingly and supposedly 'deserve' just by paying for it. (Although it frightens me to consider how many 'professionals' lack almost complete competency in his/her field of study because of the attitude and circumstances of mathowie's links.)

*Schools do, however, cancel programs because of limited interest. Using this amendment to the contract students sign to study could be the motivating factor in actually working more quickly to learn what is required.
posted by mic stand at 9:41 AM on December 8, 2004

I know in Europe and Canada tuition is much, much less, and so I would assume that entry into and remaining in a university is much more based on actual effort and performance. Is that true? Is there this same sense of entitlement there, or have they avoided the "diploma mill" trap?
posted by borkingchikapa at 9:46 AM on December 8, 2004

Captaintripps, if tuition isn't a significant source of income then why do universities keep raising tuition so aggressively?

And there should be no doubt that what the university provides is first and foremost a service. If the costs of university are going to keep rising then so too must the benefits.

If university were really about "education" then it would free like public school (in the USA).
posted by nixerman at 9:47 AM on December 8, 2004

What does it mean to not earn a degree? I have a BA and worked pretty hard. Are there Universities where you don't have to go to class and write papers and take tests?
posted by stbalbach at 9:49 AM on December 8, 2004

Context folks: College newspaper columnists make Anne Coulter look deep. With the carefree life of your average college newspaper columnist (hey, they got time to write an essay every week, on top of their academic writing) every day is a slow news day, and you got to come up with with something to say.

I've been involved with college radio at a number of universities, and every four years, like clockwork, one of the undergraduate columnists pens an article around the thesis "Why doesn't the campus radio station play music students actually like, instead of this avant garde bullshit! Lets shutdown this elitist thing and get some top 40 on there..." Fear, uncertainty and doubt run through the hearts of the deejays that the stations precious Can and Husker Du discographies will be auctioned off, but it always blows over. So far. Of course, the columnists never respond to the invitation to joing the radio station either.
posted by bendybendy at 9:51 AM on December 8, 2004

Ahhh... The Daily Emerald shining once again with journalistic brilliance. I read this while shitting at the Science Library yesterday, and was tempted to use it for paper.

As a student at the UO, I can tell you that on any given day you can probably find a self-righteous, hardly thought-out column just like this one in our delicious newspaper. My favorite was from when the local latino community came out in force to get a local elementary school named for Cesar Chavez. One of our enlightened columnists wrote an awesome article about how, if we really wanted racism to stop, we should really just ignore it.

And then there was the one about PETA. I met the author of that one, and the first words out of my mouth were, 'Oh, so you're the dumbass.'


posted by kaibutsu at 9:51 AM on December 8, 2004

Did anyone here actually read the essay? Where does she say she's demanding an "A"? Her argument is against grading systems altogether, which is rather different. She's basically advocating a pass/fail system, whereby a "pass" is signified not by a diploma but by a recommendation from your instructors.

That's a far more interesting proposition. It's also equally full of shit, but hey. It assumes professors have enough time to fully evaluate each one of their students (I'm guessing her university class sizes are on the small size), and that carrying a stack of recommendations from dozens of professors (one or more per course) is preferable to, say, a single piece of paper with your name neatly written in calligraphy on it that basically says dozens of professors have determined you're worthy of recommendation.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 9:51 AM on December 8, 2004

Some students may view their education as a commodiity, but the idea that harder-grading professors are better is just as wrong. Which class is better, a class that requires a huge amount of work on projects where most everyone who puts in the work gets an A-, or one where easy tests with low standard deviations are used to give C's to everyone who made a couple of careless mistakes? Which one prepares students for graduate-level research better? Now, my perspective comes from engineering, which is not usually what most people have in mind when they think of grade inflation, so maybe things are different in the humanities. But I've seen very little connection between course grades and the ability to do good research, beyond a certain minimum standard, and dwelling on these grades as the only way to maintain any kind of standards is a mistake.
posted by transona5 at 9:52 AM on December 8, 2004

Yellowbeard has the right of it.

I had an excellent mathematics teacher in high school. Thanks to his AP calc class I aced the Calc I test. I also learned all the math involved extremely well.

I came to college and started taking calc classes. The instructors were awful at teaching, dismissive of students and the textbooks were no help either. I did fine until we got past what had been covered in HS, then I crashed and burned.

Grades didn't mean much to me, but I did want to be taught. Fortunately, other departments were not as abject at instruction as the math department and I did have some excellent instructors who pushed and challenged and from whom I learned much.

But 13 years later, I still have a burning hatred for the jackasses in the math department.
posted by ursus_comiter at 9:55 AM on December 8, 2004

To be pedantic (hey, I'm an academic), the student may not be paying the instructor's salary. It depends on the institution's financial set-up. The short form: most schools rely on multiple forms of funding--tuition, donations, government funding, research grants, investments, etc. These funds are often earmarked for specific applications; tuition may pay for the campus plant, but not for the faculty. (Similarly, we've received $$$ from NYS in recent years, none of which can go to things like the library or faculty lines--it's all tied to specific projects.)

