May the odds be ever in your favor!

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post has written a timely article comparing the current college admissions process to The Hunger Games. Many of us realize that the game has become hypercompetive and driven by rankings. What is sometimes lost in this discussion — and which Ms. Strauss is quick to remind us of — is that the exploratory essence of education is often boiled off in this process. High school is a critical formative time for young people, and turning it into a life and death competition robs them of their own experience.

“Only the most confident and secure students — or perhaps hardened — emerge unscathed, those who despite the pressure and hostile odds, can remain true to their interests, values and sense of self. I have found that the young men and women who thrive in college are those for whom the college search was one of introspection, exploration and personal development rather than a contest. The applicants who focus on fit, program and community as they consider higher education are the individuals who truly find happiness. As parents and educators, we must examine ourselves and what we are doing to the childhood of our kids. Is life so grim, so desperate? Is the future that scary or do we trust that there are many paths to fulfillment, happiness and success?”

I believe that education is important, and the right college or university can definitely make a tremendous difference in a person’s life and career. But the best college is not necessarily one that tops the rankings. Students working in an environment that suits them can outperform arguably superior students who are struggling with finances, culture, or any of the countless other factors that weigh so heavily on the young. For some, this might be a giant state university with a winning football team. For others, the right place could be a private liberal arts school in a tiny town.

If college admissions discussions are in your future. I encourage you to read the article and take the pledge.

Bad Teachers

I spend much of my work day with tenured and tenure track professors at a Research 1 university. These men and women are expected to acquire and manage research grants, recruit and supervise graduate students, maintain a world class research program, organize conferences, and serve on a number of departmental and college committees. Oh, and they teach one or two classes a year.

Unfortunately, for too many of them the teaching is an afterthought — an extra duty with which they are saddled, to be executed as expeditiously as possible. Teaching is not what they are interested in doing, and it has little or nothing to do with their career advancement.

I know how hard these professors work, and I have great sympathy for the pressures on their time. But this is unacceptable. I also spend a lot of time with students, and I know how disillusioned and frustrated they become with instructors who are uncaring or incompetent.

So I’m calling you out, bad teachers. Some percentage of your salary is paid by these students, and they deserve your best effort. Moreover, for people who are supposed to be long view, big picture thinkers, you seem oblivious to the fact that your students are the future of your department. They will establish your reputation in the community. Your future endowments will come from them. Or not. So stop acting as if they don’t matter. Just stop it.

I’ve heard your excuses, and I am not impressed. I took classes from instructors who were socially inept, under-prepared, English-disadvantaged, and that were still better teachers than many of the professors I know. I don’t buy that your students are too poor to be taught effectively. Flipping through the textbook publisher’s Powerpoint slides in class and then testing students on material you may or may not have discussed is not teaching. It’s a waste of everyone’s time. The worst group of students I ever taught still learned the important things. I made sure of it.

In the end, there are a small number of things that will improve your teaching. And they don’t even take much time. First, care. Just care. About your students. About your topic. About the hour and a half you are spending with them twice a week. Engage the people in the room. Look them in the eye. Ask them questions. Encourage them to ask you questions. Play a game with yourself where you notice when someone gets lost or bored. When all else fails, get them out of their chairs for five minutes. Put them in teams and get them to solve a problem together.

Second, don’t tell them what the book says. Tell them what you have learned. Tell them why you love this subject area. (If you don’t like your chosen specialty, you should consider a career change.) Tell stories. Ask them to investigate questions that come up in class. Have them grade each other’s homework. They will want to focus on grades, because we have taught them that is all that is important. Don’t let them. Return time and again to what’s important, and why.

Last, demand students’ best effort and attention. They have demands on their time, as well, and sometimes assignments will be missed. But if they expect you to grade something, they should be prepared to make it gradable. Don’t be afraid to put a big red ‘X’ across homework that is half-assed (technical term). If you are giving them your best effort, then they should at least have the decency to be ashamed when they don’t reciprocate. Those who don’t try are not worth your effort, and can be ignored without a second thought.

Notice I didn’t say anything about being prepared, or flipping the classroom, guest lecturers, or creating innovative assignments and activities. I do all of those things, and I think they make for a superior learning experience. But they are not necessary to make a class worth taking. Or teaching. All that really matters is that you give of yourself, you respect the time and money that students are investing in your class, and that you give them a glimpse of why you became a professor in the first place.

There, I’ve said. Feel free to tell me all the ways I’m mistaken. That’s how we learn, right?

Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates

CCT recently completed our summer research program. In addition to two different undergraduate programs managed by the Center, we had several high school students and a few high school teachers participating in personal research. The National Science Foundation funds these experiences, allowing students to spend two months working full time with a faculty mentor on a single project.

The summer programs are almost always more work than anticipated for the mentors (or their graduate students, for those who have them), but can be extremely satisfying. I have participated in some capacity for the past four summers, usually choosing a student whose career path I think might be significantly changed by the experience. It’s somewhat of a high risk strategy, and not all of the students will end up in Ph.D. programs, but I wouldn’t trade the students I have mentored for future Turing award winners. Probably.

This year was a bit of a departure, in that my student was a young lady who likely is destined for high achievement. She is intelligent, ambitious, and seems equally comfortable in the technical and more artistic aspects of system design. Not insignificantly, she also seems interested in the well being and success of her cohort, and of society at large. Our project was generally well received. Given the high level of talent that was present this summer, I am quite proud of the effort and dedication she exhibited.

CCT REU group picture

CCT and LA-SIGMA summer researchers and mentors

It was great to get to know all of the students, and I enjoyed spending time with the other mentors, many of whom I don’t interact with directly all that often. Congratulations to all on an enjoyable and productive summer!