Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Big, big picture

For several years now, I've been a "big picture" kind of guy: I paint in broad strokes. I see forests and not trees. I'm more satisfied with hand-waving proofs than most of my colleagues would be. I'm more concerned that I and my students get the overall idea, the intuition, the gut-level understanding, than that we get every last detail right.

I'm not sure when I took this viewpoint on, but I think it's a relatively recent phenomenon. After all, I'm not sure you can make it through a graduate program in mathematics without punctilious attention paid to the merest minutiae of theorems and their proofs. It's come on more recently, as I've grown as a teacher and scholar, and as I've come to grips with bigger and bigger problems. It's gotten "worse" lately. I mentioned only half-jokingly to the Associate Provost for Academic Administration, with whom I've been doing a lot of work this semester for CRTF, that I'm starting to think like an administrator. For good or for ill I no longer consider curricular issues as they'll affect a single instructor or even a single department, but rather as they'll affect the school as a whole.

Perhaps the widest view one can take I took for a moment today, and it scared me: if you look at our nation's higher educational system as a whole, there are terrifying trends.

One incident: this morning I got an email from a student who's having to take a break from it all to maintain sanity. Literally. This person is going off the map for a little while and heading home to be with friends and family and to deal with mental health issues.

A second: yesterday I spent a tearful half hour with another student who's clearly dealing with stressors beyond finishing up an essay for Humanities or prepping for this week's coming Abstract Algebra exam. This is a very good student, one I know well, one whose performance this semester has declined noticeably from past semesters. There's much more going on behind the scenes.

A third: last week one student spoke of a narrow escape from dropping out and returning to military service just to make ends meet. Fortunately the financial aid office and the counseling center were able to help make an end-run around a vindictive ex-spouse whose uncooperativeness was preventing disbursement of much-needed funds.

These aren't just isolated events. Dozens of my students, in addition to managing a full load of difficult classes (often in excess of 18 hours dominated by high-level mathematics coursework) also work 20, 30, even 40 hours a week, and deal with manifold family issues (I can think of several students whose entire families depend on them for nearly everything), and still manage to keep it together...or not, as the case may be. The cracks are showing: I've had more people cry in my office than in any other semester I can remember. It ain't getting better.

These students shouldn't have to deal with all they're dealing with today. They should be free to be students, to be free from having to support themselves with back-breaking (or at least time-sucking) labor.

It hasn't always been like this. I speak from experience.

I had it far easier than these folks, barely more than a decade ago. I had student loans and a scholarship, and my family'd done well in socking some away to help me go to school, so the only work I needed to find to get me through my college years was as a work-study assistant in the Math and C&S Department's computer lab. Big. Deal. This was a sinecure. I "worked" 10, maybe 20, hours a week, passing out boot-up disks (yes, we still used those back then), trouble-shooting simple software problems (usually involving nothing harder than MS Excel), and shooting the shit with my geeky friends. Most of the time I got paid to do my homework. The rest of my time (that not devoted to hanging out, eating pizza, running, and annoying the crap out of my dorm mates by playing Pink Floyd's "One of These Days" really frickin' loudly on my monster tower speakers) was spent on schoolwork. I managed to make straight As (aside from a couple of stray minuses) and learn a lot. I was a slacker my first year of college, because I could afford to be: I quickly learned that I didn't need to put too much effort in in order to do well, so I took it easy. My second year I started taking courses that offered legitimate challenge, so I buckled down. That's also when I first realized that I could teach myself as much as anyone else could teach me, so I started studying on my own, everything from additional math and physics and computer science to philosophy, literature, languages, and history. On my free time. (Holy crap...free time! What's that, again?)

I could reminisce forever, but let me get to my point: I'd love to launch into a cliché and crotchety "kids these days" diatribe, but I can't. I had it easier than these kids. Far easier. I didn't have to work my ass off just to stay warm and well-fed, let alone well-educated, and I had time enough (and more) to do well in and learn from all of my classes.

Many of my students have no such luxury. They have to work, and often work hard, just to afford the modest cost of the education my public school provides to them. (It may be worth noting that I went to a pricey private school for college.) If they don't work (and often even if they do) they have to go into debt up to their eyeballs to pay the bills, for they cannot always rely on family to help them out (many of these students are first-generation college students and come from families who can ill-afford to give financial aid). Moreover, they face dim job prospects on graduation, with the economy lagging the way it is. There are no sure signs of long-term improvement. Thus many of my students are going to saddled with crushing student-loan debt and little opportunity to find the work they'll need to get to help pay it back.

