Thursday, July 8, 2010

Just How Far Would You Go to Help Students?

As a higher educator of 44 years, this is a question I have had to put to myself more than occasionally. My self-perception is that I am a tireless champion and advocate for students. But I know that even I have limits. Those have been tested, for example, when students have asked me to loan them money, or to engage, shall we say, in certain kinds of social interactions.

But as I read on the morning of June 23 an article in The New York Times, page one, below the fold, I really questioned how far I would go or think we should go to help students! I posted a blog just previously in which I mentioned my morning ritual. Well, it also has included, since I was a first-year college student, getting and reading The New York Times. When I was a new student, my political science professor “suggested” that I start making a habit of reading The Times daily. So I would trudge down town from campus in Marietta, Ohio, and get the daily Times, after it came in from Pittsburg on the 11.22 Greyhound!

So the Times had a story reporting that in the last two years at least 10 US law schools “have changed their grading systems to make them more lenient.” Case in point driving this story: Loyola Law School of New Orleans is raising every student’s average by tacking on 0.333 to every grade recorded in the last few years. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. And not only Loyola, but such places as NYU, Georgetown, and Tulane. So why are they doing this? “The goal is to make [their] students look more attractive in a competitive job market.”

I still can’t believe it! There is no academic discipline more important to the future of American leadership than the law. The law is the major producer of America’s political leaders. Legal education therefore is extraordinarily, disproportionately important. And what’s the message here? Better grades by working harder? No, by simply showing up. And better grades because you were privileged, privileged to attend an institution which advantaged you vis a vis your peers.

Where will this go next? How about to the county’s greatest business schools? But where won’t it go? To English departments who are producing poets because our society doesn’t have to worry about protecting poets in this current job market.

So I find myself asking: what are my limits for helping students get ahead? What wouldn’t I do, or in this case, “stoop to.” OK, John, now let’s be honest, did you ever curve your grades? Yes, until I entirely stopped giving multiple choice examinations.

Thank goodness I am not in a power position where I could ever be faced with the decision to officially inflate grades of an entire cohort of students. As I found myself asking what are my own limits now, versus earlier points in my life, I immediately recalled a period when I was faced with an equally compelling moral question as to whether to inflate grades.

The period was 1967-68 and I was an adjunct instructor, teaching for the University of South Carolina at its Lancaster Campus, a two-year, rural, non-residential college, for students who were either textile mill workers or their children. And for my traditional aged male students, this was the period of draft eligibility for infantry service in Vietnam. And I was already on active duty in the US Air Force, having volunteered to escape “the draft.” I was doing this teaching at night, when I was off duty from my military duties as a psychiatric social worker.

And I recall that some of my male students would approach me and ask me to raise (i.e. inflate) their grades sufficiently to make a “B.” I had come to understand that the local Selective Service Draft Board, had raised the bar for a deferment, from simply being in college, to maintaining a B average. And it was true, the final grade in my course, was preventing some students from attaining that B average. This was a powerful moral conundrum for me. What should I do for my students? Here I was already a small cog in the huge killing machine that was the war in Vietnam; and now I realized I was also another kind of cog: a grading cog, whose grading made some men eligible for the draft.

I agonized over what I should do, but never could bring myself to raise a grade to maintain life, to keep a young man out of a stupid, senseless war. As you can surmise, hindsight is in full gear here. What would my limit be in terms of what I would do today for students? Well, not spare them from the draft. I just couldn’t bring myself to inflate their grades. And I don’t like any better this market driven grading philosophy. I bet we haven’t heard the last of this, and I fear a very pernicious influence. So where are you going to draw your line in the sand? What are you not willing to do for students?

-John Gardner

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

How about an Independence Day for new students?

This is a blog written with July 4th in mind. This is the annual holiday to commemorate the announcement that Britain’s 13 colonies in North America were separating from the British Empire. With all the references to the “Declaration of Independence” my thoughts this year included connecting this concept of a “declaration of independence” to the transition into college.

When we look at today’s students transitioning into college, many are “independent” in that they are fully adult, self-supporting, highly focused and “decided.” These are not students who are being supported by parents, although, hopefully, they are being encouraged and in that way “supported” by their significant others. And, of course, in contrast, there are still a very large number of students who are being supported by families. My point here is that our students enter at various points on an “independent” to “dependent” continuum.

But setting aside that gross difference, my mind has wandered to thinking about how could we mark at some appropriate point a “declaration of independence” for new students? At what point in the new student experience have they reached their readiness and ability to reject their former colonial overlords of immaturity, bias, prejudice, uncertainty about an academic direction, etc? Are there some markers that we could agree upon which would denote they have finally become autonomous members of the college community? They have arrived?

What would be the advantages of noting and celebrating the attainment of such markers? Well, affirmation and hence enhanced self esteem. Raised expectations and hence probability of increased student efforts and learning outcomes. Reduction of family anxiety about how their family member was transitioning, to name only a few.

We do, of course, or at least some of us do provide recognition and rituals for markers of growing independence and a form of “declaration”, to wit:

1. Mid-term grade reports
2. End of first-term grade reports
3. Convocations
4. Orientation
5. Pledging and initiation into social organizations
6. Declaration of major (and thus having performed sufficiently well to gain admission to selective admissions majors)
7. Allowing students to move off campus after a residency requirement has been fulfilled
8. Being informed that conditions of exception for full, unqualified admission, have been satisfied
9. Learning that you have “made the team”

So, yes, we do have markers. But are these sufficient to have perhaps a more powerful impact that you have truly turned the corner, moved from your former High School Harry self and become Joe College? I don’t think so. But what else could we do? And is this even worth thinking about? You tell me. I hope our annual holiday stimulated your thinking in some productive ways too.

-John Gardner