I was hoping that this was a parody. It's hard to know what to make of a paragraph like this:
Although teachers cannot be responsible for the self-failings of their students, it still seems unfair that they are allowed to judge how much a particular student is learning. I pay the teacher to teach me, and then I get slapped with the label of failure if the teacher deems that I haven't learned the correct information? am I supposed to know if the student is learning anything unless I ask her to demonstrate it? If a student "learns" that Victorian women never left the house, never talked back to their husbands, and (for all I know) never had sex without thinking of England, am I really not supposed to say anything? (How else am I supposed to interpret "it still seems unfair that they are allowed to judge how much a particular student is learning"?) This is not a one-way transaction. More to the point, the student seems to be under the impression that "learning" means "instructor pours information into my mind." I can discuss scansion until the cows come home, but--even if I'm a model of clarity--the students still won't understand how to tell an iamb from a trochee without extensive practice. And, along the way, they may actually (gasp) fail. I barely passed the science courses I had to take in my junior year of college, and it sure as heck wasn't because the instructors fell down on their end of the bargain. (Incidentally, I took the courses Pass/Fail, and that didn't lessen my stress one bit: let's just say I was working mighty hard for that equivalent to a C, and was grateful to get it.)

How would a pass/fail system lessen the amount of "judging"? Sure, I wouldn't need to agonize over the difference between an A- and a B+, but otherwise...
posted by thomas j wise at 10:10 AM on December 8, 2004

I have a BA and worked pretty hard. Are there Universities where you don't have to go to class and write papers and take tests?

I don't know when and where you went. I went two places, about 9 years apart. First time was a very selective state U in the early 80s; second time was at a very selective private U in the early 90s. Students seemed to me to be expected to live up to very different standards at the two places and times.

In the early 80s, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the level of "competition" from my peers. In my high school, I'd stood out in large part due to my writing skills; I still stood out in college, but not as much, and not in a negative way. In the 90s, at the second school, it seemed most students still had to work hard, but they didn't have to meet as high a standard. The students were definitely poorer on average in composition skills (any of the many foreign students could compose better English prose than 80% of the American students).

I've since had extended interaction with students at two other allegedly selective schools, and have been generally unimpressed by student language skills. It's still a small sample, but since these are supposed to be market-competetive schools, I would expect the environment to be pretty homogenous.

Another small-sample observation: Of the engineering students I knew, most had a better natural command of English than did the liberal arts folks. To the extent that one's interaction is with technical students, one might have an overly optimistic perspective...
posted by lodurr at 10:19 AM on December 8, 2004

I totally agree with this column. I mean, who are we to say that a degree should be earned. People should just be able to cough up $50k on high school graduation day and get their college diploma as well. Think about it: If someone wants to be a surgeon, why would we want to ensure that they have learned "the correct information?" Sounds useless to me. I mean there really is no skill involved in surgery anyway; that's why people do it in their own houses all the time (hey... wait a sec.) People, also, do not care about quality or correctness of work in the workforce. If your boss says to you he wants something done, he really means that he wants you to do nothing and expect to get paid like you earned it (No, wait, this doesn't make sense either...) If I were an employer, i would put Ms. Slater on my list of people never to ever consider hiring just from reading this article. Nothing says "I can be motivated and work hard" like saying "I don't want to have to do anymore work."
posted by mervin_shnegwood at 10:23 AM on December 8, 2004

The girl seemed to be advocating the elimination of the grading system rather than As for all. Nevertheless, it was still a prime example of thoughtless sophomore whining.
posted by sid at 10:30 AM on December 8, 2004

I had a prof many years ago who used to like to say that nobody really teaches anybody anything: People only ever learn.

It was intended to sound extreme -- to provoke thought in a room full of engineering students, probably a third of them ROTC, who were used to just doing as they were told. A lot of things he said were intended to do that; sometimes kids got angry, and argued with him about it, and he would just stay calm and hold his ground, and they usually walked away at least thinking about it.

And the more I thought about it, the less extreme that view seemed to me. Yes, a teacher has a role -- John Schumacher certainly had a big role, in that class -- in guiding the experience. But the onus is on the student, always, to actually do the work of learning.
posted by lodurr at 10:30 AM on December 8, 2004

Yellowbeard: Well, it would be nice if things broke down that easily. However, one of the primary goals of a university is not just to teach what is already known about the world, but to teach students how to discover or create new knowledge. As a result, having faculty do research is essential for giving students experience with research.

Now granted, there certainly needs to be more work on helping professors teach. But I don't see an easy solution to this whole grade thing. I think the best thing that instructors can do is make the criteria for evaluation transparent at the beginning. In my own teaching, I've done a heck of a lot to give students every opportunity for getting an A. I've made myself available to give feedback on final projects. I've pointed them to projects at the same level of quality that we expect. At the start of the semester, the students have a list of what is expected in a final report.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:31 AM on December 8, 2004

Waitaminute. I thought schools were giving out As left and right these days.

