Credible Skills, or Hollow Credentials?

A recent coincidence: On the same day the NY Times reported that NYU ousted an adjunct professor after students’ complained that his organic chemistry class was too hard, my director summoned me, also now with adjunct status, to share the scuttlebutt on my teaching.

NYT editors solicited comments from students and profs, and published a summary of these, and quoted several:

Several things in these comments resonated. One that matches my view:

‘Part of this process is becoming adept at problem solving’
 …. attempting to gently lead the students through the process of problem solving. I explained at the beginning that it was meant as a dialogue, not a harassment. …. Now, questioning students in front of their peers is more or less considered unacceptable. It makes them “uncomfortable.” I consider myself a flexible, supportive instructor, sensitive to the needs of my students. …. I believe in learning. But part of this process is becoming adept at problem solving under challenging conditions. Barry Goldstein, 70, Westport, N.Y.

            I was stunned when I realized that all students in my upper level biology class this semester have little clue about how to read logarithmic scales. They are seniors majoring in science! I now feel that my responsibility is expanding beyond the subject matter of the course. Using examples from recent news graphics with log scales to provide insights on the spread of Covid and on disparities in research funding in the context of in gun violence, students realized that the need to understand “logs” goes beyond the classroom.

            Natural and social sciences engage flowcharts, graphic models with many interacting components, circular iterations, feedback loops, state changes. In biology, these span organismal lifecycles (such as for viruses) to the chemical details through multistep reactions in the jaws of an enzyme’s active site. For molecular biology, most such schemes are at a charming intermediate level. A molecular key twisting in a lock (analogy literally works fine…) in a door on a cell’s surface leads to a Rube Goldberg theater production inside the cell, with a cast of characters playing out sequential, bifurcating and converging cascades of events, turning enzymes on or off, waking up dormant genes to make proteins needed for the job at hand, making decisions and sending signals to networked cells. These “pathways” are depicted in colorful diagrams of icons for components, and arrows that serve a few simple roles. They are maps of sorts showing temporal and spatial sequences, A activates B, then B signals C and D, D migrates into the nucleus and tickles the machinery to copy a message from DNA etc. I am struggling to get them to look at these pictures and describe in class in simple language the sequences of events. OK, they are not familiar with some of the components, although each has been discussed in class, but I fear the problem is deeper. And yes, this recitation in front of peers is démodé. But in the course topics, we look at the cellular nuts and bolts of stress. A bit is good, and helps to remember and so learn the subject.

            Conjecture: Part of their difficulty may be the reliance on GPS for navigation. We read frequently that youngsters cannot read maps, and often, well, so what? GPS is fine, and to some extent Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat applies. Yet, sometimes these discussions suggest that absence of reading skills for maps, and similar representations, may lead to other deficits. I wonder if in addition to the novelty of the complication of a set of molecular interactions, they lack some fundamental mindset to feel at home with such depictions. We would then have a mismatch between the set of brain states, capacities, available to me and those in their minds. They would certainly be surprised by my inability to do the simplest moves with video games. (As my ears would be stupidly red stumbling about at a video game console, I am walking around any terms such as “stupid,” which Jonathan Haidt does not shy from in his recent essays.) Many of the colorful schemes of biological pathways with their sets of sequential arrows are almost like animations. In a sense, you are moving through the cell, all the while at each step creating shape changes and movements within and between the components. And navigational choices are made, as actors at intersecting pathways, game-like, can modulate each others’ behavior. Instead of robotically obeying your phone’s GPS directions, it’s likely that habitually physically moving around in the world in a mode where your mind has a picture of your surroundings and the route you will follow would help to navigate schemes of events unfolding sequentially in time and place. Barbara Tversky’s Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought convincingly describes the experiments that might support this conjecture. She presents numerous examples of how our awareness of movement in our physical worlds are involved in effective learning, and teaching.

            There is also clearly a lack of motivation by the students to really learn the course’s subject, one of the most fascinating in the universe. They need only bag the credits, and with expectation of an A grade by default. At least my director has my back. She told me of her conversation with one of my students who at mid-semester, is heading for a B-ish grade. Over three years of gaming mainly MCQ exams (Multiple Choice Questions, and other short answer), his GPA is just shy of a perfect 4. His attitude: clearly, a sub-A must be the fault of the prof. The director was able to convince the student that getting a B in a tough course is not shameful, won’t hurt his aim to train in grad school for a career in healthcare, and then get a job in the understaffed profession he seeks to enter. She told the student, relax, and try to learn something for once. Another student told the director that the course is for a much higher level, not introductory as billed. This is a case of “down so far, it looks like up to me.” Currently she has failing grades in my course, her main interest appears to be non-scholastic activities occupying all of the hours from Friday afternoon to Monday morning, and yet has become an authority on where courses belong in a curriculum.