Do you think a student with 18 hours a week of coursework and a 40-hour-a-week job who's drawing several hundred dollars per term in student loans and trying her best to hold her family together really has time to learn (or care) what a derivative is? Do you think such a student is going to be completing her homework in full, passing her exams, and finishing her oral presentation on subgroups of groups of symmetry? Even if she's meeting these superficial measures of academic achievement, do you really think she's going to be getting much meaningful out of it?

It's become cliché to put someone in "The 99%," but my students, almost every last one of them, belong there. Bless 'em all, they belong there.

And my students amaze me. Even with 18 hours of coursework and 40 hours on midnight shifts at motel desks and family foibles and student loans and squabbles with landlords over week-late rent checks, they do still learn what a derivative is. And they do still care. They don't just finish their homework, they polish it to perfection. They don't just pass their exams, they ace them. They do incredible work, and they do it without complaint. Somehow, despite having to do everything else we demand that they do, they're learning, and they're helping each other to learn. They're there for each other, even when the system's left them behind.

But this can't go on forever. A college education can't be what it used to be if we don't give these people a bit more breathing room. What in the hell are we doing to them?

The system needs to change. Otherwise, in ten or twenty years we'll look back and notice that though we've stocked our universities with the brightest scholars and the best teachers, and though we've built the shiniest classroom buildings and equipped them with the sleekest high-tech gadgetry, we've miseducated an entire generation simply because we asked too much of them while they were trying to do what we want them to be doing before they do anything else. We just wanted them to learn.

Well...I'll keep doing all that I can, and I'm sure I can count on my students and colleagues (some of the most admirable people on Earth) to do the same. It's a mountain we've got to move, and the only way we're going to move it is if we all get behind it together.


Anonymous said...

great post, doc. We are seeing the same patterns up the hill in CH.Troubling...

A pre-calc student of little importance said...

Being both a philosopher and a gentleman is a full time job, the teaching must just be a side project for you. All I can say is, "thanks for noticing." It feels, sometimes, like the education system is just chewing these excited, passionate young people up and spitting out disillusioned and flat-broke suits. The worst part of this is, I've had more than one professor that reminds me of the metaphorical teeth: indifferently crushing and grinding an eager mind until all that's left is a bolus of anxious malcontent, ready to be swallowed by the rough seas of the current job market. Being well-prepared for a career does not ensure ANY kind of satisfaction, unless that career is, itself, satisfying and affirming of self-worth. Unfortunately, "how to be happy" is one thing the education system does NOT prepare us for, and, in fact, some of the happiest, most accepting, and easy-going people I know currently are the ones that got booted out of college because of legal troubles (irony at it's finest when one is suspended for six months due to a drug charge...Yeah, THAT'LL help them get their life back on track... believe me, I've been there.) I know, work with, live with, eat with, and am these people. Thank you for being aware. Thank you for trying, it really does make a difference when someone in your position puts forth the conscious (and in your case, enormous) effort to make someone in mine feel like they're worth a shit (and are not just another dollar sign.) As someone who owes the federal government over $15,000 (and counting) who also has been practically financially self-sufficient since I turned 18, I hope I can give you the satisfaction of knowing you did something, not to say this I expect this to be a moment of life-affirming catharsis or anything, but merely that I'd like to say "thanks," and don't ever stop. The world needs more people of your ideals, or at least of your character (clearly, we're deficient in that area.) I'm grateful just for the fact that you notice. See you in class Monday, hope your trip is going well (I'm almost done with your exam!)

Matt Metzgar said...

As a fellow prof, have to disagree a little bit. Are students working to cover the basic necessities or for luxury goods?

Sometimes I drive in through the student parking garage, and often many of the cars there are nicer than those in the faculty lot. No joke, yesterday I was behind a student in a new Hummer. If he's getting a 2.0 because he's working to support his vehicle, I don't feel sorry for him.

DocTurtle said...

@Matt: I maintain my possession. I don't know the socioeconomic demographics of UNC-Charlotte's students, but UNCA's student body is made up of a large number of first-generation college students, many of whom are heavily dependent on student loans and scholarships (not to mention part-time or full-time jobs) for support. They work hard just to stay in school, and while they certainly have some material niceties, their tastes are not (with a few exceptions) epicurean. Most of the students I know drive cars that are on their last legs (if they drive cars at all).

I'm certain I could find statistical data to back my perceptions up. Might you know where to look for it?

Matt Metzgar said...

I dont' have any reason to believe that UNC-Charlotte's demographics would be that much different than yours. I spent some extra time driving in the student parking garage today. I saw new Ford Mustangs, Dodge Chargers, a BMW, VWs, etc. How are they affording this?

I agree that students are working more (I believe most of the students here work), but where is that money going? Survey your students and find out how many have smartphones with data plans. Not a necessity in my book.

And while the cost of college is rising rapidly, so is the grant and aid money, so again the real cash expense may not be rising as much as people think: