Monday, November 16, 2015

Academic Culture Shock

To explain the current Maoist moral panic disrupting our so-called institutions of higher education, journalists and bloggers who are committed to free speech have offered several theories. Some have pointed out, first of all, that college administrators have proven themselves to be weak, corrupt, and oh-so-tempting targets by previously acceding to demands for restrictive speech codes, diversity offices, and multicultural "studies" departments, paying the Danegeld and consequently emboldening the Dane. Others, meanwhile, propose that over-protective child-rearing is to blame, claiming that many parents' refusal to expose their kids to age-appropriate adversity is leaving many young people ill-equipped to deal with the frictions and aggravations of the real world.

These theories certainly have a lot of merit. But Chuck DeVore made a remark over at The Federalist today that I think also deserves further consideration:
Of course some students at Claremont feel intimidated, afraid, and out of place because they aren’t academically prepared for an elite college.
Perhaps this observation lends itself to sympathy for the current crop of protesters. I’d be mad and frustrated as well, were I recruited to attend a college only to find it beyond my academic reach, all while racking up student debt.
DeVore was alluding to the institutional mismatch that often results when extra-academic factors like "diversity" are considered in the admissions process, but I think academic culture shock may be even more widespread than he supposes. Indeed, I think it even impacts students who, on the surface, possess all the correct qualifications.

I teach students all over the ability distribution, but I want to focus in particular on my high fliers -- i.e., the students who strive mightily to succeed and have the stellar academic records and test scores to prove it. These students have been in honors level and "extended"/gifted programs since the late middle grades, and by the time they come to me for college admissions help, they're usually enrolled in a full course of AP Everything. They're bright, engaged, eager to learn -- great kids overall. I love to work with them. And yet --

-- and yet I've been noticing some disturbing trends in the way these teens are taught that may, in part, drive the inchoate rage infecting our campuses.

In my county, for instance, even AP students are seldom taught how to take notes. When they are assigned readings in their textbooks (assuming, of course, that they even have textbooks, which is not guaranteed), they are also given a reading guide that obviates the need to decide what's actually important. When they attend lectures, their teachers helpfully give them blank copies of their Power Point slides that students can dutifully - and passively - fill in during class, once again removing the challenge of sifting out which remarks actually matter and which are extraneous details. And when test time rolls around, out come the study guides and practice exams which delineate in precise detail how the test will be structured and what exactly will be tested, which thereby encourages short-term, shallow cramming.

This meme exists for a reason -- which should worry us all.

Our top students, in short, are not being taught how to study effectively because their teachers keep holding their hands. Beyond that, I've also noticed an abject failure on the part of many AP teachers to teach students how to write. Essay assignments in our local advanced classes are woefully infrequent and utterly inadequate, and the standards for an "A" grade are frankly pitiful. The result? Not even my best students really know how to put together an effectively argued research paper. They are far too dependent on unreliable internet sources -- and even if they do hit upon some decent evidence for their assertions, they have no clue how to organize those details correctly. Alas, even the essays they're asked to write for the AP exams don't necessarily teach them the crucial synthesis and composition skills they will need for their university-level coursework.

Again, these are my best students -- the wonderful, fantastic kids who really do want to learn and, based on their SAT scores at intake, have the native ability to do so.

I think, in some fundamental ways, we are screwing up how we teach our high ability students before they even arrive at Yale, Harvard, etc. -- and as a result, some of these students may find themselves struggling to adapt once they hit the quad. In college, after all, there is no hand-holding. In some classes, you're one among hundreds who are all vying for the attention of a limited number of overworked teaching assistants -- and the midterm and the final are the only scores that impact your final grade. For students used to the above-described regime of constant teacher-provided guidance, this may indeed be quite a traumatic transition - and if they've already been trained to perceive injustice in every obstacle, they need only a hop, skip, and a jump to reach the conclusion that their school is deliberately obstructing their success.

(Note: This post was edited later to add a perfect meme.)


  1. I think that hand holding comes from a desperate desire to improve test scores.

    1. I think you're right there, Matt. But ironically, I think it actually makes things worse. By the time the Virginia SOL exams roll around, most of my kids need to be retaught everything they learned in quarters 1-3. :\

  2. A very interesting post - particularly the latter part. Relevant to the thoughts in that part, I have a story to tell...

    My daughter is currently in an "Honors" writing class at the local community college. She does come to me for editing before she submits a paper to her teacher; she is quite aware that she still has some bad habits to expunge.

    The teacher of this course has very explicitly told the students that she will penalize them heavily for run-on and fragmentary sentences. A quite admirable policy, yes, BUT...

    The most recent assignment involved writing the internal dialogue of a character that found him/her self in a stressful situation.

    Now, admittedly, my sample size is exactly one - but I told her that, yes, there were run-ons and fragments in her initial draft, but that those were perfectly acceptable given the context.

    She ended up revising the piece, which I didn't argue with - she also needs to learn to choose and fight her own battles in the world. I do have to admit that I was rather disappointed that she avoided this one (whereas I would have put on my Happy Warrior outfit in my college years).