Also, I think that students play some part in determining how U.S. colleges & universities are ranked. Student selectivity, retention rates, alumni giving, and graduation rates make up 45% of US NEWS's ranking methodology. If prospective students look towards those numbers they may have a better idea of what they're getting themselves into.
posted by herc at 10:32 AM on December 8, 2004

borkingchikapa - I can't speak for the UK, but this kind of attitude does prevail at Canadian universities, especially where the majority of students pay their own way. It's less, but it's a lot to them.

That said, it's also an attitude that prevailed among the less bright. Bright students know why they are laying down thousands of dollars in a university, and it's not to get a meaningless piece of paper.
posted by jb at 10:33 AM on December 8, 2004

My handwritten note at the bottom of Ailee's essay, in red ink:

This is an ambitious argument that tries to go in many directions, and therefore ends up going almost nowhere. Your last three paragraphs are the clearest and most organized, so I'd encourage you to rewrite your essay, focusing only on the points you raise there and developing them further. But look again at the beginning half of the essay: considering the audience you are trying to reach -- the community at large who reads the Oregon Daily Emerald -- the lavatorial analogies you make don't reflect well on your potential, either as a student or as someone whose arguments should be taken seriously. Also note that a comment like "I pay the teacher to teach me, and then I get slapped with the label of failure if the teacher deems that I haven't learned the correct information" is an example of logical fallacy, in this case one called begging the question (it assumes that learning on you part was automatic, but that is exactly the point at issue). We went over this and other fallacies at length in class last Tuesday. Grade: C+

As one who has spent several years on the other side of the lectern, though, I would say that young Ailee has some good points to make. There is indeed a commercial mentality among students nowadays, who expect to get something in return for the money they shell out. But Ailee is woefully unaware of the extent of the problem. It's not just students, but the universities themselves, who are turning to the corporate model. Today, the large American univerisity is as much a profit enterprise as are IBM and Nike. Look at the way top hiring decisions are made based on the number of grants a researcher can bring in. Look at the way adjuncts and graduate students are shamelessly exploited as cheap labor. Look at the way students are frivolously overcharged, and support staff are routinely underpaid. And on and on. So you'd be a fool to think this problem doesn't reach into the classroom, where exposure to flashy multimedia technology often takes the place of exposure to ideas. Corporate culture is ruining academic culture, so much so that the notion that the large universities provide students with a liberal education is almost laughable. Teaching and service are no longer the main goals of the institutional mission. Research and development are, because that's where the money is.

Also, I would love to teach in a classroom without grades for exactly the reasons Ailee cites. Worrying about grades too often takes a student's focus away from worrying about learning the material, and cramming to perform well on a test is a far cry from demonstrating actual competency. A system of written evaluations instead of grades would be ideal, and I think more fair. Given today's epidemic grade inflation, it would provide a more accurate way for teachers to separate the wheat from the chaff. Plus, future admissions counselors and employers would get a much better sense of a student's abilities from a written evaluation than from a letter grade, which is, as Ailee notes, an "artificial" mark anyway.

But of course, as things stand now, "a world without grades is a fantasy utopia." As long as there's no money in it, universities aren't going to bother.
posted by stinkeye at 10:36 AM on December 8, 2004

Let's say that we do treat education as a consumer product. In this case, I think it makes sense to treat the grade and the education itself as separate products. You pay to be taught, and you also pay to be graded. In this context, one could think of the grade as a certification, like an MCSE, CCNA, or RHCE. In this context, one can take a course offered by one institution and get graded by another. Or simply pay for one or another of these two commodities.

I think there are some problems to applying this approach to college level education. If all you want is to learn the subject and you don't really care about getting graded (as the writer seems to impy), then you might as well read up on the subject on your own. If it's the classroom environment you want, you could always audit a class in a community college, or form a study group with other interested people.

If, in your view, you're paying for a degree, then you should understand that you're really paying to be graded. One could argue that one should have the option to just pay to be graded, and skip classroom attendance, but that won't work well for all subjects.
posted by Loudmax at 10:38 AM on December 8, 2004

You know, it's not every day that somebody draws an analogy between their own mind and a dirty toilet.

posted by mdn at 10:43 AM on December 8, 2004

Oh, and I should add that a central part of any instructional process, no matter what theory of instruction you use, is feedback. But yes, when you pay a person to teach you, you pay a person to evaluate your learning, and to provide feedback as to whether you have mastered the material.

