Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Petey's Pop Percival Gets Some Pity From Some Proffies - But Not From All.

We had a flood of mail concerning young Petey, unwittingly trapped in a Big 10 monolith with a bunch of crappy TAs. The mail ran about half and half, some folks sympathetic to Petey and his pop, and some folks gleeful to knock them both in a ditch. Such as it is, here is some flava from 20 responses we thought might push the issue forward - or piss people off even more:

Poor Percival!
  • I'd say your fears aren't irrational. We've all encountered disastrous grad student instructors. At my institution, we try to mentor them, but our capacity to intervene is limited. That's the bad news. The good news is that, much of the time, these folks have more time and energy to devote to your precious Petey than we proffies. They're also engaged in very current research, so they bring that energy and that new material into the classroom. There's also absolutely no guarantee that the quality of instruction by tenured and tenure-track folks will be higher than the quality offered by graduate students and sessionals.

  • Tell your son to take responsibility for his own education (good advice for anyone), by doing some active course shopping. In other words, he should -immediately- look up in the college's catalog the deadlines for adding new courses, and for dropping courses in which he's registered now. If time permits, he should start "dropping in" to other sections of his courses, or similar courses that satisfy the same requirements: he can find out when and where these classes meet from the college's class schedule (which is usually available online at most colleges, these days, as should be the catalog), or from the departments that offer the courses. In this way, he can see for himself whether the instructors might be better. If your son can find better instructors, he should drop his old courses and in their place add the new ones, -before- the college's deadlines for adding and dropping courses: time is of the essence here, since these deadlines may not be more than a few days away. Even if your son is only partly successful with finding better instructors, he'll have improved his situation a lot: the history instructor sounds the worst of all, although neither of the others sound great.

  • While it is normal to have grad students teaching entry-level history level classes at Big 10 universities (I know, I was one), it is not cool for these students to make disdainful comments about "nervous freshmen." Many grad students, with their reputations on the line, care more about teaching than do full professors (though, as the "Ivy" letters indicated last week, not all). Your son should have tried to switch out of those classes. But if it's too late, make sure he writes a strongly worded evaluation at the end of the semester. Show up at that grad student's office hours every week. And DEFINITELY say something about that math professor. Tell her that you can't hear her, ask if she could use a microphone. If that doesn't work, go above her and talk to the dep't chair. If that doesn't work, sit in the very front row and ask if she could post lecture notes online after class.

  • If you want little Petey to get a good education, he should GET OUT of that school. His first few semesters will be conducted by an assortment of TAs, in grad programs that are below-par... (not that TAs of really good grad programs are any better). He'd be much better off at your local community college, where ALL of the instructors have completed MAs and many profs have Ph.D.s. By the time little Petey decides what he wants to do with his life, he can go back to the Big 10 school with a major in mind.

  • First off, kudos to you for trying so hard with your son, Petey's pop. You're also a brave soul for sending your request to a site where professors and grad students spend most of their time grumbling over students who don't know what's what. We'd be pretty retarded if we didn't try to do something about it by answering your questions, though. Overall, Petey's first semester doesn't sound too unusual, but here are some things you and Petey can do anyway from someone who was only "5 years older" than his freshman composition students a few years ago. First off, remember that Petey can transfer into a different class for the first week or so if the one he's in doesn't suit him or he doesn't think he'll learn much there. If he decides to stay with his classes, here's some advice for each one. For English, go to the TA's office hours, chat with him, get him to clarify the assignments, etc. From your description, it looks like he's going to be a really easy instructor (or an incompetent one - but hopefully not). If he seems like he doesn't really know his stuff - transfer asap or, at the very least, have the instructor (or another one) recommend some books for reading. For math, he's running into the infamous problem of incomprehensible foreign TAs. He could transfer to a more comprehensible and less nervous TA, but if he stays I'd suggest he get together a study group with his friends and they go over things together and try to figure them out, and then use the TA's office hours. She might be more relaxed and understandable in private. The history TA just sounds like a self-important jackass, but he may be fair. If he seems to have reasonable grading policies and to know his shit, he's probably fine. Don't expect him to help out much beyond the lectures, though. Think of the first semester as something of a learning experience, but not just in terms of school-work. It's also about getting used to the system and figuring out how to handle it.

