I ran across this YouTube video: A Vision of Students Today (found via It’s All Good). It came out of an intro anthropology class at Kansas State University. I’m not sure what we’re supposed to learn from it. Based on a collaborative semi-survey, students hold up signs talking about their lives, with the overall point (I think) that university education isn’t “relevant” to their lives. Students have been chanting that mantra since at least the 1960s, but now the education is irrelevant in different ways.
It seems to me that one of the biggest criticisms is of the large lecture format, and I couldn’t agree more. One student holds up a sign saying her average class size is 115 students, and another that 18% of her teachers knows her name. It’s no wonder that students get discouraged in this environment. I’ve never taught a lecture class, but I did used to TA for one on early British literature, and it was deadly (except for my discussion sections, which of course were delightful). Right now I teach 12 students, and know all of their names, but I know that even here some of the students have very large lectures and grow bored in them. The large lecture format should probably die, but there never seem to be enough teachers and money to teach everyone in small seminars.
Some of the other criticisms seem more like whining and less like constructive criticism. One student sign reads “I complete 49% of the readings assigned to me.” What are we to make of this? Lots of students don’t read course materials. Lots of students also don’t make good grades. How is that the fault of anyone but the student? Or is she saying that the professors assign readings irrelevant to the subject? That could be a problem. But she then follows that sign with another saying “only 26% are relevant to my life.” To which I would want to respond, so what? Is a university there to teach only classes relevant to the lives of late teens, or there to broaden the knowledge and understanding of those teens by trying to educate them?
Another students signs that she “will read 8 books this year, 2300 web pages & 1281 Facebook profiles.” Does that mean that professors should no longer assign books, but instead teach the content of Facebook?
Another signs that she will “write 42 pages for class this semester but over 500 pages of email.” I teach writing, but don’t see the relevance. Those 500 pages of email have no obligation to be clear, thoughtful, and coherent. They don’t necessarily teach you to order your thoughts about a complex subject and make a compelling argument. I don’t know what kind of writing there is for this course, but writing 40 pages of argumentative prose is very different from writing a lot of emails, unless you write long emails arguing difficult questions with lots of citations and careful analysis and use of evidence.
Several students hold up signs saying how much time they spend on various activities each day: 2 hours on the phone, 1.5 hours watching TV, 2 hours eating, 3 hours listening to music, 3.5 hours online, 7 hours sleeping, etc. It adds up to 26.5 hours, and there’s not even any mention of drinking or hooking up. Another sign reads, “I’m a multitasker,” then “I have to be.” But one doesn’t have to talk on the phone for 2 hours or watch TV at all, and I’m not sure listening to music while surfing the web should count as multi-tasking anyway. Still, I agree that educational methods that encourage students to sit in a lecture hall while IMing and listening to music are problematic. The solution is smaller classes that engage students in the content of the course, but also students who want to learn. (Based on my experience, I don’t think online classes are any answer. I had to take one in library school because no one on campus would teach gov docs. The fact that I could eat my dinner, play my guitar, and still participate in class didn’t impress me with the format much.)
Another signs about having a job after graduation that probably won’t exist today, leading another student to hold up what I think is a Scantron sheet with writing on the back saying, “Filling out this won’t help me get there.” In some ways I sympathize with the student. Filling out bubbles on a test sheet won’t get the student a job. I would be more concerned, though, that it won’t help the student get an education. I balk at the notion that the goal of a university is strictly to get people jobs. That seems to be a common factor with many students, but the failure isn’t that of the education, but of their understanding of the purpose of that education. The students frustrated that not all the readings are relevant to their lives and not all the classes will help them get jobs might be more happy with vocational training. No wonder they’re bored out of their minds in these classes. Colleges need to engage students more, but students need to want to learn. Both are necessary for the best college experience.
If they’re so bored, and if so much is so irrelevant to their concerns, then why are they there? Why don’t they quit and do something else? I know why they don’t, because they believe that a college degree is necessary to get a job that will allow them to almost have a decent middle class lifestyle these days. I think they’re right, but it’s not the presence of the degree that will fit them for challenging and constantly changing knowledge economy, but the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind that come with learning.