There is even a lot of whining about students getting bad reccomendations.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:51 AM on December 8, 2004

As a former universityh professor--still teaching now and then at a local community college, I can sum it all up from a faculty perspective:
If it were not for students and adminstration, universities would be great places.
posted by Postroad at 10:54 AM on December 8, 2004

Colleges and universities are businesses. I am in the middle of a transaction, myself, where the university I work for can pay me well below minimum wage and comp my courseload with a waiver (it actually isn't really free at all- there are a shitload of fees that get snuck in) in exchange for my labor.

However, I work for my grades, and do not expect a grade based on the fact that the university is taking advantage of my labor, therefore I need to be compensated for it via my GPA. I think thomas j. wise has it right- many students think that learning is having the information poured into their heads to set like jello. The polite way to say this is the instructor needs to facilitate the learning in the classroom ("Tell me what I need to know for the test"). And this is a direct result of the banking form of education in the US, at least.

If students and instructors alike would shift their view of education just slightly to one of co-construced knowledge within communities of learning, instead of the teacher regurgitating tired interpretations over and over again, education might actually be 1) fun, and 2) useful.

If institutions of higher learning stopped worrying so much about AAA football programs and another (another!) building to house redundant science labs, the costs of education could come down, and the focus of education could be less about making more money and more about making more sense.
Buuut...I am not too hopeful. Off to work!
posted by oflinkey at 10:56 AM on December 8, 2004

Sounds like someone failed her midterm...

As acrimonious as the comments here have been, I bet her teachers are having a good laugh over this. What I wouldn't give to be a fly in the wall in her classes next week.
posted by mkultra at 10:56 AM on December 8, 2004

Captaintripps, if tuition isn't a significant source of income then why do universities keep raising tuition so aggressively?

Because they can.
posted by Captaintripps at 11:14 AM on December 8, 2004

Sometimes, I look at the other folks who got MFAs from the same University I did and I cringe. I think "these people got the same degree I did? It must not be worth so much, then."

I worry that some of them are going to harm the reputation of the University so much that it will effect my ability to get hired. "Oh, he went to THAT University. Better not use him."

Apropos of nothing, I guess.
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:18 AM on December 8, 2004

If it were not for students and adminstration, universities would be great places.

From the other side, if it weren't for the students, universities would be research centres. And not that there's anything wrong with being a research centre, but there is a distinction there.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 11:22 AM on December 8, 2004

Un-freakin-believable. The sense of entitlement expressed is breathtaking. Maybe earn your degree?
So many people in this country are effectively marginalized because they don't have the opportunity for higher education, and this nitwit turns the experience into a customer service problem.
Oh, to be a fly on the wall during her first performance review at her first real job...
posted by cows of industry at 11:28 AM on December 8, 2004

i'm not real impressed by a lot of people who have college educations ... it seems to me that they treated it as a place to get their vocational certificates so they could get good jobs ... the old-fashioned "liberal education" seems to have little to do with it ... they just want through that part of it as quickly and painlessly as possible

i suspect she's one of the people i'm talking about
posted by pyramid termite at 11:38 AM on December 8, 2004

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I had an argument with my father about this. He was teaching a course in something of a blow-off subject at a small college in upstate New York, and the final gave most students something around an A. Three students got Cs, having scored in the mid-to-high 70s on the exam. They protested, and he met with the head of the department to discuss it.

The head told him that he could not give them Cs because it meant they were failing. Howzat? Well, because a C translates into a 2.0, which is 50% of a 4.0, it would mean they'd have failing grades. You know, since 65% is passing.

When he realized that the administration would support the students in this, he folded.

Either the administration is actually that dumb, or they purposely designed a system in which only the worst of the worst students get anything less than a 3.0 GPA.
posted by paul_smatatoes at 11:40 AM on December 8, 2004


I understand that professors need to help students learn how to discover new things (thus my statement, "(well, there are obvious limits to this, but you get my meaning) as well as teaching them the basics (although if you can show me undergraduate classes where these skills are really taught I will be impressed). I understand the point of research. However, I will say again that I think the current construction of academics is fundamentally flawed, and I would be happy to further point out how:

Who is it that gets PhDs, generally? I would say (and. yes, this is conjecture, but after over a decade in academics as student, teacher, and agent of a granting agency I think it is informed conjecture) that the people who generally go on to get PhDs are the people who are more interested in studying than they are in people. No, this is certainly not the case always. However, my hypothesis is that those who love a subject so much that they would dedicate 10 years of their life to its study have a tendency to be, at the very least, a bit focused.

As they go through the system, they spend more and more time with their subject and less time with other people. They learn their subject backwards and forwards, else they will not be granted a PhD. Their subject becomes second nature to them.

The competition is so high for university professors now, that in order to get a job teaching you almost must be published several times over if you have any hope of getting a job. The university knows that people who are published are the people who are going to continue to get grants. The people who get published over and again are the people who know their subjects the best and are the most focused.

Now, after living in an ivory tower for 10-12 years and having learned their subjects inside and out, backwards and forwards, and having been suitably published several times (demonstrating not only skill, but that you are very dedicated to the research of their field) a professor is suddenly given a job teaching a bunch of kids who may well have never even heard of Fourier Synthesis - an idea which is unfathomable to someone who has just spent (and is still spending) years studying it.