            Other comments in the NYT piece: “…..meeting with them individually and offering encouragement and referrals when they’re having trouble. ‘It’s extremely time-consuming and extremely rewarding,’ he said.” As I only have a few students, I set up one on one “Talk To Learn” “conversations” (TTL). I try to keep the stress sub-sweat as I guide them through topics including pathways, in a manner to get them to be comfortable with “reading” similar schemes even though each particular example is novel to them. Such skills are part of the “solfège” of biology. To the extent that they show improved understanding, they get a boost in their score for a previous exam that addressed the concepts we discuss. For me, the quote within the previous NYT comment is half correct: Yes, lots of my pro bono time. Yet after the struggle, although perhaps pleasurable for the student in getting a better grasp, and thus value beyond simply a better exam grade, I have yet to harvest much reward, as their gains appear thin and not robust over time.

            Another NYT commenter has a fine suggestion :”….. behavioral contracts for my students, clearly spelling out the time commitments needed to excel in my courses.” I may be doing a disservice by routinely testing with open notes exams. “Why bother studying the printouts of the lecture slides if I have them during the exam, and can just look up the answers?” So, at least for this course, why study anything other than travel and recreational plans? The prerequisites for the course, three semesters of the fundamentals of biology, plus freshman level math, chemistry, physics and organic chemistry seem meaningless. Apparently, upper level biology profs are expected to teach at the level aimed for a science-naïve humanities student. OK, having passed the previous courses means that they had shown an ability to learn the course contents, and OK, we can’t expect them to recall most of this. But surely some terminology would have become familiar, at least for students riding a straight A average in their major. In my upper level course, when they encounter a term, such as “enzyme,” and notice that I am not taking time to explain generically what an enzyme is and does, you might at least expect a reflex to refresh, even if with Wikipedia. Apparently not. They are content that enzyme as a term in sentences or as an icon in a diagram somehow has something to do with other things in the sentence or paragraph, or has some relation with other elements in the schemes. For MCQ by rote, you simply keep some crammed memory of these things together, maybe with some association such as: when H is up, L is down. You don’t need to understand what H and L are, or their properties, or why they have such a reciprocal connection. The trouble is discovered on exam day. Open book exams are designed to probe such comprehension.

            “Oh, it’s so hard.” (Haidt’s coddled?) Well, if this has yet to appear to be a rant, now it will. Of course, it’s hard. This is an upper level course in a tough subject – it means doing some hard, deep, concentrated work to learn, to take initiatives to find background material that you need, and yes, motivation to learn, at least enough to avoid shiny red ears when you are asked to answer something in class. Now it’s my turn to go deep: time to concentrate to prep TTL sessions, with a goal to turn ears red, but without peers, then give feedback, then listen to refined phrasing, and repeat…. I do it, but balk at this. Yes, repetition is an essential part of learning, but my view, frozen in a Victorian age if you will: it’s the student’s job to spend most of the repeating time. This should lead to reinforcement of repeated awareness where her understanding is too shallow, and should give an appetite to dig in and seek a deeper view, if nothing else but to head off tedious repetition. Call this “thinking.” Not sure they have time to “think” – too much to absorb, too much pressure to shovel back fast reactions to fellow social media posters. And who needs to think when you have been seduced to believe that all knowledge is at your fingertips. Clever crafting of search terms becomes a version of supposed deep thinking.

            Yes, the current system, “sage on stage” lectures, is far from best for an ideal learning environment. Exams as timed assessments of isolated individuals are ill suited to prepare for careers when challenging efforts will be handled by teams. As the final comment from the last NYT poster says: “Faculty need training and support to change their practices; it is not OK to expect us to bootstrap a new way of teaching.” And of course, what about salaries that fit the time invested, and that honors the deep education that affords authority in front of a class? For myself, the compensation is not in the back pocket. Teaching keeps my neurons well greased in my professional retirement, like the NYU prof. But there must be good personal funding for career profs, especially those with big classes, who no doubt have chronic stress and every right to rant to the degree of many logs. Governmental subsidies are appropriate, at least beginning with the adjuncts whose homes are their vehicles. One example among many:
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/sep/28/adjunct-professors-homeless-sex-work-academia-poverty

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