Wednesday, March 26, 2014

On teaching at the university...

Harry B over at Crooked Timber has a post called "Paying for the Party" and it's about a book of the same name, which, according to the Amazon synopsis, is about "how college maintains inequality." The book follows a group women at a flagship public university in the Midwest (apparently, it's Indiana University in beautiful Bloomington) and showcases how the "party pathway" is detrimental to lower-income female students. 

Here's a bit of Harry's synopsis of the book:
"The thesis of the book is that the university essentially facilitates (seemingly knowingly, and in some aspects strategically) a party pathway through college, which works reasonably well for students who come from very privileged backgrounds."
He continues:
"The problem is that other students (all their subjects are women), who do not have the resources to get jobs in the industries to which the easy majors orient them, and who lack the wealth to keep up with the party scene, and who simply cannot afford to have the low GPAs that would be barriers to their future employment, but which are fine for affluent women, get caught up in the scene. They are, in addition, more vulnerable to sexual assault, and less insulated (because they lack family money) against the serious risks associated with really screwing up."
 I have not read the book yet, but hope to soon (after the semester ends). I am new to the university setting - I have worked for many years in the private sector (freelance writer in the communications field in the 3rd largest market in the country.) A couple years ago, I became what's known as a "trailing spouse" and landed in the university setting, and I am teaching (for now.)

I have enjoyed teaching. It has been quite an interesting experience - what I love most is working with the students. 

However, in some students, there is a lack of responsibility that I find surprising - a tendency to blame others for their failure - to care only about the grade, but not about the work required to make the grade they want to make. I have other students who are ill-prepared for the rigors of university life - they are like deer in the headlights when I assign "critical thinking" assignments. These are not stupid students - they're bright and engaged, but trained to be the passive repository of information that they will spit out onto a test later in the semester. A lifetime of boiling all facts down to bubble tests makes them terrified of the task of wrangling data, facts, etc. into a coherent paper or presentation. Few know how to use commas, apostrophes or spell check (I go mad when grading papers - or in student language: paper's.)

I've had first generation students, extremely rich students, out-of-state students, students who take six courses while working 30 hours a week (how can they possibly put the required time into their studies? They can't - it's a joke - they simply cannot do the academic work they need to do - but they need to do this in order to graduate with as little debt as possible.)

I've had students who start the semester late because it's taken too long to figure out financial aid. I've had students get into serious, serious trouble and drop out. Many - too many - students are on medications to handle stress, anxiety, attention deficits, etc.

I DO wonder why college (and high school) students feel compelled to obliterate themselves by drinking. But that's not new - certainly that's not new at Indiana University, where both my siblings attended some years ago.

This book, "Paying for the Party" faults the university for the inequality that is maintained by the "party pathway." I have to say, I don't know how much a university can do to overcome a culture of teaching to the test, a culture that looks to pharmaceutical solutions for things like stress (which, surprise surprise, is a big issue around finals and midterms), a national culture (not isolated to the university) that makes it almost imperative to bear no responsibility for one's actions. Drinking so much that one cannot attend classes - that's a choice students make. According to the synopsis of this book (which again, I have not read), this flawed approach to college is detrimental ONLY to lower income students, who don't have connections that will pull them out of this black hole. What happens to the successful, non-drinking lower income students? Or are they all lost?

Though this book blames the university's blind eye to undergraduate binge drinking issues, it really seems to point to inequality as the problem, not necessarily the culture of drinking. And so I have questions prompted by Harry's post...