What I am saying is that the very model we use is flawed. The more someone has made a subject second nature, the less likely they are to be able to remember what it was like not to know anything about that subject - an essential part of teaching that subject to someone who knows nothing about it. What the professor takes for granted, the students have never even considered - that is not a good situation for facilitating learning.

Further, the person who is teaching has probably gotten to where they are because of a lack of social skills in favor of the dedication it takes to get to the top of their field. Teaching is a social endeavor. I would argue that in order to be a good teacher, being part entertainer is more important than being at the top of one's field, and understanding what it is like to be ignorant is far more important than knowing everything there is to know about a particular subject.

This is all contrasted, of course, with the way we create High School teachers, which is to teach them hours and hours of pedagogy but to not really make sure that they know enough about their subject to teach it (also a bad idea).

My model for ideal college teaching would be teacher pairs or groups. Some teachers are hired strictly or almost strictly for their research abilities while others are hired almost exclusively for their ability to relate information to ignorant people. These pairs or groups would work together, with the researchers sometimes coming into the classroom and the teachers sometimes going into the lab, but with both categories meeting often to talk shop.

In this way, research would get done (and students could have access to researchers when necessary) and teaching could be accomplished well, as opposed to as a second thought.

Will it happen? Never in a million years, but that's my first of many thoughts about how universities should be reformed.
posted by Yellowbeard at 11:50 AM on December 8, 2004

As a student, I want my faculty's job to be teaching me to the best of their ability. Frankly, I could give fuck all about their research abilities

There are thousands of small liberal-arts colleges in the US set up to provide you with exactly that. Some of them are even public, and many private ones have competitive merit-scholarship funds for good students.

Why not go to one instead of going to a big research school and complaining that it's, shock and surprise, a big research school?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:51 AM on December 8, 2004

The University program I was in didn't issue grades. Students were given pass/fail, with a written evaluation by the instruction. My transcript was about ninety pages long, but it all worked fine, so, having done it, I have difficulty seeing why the concept is so problematic.

Some of the problems going on here are that students are paying for college for different reasons:

Some are paying for certification training. These are the people who genuinely intend to use the things they learn in class in their careers, and fully expect to be tested on their knowledge. These people are the most likely to have issues if the instruction is bad or the course content unuseful, since they are paying for instruction and practical information. Most likely, they care if they receive the degree (it's the certification), but expect to have to earn it.

Some people are paying for learning (this is what I did - my profession doesn't require any degrees, so it wouldn't have bothered me if I went to college but ended up without one.) They're paying for the quality, interest, and depth of information, so they're most likely to have issues if the course instruction and content is uninteresting, since they're paying for depth and content. Most likely, they don't particularly care about the degree, although they won't turn it down since it has other uses, and consider tests either pointless or purely for the benefit of the student (a way to help ensure that the information has gotten across successfully).

Some people are paying for a degree for jobs that require a degree (but not knowledge), and have no interest whatsoever in education or certification. They're most likely to have issues if it looks like they won't get a degree, because that's what they're paying for. They generally consider tests an obstacle.

It's easy to dismiss the last group, but they exist for a reason - many good jobs require a degree - *any* degree, which makes it kind of obvious it's not for certification purposes. Until that changes, those students will exist, and, honestly, will have every right to complain about shelling out thousands of dollars for a piece of paper if it looks like they might not even get it. Until good jobs that don't require specialized knowledge don't ask for degrees, or college is free, then these students know exactly what they're complaining about. If you think college shouldn't be used for that purpose, it's the system that needs changing, not the students.

(Personally, though, I'd recommend these students simply order a degree online, or just lie on their job applications. Seriously. Who's going to check?)

The real confusion probably arises when the situations overlap, which happens often. Someone wants to learn, but really needs that degree a lot more. Someone wants certification, but wishes they had more time besides their required classes to take more interesting stuff. Someone wants to be qualified for what they do, but also desperately, desperately needs that piece of paper. Or all three. What do you do when you want mutually conflicting things out of your college - like easy, but difficult, classes?

Ideally, the whole thing would be free in the first place, with different programs suited to different needs or combinations or needs. I think the latter is what a lot of places are striving for, but often they fall short, or a student ends up in a program not completely matched up with what they really wanted. I lucked out and found one perfectly suited to my needs.
posted by kyrademon at 11:56 AM on December 8, 2004

Now that all the writhing masses have mortgaged their futures for that precious piece of paper, it has become useless. Used to be only certain people from good families had the money to go to University. Nowadays everyone seems to be able to get a loan from a bank, financial ruin be damned!

So, fine, everyone gets a lolly. And now nobody cares if you've got one. That's the way it's always been.

