Friday, January 13, 2012

What Is Wrong With Academia

There is an article in Forbes by some Professor somewhere wherein he articulates his philosophy. Having taught at MIT, Columbia, George Washington, Polytechnic University and a few other places, and now taking Organic Chemistry, for the second time, at County College of Morris, a community college, I bring a somewhat different perspective. Also as one who has created a few jobs in 20 countries, I have a modicum of knowledge concerning people, some that work and some that don't.

Let me summarize this dictum from on high just a a bit:

First, I do not “take off” points. You earn them. The difference is not merely rhetorical, nor is it trivial. In other words, you start with zero points and earn your way to a grade.

Yes I would agree with that. But there are faculty who do "take off", for spelling for example, on a technical exam. I never did but I experience it now. Thus the issue is what is the content of the course and what is not. Some folks just cannot spell, I am one, perhaps it is the family dyslexia or not. But the function of a good faculty member is to also seek to understand why the student got something wrong. I did that frequently, from an undiscovered illness to severe family problems. Arrogant faculty are the bane of Academia.

 Second, this means that the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that you have mastered the material. It is not on me to demonstrate that you have not. My assumption at the beginning of each class is that you know somewhere between nothing and very little about basic economics unless you were lucky enough to have an exceptional high school economics course. Otherwise, why are you here? You might say that the course is a prerequisite for other things you want to do, but if that it is the case and you know the material, you’re more than welcome to simply show up for the exams, ace them, and be on your way.

 This is difficult sometimes. Perhaps my exams were too difficult, were wrong, etc. I remember that in December 1970 I gave out a take home exam that required that the students prove A > B. Well oops, I typed the inequality the wrong way, and the exam went out just before Christmas holiday and due Jan 3rd. Funny, all but one student "proved" the inequality the wrong way, one student just said I got the inequality wrong. He got an A the others I gave a pass. I apologized to all. Yet there were a few nooses prepared.

Now as to the assumption that the student comes to class ignorant, well I NEVER assumed that at MIT in EECS. One never knew. In my current Organic class the Instructor assumes we are all ignorant, well there are three MDs and a few other who have come back to refresh. As a Professor I never assumed anything other than we were peers in learning. The game was that the students would always try to find where I made an error, and my counter was to know it so well I never needed a note and I finished my 50 min lecture on the second.

Otherwise, why are you here?

Good question, but perhaps one should not be so presumptive, perhaps you should find out why the student is there. That one phrase is what prompted this response.

Finally, I’m here to be a mentor and instructor. This means that our relationship differs from the relationships that you have with your friends and family. Please don’t infer from this that I don’t care about you, because I do. A lot. I want to see you make good choices. I want to see you understand basic economics because I hope it will rock your world as it continues to rock mine and because the human consequences of lousy economic policy are enormous. That said, you should never take grades personally. 

One of the things I learned early on at MIT once I started as an Instructor in 1969 was the care and attention to understanding each student. We were not necessarily friends, but one of my students became my best man, another an investor, and the list goes on, but that we understood why the student got what they did. We would list every grade for every student and then with the Teaching Assistants go through them one by one during the grading session. Each student grade was personally looked at in light of everything we knew. In a way we were more than a friend or family, we became forgiving of situations, and understanding of what they accomplished. We  "knew" each student as a person, not just a grade.

Did I still have them come and ask why, yes, but when I explained why, which I owed them, then they became true believers also.

Thus I have reason to differ with the good professor, hopefully for good reason.