  • This, unfortunately, is the future of the university. So-called research-1 level schools, like your Big Ten uni there, have been doing this for years. The more recent (and more troubling) trend is that whereas, say, thirty years ago maybe something like 40-50% of all courses were taught by barely-compensated grad students and adjuncts, today it's more like 75-80%. Universities--especially big, nationally-ranked public universities--love farming out courses to grad students and adjuncts for several reasons: (1) It's cheap. Assistant profs--the people who should be teaching Petey's introductory courses--cost the uni a whopping $55,000/year, and once you figure in benefits like health care, retirement, and a modicum of job security...well that would just cost too much! (2) Full-timers--or what we in the biz call tenured and tenure-track profs--are really there for two reasons: one is to publish and take part in a little committee work from time to time; the other is so the uni can put a (semi-)famous scholar's bio on their department website. The bulk of what the general public thinks is the work of the uni is done by the nameless, faceless masses. (3) This is the one we're not supposed to talk about: universities don't really care about the quality of instruction they're giving. Oh sure, when it comes time for US News and World Report Rankings to come out, they're all over the numbers and stats like a monkey on a hundred yards of grapevine; but where it actually matters, say, in the classroom--they couldn't care less if said monkey were teaching the course.

  • Your son will survive, but whether he gets anything out of this semester is probably going to depend largely on him. And there isn't ANYTHING you can do but encourage the kid to figure out how to use the university, and to stay focused on his studies more than the oh-so-pleasant social distractions that surround him. For the English class--the bragging hippie might still know how to write, and might even be able to convey some of what he knows. His old GPA doesn't matter. If the hippie can't teach worth shit, Petey should hit the writing center regularly and often. Actually, if he's like most freshmen, he should hit the writing center regularly and often anyway. For the history class, the TA clearly has office hours before class even if he isn't willing to meet after class, and so Petey should show up for them if he needs to. If he can't, he should start a study group with other people in his class (and he needs to go out of his way to find relatively smart people to study with). For math, you son should sit up front, show up for office hours, and if his university has a Q or math center, he should take advantage of it. All of this should be on top of being willing to actually do the reading and homework, without procrastinating. College instructors can make learning more interesting and fun, and they can speed up the process of learning. But especially at the first year level in giant lecture classes, your son could probably learn most of it on his own in conjunction with university support systems if he is persistent and dedicated. Most freshmen aren't, but you should make it clear to your son that it's up to him if he gets anything out of college, especially this first year.

  • I hope it's all right if I reply as well. I'm a parent, too, and my daughter faced these exact problems last year in her freshmen year. She struggled mightily, was depressed for most of the term, but by semester end she came through all right. Being on campus that first semester taught her a lot about the "real world." She also learned about how to deal with difficult people - her instructors - and how to avoid trouble when she knew more. Her suitemates turned her on to other courses in her spring semester taught by acknowledged good teachers, and lo-n-behold she even got a real "proffy" or two. Tell Petey to hang in there.

  • I guess I'm more part of the problem than the solution, but I empathize with Percival. I went to a large SEC school as an undergrad, and bitched and moaned about my under prepared instructors. Then, a few years later, I became one! I went into my first teaching classes like a deer caught in the headlights. But, I worked my ass off, and except for maybe a few weeks in that first semester, I think I did a damn fine job with my students. (I was only three years older than some of them!) Tell Petey to hang in there. Be involved as much as possible, ask for help. And when in doubt, especially in freshman level courses, find out where the tutors are!

  • Yes, Petey is in for a tough semester. It sounds like Percival and his wife are involved in a good way, but since Petey is a first-generation student, they can't give him a lot of advice. If Petey is interested in doing well this first semester, he needs to check out the different academic support services offered by his university, such as a study center, tutoring services, and a writing center. Some of the larger freshman classes may have separate optional class or study sessions across sections. Petey also needs to be proactive in getting what he needs from his instructors. While a large part of college is learning to learn independently, that's a process, not something freshmen should be expected to do immediately. His graduate assistants are also learning to teach, but there's no excuse for failure to provide adequate office hours or indicating an unwillingness to meet with students. If his History instructor has not posted the required number of office hours (which vary by school) and/or is not there during his hours, Petey should politely bring this to the attention of the department administration.

Fuck Percival!
  • You clearly have a great sense of priorities. So thrilled were you that the brain-child got into a U known "nationwide" (holy hell) for its sports teams that you forgot to ask about the classes. But at least the food is top notch! As someone who taught at a Big Ten when I was all but 3-5 years older than my students, I can assure you that I was still a whole heck of a bit smarter than the lot of them. And I was a good teacher. Are your son's teacher's good? Who the hell knows? But you signed on for TAs when you decided on Massive U. If you didn't know that, you're certainly in no place to start bitching and thinking that Precious Petey deserves better now. So what can you do? Back the fuck off. This isn't high school; you don't get a say in who teaches whom. By midterm, Petey will be too drunk off his ass to care anyway.