The right sorts of people still understand distinction, which is why your fancy A's at your useless U. will get you nowhere fast. You plebeians have just made it slightly more of an effort -- now we'll need the easy MA instead of the easy BA. Good luck trying to keep up with the Jones'. Ta-ta.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:57 AM on December 8, 2004


I go to a land grant institution which is headed by an engineer from industry who is determined to remake the school into a research institution. Since we were founded as a land grant institution (and still are one) I think it was not unreasonable for me to have expected a liberal education rather than to have been thrown into a research school (to be fair, the transition has taken place during my tenure here and the situation is still evolving).

The point is, though, that as someone who works for an agency which grants money to researchers, I have a really good idea of how professors are chosen, and I can tell you that it is not for their teaching abilities. Now, even if a student went to a research school (which, as a class, generally enjoy the best reputations as schools and lead to the best jobs), isn't the student still entitled to believe that they will be taught by competent teachers for the money they pay? I think they are.

Does that answer your question?
posted by Yellowbeard at 12:00 PM on December 8, 2004


BTW, love the handle. I, too, am a big Banks fan.
posted by Yellowbeard at 12:02 PM on December 8, 2004

Just to cut against the general grain of rants here and to post a different data point:

The best teachers I ever had were also the best researchers. In order to
be a productive researcher successful collaborations are very important. I dunno it's movies or what, but the idea of isolated scientfic research yielding eath shattering results is oh so wrong. Social skills separate the great researchers from the good one.
posted by ozomatli at 12:30 PM on December 8, 2004

Since we were founded as a land grant institution (and still are one) I think it was not unreasonable for me to have expected a liberal education rather than to have been thrown into a research school

Um. Have you looked at a list of land-grant schools? It's 95% the same as a list of Big State U's, which is to say, research schools.

I assume you mean Arkansas-Fayetteville, which seems to meet your description. Expecting a flagship state U with 15000+ students to be anything other than a research school seems a mite silly to me. Hell, expecting someplace that you're going to for an MA to be anything other than a research school seems wrong-headed to me; if it were a liberal-arts school, it wouldn't have the grad program you were attending.

Realistically, the best you can hope for at a research school is that somebody who is bad at undergrad teaching gets shunted into grad teaching, or the reverse, and that people who consistently do poorly in the classroom by the department's standards are given other things to do. If you want lots of attention from people who are teachers first and researchers second, if at all, hie thee to a real no-shit liberal-arts college.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:36 PM on December 8, 2004


You are correct, sir - I am at the UA. I must admit that you make a degree of sense, as the university continues to expand and perhaps expecting it to not be a research school is a bit naive of me. However, I will still stand by my main point: even if a school is primarily a research school, students should still be able to reasonably expect to get a good education for their dollar.

More and more I keep getting teachers who have no idea how to teach (luckily, as I have indicated, I should be finished this semester). I think that this is inexcusable, and I will continue to argue that the reason behind it is that universities are more interested in money than they are in educating students.

A University should not be run like a business.

I have to admit another slant, here, though, to my perspective, and that is that I started out with the intention of becoming a university professor but have become so sick of the politics and money grubbing that I have given up on the idea. This colors my view somewhat.

I am not interested in being a researcher. I am interested in teaching. Unfortunately, these days that means teaching High School (which is the course I will probably set myself on) rather than college. I think that is too bad.

Even if you are right about the fact that most big state universities are research institutions, that doesn't make it ok (to me) that they are abandoning their land grant roles (at least, what I have always understood land grant to mean - perhaps I am wrong) and becoming businesses whose purpose is to capture research dollars and be farms for professional sports teams.

Yes, I am being a bit of an idealistic liberal. Then again, they are coming after the home, the last bastion of liberalism, and trying to turn Schools into Businesses.

And I don't like it.
posted by Yellowbeard at 12:54 PM on December 8, 2004


Let me pose this question in a different way:

Is it ok to hire professors to be good researchers even if they are shitty teachers and then put them in front of a classroom full of students who have paid good money to get taught?
posted by Yellowbeard at 1:01 PM on December 8, 2004

Is it ok to hire professors to be good researchers even if they are shitty teachers and then put them in front of a classroom full of students who have paid good money to get taught?

No, which is why my "selective private university" fired anyone who was like that. They would hirer brilliant scientists and force them to teach. If they failed at teaching, they were fired. That seems pretty fair to me.
posted by Stynxno at 1:16 PM on December 8, 2004

Anyone here not gone to college?

Just a wonderin'.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 1:43 PM on December 8, 2004

odinsdream: I guess my question is, are there not already ways to deal with that?

Since I turned 18, I've never taken a class where I did not fill out an evaluation of the instructor.

Actually, it seems like most of the comments do seem to be from snotty students who don't appreciate the educational system, with phrases like "seemingly on a professor's whim" or "arbitrary grade." Here is a hint. Essays and quizzes are a pain in the ass to design, a pain in the ass to assign, and a pain in the ass to evaluate. There may be some very warped individuals who get a sadistic kick out of homework, quizzes and essays, but I've not met any.

