Monday, August 30, 2010

academic blues

I was out walking Opal the page-turning dog the other day when I ran into M, who was walking her dog Petunia. While Opal and Petunia socialized in their doggy way, I talked with M, a biology professor who recently retired from Sac State. She no longer teaches, but she does a lot of advising. I rely on her for updates on Sac State, and she gets the skinny on developments in biology teaching at Davis from me.

The situation at Sac State does not foster optimism, for me or for the state's undergrads. The state's budget woes are terrible and unfortunately routine, meaning that the academic year starts without a budget. Classes are being cut, and M tells me that the biology department is experimenting with much larger classes. Despite this, classes are being cut. As an advisor, the best advice she can give many students is cynical and depressing: hope that many of your classmates fail.

This is unfortunately a reasonable hope. The bottleneck is introductory classes that must be completed for a major. Too many students can't hack these classes because they don't have the study or thinking skills required. They graduate from high school having been taught to take a specific test, rather than having been taught how to learn or think. And, as any geneticist knows, you get what you select for.

So, both at Davis and at Sac State, students are now taking classes--time consuming, full tuition, not-for-credit classes--to prepare for starting a major. Part of me is happy to see these, because I know from my own experience that they're necessary. But, I'm vexed that these classes are even necessary. And, as M informed me, they have a terrible attrition rate.

Addiction comes from infrequent, random hits of good feeling, and the individual successes in education are what make teaching so addictive. However, the vast majority of academic news these days is just so depressing.

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