I’m sick and tired of being a student, of having these wafer-thin boundaries between work and the rest of my life, of being in a position where people can legitimately claim time from every single part of my day for extra recitation sessions or labs or committee meetings or whatever other crap comes up. And I’m going to suck up and deal for another year, because I want that gilded diploma.
On a related tangent, this article has given me a passel of interesting thoughts to chew on – it’s all about the difference between deep and surface learning, as the author calls it, and the pedagogical strategies which help promote deeper learning. You can all guess what kind of learning I’ve been doing for the past three years, right?
It’s been incredibly frustrating to put so much time and energy into coursework that I don’t really learn from; extra-frustrating because I want to take responsibility for my own education, even when a class is less than ideal. When a class goes badly I just feel guilty for not working hard enough, as though I don’t have the right to make constructive criticisms until I’ve independently exhausted all other options. Then I feel guilty about feeling guilty and all of a sudden I’m on a therapist’s couch talking about my mother. That’s really a personal issue, though, and right now I’m complaining about an institution.
I have been astonished by the great variance in teaching quality at this school; it’s part of what’s drawn me to seriously contemplate a career in education. I know many professors who blow my socks off with their teaching prowess, their involvement with the undergraduates, their wit and their coherent outlines and their spanky multimedia presentations and above all, their drive to present the subject they love so that students can learn to love it too. I know many more who just stand at the board fumbling with some old notes they can barely remember writing, and when everybody’s thoroughly confused they go home.
The current approved, institutionalized approach to poor teaching is to attack it piecemeal: approach each professor, by yourself or through an official go-between, and politely express your concerns. Even when all professors take all concerns as seriously as they ought, this is an inefficient, underwhelming, and downright red-herring-filled approach to the problem: there are too many lousy profs on this campus, too many new hires, too many who are suddenly shifted from advanced graduate seminars to innocent little sophomores.
Dear Herr Professor Ma’am:
- When you stand up on the first day of class and say “before we can address the subject at hand, we must develop a certain level of abstract or mathematical background” – you are lying. If you can’t contrive a set of decent examples to motivate that background, it’s probably not necessary material, you should probably not be the one to introduce such material even if it is necessary, and you most certainly should not expect me to care about your worthless technicalities.
- When someone asks me to care about the solution to a problem before I even know what the problem is, that’s unfair. If that person happens to be myself – it’s still unfair.
- I am not a superhuman curiosity machine and neither are my classmates.
- I know I’m smart, and I know the material seems simple to you – but this is the first time I’ve ever seen it. I need to decode what you just said, write it down in a form that will make sense to me when I reread it later, and make connections between this material and things I’ve already learned. This all takes time. I can’t always follow along, take good notes, and correct your stupid algebra mistakes.
- It’s fine to make algebra mistakes; when a student does find one, that’s an extra-special bonus. Please remember that while you erase a single letter, I sometimes have to scribble out a complicated expression. Before you move on, make sure most of the eyes in the lecture hall are looking back at you.
- If you want me to pay attention in lecture, try not speaking in such a fucking monotone.
Dear Other Students And Also Me:
- I know you know Caltech is first and foremost a research institution, and that most of the profs only teach because they have to. That means we will always have to put up with some mediocre teachers; it doesn’t mean we should put up with an endless series of piss-poor confusing lectures. Nothing will change if we don’t band together and demand it. Just bitching is not enough.
- Most profs want to be decent teachers, but they don’t quite realize what they’re doing wrong. So for the love of elvis, tell them! Especially if it’s an easy fix, like doing more examples or writing slashes through Z’s so they don’t look like 2’s.
- I will not think you’re stupid for asking a question in class. I repeat: I will not think you’re stupid for asking a question in class. If no one ever asks questions, then everyone feels uncomfortable asking questions, and class turns into an awful downward spiral of confusion and shame. Please don’t let this happen.
Aiy, that feels a bit better. This is actually something I might want to clean up and bring before some kind of committee, maybe. But I need a shower now.