Now I think the way around this is to demand more of the syllabus. The syllabus for a course should explain exactly what material will be covered, when you will be evaluated, how you will be evaluated, and what resources are available along the way.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:52 PM on December 8, 2004

Hooray meritocracy! Hooray competition! Because, as we all know, grades once meant something! Back in the good old days, professors never gave A's to the pretty girls or brown-nosers. No, they only gave grades based on a Meaningful system which actually separated the Good Students from the Bad.

What bullshit. Of course the idea that you "deserve" an A because you "paid for it," is absurd. But is follows from some of the same basic assumtions as the idea that you "deserve" an A because you are "the best student." Both ridiculous.

It's finals week for me right now, the first quarter of my fourth year, and I've finally gotten over caring about my grades for the most part. The result? I can finally relax, stop stressing over my GPA, and do good work. Any teacher worth shit knows that intrinsic motivation is a whole hell of lot more meaningful than grade-grubbing in terms of getting a student to do good work. If our Universities were about learning rather than filtering and ranking students, they would do well to cultivate more of the former.
posted by mai at 1:53 PM on December 8, 2004


I think you make some very good points.
posted by Yellowbeard at 2:01 PM on December 8, 2004

a world without grades isn't a fantasty utopia! it actually exists! i went there!

i recently graduated from hampshire college which is an alternative liberal arts college in oh so liberal western massachusetts. hampshire is a college without grades, instead, you receive a narrative evaluation from your professor. it is also a college of extensive independent research as opposed to exams and the dreaded "div III" - spending your last year of college as a slave to the equivalent of a graduate thesis.

this system is far from a utopia. procrastination runs rampant as most students are self-disciplined enough to do their work, but not driven enough to start more than two weeks before it's due. all nighters are frequent and people stress about doing enough work to receive a good evaluation as much as students at other schools stress about grades.

and the narrative evaluation system... can be hell. my div III committee absolutely could not stand my work. [i was an art major.] however, since i had done more than the required amount of work to pass, they had to let me graduate. had i graduated with a "c" on my transcript as my final grade, that would have sucked. what sucks more is that i graduated with the absolute worst evaluation in history. parts of it were deeply personal and flat out mean. they made sure that there is no way in hell that i would ever be accepted to grad school. i've received my fair share of honestly critical evaluations, but this was just way out of line. i don't think that two professors should have the entire say of whether or not a student is capable of going to grad school, but under this system, that's how it goes.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 2:47 PM on December 8, 2004

That's a far more interesting proposition. It's also equally full of shit, but hey. It assumes professors have enough time to fully evaluate each one of their students (I'm guessing her university class sizes are on the small size), and that carrying a stack of recommendations from dozens of professors (one or more per course) is preferable to, say, a single piece of paper with your name neatly written in calligraphy on it that basically says dozens of professors have determined you're worthy of recommendation.

GhostInTheMachine : yeah, i went there. so, it's not really full of shit. it really exists. and our diplomas - that's right. they're circular.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 2:53 PM on December 8, 2004

A perspective from down under:

The universities here have been pushed by government policy into being run as businesses, and in particular, into behaving as cash cows attracting export dollars from large numbers of full-fee-paying students (largely from south and south-east asia).

In some cases these students are merely repeating degrees they have already completed back home, but at universities that receive international accreditation. Others use their time in Oz purely for immigration purposes. Others may value western degrees as they improve their prospects in the arranged marriage market.

Whatever their reasons, I feel that these students have seriously compromised the quality of higher education here. Masters-level courses are being taught at a basic undergrad level. Typical assessments (for up to 50% of a subject) might be a 3,000 word essay submitted by groups of up to five students. Even with such light assessments, plagiarism is rampant, blatant, and seems to attract only a token slap on the wrist, if anything. Academics are apparently under huge pressure not to fail students, lest they take their business elsewhere.

All of this seems to me to be the natural result of treating unis as businesses competing against each other for the consumer dollar, and satisfying politicians' dreams of education as a bountiful export industry.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:06 PM on December 8, 2004

I pay the teacher to teach me, and then I get slapped with the label of failure if the teacher deems that I haven't learned the correct information?

Yes. Next question?
posted by tomorama at 3:44 PM on December 8, 2004

odinsdream: No it wasn't directed at you specifically. It was just a reaction to something I see implied in this thread an in the linked editorial which is that assignments, quizzes, essays and tests are just arbitrary.

Now the teacher in your anecdote may be a bad teacher, but I'm cautious about pointing to specific anecdotes.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:07 PM on December 8, 2004

Postroad: If it were not for students and adminstration, universities would be great places.

That was the theme I chose for the essay on my college application; it worked like a charm -- it obviously struck a chord.

