Regular readers will remember my “Conversations with myself” series that I began last fall, as sort of a teaching diary while I was a visiting professor at Behemoth University.
The fictitious name of the school was taken from Russell Kirk’s Academic Freedom, a partial lamentation on what had happened to American “higher” education—written in 1955. Kirk used “Behemoth U” as a label for enormous, assembly-line state schools. Of the kind that issue “degrees” and not educations. Of the kind that has four or more Offices related to “diversity.” Of the kind that has more layers than an onion of Deans, Associate Deans, Assistant Associate Deans, etc., etc.
My time there did not go well. Nor did the students who were stuck with me have a jolly time. This was due to my admittedly odd style of teaching, which consisted of me assuming the students would do the work I assigned and my belief that the students were in the class to learn the material. Neither assumption was verified in fact by more than a precious minority.
Yesterday, I received the following email from one of my students at Behemoth. I have changed the student’s name and altered the personal details. I also added the paragraph breaks and capitalized a few “I”s. My response is at the end.
Dear Mr. Briggs,
I was in your statistics class at Behemoth University during the fall 2010-2011 semester. Quite some time has passed since then and I still think about that class and the impact it left on me. While I did struggle to even receive a B- in this course I learned more than statistics, I learned a lot about Behemoth and the student population.
This past academic year was my sophomore year and I can say I had a pretty good understanding of what college classes were like and how to do well in them. Coming off of summer into the fall semester the academic rust was still on my joints and I had a slow start to your class, as did most other students. The first exam passed and to be honest I wasn’t all that surprised with the resulting grade. I wasn’t doing all of the reading and the homework was taking a back seat to my other classes and the Sports team.
After this exam I changed my attitude towards your class, sitting in the front row, doing the reading, homework and trying to involve myself as best as possible. What didn’t surprise me is that my understanding, while not complete, became a lot better. The thing that did surprise me is the lack of effort from my classmates and the persistent complaining about how difficult the class was, even when no one was doing the reading or homework.
While I didn’t take it personally, as you may have, I was very embarrassed and frustrated that a group of 25 to 40 college students just didn’t care enough to try. Admittedly this compounded some of my frustrations I have had with the overall attitude of Behemoth’s student population, where Thursday is the start of the weekend and drinking is more commonplace than studying for your Friday exam.
Since then I have transferred to Old-Fashioned University where I believe I will receive a higher quality education according to my degree path (Mechanical Engineering Technology) and where I have already noticed a difference in the level of student diligence.
While the point of this message is not to rant or complain about Behemoth, I am a [Behemoth sports fan] and will always be one, but rather express some of the feelings I had in your class and what I have taken away from it. I am interested in hearing if some if my feelings paralleled some of your own.
Student, of course I remember you. My heart soars like a hawk to have your email. I am thrilled to hear that you have moved on and enrolled in such a demanding program. I am sure you will do well.
I recall one day—actually many more than one day—where I asked one student after another, “Did you do the homework?” and receiving nothing but “No” as answers. That was depressing, disheartening, and disappointing. It made it difficult for me to have any enthusiasm. Ultimately it convinced me not to seek employment at any university like Behemoth.
I also, now fondly, recall one student arriving for a Friday morning exam announcing to the class that he was still drunk and freshly arrived from an all-night party. I say fondly because this student was not disappointed in his inevitable grade, nor did he blame me for it. Plus, his brazenness was oddly charming.
Mandating all freshmen live in the up-all-night dorms initiates them into the party culture, which develops into a habit that becomes hard to break. It’s not impossible to receive a good education at Behemoth, but it’s damned difficult. I’m glad you made the escape.
Keep in contact and let me know how your new program goes.