  • Yours is problem of misguided expectations. By shipping your progeny to a “Big Ten” school you sent it to a “research” school. The faculty’s main goal in a research school is to achieve glory and/or riches by writing papers. Since you need some students to be called a university, research faculty delegate the teaching to the Lumpenproletariat (viz. graduate students). If you cared about actual teaching you would have done better outsourcing your offspring to a teaching school (SLAC, four years college) were it would get to meet some actual faculty. It would have met adjunct faculty, though, but that is a different problem. Your youngster should not despair, though. Faculty quality does not hinder the achievement of an student’s goals: getting plastered and getting laid.

  • Suck it up Daddy-Oh. There is nothing you can do; play the hand you're dealt. Petey might be part of a multicultural workforce later, so in addition to learning math, he is learning how to listen more attentively to an English-as-a-second-or-third language voice. (He could always ask her to mic up for the big hall; she may be unaware she isn't being heard). Ditto for Frank -- Petey might learn English (or not) from Frank, but maybe he'll learn good study habits (on his own or with his roomie from Florida) and decide not to be a burn-out like Frank, OR Frank might turn out to be the best teacher of his university career.

  • Hate to say it, but just what were you spending your time on on all the hours you put into your son's college application? Just because there are high profile professors there certainly doesn't mean that your little treasure is actually going to come within sniffing distance of them. They are high profile because they spend all their time on research, probably teach about one course a year and it sure won't be freshman composition. Famous for sports teams? That's apparently what you considered worth having, but those things cost, huge, huge bucks to run, and it's the ordinary freshmen like your son who are casualties of this awful mass-production model of higher education where names - whether of professors and sports teams - get more kudos than the actual quality of some the courses, particularly the freshman ones that supposedly anyone, even some crappy TA, can teach.

  • A Big10 education is what you chose for your man-child, and it appears a Big10 education is what he is getting. The bits and pieces you have chosen to report -- and the manner in which you do so -- say much more about you and your man-child, than about the Uni you have chosen.

  • The first couple week of college can be the hardest. A combination of buyer's remorse, homesickness, and lack of structure often don't sit will with kids who are unprepared ... much less the kids' parents. Let him vent and complain, but don't intervention. Instead, encourage him to excel in classes, seek out opportunities outside of the classroom, and otherwise take responsibility for his own life. College is the time for mommies & daddies to back off. There is no PTA in college. There are no parent-teacher conferences in college. Stop coddling your kid. Stop complaining for your kid. Help him grow up.

  • You’re quickly establishing yourself as a helicopter parent. Quit the hovering and fly back to the airport! You worked hard to get your son into a good school. Now it’s time to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Part of the college experience for your son involves figuring out how to learn course material in a less than ideal situation. There’s not a reader on this blog who didn’t have to deal at some point with instructors who were graduate assistants, new to teaching in general, or did not speak English well. Part of the maturing process involves figuring out a way to overcome such obstacles to learning.

  • If Daddy didn't realize that undergrad is only a stepping stone for grad school and that real profs don't take time to teach the proles, then he needs to tell Petey to come home and learn a trade. Petey is a good name for a plumber--sounds trustworthy; who wouldn't hire "Petey the Plumber" to unclog their drain or run a new line? Sign him up as an apprentice as the local plumbers union, and within seven years he'll be making upwards of 100k and showing housewives his ass for free.

  • You asked what you can do to help your son, so here's the answer. Not a fucking thing. And giving him the impression that you're going to swoop in and solve his issues with his first year instructor in whatever is actually doing the opposite of helping. As in, you're standing in the way of any possibility that he'll either solve his own problems or learn from failing to do so.

  • It doesn't get any simpler than that. You can't run his life from where you are, and the very fact that you're surfing around the Internet looking for professors to talk to is ... well, it's creepy. A tad understandable, but creepy. You need to get a handle on your separation issues and step way back. In fact you're long overdue for that. Believe it or not, quite a lot of kids manage to apply for college on their own. The amount of time you and your wife have devoted to the effort should have been an early warning sign. You want to help your son? Buy him a couple of the many general books on how to cope with college. Send them straight to his door from Amazon. Maybe he'll read them but probably not. And the lesson he'll learn is that life is full of challenges that mommy and daddy can't fix.