Few universities nowadays beyond the small, elitist (highly expensive) private liberal arts colleges see themselves as providing a liberal education for its own sake. The rest are doling out pre-professional credentials to good little prospective work units. 200K for an education that may teach you how to think but will not make you particularly employable is not what most students, or their parents who are probably footing the bill, want. In a lot of ways most students are consumers buying a product, in spite of the shared fantasy of education as an end in itself.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 4:32 PM on December 8, 2004

Odinsdream: Did anybody report that instructor to a department chair? Or a dean? And make a written complaint? I've heard more than one chair complain that s/he would dearly like to discipline an instructor for various types of academic malfeasance--anything from refusing to teach (really) to the sort of behavior you describe--but no student was willing to file a formal complaint. Moreover, in a couple of cases I know of, students were unwilling to give negative evaluations to an instructor who was clearly in the early phases of dementia (again, really). Contrariwise, I've come across several cases where students entered a formal complaint and the administration acted pronto. But if there's no paper trail, nothing can be done--the chair can't act on hearsay, verbal complaints, etc.
posted by thomas j wise at 5:17 PM on December 8, 2004

There are different people with different values in the world: those who feel education, knowledge, truth can be bought; others who feel that it has to be earned. Sometimes the two systems intermingle, or collide: and what one believes in is exposed, as in this article. And usually, when the two value systems collide, in or outside of the academic arena, suffering ensues, at the expense of true knowledge.
I have met PhD's who are clueless, and some who are brilliant; bus drivers who are clueless, some who are brilliant: when any system so standardizes the notion of wisdom that these distinctions are not allowed, it is corrupt.
posted by buddhanarchist at 6:42 PM on December 8, 2004

I know of a local community college where teachers are told that giving out low grades is "bad for self esteem," and teachers should not makr papers in red because ilt is a "threatening color."

Postroad, I know of public elementary school and high school teachers who are told the same thing. By following this way of thinking and teaching, I feel as if the children learn how to work the system as consumers. They are not taught to learn and seek knowledge and understanding, they are taught that they deserve passing grades so they won't be singled out as stupid by their peers. No effort needed to get that D or C, and the kid passes on to the next grade. Likely, the kid can't read at the level he or she should be able to.

It is a case of protect the ego at all times and protect the funding mentality, the grades given have direct bearing on the schools rating and government funding. No child left behind, an ironic name for a policy not working as it was supposed to work. Passing marks are given to kids who need more instruction.
"Why?" A teacher asks." Well", school officials reply," because failing a kid affects the funding you see, so do it, pass the kid."

Which leads me to what Nixerman posted.

If university were really about "education" then it would free like public school (in the USA).

I don't believe that public school is about education anymore, for the same reasons I stated above. So what happens to these same elementary and highschool kids when they go to college? They go believing they deserve to get the passing grades and the degree, after all they paid for it. They didn't learn how to study or apply themselves in elementary or highschool, and they passed. So why not the same attitude for college?
posted by bratcat at 8:17 AM on December 9, 2004

Public schools in the US aren't about education, they're about sports. That's the only thing with any sort of quality control there.
posted by dagnyscott at 10:15 AM on December 9, 2004

I teach writing at a Major Public University, but have the luxury of being an adjunct who could live without the money. In my four years of teaching, I have been appalled on numerous occasions at student attitudes toward grades.

I've had students challenge me to explain why they did not get an A, despite not fulfilling numerous course requirements printed in the syllabus. I've had students disappear for two-thirds of the semester, do half the work, and then appear at the 11th hour for a wheedling session. (I have concluded that some students concentrate on sharpening their grade negotiation skills instead of focusing on learning and classwork.)

But I have had many, many more thank me for my strict teaching style. Several have told me that no one had ever told them there was anything wrong with their writing. (I believe, and teach, that every piece of writing could be improved -- that's one reason seasoned professional writers appreciate good editors.)

If I only had a quick fix for university juniors who can't recognize incomplete sentences, or the lack of subject-verb agreement. Because I could really use one.
posted by sacre_bleu at 1:17 PM on December 9, 2004

dear captain tripps, as a person of korean ethnicity (ie, i'm korean), i take offence to your pejorative use of the word "mongoloid".
posted by yedgar at 11:02 AM on December 15, 2004

nixerman: Captaintripps, if tuition isn't a significant source of income then why do universities keep raising tuition so aggressively?

Captaintripps: Because they can.

Christ almighty, people, do your research. It took me 30 seconds with a Google gun to find out, quantitatively, exactly why the U of O is raising tuition so aggressively [pdf link, see page 3] -- the people of my fine and fair state have decided they don't want to pay for education anymore. So, as a matter of fact, my U of O tuition is paying a great deal of my instructors' salaries.

Just to be clear, I don't agree with the argument in the article. I get a lot out of my education because I put a lot into it.

But this ridiculous "stick it to the man" crap needs some revision. It's not the man that's the problem, it's my backwater neighbors.
posted by medialyte at 7:47 PM on December 15, 2004

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